Will Katch work second time round? Maybe.

Thursday 27th April 2023

The Katch DRT operation was introduced in May 2021 for a 12 month trial by Suffolk County Council. It provided a link between Wickham Market railway station located in the village of Campsea Ashe, Wickham Market itself located two and a half miles away and Framlingham village six and a half miles further north.

The trial period was extended in May 2022 for another six months during which time the route was extended from Wickham Market eastwards to take in the villages of Tunstall and Snape and the nearby popular Snape Maltings retail and arts complex. The funding ran out at the end of last year and the service was withdrawn on 23rd December.

However it turned out that wasn’t the final end of Katch. It started up again on 11th April and this time, rather than the County Council, it’s being run and funded under the auspices of the District Council, East Suffolk Council and the East Suffolk Partnership Board.

A 12 month budget of £90,000 was agreed at the Partnership Board Meeting on 8th December with an additional £8,524 of match funding from partners noted at that time with more to come from “technical support” from Suffolk County Council’s transport team and “programme management support from Sizewell C” by amounts yet to be calculated.

£60,000 of the cash funding was from the 2022/23 Partnership Board budget and £30,000 from year 2021/22 which was an “underspend from the app development budget of £50,000 agreed in September 2021”.

£80,000 of the £99,000 has been expended on a 12-month contract with Coastal Accessible Transport Services (CATS), a not for profit community organisation which has been operating car share and Dial-a-Ride type community services since it was formed in 1997. CATS will deliver the Katch service alongside its own operations.

The balance of £10,000 is “to deliver the Marketing Plan”.

The route extension to Snape has been retained for Katch Mark II but the original app has been abandoned with a new one still under development so at the moment only telephone (or online bookings) are being taken by CATS, which is well used to such arrangements.

A separate budget of £14,500 has been agreed for the app development with a company called Flexiroute who are a “lower cost DRT application provider” than the market leader Via, which was also considered but not pursued.

It’s thought the development of an App will be applicable to up to 10 DRT/Dial-A-Ride operations across the wider area and be particularly attractive to younger passengers helping to shake off the community and welfare image of such operations being only for the elderly and those with disabilities.

There may be some validity to that except the hours of operation don’t really suit younger people – for example Katch packs up at 18:30 on Mondays to Saturdays and doesn’t operate on Sundays. It starts at 07:30 in the week but not until 10:00 on Saturdays. The service operates a one driver shift system with two drivers each working alternate three day weeks – MTW or ThFS.

As well as the original app, also abandoned are the technical complications from using the two electric powered minibuses acquired for Katch Mark I together with all the issues over charging the batteries. Instead just a single five year old Peugeot seating up to 13 with a rear tail lift for wheelchairs and a manual driver operated side door and retractable step is being used.

Another change is that no concessionary passes are accepted with all passengers paying a fare according to distance travelled said to be akin to locally charged bus fares.

There’s a loyalty card scheme with a seventh journey free and young passengers aged 16-19 receive a 25% discount with an Endeavour card – something available throughout Suffolk.

The target is to achieve a minimum of 35 return journeys a day based on a £7.25 return fare from Farlingham to Wickham Market station which would cover Katch’s quoted daily running costs of £235.

East Suffolk Council are being astute in using the undoubted experience and expertise CATS has built up over many years to oversee Katch and when I booked the journeys I made on Monday a week in advance (bookings can be made up to a fortnight ahead), the very helpful woman I spoke to at CATS, Sally, was obviously well experienced in taking telephone bookings. Which makes me wonder about that app development which will mean Sally’s job potentially becomes harder as she will have to cede control of planning the bus schedule, which she’s obviously well versed in, to an algorithm. All the more so if we’re just talking about a target of 35 people making one return journey per day.

I booked a journey from Wickham Market railway station to connect with my train arrival from Ipswich and take me to the village of Snape. From there I decided to take up the suggestion on the Katch website and connect with the bus operated by CATS itself to travel onward from Snape to Aldeburgh on the coast.

Even better, when I spoke to Sally she suggested making the connection at Snape Maltings and taking a look around this popular destination in between buses. Finally she was able to book me another Katch ride later in the day from Wickham Market square back to the station as I planned to arrive there having caught First Bus route 64 from Aldeburgh.

It was all easily booked a week ahead at exactly the times I desired and I felt confident as I left home on Monday of enjoying a few hours of lovely rural Suffolk scenery using public transport.

And I’m pleased to report it all worked a treat.

The Greater Anglia train arrived on time at Wickham Market at 11:42.

Sally had arranged my Katch pick up for 11:50 and soon after 11:45 Chris appeared.

His contactless ticket machine needed a user name and password to bring it into use (which made me think I might well be the first passenger since the service restarted on 11th April) and a phone call to CATS soon solicited that info and my £5.10 fare for the journey to Snape (and my later journey) was duly paid and loyalty card issued and stamped (see earlier photo).

We then set off through the country lanes arriving at Snape Maltings about twelve minutes later.

I thoroughly enjoyed my 90 minute wander around this unique leisure, arts and retail destination which dates back over 175 years.

The original buildings were used to malt barley for use in brewing originally being shipped to breweries in London by Thames barge but later by a dedicated rail link to the nearby East Suffolk railway with three trains a day. At its height the complex expanded to cover seven acres being one of the largest flat floor maltings in the country.

The magnificent concert hall that’s been refurbished

A concert hall was established on the site in 1965 as Benjamin Britten was looking for a bigger venue for his expanding Aldeburgh Festival of Music and to cut a long history story short that was the beginning of a new life for what became former malting buildings. The Hall was rebuilt following a major fire in 1970 and a peek inside showed its magnificence and I can imagine opera and music lovers really enjoy performances there. Maybe some will even be persuaded to use Katch to attend matinees.

The retail units around the site are what can best be described as exclusive and upmarket. Lidl, Aldi, Primark and B&M this isn’t.

There are also river trips available exploring the Long Reach estuary.

Julie, one of CATS’ drivers, arrived to collect me just a minute or two after the 13:30 booked time …

… and after paying my £4.20 fare by contactless we were on our way to Aldeburgh, another journey taking little more than ten minutes.

Julie has been working for CATS for ten years and obviously enjoys her work. She drives what’s known as the East Bus Service which is based in Leiston where the bus for the West Bus Service is also based. The third bus is centred on Woodbridge for the South Bus Service and is based there.

Julie receives her planned itinerary for the day on a printed sheet showing all the pre booked journeys with last minute bookings communicated by phone. This same arrangement is currently being used for Katch too. There are no tablets and SatNavs here, just experience and local knowledge.

After bidding farewell to Julie in Aldeburgh i didn’t have long to wait for First Bus route 64 to take me back to Wickham Market via Leiston and Saxmundham.

It was an Ipswich bound Wright bodied Volvo B7RLE painted in the livery used by the newly privatised Eastern Counties in the late 1980s …

… and fitted with e-leather seats inside.

Aldeburgh is also served by the Border Bus hourly route 522 which at 14:00 hours duplicates the First Eastern Counties 64 between Aldeburgh, Leiston and Saxmundham.

I arrived back in Wickham Market’s square spot on time at 14:50 where Chris was waiting for me …

… in what turned out to be a seamless connection between buses. Just how it should be.

And then it was back over to the station for the train ride home. Chris had told me earlier my two journeys were the only two booked that day but when we arrived at the station another passenger was waiting to board so that got the number of trips for Monday to three instead of two – still a fair way short of the 35 return journeys target though.

But, it’s early days; Katch Mark II is only into its third week.

The reason I have a modicum of optimism that this rejuvenated venture might just make it to sustainability this time is firstly it’s in the hands of a well established experienced community based operator in CATS.

And secondly the publicity is good and will raise awareness.

Inside the minibus there’s a noticeboard with details of the service ….

…. and cross promotion of CATS other Dial-A-Ride operations with their long established market.

At the station there’s a large banner …

…. and two bus stop plates in the car park.

In fact there are designated bus stops along the whole route which the first incarnation of Katch used although Chris acknowledged if it was safe to do so he’d obviously stop in a more convenient spot for a passenger laden with shopping. The need for the driver to get out of the cab to open the side door means it’s not possible to stop in any old place.

It’s odd though that Google and other third party open data providers still think there’s a scheduled timetable for Katch (as applied in the first incarnation) as clicking on one of the bus stops brings up a listing of scheduled half hourly departures.

It was also good to see there’s a display of Katch leaflets in the Station House….

…. which is itself an excellent example of a community led initiative that has seen the former run down station building (and first floor accommodation for the Station Master many years ago) transformed into a community run café, meeting rooms and work stations for hire.

With this active community involvement it might just mean those 35 return journeys a day can be achieved – but that still works out at around six to seven single journeys per hour of operation – which is tough going for a DRT operation.

It’ll be interesting to see if Katch Mark II can achieve it by April 2024 – when the funding runs out again.

Roger French

Blogging timtable: 06:00 TThS

20 thoughts on “Will Katch work second time round? Maybe.

Add yours

  1. How are they meant to get 35 passengers when the bus is flip flopping about on demand (for one passenger)? Wouldn’t it be better to pulse the service out from the train arrivals and departures (not easy with one bus)? That would probably eliminate the Snape connection, but that sounds more like taxi trade.


    1. I agree, pulse service is the basis of the entire Swiss public transport system.

      Regarding Katch it should be pulsed with the trains, and maybe have an element of on demand wigglyness to go off an otherwise fixed route on request.


  2. I’m baffled as to why they have used Campsea Ash as their railhead, as basically apart from the Station there is nothing there. It would be better to use Saxmundham where there are better shops and local facilities, the same rail connections to London, Ipswich and Lowestoft, and bus connections to Leiston, Aldeborough and the coast. Katch is already shown on the updated Suffolk on Board website that I hope people use when travelling by public transport in Suffolk. And then horror of horrors, make it a timetabled service?
    3 passengers a day after three weeks is not very encouraging. In Telford we are carrying over 30 passengers a day on two timetabled rural routes that only started two months ago.


  3. I hope it doesn’t get mixed up with my Cousin’s Burger Van which is also located in Snape. But joking aside, the flaw here is the long gap in service after previous withdrawal, thus any regular users (if any?) would have made alternative arrangements. However, it is under the more local umbrella of the district Councils and thus subject to more scrutiny and possibly helpful publicity than the normal DfT £largesse merely thrown about in the never ending and pointless quest “to be seen to be helping buses” with poorly targeted cash.

    And yes, as Julian Peddle has pointed out, why was Saxmundham not seen as a far better choice? If it somehow manages to survive, highly doubtful with such limited resources, a timetabled service connecting with trains would surely be the better option. Another example of leaving the running of buses to Politicians rather than Professionals.


    1. To answer Julian and Terence’s points, I believe the original incarnation of Katch was partly the work of the Suffolk County Councillor for Wickham Market, who also has some responsibility for SCC’s transport strategy and who will have defined its main purpose to be carrying passengers between Campsea Ashe and Wickham Market in his own ward.

      CATS already serves the same area and would have already covered the same route with its dial-a-ride services, though very few here know that such services are open to all and not just the elderly and disabled. If they are operating the vehicle as a branded sub-route together with the rest of their dial-a-ride services but with more publicity, then it has more of a chance of covering its costs than the previous version.


    1. If only the service could run in the evenings – it’s possible to get there for an evening concert, but not get back!

      I suspect a conventional timetabled bus route would have still been better than Katch, especially if such a service were to have even just a single evening return from Snape on concert days. It’s telling that at the end of their events the car park empties out one by one for 20 minutes, and then forms a long convoy most of the way back to Ipswich.


  4. The claimed passenger numbers for the last trial were a 100 a week. Seems somewhat high to me at about 16 a day

    Costs for the new service may be a bit lower as I guess the drivers are volunteers. The call centre staff though are normally paid and they will have the cost of the app

    The call centre is open for fewer hours than the service operates so you may need to book a day in advance

    Other than probably slightly lower costs nothing else appears to have changed so it is difficult to see how it will succeed this time

    35 passengers a day is highly unlikely

    As other have said why cannot it operate as a normal fixed route hail and ride service Costs would be lower and passenger numbers are likely to be higher

    The other problem is the unsuitable vehicle. If it need to make lots of stops it will slow things down as the driver has to keep getting out to open and close the doors

    Rather than a loyalty scheme why not a weekly ticket etc


  5. What’s the difference between a DRT and a taxi, given that in Roger’s experience, he is the only passenger on the bus? (The DRT is likely to be subsidised, but how long before the funding runs out, and then what happens?)


    1. The difference between a taxi and DRT is, in fact, the current ultimate public transport question.
      The answer, of course, is 42.
      Hope that helps …..


    2. What is the difference between a DRT bus and a local bus which allows the former to be deemed not eligible for concessionary fares?


        1. No they can’t. However, a Transport Concession Authority has powers to compel operators to participate, and national legislation allows locally determined exclusions, principally those with pre-booking, an element of amenity in the fare and services primarily for tourism.


  6. Concessionary fares, no a local bus service cannot just opt out, it can be excluded by the LA if fares are unduly expensive or it’s a tourist service or park and ride plus few few other exclusions. In this case it’s not timetabled so that might be a reason for exclusion


    1. I have found that the following are excluded from the concessionary pass scheme:
      (a) services on which the majority of seats can be reserved in advance of travel (such as coaches)
      (b) services that are intended to run for a period of less than 6 consecutive weeks
      (c) services operated primarily for the purposes of tourism or because of the historical interest of the vehicle
      (d) bus substitution (rail replacement) services
      (e) services where the fare charged by the operator has a special amenity element.

      Presumably (a) enables the LA to exclude any DRT scheme.


      1. It occurs to me that this may be a reason for LAs favouring DRT schemes, as they can opt out of paying for concessionary pass holders. It seems perverse to discourage use of these services by older people who are likely to be the main users.


  7. You should try out the new Leighton buzzard network starting 9th may. It’s free on all arriva buses in the town until December.


  8. It would be interesting to know why concessions not available on Katch, has the LA really excluded them, or perhaps with the abysmal reimbursement rate Katch cannot afford to accept them.


  9. The contract for the Suffolk Dial A ride services are up for renewal soon. I think they are looking at placing the services with a single operator.

    At present each area has its own operator and with different operating hours and each has its own phone operator, Clearly costs could be saved by having a single call centre & each has its own branding I think they have also had issues with the operators not fully complying with the contracts


  10. The passenger numbers for Wickham Market are low to start with , let alone onward passengers . A service connection from Fram, Wickham Market to a rail connection at Woodbridge would probably be a better bet for the direction of passengers travels.


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