Tuesday 20th December 2022
It’s one of those weeks for end of year reviews and news round ups so I thought a few updates on how Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) is going would be in order particularly as the DfT and so many local authorities have such high hopes for it.
2022 has seen nine new DRT schemes introduced, one revamped, two change hands and two withdrawals. Here’s a dozen recent developments which are worth recording ……
1 Following the withdrawal of Fflecsi from Newport and its replacement by the return of scheduled timetable buses in September comes news Suffolk County Council is withdrawing its Katch branded scheme based on Wickham Market. Introduced in May 2021 for a twelve month “pilot” (which was extended by seven months in May) time has now run out as it runs its last trip this week. It’s not clear what will happen to the two electric powered minibuses introduced amid much fanfare promoting connections with trains at the railway station, sited some distance from the town centre, but the idea that Katch would be a “pilot” for similar schemes across the county now seems to have hit the ground.
2 John Geddes has recently produced a fascinating analysis of North Yorkshire County Council’s YorBus scheme based on Bedale. That’s the one introduced in July 2021 where it was announced revenue from passengers was only covering 6% of the costs. John’s eye opening analysis can be found here. A key finding is the two YorBus vehicles carry passengers for only a third of their time and carried more than one passenger (or a group booking together) for just 8% of the time. John points out a single taxi could have been used 97.5% of the time passengers were carried at significant less cost.
3 The Arriva Click scheme introduced in Watford in July 2020 and spearheaded by that town’s Mayor with funding from the Borough Council (and no involvement from the Local Transport Authority, Hertfordshire County Council) is carrying just 10% of the anticipated number of passengers in the Business Plan, halfway through its third of four years operation according to recent reports.
There’s no hope of achieving the original budget by July 2024 when the funding ends. Here’s a table showing the sorry state of affairs in detail since the service began in July 2020.
4 The Sunday Times carried a piece written by Nicholas Hellen, the paper’s Transport Editor, at the end of last month extolling the fantasy virtues of DRT being a “Uber style” solution to the rural transport problem having been briefed by Padam Mobility (one of the tech companies peddling the ride sharing software) about how great it all is. Which of course it is for companies like Padam Mobility, but not so good for passengers wanting a decent bus service they can rely on. Nicholas contacted me for my take which I duly gave him but he told me the paper had a policy of being supportive of new innovative tech based ventures so any negativity would be edited out. I’m not sure why the Sunday Times thinks DRT is anything new or innovative. Dial-A-Ride has been going for nigh on fifty years and its modern incarnation, DRT, has been consistently failing since Arriva began the Sittingbourne escapade in March 2017.
5 Interestingly, CPT’s Graham Vidler told Nicholas Hellen Government funding committed to prop up these money wasting schemes is now of the order of £50 million when you add up all the proposals in Bus Service Improvement Plans as well as the Rural Mobility Fund. Hence the £50 million figure quoted at the beginning of the Sunday Times article.
6 The Scotsman carried an article last week revealing that “more than half of Insch residents would prefer a timetabled bus service to the current Ready2Go on-demand service”. Ready2Go was introduced in August 2021 on a one-year pilot which was extended for a second year in 2022. An Aberdeenshire Council survey revealed 55 per cent of respondents would prefer a timetabled bus service, and 63 per cent of respondents were unable to book the trips they wanted. Local people I spoke to when I travelled on the service soon after it commenced in 2021 said exactly the same. A local councillor has called for the service to be withdrawn and replaced with a timetabled service.
7 Oxfordshire County Council has announced it has scrapped plans to convert the western end of route 250 (Bicester to Oxford) to DRT (see my previous blog on this) following feedback from residents. How refreshing to see sense prevail at last and a local authority is not taken in by the DRT mirage.
8 Never wanting to miss an opportunity to try DRT out in the real world, when I was in Milton Keynes last month for the Modern Railways exhibition and conference I thought I’d use the town’s Via run MKConnect scheme to take me from the hotel where I stayed overnight to the conference venue at the Arena. Here’s what happened.
MK Connect doesn’t allow booking in advance so you have to take your chance at the time you want to travel. I tried booking three times; first time at 08:32 ….
…. but sadly MKConnect was “experiencing a technical issue”….
… but undeterred, I tried again a minute later at 08:33 and luckily the “technical issue” had been quickly fixed but unluckily MKConnect was “experiencing very high demand and all our seats are filled” ….
… so I tried for a third time at 08:51 and was offered a pick up in 32 minutes which would have been too late, so I caught the shuttle bus laid on by the conference organiser which got me there much quicker.
After arriving, out of curiosity I tried again at 09:43 for a return journey back to the hotel and was offered a pick up in 43 minutes. How are you supposed to plan your day with such an unpredictable service?
I gave it one more try when leaving the conference at 12:30 for a ride back to the station but once again MKConnect was “experiencing very high demand and all our seats are filled”. Useless.
9 Ironically a recent update from Milton Keynes City Council on how MK Connect is performing reports that over 1,400 trips a day are made on the service with 97.6% of demand met – I was obviously very unlucky in my recent experience then. The average wait to be picked up is 27 minutes – again, it must have been my bad luck to be offered waits of 32 and 43 minutes
10 Sevenoaks based Go Coach has announced changes to its Go2 demand responsive network from 3rd January including a reduction in hours and area served including West Kingsdown, Swanley and Edenbridge no longer being served.
The email explaining the changes states “all good DRT schemes need to evolve over time. Its not like fixed line buses. They need to change to stay fresh and serve the community in the best way possible. We are facing funding cuts to go2 due to Kent County Council being overspent in their support of local bus services. We need to concentrate on what go2 is good at. The service is centred round Sevenoaks and outlying villages providing social mobility to those without their own private transport and FMLM (first mile / last mile) support to the main area. Please see revised operating area highlighted in purple on the map.”
11 Leicestershire County Council’s Fox Connect scheme got going in July this year and figures have just been released of the use being made of the service from each village served for the three months between August and October.
Stony Stanton and Sapcote are leading the field with impressive growth in October. The total number of journeys in October at 805 on the face of it looks impressive – especially compared to 311 in September – but when divided by the 26 operational days in the month gives 31 journeys a day across 3 minibuses is 10 per bus, and across a 13.5 hour day is less than one passenger per bus per hour. If that was a conventional rural bus survive it wouldn’t survive much longer.
12 I’ve noticed how the narrative surrounding DRT has altered in the almost six years since it began in its current form in Sittingbourne. Then it was all about being an innovative solution for small towns that would provide a commercial alternative to struggling conventional bus routes. It didn’t, as Arriva found out, having killed off a bus route previously run by Chalkwell.
Following on from this came the idea DRT could solve gaps in large town networks characterised by radial routes but lacking cross suburb connections leading to optimistic launches in Oxford, Liverpool, Sutton, Ealing and Watford. It didn’t.
When these all failed it was meant to be a solution to the First Mile, Last Mile conundrum providing integration for communities lying off line with inter-urban routes but that hadn’t work in Bristol some years earlier.
Then it was the salvation of the ‘rural transport problem’ and many even opined after initial pump priming funding, it would be a viable proposition and mean local authority funding wouldn’t be needed. That soon changed to ‘of course it will always need funding’ err, in that case why do it, as conventional bus routes offer reliability and certainty (always top of passengers’ priorities) whereas DRT offers a lottery of uncertainties.
Now, I see the latest take as quoted in the Sunday Times article is that the fares paid should be more akin to minicab/taxi fares. If that’s the case then we might as well just not bother with buses and leave the market to taxis.
Meanwhile 2023 will see more DRT schemes established for the financial benefit of the ride sharing software tech companies, for the PR spin from misguided local authority leaders, officers and DfT Ministers and to the detriment of passengers.
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