A ‘demand responsive’ rural bus route that works

Thursday 30th June 2022

Long term blog readers may recall I paid a visit to Wiltshire’s very successful ‘on-demand’ rural bus route 101/102 running between Pewsey and Devizes back in April 2019. I was concerned to read recent reports Wiltshire County Council are consulting on changing this highly successful arrangement to an app based fully fledged DRT set up. If that includes doing away with the base timetable from which the bus deviates as required, it will be a sad day for passengers using the route. Gone will be any certainty of being able to use the bus at known times and instead they’ll enter the lottery that is DRT app based bookings which I’ve long been commenting on.

Another excellent example of a very successful low-tech demand responsive rural bus route is in West Sussex and like the 101/102 has been established for many years. I caught up with it again last Wednesday to take a few rides and see how well it’s performing.

Route 99 is operated by Compass Bus and links Chichester and Petworth using one bus to provide six return journeys a day including a morning peak journey into Chichester and evening peak return back to Petworth.

The timetable comprises a straight half an hour for an end to end direct journey between Chichester and Petworth along the A285 but there’s sufficient stand time at both termini to allow for deviations off the main road to serve surrounding hamlets if passengers have made requests in advance.

That’s done by telephoning a very helpful person at Compass Bus up to two weeks ahead of travel or up to the day before. There’s no app.

The bus will deviate to the east of the A285, between Chichester and Petworth to serve the hamlets of East Dean and Graffham as well as to the west to serve Sutton, Bignor and West Burton but not both on the same journey as that would take more time than the flexible timetable allows.

After many years of operation regular passengers have brought some custom and practice to the operation so that on a Wednesday and Saturday the 09:15 Petworth to Chichester journey usually serves Bignor and Sutton (as does the 12:15 return from Chichester) while another journey regularly picks a passenger up in East Dean. However, if the regulars don’t want to travel then the bus won’t do the deviation and is available for other requests.

Wherever the bus goes, passengers wanting the main destinations on the A285 itself as well as from the two termini know for certain what time the journeys are scheduled subject to minor changes if the bus has deviated.

In practice any journey can be booked for any of the villages but it’s likely the regulars will have bagged the aforementioned deviations.

When I tweeted about my journeys on Wednesday last week by sheer coincidence it attracted the attention of James who’d travelled into Chichester on the 09:15 from Petworth that very morning and reported it had indeed operated via Bignor and Sutton and arrived into Chichester with an impressive 15 passengers on board.

I caught the next journey back to Petworth from Chichester at 10:45 which was a straight run up the A285 with no deviations needed. We left with four on board dropping one off and picking two more up close to the big Sainsbury’s store on the edge of the city. Three passengers alighted as we headed north along the A285 and two travelled all the way to Petworth.

It’s a lovely ride across the South Downs National Park.

I had a chat with Simon, the amiable and friendly regular driver, when we arrived at Petworth and he told me he’d got a pick up off the line of route at Barlavington Manor on the way back to Chichester and then the next journey back to Petworth would entail the long diversion to take the Bignor shoppers home so I decided to stay with it and see how those journeys panned out.

We’d actually taken 35 minutes to reach Petworth arriving at 11:20 and left to head back to Chichester on time at 11:30 with four on board. The deviation to pick up the passenger at Barlavington Manor only added about four minutes to our journey ….

….. entailing a reverse turn into a lane just beyond the pick up point to retrace our route to the A285.

All five on board travelled into Chichester with one alighting by Sainsbury’s. We arrived at 12:12 which was just enough time to take a breath before heading north again at 12:15 from West Street opposite the Cathedral in the centre of the city.

This journey had five on board including one using a wheelchair with Simon pushing it on board himself as the lady’s elderly husband had a shopping trolley to push.

The deviation via Sutton, Bignor and West Burton was certainly a route that tested Simon’s driving skills along narrow West Sussex country lanes.

Our route recorded on my OS app instead of going straight up the A285.

Inevitably we met a van coming towards us on a very narrow stretch which Simon took in his stride reversing back to a nearby wider section of road to allow it to pass.

We dropped three passengers, including the wheelchair, off in Bignor by a rather lovely thatched roof house…

….with Simon once again performing the honours by helping the passenger using a wheelchair off the bus …

…. and then continued on our way with the other two passengers travelling all the way to Petworth including one being taken to his house located a fair distance north of the Square in Hampers Green. Simon explained he often picked up regulars there when needed.

I left Simon in Petworth to spend some time in this delightful village before heading east to Storrington on Stagecoach’s hourly route 1 which links Midhurst to Worthing.

Simon headed back to Chichester with one passenger boarding – someone who’d travelled out on the 10:45 journey and now going home.

Simon had a printed A4 schedule showing more diversions were scheduled for the afternoon journeys presumably taking more passengers home that James saw earlier in the day.

It was great to see another successful rural bus route combining a fixed base timetable with flexibility built in to allow for ‘demand responsive’ deviations. I asked Simon what he thought about the trend to move such services over to app based fully fledged DRT services. He astutely pointed out the clientele attracted to and enjoy using route 99 wouldn’t want to be bothered with apps and the service would cease to be successful.

If only local authority officers in other counties would think the same.

Well done Compass Bus – and West Sussex County Council – for their part in making route 99 a success.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu

18 thoughts on “A ‘demand responsive’ rural bus route that works

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  1. The only thing I can see is it would probably be better to use a minibus. Altering the timetable a bit as well would enable the service to be fitted around a school run

    There is no reason why they could not make app booking available whilst still keeping it as a flexible bus service rather than DRT

    ECC operate a number of Flexibuses under the Dart brand. They are operated by a local taxi firm using minibuses. They appear to be reasonably successful

    https://www.essexhighways.org/getting-around/bus/community-transport/demand-responsive-transport-dart

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  2. If they’re getting 15 passengers and regular wheelchair users then a minibus wouldn’t be suitable, would risk leaving passengers behind, and would be a less pleasant experience for passengers.

    Making an app booking system would add a significant cost, and very unlikely to attract enough additional patronage to cover that cost.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Your point about the number of passengers is well made. However, that was just one journey, the morning of Roger’s visit. It does not mean that there will always be 15; there may be less (which would not be a problem) but there may be more, for instance on the 07:45 if school children use it, or if there is a special event (I note that Roger chose market day). It is essential that everyone who wants to travel can travel; ‘I’ll be back in a couple of hours’ does not work and residents will book doctor’s appointments and the like on the assumption that they can catch the bus. In addition. it should be noted that elderly passengers may well have a shopping trolley with them, partly because they are probably getting a week’s shopping but also because they are no longer able to carry even a ‘top up shop’ any distance so filling a bus up may lead to standing, travelling on narrow roads – no thanks.
      The other reason why Compass should continue using the current buses is that they already own them. With contractions in bus services, investing in new buses for specialist services may not be that wise financially.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reading ‘… rural bus route that works’ – I get to para three and find the words ‘Compass Bus’ then it all becomes clear. To pinch a slogan that used to be used by a trader near me – ‘Big enough to matter, small enough to care’.

    I used to travel on their buses from time to time pre-pandemic and it was obvious that they got most things right. Here, phone bookings – because that is what the customers, the passengers, are comfortable with. A friendly voice, probably a few extra words for regulars, possibly the only person that passenger will speak to that day, Maybe some clarification – ‘The 4th, that’s a Monday?’ if the passenger is a Tuesday regular. The app won’t do that. ‘Regular driver’ – a friendly face, knows where the regulars get on and off, not just a driver who happens to be on the rota who goes a certain way because GPS tells them to. Bookable some time in advance – for regulars probably the best time to book is the week (even fortnight) before, when they’ve got back from a previous trip – it will be fresh in their mind. Giving people 24 or 48 hours is less useful, they have to know what day it is which you don’t always when you get older, and any service like this relies on regulars, occasionals are a bonus. It is clear that the regulars have worked out a routine that works for them.
    Lastly, for some passengers, traveling too and from the main points, it is a ‘regular’ bus service – kills two birds with one stone. So anyone travelling to Chichester for school, college, university(!) or work from Duncton can use it as a normal bus service (provided they keep to the traditional working or school day). It is here that I quibble with the title – Compass use the term ‘flexible’, wisely, rather than ‘demand responsive’ because, in my understanding, I can turn up at Chichester at 10:30 knowing that I can get a bus to Petworth pretty shortly without the need to book even if no-one else is travelling. It is this dual mode – a mix of DRT and standard service bus – that I wish more authorities would look at.
    Thanks, an excellent article on a worthwhile enterprise. I wish it well.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The previous regular driver on Route 99 used to drive with me on Green Line 727 . . . although that was 40 years ago!!!
    Jeffhb makes some very relevant points, which underscore Roger’s review. Keep it simple; have a person on the end of the phone line (it need not be their only job), and a reliable basic timetable . . . what else is needed??

    It is telling that both Route 99 and the Wiltshire Wigglybus (as was) have lasted for decades . . . how many of the new breed of DRT services will last after the initial funding runs out?? Precious few, i would expect.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Understandably, the DTp is anxious to demonstrate its “with it” credentials, and drag us stick-in-the-muds along with it; rather irrespective of what works or not. Ever since the first computer, we have played the same game.

    How much innovation do we really see from Microsoft (or Google)?

    There’s a reason that nature follows evolution. But it’s nothing to write home about.

    So, sadly, successful DRT, as with much else that Government gets its hands on, will remain the exception, not the rule.

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    1. From the Essex Local Travel Plan

      These document seem to be just a lot of high level waffle. They typically cover a 10 year period and appear never to be updates at least I have never found a Revision and date on them

      To me a plan has clear objectives and deliverable and milestones and a budget

      Here is a bit from said document for Essex on Bus services

      Key Actions
      Working with operators to ensure local service information is available, accurate and is
      produced in the appropriate format

      Extending the provision of Real Time Passenger Information at stops on selected
      corridors (generally in conjunction with QBP arrangements)

      Working with operators to ensure that all roadside timetable information is of a
      consistent design and standard

      Providing comprehensive and up-to-date information on bus services for Traveline

      Providing electronic passenger information at key interchanges – including departure
      screens at principal interchanges and passenger enquiry terminals at interchanges and
      selected off-route locations

      Marketing to raise awareness of, and stimulate the use of, public transport

      Providing people with sufficient information on all forms of sustainable transport
      (including walking, cycling, taxis and community transport)

      Providing specialised information for disabled passengers through the ETCC

      Offering high-quality web-based public transport travel information – including real-time
      information, journey planning tools (through Traveline) and interactive timetable

      Publishing a comprehensive bus timetable three times per year

      Extending the provision of on-street Information Kiosks

      Any Essex Bus user care to comment ?

      Very few of those items are even measurable on the information provided

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      1. I suppose I’m not a boy to resist temptation… I’d look at what ECC do, rather than what they say. If they choose to spend budget on route subsidies rather than gimmicks, I’m not complaining on principle. Bus shelters, flags and timetable displays are being updated. In North Essex (reviewed so far) they are retendering with enhanced evening and some Sunday services. Essex has always had buses to get you to where you NEED to go, providing you have the time, patience and money, and aren’t too particular. What more could we ask for?

        What else is an Enhanced Partnership but a talking shop? Credit to the buscos, who I think are doing what they can. At least the Plan should make sure the politicians can take the credit. What else is it for?

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      2. And at least it doesn’t have any ninky-nonk ideas. Or is that what we want, for playtime?

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      3. Too, given the subject of this blog, it omits anything about developing and encouraging a local leisure market for bus use. But would it make the slightest difference?

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  6. So nice to read about this – I echo JeffHB’s words about Compass; I’m not connected with them, but have used many of their buses around Sussex.

    Unlike the Edenbridge local bus (which you featured earlier this year) the 99 does give a fair number of options for days/mornings/afternoons out, obviously mainly in Chichester or Petworth, but – with a rail connection – to e.g. Littlehampton, Worthing, Brighton, Portsmouth, Southampton. Even part of a day in London is possible. Shame the timetable doesn’t permit a call at the rail/bus stations; a ten minute walk with heavy shopping after a day out is less than ideal. The basic purpose is presumably to allow shopping in Chichester, and even get you to and from work there for a 9-5 day, and it looks as if it does this this very well, within the constraint of a one-bus operation.

    Worryingly, I note that the 99 is never given as an option on Google Maps – the ‘flexi’ nature of the route is clearly limited, and I don’t see why that couldn’t be coped with.

    There is some connectivity with the hourly Stagecoach route 1 (Midhurst-Petworth-Pulborough-Worthing), but not sufficient to enable useful connections with trains at Pulborough station. A strange feature of the one-way system in Pulborough, is that the no 1 doesn’t stop anywhere near Petworth House on its east-bound journey – crazy!

    Sorry to go on about connections again, but I do wish bus operators would stop writing-off journeys involving connections as ‘too-difficult’. If you want to grow your revenue, please give us your customers more journey options!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The one-way system is, of course in Petworth!

      The 1 used to call at the Market Square stop in both directions, but the loop round the town centre caused the eastbound bus to be caught up in the occasionally heavy traffic (sometimes twice over). The unfortunate result is a long stretch though Petworth with no stop really convenient for the centre. I can’t help thinking that some local Stagecoach management could or should be working with WSCC to improve the situation for passengers (I’d be looking at a stop pretty much next to the NatWest cash machine that you can see on Street View).

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  7. It is indeed a shame that the route does not appear on Google Maps. It provides a useful link for people walking the South Downs Way in stages (there is even a stop where SDW crosses the A285) but anyone using Google Maps as their first port of call for bus infornation would be unaware of the route’s existence.

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    1. Assuming you are referring to the stop at Littleton Farm, it is shown by Microsoft. BUT there are no timings available so any potential passenger may be of the opinion that the service is seasonal/ only runs on certain days (or day) of the week/ only when schools/ colleges open. This also applies to the next marked stop – Upwaltham Farm House which appears to be a timing point.

      The route is also mentioned (thrice) on the South Downs National Park website with the need to book emboldened. I was going to suggest that Compass include access to the South Downs Way (and, possibly, the other marked walks in the area) in their timetable but, while two or three walkers could be safely accommodated, a whole group booking well in advance might cause problems if locals can’t get their usual bus journey, particularly if the booking is for say, twenty, but only ten turn up because it is raining! The route must be primarily for locals, it is their lifeline; extras are a bonus.

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    2. The 99 certainly facilitates South Downs Way walkers. Of the 20 passengers leaving Chichester on the 10.45 yesterday, 10 were walkers. Two alighted at Littleton Farm and three more at Duncton Hanger, where the very friendly driver also got off for two minutes to point them towards the footpaths they sought. Then the bus diverted to Bignor village, which is what our group of five had, a week earlier, booked. So then we could walk up to Bignor Hill and west on the SDW to the A286 south of Cocking, which is where we caught the Stagecoach 60 back to Chichester. The 99 is the only reasonable public transport connection for South Downs Way walkers between Amberley to the east and Cocking to the west. That’s a long stretch to walk, longer than many people want. Now, if the 99 could also carry a couple of bikes, like the 78 & 79 of Brighton & Hove Buses, it’d be guaranteed to win two more passengers every trip.

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  8. I lived in Duncton as a teenager. Southdown service 267 used to run 3 times a day between Petworth and Chichester. And Bignor had a Postbus – remember them?

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  9. Stephensons of Essex are dereregistering a large number of tendered services (including my local route) in north west Essex with effect from the end of July. It appears that some are going to be replaced with improved services but no details are known. No doubt RF will be sampling the replacements in due course..

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