Thursday 4th August 2022
I left you in Tuesday’s blog arriving in Narborough on the Vectare operated NovusFlex DRT bus.
Keith kindly set me down in Narborough rail station’s car park soon after 12:30 and I had cautiously arranged my next journey on the new FoxConnect DRT service from there at 13:00 allowing time for a lunch break.
FoxConnect began on Wednesday last week. It’s operated for Leicestershire County Council by Warwick based National Express Transport Solutions which already operates another DRT scheme in Warwickshire as well as extensive Ring and Ride operations in the West Midlands so this type of operation is very familiar to the company.
FoxConnect is being funded by the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund which awarded a nice £1.3 million for Leicestershire which is paying for three minibuses (including the vinyl sticker with their logo on) which cover an area to the south west of Leicester towards Hinckley as shown on the map below.
As you can see the area includes fifteen villages including Broughton Astley and Whetstone which are the largest with populations of around 9,000 and 6,500 respectively as well as Thurlaston one of the smaller settlements having a population under 1,000. As the map shows journeys are possible from within the area to a few main destinations surrounding it including rail stations at Hinckley and Narborough, business parks at Magna Park and Carlton Park and the Fosse Park retail outlets. But that’s all. There’s no link into Leicester which would inevitably use up too much minibus mileage resource.
The geographic area covered is relatively small compared to other DRT schemes i’ve tried – I reckon around 30 square miles (5 miles across and 6 miles down) – and I doubt there’ll be much demand for travel within the orange area itself, so most of the demand will be to the aforementioned stations, business and retail park. Three minibuses seems quite a generous allocation taking that into account.
The area is already served by a limited network of bus routes operated by Arriva Midlands. Cosby, for example has a half hourly link to Leicester on route 84 with Broughton Astley and Dunton Bassett having an hourly link on the same route. Stoney Stanton, a fairly sizeable village, only has five journeys a day on route X55 between Leicester and Hinckley so this place, as well as some of the other smaller settlements will now have more options with FoxConnect.
Magna Park is a very extensive Business Park situated on the A5 west of Lutterworth and any employees working there and living in the area served will potentially have a convenient new link to work as the main Arriva service to Magna Park, route 8, runs from Lutterworth to Hinkley skirting the south of the area rather than any of the settlements within it. There’s also route X45 which comprises just three journeys for shift change times at 06:00, 14:00 and 22:00 linking Leicester and Lutterworth with the Park. However, as FoxConnect’s Monday to Saturday hours don’t begin until 06:00 and last journeys must end by 19:30 it won’t be much good for employees on similar timed shift work. FoxConnect doesn’t run on Sundays.
I downloaded the FoxConnect app last week ready for my journey in Monday having registered as a new user including submitting date of birth and postcode and on Friday afternoon booked a journey from Narborough to Hinckley to connect with my estimated arrival on NovusFlex.
This was easy enough but when it came to confirming the booking it asked me to submit credit card details to pay the £3.50 ride cost as I hadn’t seen a way to register my concessionary pass which the FoxConnect website confirms is valid.
I gave the call centre a call but it went to answerphone and as it was after 16:30 – which is when the website advises it closes – I decided to go ahead with my booking and splash out on £3.50. A few minutes later my phone rang and it was a very helpful man at the call centre having noted my unfulfilled telephone call and asked if he could help. He very kindly cancelled my booking, issued a refund, and reinstated the same travel requirement as a new booking accepting I had a concessionary pass at that stage without any proof I had one, which was very trusting and welcome.
On Monday morning on my way to Leicester I received an email from Brett Jarvis kindly setting out with screen grabs how I can upload a photograph of my concessionary pass to the app and ensure for future bookings there’d be no further problems. Once I saw how to do it, it took me a matter of seconds to complete the arrangement so replied to Brett expressing my thanks.
I had made my booking for 13:00 from Narborough station to Hinckley station which in some other areas (eg MK Connect in Milton Keynes) wouldn’t be allowed by virtue of a train being available for the journey, so that was a bonus. The software indicated I’d be picked up at the rather precise time of 13:04 and I received a confirmatory text on Monday morning reminding me of this.
Sure enough at 13:00 Michael duly appeared and we were soon on our way. Michael is one of a small number of drivers who’ve transferred over from Arriva to operate FoxConnect and I was pleased to be his very first passenger since Wednesday’s start of service. He explained the soft launch of the new service was to ensure it beds in well and any teething problems are overcome before a public launch in a few weeks so awareness is raised.
It made a nice change to see the Mercedes Sprinter minibus interior didn’t have the usual black and grey leather style seats but instead sported a rather comfortable moquette with a smart blue and grey colouring.
Michael dropped me at Hinckley station at around 13:25 in good time for me to catch the Cross County train leaving for Leicester at 13:30 and when on the train I realised I’d left my notebook and pen on the seat in the bus. I emailed Brett as well as tweeted National Express Transport Solutions to see if it could be retrieved. Both went into action and kindly contacted Michael who retrieved my notebook and arrangements are in hand to post it back to me.
So a big shout out for excellent customer service to Michael, Brett and the person overseeing the social media feed. I was very impressed to receive two phone calls from Brett giving me updates as well as receiving direct messages on Twitter. I’d already been impressed that NatEx Transport Solutions had followed up my tweet about making a journey with an enquiry asking how it went. This is very unusual for big companies these days where many comments are met with complete silence or banal impersonal replies. This was a very welcome exception.
Full marks to National Express Transport Solutions team including Michael for their impressive customer service. If that continues then I’m sure FoxConnect passengers will also be impressed when they come to use the service. As always with rural based DRT schemes though, whether enough passengers will be generated to use the service to justify a £1.3 million subsidy (which I’m guessing is for three years) after the DfT money runs out is, of course, another matter. Residents of those fifteen settlements are lucky to have this new service albeit the destinations they can reach on it are rather limited.
Having returned to Leicester courtesy of Cross Country my day out to the area ended with a bus ride to the suburb of Hamilton on the recently introduced electric Yutong buses introduced on the Hospital Hopper branded half hourly service.
This service is operated by Centrebus. It runs half hourly and as the branding implies links Leicester’s three main hospitals (Royal Infirmary, General and Glenfield) as well as the Nuffield Hospital ….
….. and retail destinations at either end of the horseshoe style route at Hamilton and the Beaumont Centre.
The new electric buses were formally launched and introduced at the end of June. They’re the latest part of what the Leicester Buses Partnership calls a Greenline electric bus network.
The city’s three Park & Ride routes were the first to have 18 Yutong E12 electric buses allocated in May 2021 which I blogged about after a visit in July last year
These latest four buses in hospital hopper branding are otherwise the same as those with a similar interior layout ….
….. and snazzy green moquette.
As part of the project the City Council will be introducing new bus shelters with real time displays at all stops along the route as well as a new bus lane along Groby Road giving improved access to Glenfield Hospital.
You might have spotted there’s a colourful leaflet about the service available on board the buses which was good to see and there were also excellent full timetable displays at bus stops along the route.
The Centrebus website has a prominent display showing vehicle tracking for the four buses.
Although the timetable is half hourly during Monday to Friday daytimes it switches to hourly from 18:00 through to 21:00 and on Saturdays is generally an hourly service with extra journeys in the morning and late afternoon presumably for hospital shift change times. Sunday’s timetable has just seven return journeys.
I’d found the buses on the Park & Ride route a little noisy from rattles when I travelled last July but I’m pleased to report my journeys on Monday on Hospital Hopper were much quieter and nicely smooth.
There were good numbers travelling with most alighting and boarding at the main hospitals (the General and Royal Infirmary) which was good to see.
Finally, I couldn’t leave Leicester without visiting First Leicester’s travel shop in the city centre and see what was available.
To my delight there was a full colour network map.
Things really are looking good for buses in Leicester.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu