Thursday 29th September 2022
It’s been a few weeks since we’ve seen a DfT funded DRT launch but two more have recently hit the road including one in High Wycombe this week and another in Nottinghamshire at the end of last month which had sneaked passed my DRT launch antenna until now.
Many thanks to blog reader Daniel for tipping me off about the new Nottsbus On Demand scheme which I gave a try out with on Monday.
Funded by £1.5 million from the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund it provides the usual “on demand bus from virtual bus stops” across two largely rural areas in east Nottinghamshire; zone 1 from Gainsborough and Retford south to Ollerton and the small market town of Tuxford and zone 2 from Ollerton and Tuxford south to Newark-on-Trent.
There’s also a service on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings in Mansfield which is an interesting DRT development.
It’s being billed as a “trial in the villages around Retford, Ollerton and Newark and in the evening in Mansfield” replacing existing services 136, 190, 195, 200, 330, 332, 333, 334, and 335, which is quite a list.
The North Ollerton Zone (Zone 1) is covered by two new Mercedes Sprinters owned by the County Council and driven by agency drivers while the South Ollerton Zone (Zone 2) and the Mansfield evening operation are operated by Stagecoach using two former Ashford Little & Often six year old Mercedes minibuses. Good to see recycling is alive and well.
All four vehicles are ‘wrapped’ in Nottinghamshire’s green and white livery and strangely the Stagecoach buses have Nottsbus On Demand logos while the County Council’s two minibuses display Nottsbus Connect branding. But I guess only brand aficionados will spot that difference. I did.
I booked my two journeys for Monday (one in each zone) on Sunday afternoon using the App and being a dab hand at this sort of thing nowadays found the process quite straightforward having learnt to ignore messages stating out of hours (knowing the service doesn’t run on a Sunday) or offering a journey immediately when it is running and instead looked for the small icon called “schedule” which brings up a menu of future dates and times in 15 minute segments to select from.
I know the guys at Via who run this technology are avid blog readers so maybe they’d consider a suggestion that users should be asked if you want to schedule a journey in advance of the algorithm trying (and sometimes failing) to find a journey due to it defaulting to an assumption you want to travel immediately?
Ollerton and Tuxford are boundary points served by buses from both zones so I decided to make a trip from Retford to Newark across the zones with a change of bus in Tuxford.
My train was scheduled to arrive into Retford at 10:47 so I’d taken the half hour slot offered of a pick up between 10:45 and 11:15 and kept my fingers crossed it wouldn’t be at the earliest extreme.
In the event a text came through while I was on my way at 09:41 confirming an 11:00 pick up which would be ideal. But at 10:47 an updated text told me the bus had arrived and sure enough as I came out of the station Andy in his smart new green liveried minibus was waiting at the top of Victoria Road for me.
As always, it’s very impressive when your free to use taxi and chauffeur is waiting for you at the station. I say free to use, but it was a bit confusing about the use of concessionary passes, but Andy managed to override the system which was demanding I pay the £2 flat fare which the scheme charges for journeys across this large rural area.
Andy and I had a good chat on the way down to Tuxford. He reckoned the North Ollerton zone was proving busier than the south and it would be better to have three buses for that area and only one for the southern zone. But, of course that depends on your definition of “busy”. I got the impression we’re not talking “busy” as in many passengers at one time, although Andy did say he’d had one journey with five on board, but on a another occasion one passenger who had become a regular was highly miffed when the bus went on a long detour to pick up another passenger, especially as she was going to work. Such are the joys of DRT riding.
Andy thought seven buses used to be deployed on the routes now withdrawn so there was a saving of three compared to the four now in use, but he was concerned at the high cost of diesel from all the dead mileage now being run across the area. He reckoned each shift used at least £60-£70 worth of diesel.
Arriving into Tuxford we found Andy’s mate parked up waiting for custom on the second bus in the north zone but the software was sending Andy off somewhere else to wait for another booking so I bade my farewells.
I’d scheduled my next journey from Tuxford on to Newark very cautiously to allow for delays so cancelled that on the App and summoned up a journey to arrive immediately, confident in Andy’s suggestion the service wasn’t busy.
Booking a journey to Newark bus station efficiently directed me to route 37 operated by Marshalls of Sutton which was due in Tuxford in a couple of minutes. This hourly bus route links Retford, Tuxford and Newark – the journey I was making – taking an hour for the end to end journey.
Interestingly I tried again to book a journey and this time specified Newark North Gate railway station as my destination (not directly served by route 37, although it’s just a short walk away) and it gave me an offer of a ride within 12 minutes so I booked that and waited.
Meanwhile the Marshall’s bus appeared with four passengers on board on its way to Newark on time at 11:25. And my minibus was setting off from Ollerton to pick me up. The joys of DRT riding.
In the event it took a little longer than the predicted 12 minutes – arriving in 20 minutes. As you can see from the screen grab of my smartphone above, the software reckoned it was a “Red and Blue” Mercedes Sprinter to look out for – presumably thinking it was still in its Stagecoach livery from its time in the Highlands of Scotland after it had left Ashford.
Steve duly appeared and we headed on to the A1 for the 12 mile bash down to Newark.
Steve has been a Stagecoach driver for thirteen years at Mansfield depot and as well as driving the new Nottsbus On Demand also works on traditional bus routes from the garage, but he definitely prefers the former. He backed up Andy’s observation that it is quiet. I was his first passenger of the day, although he hadn’t long been on duty.
He kindly dropped me off at the bus station after all, and was also able to override the system to accept my concessionary pass as Andy had done. Perhaps easier as he had a standard ticket machine as used by Stagecoach nationwide.
The minibus had all the hallmarks of being Stagecoach with its distinctive blue and orange interior….
…. but also displaying a leaflet about the new service aimed at the South Ollerton Zone – I didn’t see one for the North Zone but am sure there is one.
Nottsbus On Demand is now into its fifth week so a bit worrying to hear reports of things still being quiet but there again it makes for an ideal time to be a passenger and summon up a minibus literally on demand.
Meanwhile Tuesday saw me back in High Wycombe for a couple of first day rides on Carousel’s PickMeUp operation funded by Buckinghamshire Council and £736,000 from the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund; and as mentioned in Tuesday’s blog maybe a contribution from Berkeley Homes.
As often happens on Day 1, the operation was beset with a few teething problems and I hope it’s not me jinxing things. Certainly it’s not for a lack of enthusiasm and commitment from the drivers who were all excellent in their duties which I’m sure is helped by all having a sense of excitement being on loan for a few weeks and months from sister Go-Ahead bus companies to help Carousel kick start the operation.
In my ride around I met Ranjjt and Del from Swindon Buses and Dominic from Brighton & Hove who were all great and I understand there’s also a colleague each from Manchester and Plymouth on loan who with three Carousel drivers make up the eight line rota for the seven minibuses deployed on the scheme.
Seven minibuses seemed a lot to me especially bearing in mind it’s only the minor route 34 that’s been withdrawn (see Tuesday’s blog) with all other town bus routes continuing as before.
The PickMeUp area covers a fair bit of the town but omits Totteridge and surrounds in the north east which is already fairly well served by bus routes.
Surprisingly PickMeUp only operates on Mondays to Fridays which seems a very odd decision bearing in mind the importance of post pandemic weekend leisure travel. It might have been better for the business plan to run less buses but over six days making it more attractive to people wanting to travel on Saturdays. Hours of operation are 06:00 to 19:00.
Guessing it would be easy to book ‘on demand’ rather than in advance I left it until my train was pulling into High Wycombe at just before 10:35 before booking my first ride from there to the large Asda supermarket south of the town. Sure enough a ride was offered in five minutes …
…. and Ranjit was soon with me in his minibus with vinyls for the Blenheim Palace Shuttle Bus.
I noticed a small point that the software thought the registration number of the minibus was BU18YRO but in fact it’s BU18YRN.
We were doing well following the SatNav for Asda until reaching the roundabout for the A404 and M40 from where we were wrongly sent down the A404 towards Marlow.
Ranjit had already positioned the bus as instructed for that roundabout exit so it was too late and unsafe to change course once we realised that was not the way to go for Asda, so we enjoyed a nice detour down to the north east edge of Marlow before retracing our route and back on track for Asda.
After that I thought it would be interesting to head over to the northern most area of the town served by PickMeUp at Downley to try out another trip and maybe even get a PickMeUp branded bus. Routes 8 and 30 with a change in the bus station soon got me there and I noticed a minibus parked up waiting for custom as we headed towards Downley Common at the top end of the residential area.
So having alighted from Arriva’s half hourly route 30 at that stop with that bus heading back to the bus station ….
…. I summoned up a minibus to take me to the rail station and that parked up minibus was with me within three minutes
Interestingly the algorithm gives an option of waiting for the next bus on route 30 due in 18 minutes which makes me wonder if PickMeUp gets established and catches on, it could undermine the viability of the town’s traditional bus routes which are probably already on a low margin. What will happen then, as seven minibuses won’t cope and the whole caboodle will be unviable. It strikes me as a very precarious business plan.
As you can see despite there being seven buses out there, the minibus was the same Blenheim Palace liveried one I’d caught earlier. It turned out Ranjit had taken a break and handed over to Dominic and the algorithm had positioned him in the Downley area to wait for custom. Just my luck! But it was fantastic to meet Dominic who normally works at Brighton & Hove’s Newhaven garage driving routes 12 and 14 along the coast road so we had a good chat about that. Dominic like Ranjit and Del is often to be found out on loan to other Go-Ahead bus companies and they both told me how they very much enjoy the variety it brings to their work.
The next teething problem then arose in that Dominic’s tablet was showing my booked journey as just having been cancelled whereas it was still live on my phone, so he had no route instructions to reach the rail station, and me being his first passenger that morning (as I was with Ranjit), he was obviously nervous at driving in an unfamiliar town without route instructions..
Then a phantom journey appeared on his tablet which showed a route to follow to Marlow Road in the south of the town so we followed that before going off that route to reach the station once we hit the town centre.
One thing that came out in conversation was on trial running on Monday the SatNav had taken a minibus on to the M40 so it had been decided to delete the motorway from the SatNav to avoid that happening again which I think explains the wrong directions given to Ranjit earlier as the software now doesn’t realise the M40 exists so gets its junction exits muddled up. I’m sure this teething problem will soon be fixed.
Meanwhile back at the station I left Dominic to report in to ‘control’ about the software problems while I chatted to Del who was waiting for custom, in, yes a PickMeUp branded minibus.
So at last a photo or two of the actual brand now hitting the town, although I was told new minibuses are on order for delivery later this year to operate on the service which surprised me as these minibuses formerly used in Oxford look perfectly serviceable for the task in hand. No recycling here it seems.
And that’s two more DRT’s done. Looking forward to the next one.
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