Gloucestershire DRT riding with Robin

Tuesday 8th November 2022

It’s time for another new DRT try out. This one’s in Gloucestershire where £1.35 million from the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund is paying for two schemes to operate in the county for a two year trial. One is in the southern part of the Forest of Dean…

… and the other is in the north Cotswolds.

As you can see the illustrative maps above delineating the two areas served taken from Gloucestershire’s web site aren’t exactly detailed and are to a rather unhelpful small scale.

Both schemes use the brand name The Robin and are to the usual DRT specification with bookings possible via an App as well as a website and a telephone line with software and algorithms supplied by Padam Mobility.

Four new Mercedes Sprinter minibuses have been acquired for The Robin to the usual interior specification …

… with Bourton-on-the-Water based Pulham Coaches operating one of the minibuses on the North Cotswolds scheme and Lydney Community Transport operating another on the South Forest of Dean scheme. Each operator also has a spare bus. No expense spared.

The Robin got going in two phases last month with South Forest of Dean commencing on Monday 17th October and North Cotswolds starting a week later.

In theory the Padam Mobility algorithm and software won’t let you book a ride if a conventional bus route is available although both areas are sparsely served and indeed Stagecoach West have just announced cuts to services in the Forest of Dean area.

But I was shown a sneaky way around this in the North Cotswolds scheme by specifying one of the bus stops listed in the software which although on a conventional bus route is not directly served by that bus. For example, Pulham’s Coaches commercially operated route 801 between Moreton in Marsh and Cheltenham which passes through the specified area doesn’t pull into the large Tesco store in Stow-on-the-Wold whereas The Robin does, so if you specify the bus stop inside the supermarket car park you’ll get a booking, but if you specify Stow-on-the-Wold High Street, alongside Tesco, you won’t.

The Robin is a 07:00 to 19:00 Monday to Saturday operation with journeys costing either £2.50 (up to 7 miles) or £4 (over 7 miles) with equivalent £1.50/£3 fares for children under 16. Concessionary passes are valid,

I gave The Robin my usual road test on Saturday which originally was to be a rail strike day so my plan was to drive over to Gloucestershire enabling me to take advantage of the flexibility of startingin an isolated rural location to try out the service.

I chose the village of Windrush – a name with more significant connotations in recent years than just being a Cotswold village. It’s located in the south west corner of the North Cotswold area, just off the A40 about 20 miles east of Cheltenham.

I didn’t want to risk there being no phone signal or someone else beating me to book the bus – I assumed correctly there was just one bus serving each area – so made a booking last Thursday afternoon using the App.

That was fairly straight forward either by typing in the desired origin and destination or choosing from around 275 pre determined stops on the App map. The web booking didn’t seem to have the map option.

One thing that was different from all the other DRT Apps I’ve used was having to specify the “territory” I was travelling in when using it for the first time. Once selected you can’t book a journey in the other “territory” without going back to settings and changing it over, but then of course most passengers will only want one or the other and not both.

I choose a trip to the Cotswolds tourist hotspot of Bourton-on-the-Water, seven miles north of Windrush which certainly lived up to its scenic and Cotswold charm reputation which I’ll describe shortly.

I asked for a departure at 10:00 and got offered one at that time as well as at 15 minute intervals thereafter. Having booked that I requested a return at 11:15 but the algorithm’s earliest journey offered was at the rather precise time of 12:04 and then every 15 minutes after that – the signs were no-one else had booked a journey. I booked the 12:04 pick up and managed to find a way of confirming I had a concessionary pass (by clicking the “Add a discount/subscription” option ….

…..and avoided the requirement for a bank/credit card to pay for the £4 fare upfront.

The online information for The Robin advises only cash payments are available on the bus so I’m guessing it’s not been possible to set up contactless in time, but booking through the App for fare payers insists on an upfront card payment.

I guess the cash option is possibly for passengers who book via the telephone line.

Everything booked and confirmation safely displayed on the App, I set off for Windrush and arrived in plenty of time for my 10:00 pick up. This was just as well, as it gave me time to have a look round this lovely little hamlet.

The village hall, as with all the properties, was built from Cotswold stone and had a bus stop right outside including a timetable case.

On closer inspection this confirmed Windrush has just one journey a week on route V12 provided by a “volunteer driven community bus”.

It links Bourton-on-the-Water and Windrush with other villages to Chipping Norton on Friday mornings and is one of 13 similar once a week services provided by The Villager.

It seemed a missed opportunity that there was no reference to The Robin in the timetable case, and neither did it get a mention on the village noticeboard nearby. You’d think such a big development for this community would be shouted about in such places.

At 09:50 I spotted a smart Mercedes Sprinter minibus approaching …

…. and sure enough it was The Robin coming to pick me up and I met the friendly Alex from Pulhams Coaches in the driving seat.

On presenting my concessionary pass Alex excitedly told me I was recorded as passenger No 00001 that day which made the journey over to Gloucestershire all the more worthwhile, especially when he also told me I was No 00003 since the service began two weeks ago on 24th October. It hasn’t been what I would describe as busy since introduction then. Two passenger journeys in two weeks.

As you can imagine from the map shown earlier it was a lovely rural ride across to Bourton-on-the-Water …

… and took less than 20 minutes rather than the 30 minutes the App had predicted and we soon arrived and I bid farewell to Alex until he returned at 12:04 for my return journey.

I’m so pleased I allowed for more time to explore Bourton-on-the-Water.

What a truly delightful village it is.

The “Water” – which is the River Windrush – runs right alongside the main road through the village.

No wonder there were already many weekenders and tourists wandering around taking in the gorgeous scenery which even on the damp day last Saturday looked amazing.

There are lots of gift shops and coffee shops as well as a Motor Museum….

…. and best of all a Model Village …

….which is laid out as an exact replica of the actual village itself.

For example, here is the entrance to the Model Village in full size…

…. and here it is in the Model Village of the village.

Here’s the main street in full size (shame about the cars) …

… and here it is in the Model Village of the village.

And again…

… and again.

Good eh?

And here’s the model Model Village in the Model Village of the village.

The Model Village was constructed between 1936 and 1940 in the grounds of the Village pub, The Old New Inn, as an attraction to encourage tourists coming to the Cotswolds for day visits from the Midlands to visit the pub. It obviously worked as 80 years later both pub and Model Village are thriving.

After a fascinating 90 minutes at around 11:50 Alex reappeared with The Robin and parked up at the bus stop on the main road which soon attracted the attention of a local resident who wandered over to find out what it was all about.

As Alex explained the need to download an App you could immediately see the woman’s eyes glaze over. Although she had a smartphone she said she ‘couldn’t be doing with Apps’ and was very disappointed she wouldn’t be able to use this new service to get to Tesco. Alex and I explained there was a phone number and we tried to find details to pass on to her.

Alex thought it was on the outside of the bus, but on taking a look round found it wasn’t, but then he remembered it scrolled round on the destination blind, so turned that on so she could write down the number.

Which she did. A potential passenger for the future. Hurrah.

Because the Visitor Information Centre in Bourton-on-the-Water knew nothing of the service….

…. neither was the village noticeboard any help.

Alex said the Council hasn’t printed any leaflets about the service, so other than its website, I’m not sure how it expects residents to find out about its new DRT service.

Just as 12:04 approached and Alex explained we could get going, it suddenly looked as though we were going to be overwhelmed with passengers as an excited group came towards us and the bus.

Sadly it turned out they wanted the 12:05 route 802 to Stow-on-the-Wold and Kingham railway station which appeared just at that moment.

I boarded back on to The Robin, presented my concessionary bus pass again and was registered as passenger No 00002, and off we went.

I had a lovely chat with Alex on the way back. He was the duty manager for Pulhams that day and had been involved in the discussions with the County Council about the new DRT set up. We reflected on the woman who’d shunned the idea of booking through the App and we both agreed she was absolutely typical of the passenger this service needs to attract if it is to become successful.

But, she is also just the passenger the tech firms who peddle their software to local authorities and the DfT claim don’t exist. “Everyone uses smartphones these days” they say. Take a ride on an off-peak bus in a rural area and nothing could be further from the truth.

20 minutes later we were back in Windrush and I’d thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Cotswolds and the bonus of having added The Robin to my DRT travel experiences.

Alex headed back to Pulhams depot in Bourton-on-the-Water wondering whether there’d be a passenger No 00003 that day. As it happens it turns out there was another passenger booked – Alex’s wife who was going to Tesco in Stow-on-the-Wold.

The car park bus stop, of course.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

21 thoughts on “Gloucestershire DRT riding with Robin

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  1. The comment about the current over reliance on apps and technology is spot on. This seems often be taken to provide carte blanche for councils and transport operators to provide poor, out-of-date or non-existent physical timetables and maps about bus services in the obvious places they should be posted.

    Many potential passengers are simply put off by having to use apps. And even if you are quite tech savvy, the notion that you need to be able to download multiple apps to use the public transport system is misguided.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for this entertaining, if a little depressing, blog. Presumably the app companies and the council both want this DRT to succeed; why on earth do they not publicise it? – probably each think that is the other’s job, and neither have budgeted for it… As you said in the previous blog, what is needed is the bus equivalent of the Community Rail movement, but it’s a bit sad when after all the money spent on new buses, there is none for publicising what they are doing; ships and ha’p’orths of tar! Perhaps it is really a failure at the DfT. When, as a musical organiser, I managed to obtain a grant for an event from the Arts Council, their area superviser told me I wouldn’t get it unless I could show what publicity I was going to put out.

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  3. Interestingly one photo seems to show the bus parked on a stop with double yellow lines which must be an interesting legal position

    Why an earth do they need a spare bus for each of the two areas. Thats going to cost a lot of money to have the bus stood in the garage nearly all the time.

    The fact that in 2 weeks they have only had 3 or 4 passengers is a clear indication the council needs to take action, but I doubt they will. Zero publicity of the service will not help I would guess 90% of the people in the areas are unaware of the services

    4 buses and probably at least 4 drivers plus the cost of the call centre. The economics in my view are hopeless

    IT is only 2 weeks of operation of course but the track record of DRT services is not good. They spend most of the time parked up or running out of service and when they have passengers it is at best 2 or three a trip

    At a guess the services will cost £250.000 to £300,000 a year. I guess the cost of buying or leasing the buses has to come out of that plus the start-up costs. The council I guess put a small amount of money in as well

    It looks as if the cash will run out within 2 years

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  4. And I thought DRT was the Fortress England response to fear of a nasty foreign Uber invasion? Why not encourage them and just give vulnerable passengers a Uber subsidy? After all isn’t England the result of a nasty foreign Norman invasion anyway?

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  5. You can plant seeds but they do need good soil and watering,plus some warmth and encouragement. You can organise the best bus service in the world,but passengers are people.Involve them. For a couple of quid print some leaflets and go and put them up; mailshot the local papers and community magazines. Get in on the local radio and ask them to take a free journey.Tell Mrs. Smith in the local shop and ask to put some leaflet holders in public places. Then again,is there any demand for this on-demand service? Lot of cash spent to carry fresh air it seems.Another box ticked? Too harsh?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In a talk she gave to the Omnibus Society on Wednesday last week Kathryn Pulham spoke about The Robin and her frustration that Pulhams can’t do publicity for it… that all has to be done by or through the Council. She also said it had great potential for a pub crawl around the Cotswolds as the area has many brilliant pubs! At the time of the talk they had only had one passenger….. Her daughter had used it!

    Being able to harness the reputation and enthusiasm that Pulhams have would be so helpful in trying to make this a success of this experiment. It seems such a shame they are not allowed to give it their best shot!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Organising g a pub crawl is one option. Organising a tour of the area is another
      People could then even be dropped off at their hotels. It just needs imagination and a will to do things. Sadly you will not get that from local councils

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    2. Give me £1.35m, and I can install a phone line and provide 135,000 taxi trips by using local cab firms. The money would then probably last longer than two years.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh,and if you are branding something with a nice cheerful name like ‘The Robin’,why not use a lovely picture of a friendly Robin in the branding,and perhaps use some natural colours too? Am I missing something? That would get noticed by everyone along the way and children love seeing bold imagery of creatures. Only my opinion of course. Hop on The Robin. Cheesey but catchy in both senses of the words?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I quite agree. Black is the worst colour to paint the front (and back) of a bus. It disappears into the background when really, it ought to stand out from the crowd of black cars and other street paraphernalia. They’ve got colour on the sides, but it’s hardly creating desire.

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  8. Certainly agree with the comment “just think what £1.35 million could do to upgrade local bus services in the area”, not least of all the very long standing “Villager” services. This network has been successfully running for years, carrying mainly just the passengers who do not use apps and who enjoy the social interaction that a conventional service brings. So “the Robin”, however well meaning, and other such expensive schemes the Pedlars of the “Emperors New Clothes” think up, will simply undermine that which we have already got.

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    1. Yes, there’s precious little social interaction when individual customers specify their own travel times. Compare this solitary travelling with the buzz so often seen in the ‘social club’ atmosphere of a country bus full of regular travellers. And there’s no need for the passengers to be technologically competent !

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  9. thanks for the article Roger. I tried and tried to get more info on the North Cotswold service on 25th October, ahead of my show on Radio Winchcombe. I wanted to spread the word! I tried the Comms team at Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) though got told ‘I haven’t been involved in The Robin project; as I just got back from annual leave. However here is the link to our press release for further information: County council launches pilot rural minibus in the Cotswolds – Gloucestershire County Council’. I had already read the press release (PR) though it didn’t answer my questions (about the map and also about the calculation of the mileage). I rang the 0345 number though it gets you through to Lincolnshire County Council, as they run it for GCC apparently. They told me GCC deal with the publicity so wouldn’t talk to me as part of the media! And around and around. Like a round robin! So I was only able to say on-air what the PR detailed and what my further questions would be. I also said that nobody from GCC was able to clarify further (I’d informed the Comms team I was going to do this, ahead of the show). I then had to leave it up to listeners to enquire further. Sad. (I also have a background in Bus Company management so want to see this succeed).

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  10. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry! My thoughts are:

    1. Put some basic service information on the back of the bus (phone number, app name, and what the service offers). “The Robin” on its own is meaningless.

    2. Creating a website is only half the job, PROMOTE the website! Create a Robin Facebook and Twitter page. Promote these on all the local community social media pages. This may not reach the target demographic of non app users but it will reach their adult children etc, who will tell their elderly parents.

    3. Print leaflets and distribute to local shops, hotels, tourist information offices etc.

    4. Print posters and distribute to parish councils.

    5. Ensure every village in the service area has one centrally located branded bus stop with service information.

    6. Ensure any rail stations in the service area have a prominent branded bus stop with service information.

    7. Branded bus stop and service information in Tesco car park!

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  11. Not sure Gloucestershire can even keep its own website up to date, let alone promote the service. Inspired by the story I popped along to the address shown on the bus where the page encourages you to – Sign up for our announcements and be the first to hear about the launch in the Cotswolds.
    Definitely agree with Nigel about the branding. Unless there is some local significance about another Robin that applies in both the Forest and Costswolds I assume it is the familiar bird that we are all thinking about. They havent even made all the minibuses look the same

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  12. Problem is a lot of the people involved in these new fangled schemes don’t see them as public transport solutions, more as “tech businesses”. Classic example as you mentioned in your recent Young Bus Managers blog is Flixbus, as claimed by their chief executive.

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  13. Very interesting statement on this page.

    https://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/transport/the-robin/where-can-i-travel/

    Any out of district (and out of county) bus stops being used are drop off only. You can’t get picked up outside the Forest of Dean. For example you can travel toward Chepstow, and be dropped off if the stop is listed.

    So… you can go to Chepstow…but you can’t come back . It gets even odder in that Beachley is a pick up point so once the Stagecoach bus comes off you can get The Robin to Chepstow for your shopping but have to get a taxi back.

    The other option is to book the Robin to take you from Beachley all the way to Lydney to do your shopping and then you can book it to take you back. Of course, to get from Beachley to Lydney you will have to drive through Chepstow!

    Most Bizarre

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    1. I don’t know how things work in England. But holders of Welsh concessionary bus passes can normally cross over the border provided their journey (outward) started in Wales or (return) finishes there. So, for instance, you would have no trouble travelling from Chepstow to Lydney. What you can’t do is board and alight only in England.

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  14. There is still this enormous gap between the designers of such schemes and reality. We really must take or even drag such institutions into the real, not their assumed world.

    Liked by 1 person

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