Tuesday 10th May 2022
My latest DRT expedition was last Tuesday when I took a ride on Staffordshire County Council’s Moorlands Connect. It’s been around for a few years but until last month only as a phone based community bus dial-a-ride type operation.
From April, thanks to that DfT pot of gold (aka the Rural Mobility Fund), Staffordshire has been able to use their successful award of £1,038,091 (these things don’t come cheap) to upgrade the service using newly installed Via technology with its software, algorithm and App all now live. Three smart new Mercedes minibuses have also been purchased and entered service as part of the upgrade.
The area covered by Moorlands Connect extends north from Ashbourne to Buxton (both in neighbouring Derbyshire) and over to Leek encompassing a lovely part of the Peak District National Park and numerous small isolated villages and hamlets making it typical of the new breed of deep rural DRT schemes now being introduced.
As regular readers know I’ve now learned the trick of booking my rides with plenty of notice to ensure no disappointments or getting stranded and in case of no mobile phone signal in rural areas.
Having studied the map and compared it to an Ordnance Survey version I thought it would make for a great opportunity to take a walk from one isolated village to another and use Moorlands Connect as my own personal chauffeured drop off at the start and pick up at the walk’s end.
It worked a treat. I booked just over a couple of weeks beforehand and got offered journeys at my requested times of 12:00 from Ashbourne bus station to take me to the village of Wetton – about a 20 minute ride north – and a pick up from Alstonefield at 13:30 back to Ashbourne (both shown on the map above). (OK; I know that’s not a long walk by long walk standards but it was ample for me.)
In both cases the ride offer came with a 20 minute window from both those times (12:00-12:20 and 13:30-13:50) but I worked out these would still give me doable connections with trentbarton’s Swift branded hourly bus from, and back to, Derby and enough walking time in beteeen.
Even better the software gave me the opportunity to add a message for the driver so I added a comment that I was arriving on the 11:57 arrival from Derby just in case I was given a 12:00 pick up and the Swift ran late.
I received the customary reminder text of the bookings on Monday evening and an updated confirmation half an hour before the pick up was due advising it would be 12:13 which twelve minutes later was updated to 12:07.
In the event the bus appeared soon after 12:00 and dropped a passenger off. It pulled up a bit further along from the two bus stops used by all Ashbourne’s other bus routes which have the benefit of shelters too.
The stop is marked as exclusively for Moorlands Connect.
I wandered along guessing it was my bus and sure enough it was and I met Martin the very amiable and friendly Moorlands Connect driver.
He was driving one of the original (pre upgrade) buses for the service which now acts as a back up when one of the three newer buses is in for service. It was still a fairly comfortable ride although not equipped with the more flashy leather style seats the new Mercedes buses have and no low-floor access either.
The new buses have wheelchair access via the low floor nearside door but this older bus had a rear wheelchair lift to use if needed, which would also need a change to the seating layout.
Moorlands Connect operates seven days a week with three buses out on Mondays to Fridays (07:00-19:00), two on Saturdays (08:00-18:00) and one on Sundays (09:00-17:00). It’s operated by Ashbourne Community Transport – they also operated the services in their previous form including fixed timetable routes on certain days of the week. Martin has been working for them since January and is thoroughly enjoying his work.
It’s a pay on board service charging £3.50 for a single journey or £5.50 for a day return with reductions for concessionary pass holders, under 19s and students with an ID to £2 single and £3.50 return. There are plans to introduce contactless payments but for now it’s cash only.
I handed over my £3.50 and we soon set off on the journey to Wetton.
This took us north along the A515 towards Buxton for about eight miles before turning off on Green Lane and along narrower roads.
The journey offered some great views of the Derbyshire countryside…
… and was going fine until we met an articulated lorry coming the other way on a bend at the top of a hill.
Luckily the lorry driver realised he’d passed a slightly wider section of road on the hill so reversed back around the corner …
…. and enabled Martin to use his undoubted driving skills to squeeze by.
After about a 20-25 minute journey from Ashbourne we arrived into the village of Wetton …
… and I left Martin to carry on with his day’s work while I set off for my walk to Alstonefield.
Although before doing so I spied a timetable case on the other side of the road and couldn’t resist taking a look.
It showed a couple of shopping journey departures for routes numbered MC1, MC2 and MC3 (MC stands for Moorlands Connect I assume) to Leek (Wednesdays), Ashbourne (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and Buxton (Fridays). When I looked more closely I spotted the date “From 20th December 2016” and subsequent investigation has shown these routes and journeys were introduced by Ashbourne Community Transport in October 2015 but must have been withdrawn a year or so later when Moorlands Connect went over to Dial-a-Ride flexible operation. Still, I suppose the timetable display is a nice reminder of what used to happen in the village in years gone by.
After that fascinating sighting it was off for more scenic delights through the Staffordshire Moorlands countryside to reach the village of Alstonefield.
I enjoyed the walk, even if it was a little wet underfoot and soon the feet too, and with some great scenery.
It only took about half an hour for the one and a half mile walk and I arrived into the delightful village of Alstonefield with time for some lunch before my Moorlands Connect bus back to Ashbourne.
I’d received an updated text to confirm a 13:30 pick up and luckily had an intermittent ‘two bar 3G’ phone signal to see the bus was on its way from Wetton where I’d left it an hour previously.
Indeed, it was Martin once again who’d enjoyed a well earned rest for the hour I’d spent walking and eating and here he was ready to take me back to Ashbourne.
I had an opportunity to have a good chat with Martin on the two journeys and hear about his fascinating employment background and his pertinent insights into this recent upgrade to the DRT operation. It’s always interesting to chat with drivers attracted to work on DRT services and there’s no doubt their positivity and rapport with passengers is a great asset to these types of services.
We were soon back in Ashbourne and Martin dropped me off at the designated bus stop.
Martin was soon to pick up his next passenger after dropping me off. He’d carried about half a dozen passengers before picking me up last Tuesday morning, but in the next couple of hours, it was just me including waiting for me during my walk.
My custom as a tourist to this area is one of the markets which Staffordshire County Council hope Moorlands Connect will attract to grow its customer base by providing transport links to this lovely part of the country as well as providing a bus for residents living in the remote villages and hamlets as it’s done for some years.
It seems the profile of the typical Moorlands Connect passenger up to recently has been one who finds using smartphones and apps less appealing than a traditional phone to make their booking as they’ve always done and as encouraged in a notice I saw in an old edition of a village newsletter.
The challenge Moorlands Connect has is reconciling the two markets. Once visitors to the area cotton on to the benefits of booking the bus well in advance (as I did) those who leave it until closer to when they want to travel, or on the day itself, may well find the service doesn’t offer the journey options they were used to under the old way of booking – at just two hours notice – by telephone.
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