Thursday 11th May 2023
Not to be left out of the firmly rolling bandwagon of local authorities expending vast sums of public money from Government on Demand Responsive Transport (DRT), East Sussex County Council joined in the fun on Tuesday with a “soft launch” of five of ten designated zones covering the entire county. The other five zones begin next Monday although North Wealden is currently listed as to be confirmed.
Branded as FlexiBus, East Sussex, as with some others, is calling its BSIP funded scheme DDRT (rather than plain old DRT) but I can’t find a consistent reference to what the first D stands for – I’ve heard Digital and Dynamic both mentioned – why not make it DDDRT using both descriptors for added inclusivity?
The council’s original BSIP submission envisaged 15 potential DDRT zones but although it received impressive funding of £41 million from the DfT it was less than its ambitious bid so plans were modified to “optimise the services and provide the best value DDRT services with the funding available” leading to a reduction to nine areas being considered. In the event this has increased to ten.
Journeys can be made within each zone and in some cases to and from key destinations just outside – eg from the South Downs zone to Lewes (rail station, School Hill, Victoria Hospital or Tesco) as well as Newhaven and Seaford, the idea being to enable people in isolated hamlets to access existing public transport services using FlexiBus as a link. Main roads and rail lines served by existing services are excluded from the zones as are the main conurbations with their networks.
Passengers requesting a complete journey already covered by existing bus or train services will find the app points to using those rather than FlexiBus.
FlexiBus is using the Ride Pingo app developed by another USA based global tech company called The Routing Company (“The Routing Company was founded by a triad of transit leaders, rideshare experts, and cutting-edge academic researchers, brought together by a shared mission to move the world” – extols its website). The company began in Houston Texas and expanded into the UK providing software for the Borders Buses’ DRT scheme branded as Pingo operating north of Berwick-upon-Tweed and the West Coast Motors’ scheme in Campbeltown. East Sussex is its first scheme in England.
I’d downloaded the Ride Pingo app for my journey with Borders Buses in May last year but it turns out that complicated the algorithm and I couldn’t get the same app to work for a journey with FlexiBus in Sussex without it crashing. I contacted Ride Pingo via the Help function on the app, and although Jake was very helpful, suggesting various things to try, nothing seemed to fix it.
Not to be beaten from taking a first day FlexiBus ride, I gave the call centre a ring when it first opened at 06:30 on Tuesday morning to book my intended journey with a human instead. And impressively John answered the phone very quickly and although normally based in the Solent (it’s the same WeDRT/WeMOVE run call centre used by Bristol’s WestLink) he was in the Lewes area on Tuesday for the launch and booked my journey exactly as I requested with a departure at 10:10 from the hamlet of Litlington in the Cuckmere Valley to Lewes railway station.
John knew about my app issue and assured me the tech team were looking into it.
My plan to reach Litlington was to catch the Cuckmere Buses (CB) Tuesdays and Fridays only route 40 which on Tuesdays leaves Berwick station at 09:48 arriving Litlington at 10:02 on its way to Seaford.
Unfortunately that plan went awry due to the journey unusually having to be cancelled as one of the community bus fleet received accident damage last week and was still off the road, another had door problems and a third undergoing an MoT – thanks to CB’s managing director Philip Ayers for letting me know when I made some enquiries, wondering where the bus was.
I gave the Ride Pingo/WeDRT number another call to say I’d have to cancel the journey for 10:10 and get back to them when I knew a revised pick up time. They were again most helpful and put the journey request on hold.
As I didn’t fancy waiting until Friday for the next route 40 journey, I tried to rescue the plan by summoning a taxi, ringing the companies listed on Network Rail’s Onward Travel poster at Berwick station, but all of them being Eastbourne based gave me the thumbs down, not wanting to come out all way to Berwick for a local journey, which begs the question why they’re listed on the poster.
Then I had a thought that as there wasn’t another bus from Berwick station for some considerable time maybe FlexiBus would come to me, and rather than take me to Lewes (which the train could obviously do) take me to Alfriston instead (Cuckmere Buses operate a journey from Berwick station to Alfriston but not until 12:54).
I phoned back and was initially told that journey couldn’t be booked as it was showing “it’s an existing transit route” (that’s the USA influence for you) but whether the guys knowing my plight were able to overrule the algorithm or whether it just ended up working, I’m not sure, but in the event, they confirmed my original driver and bus from Litlington would now come to me at the station “as soon as possible” and take me to Alfriston.
That was at 10:10 and just after 10:30, and much to my relief, Dave appeared with his smart seven year old minibus and also on board I met Carlyn who’s one of The Routing Company team and was over from Houston travelling around with Dave to make sure any technical glitches could be sorted during this initial “soft launch” phase.
And the good news was Carlyn took a look at my phone and was immediately able to resolve the app problem – she swiped up the app display from the screen so the image disappeared and sure enough when I opened it again it was working correctly. Quite why her magic touch worked and my deleting the app, and even deleting my whole account and starting as a new customer again the previous day didn’t, will remain a mystery but I was extremely grateful to Carlyn for her help, as there’s nothing more frustrating than an app that doesn’t function properly, espcailly when you’re DRTing or even DDRTing.
Dave works for CTLA (Community Transport Lewes Area) – the community bus company based in Newhaven which has a number of contracts for transport in the west of the county. CLTA are the chosen operator for four of Flexibus’s ten zones – the ones in the west of the county, while East Surrey Rural Transport Partnership (ESRTP) are operating the other six zones, which must be a bit of a geographic stretch for them, particularly the zone based on Rye, which is some distance from their normal Surrey patch.
One Mercedes Sprinter minibus operates in each of the ten zones, so CTLA have four and ESRTP have six.
They’re branded as flexibus as well as a mention of pingo and can take wheelchairs using a rear tail lift while there’s steps to the nearside entrance with a driver operated door.
The seat configuration in the bus I travelled on was ready for wheelchair users if needed.
We soon reached Alfriston at 10:40 and I’d worked out I could catch the next bus on Compass Bus operated route 125 back to Lewes but with no further bookings for Dave, it was suggested I give the app a try and ensure it was working. I put in a request for a journey to Lewes, leaving immediately, expecting it to flag up the departure on route 125 due at 11:09 but instead it offered me an instant ride with Dave.
Maybe that was because the FlexiBus bus was already at my location and had it not been it would have pointed me to the 125. Off we went Lewes bound, leaving at 10:42 and arriving about 15 minutes later.
The journey proved to be a great opportunity to chat with Dave and Carlyn about DRT and my user experiences over the last few years together with my theory that some compromise between fixed departure times/locations and flexible routes (à la Wiltshire model) is the way forward for these largely rural based schemes.
It’s a big step forward for residents in those micro hamlets cut off from public transport who can now summon a bus for their journey needs but as always the question with DRT schemes of this kind is …. is this really the best use of ten buses and will their operation become financially sustainable within the two year BSIP funding window?
It’s clear East Sussex are aiming to avoid abstraction from existing buses and trains across the county, but there’s still a risk FlexiBus could undermine rural journeys that only run once or twice a week such as the Cuckmere Buses two-return-journeys a week route 40 through Litlington I was originally aiming to catch and which runs with no public funding. If residents of this small hamlet cotton on to the fact they can summon up a minibus “on demand” to take them shopping, how long will it be before CB’s Tuesday and Friday service becomes superfluous and unviable?
And if you’re thinking, well, that may be no bad thing, as residents will have a service with much greater choice of travel times and days, that’s all fine and good for the next two years while BSIP funding flows but then what?
Cuckmere Buses have been around for getting on for 50 years and it would be catastrophic if its future was threatened due to this two year funding bean feast, because there’s no chance ten rural based DRT buses will ever be financially sustainable after that time. Or even ten DDRT buses for that matter.
And finally, just to show the ‘rural transport problem’ is nothing new, nor is a solution involving a call centre, here’s a film commissioned by East Sussex County Council forty years ago in 1983 when it launched its County Rider scheme based on Lewes as part of the ESCORT project.
I well remember the revolutionary nature of this initiative, at that time being Assistant Traffic Manager at Southdown which operated the service between Peacehaven and Newhaven to Lewes as well as to Glynde and Firle. A link to the film is here. It’s worth a watch, if only for the nostalgia kick. Many thanks to John Taylor at TAS Partnership for sharing this with me.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS
I agree with you that these demand-responsive attempts to cater for cute little country hamlets is a lost cause. Having travelled a little in recent weeks on semi-rural buses in the Warrington area as well as the “big 7” to Liverpool and the “”big 100” to Manchester, the view from the top deck (and even a single-decker) is that many of their driveways are jammed with SUVs and other top-of-the-range hardware. Just run an hourly service linking the largest towns to each other and hope for the best.
Many thanks for this blog, and the link to the lovely video about E.Sussex’s County Rider in the 1980s (which I watched yesterday on youtube). I agree that the risk to the Cuckmere Community bus is real – maybe some money from the DDRT scheme should go to them for the next two years!
I’ll be interested in how the Stonegate area scheme works out. Stonegate is a small village, but with many commuters (1hr to London Bridge) so the station car park is usually full after the am rush. It’s a good 30 min walk to the station – or to the hourly Stagecoach bus to Wahurst and Tun.Wells for shopping. The train service is pretty good: mostly hourly, and with early and late trains – Flexibus is 7am-7pm, so no good for a London Theatre. It may be relatively popular for rail connections: I doubt if it would cover its costs, but in terms of extra rail tickets sold it ought to be viable.
I think it would be a better use of the minibuses to pilot a schem like this: a bus would be at the station when every train arrived, to take people to anywhere (so ‘DR’) in the village, and be bookable to take you to the train. It would be run by the rail company so integrated ticketing and publicity would be easy, as would be changes re timetable revisions. I understand that the train company wouldn’t want to lose any of its precious car park charges – but, for the social good …
After all, this is how some of the early, railway operated, bus services started up. It is one of the great disappointments of bus privatisation that the bus companies – who at first operated most of the trains – failed so dismally to put in place any significant integration, and in fact seemed to run the different modes from different silos whose managements never spoke to each other.
Can I echo the comment on Cuckmere Buses. They really are an excellent network (although I do have to confess, as a resident of East Kent, I haven’t been out in that direction since the pandemic). In my experience they have provided excellent service, are generally well used (although I was the only passenger once), and, in my experience, are reliable and helpful; and their website puts some commercial companies to shame. Without them and other Community Transport operators (Battle, Bexhill, Rye, Wealdlink and CTLA themselves) much of East Sussex will have become the type of desert bus-wise that other counties have become.
This has reminded me that I need to travel in some parts of rural East Sussex this year (if only the weather was reliable), but using the conventional services provided by the operators listed above. I want them still to be around in two plus years time because one thing is certain, local authorities won’t be awash with money to subsidise bus services then any more then than they are now.
Did nobody in East Sussex County Council assess or even consider the long-term effects this incredibly expensive scheme may have on the well established existing Community Transport services? The County has been relatively lucky in retaining such a clutch of at least six good operators with well established services for so long, particularly considering many staff are Volunteers.
But as soon as the “Little Old Ladies” (the only type of person our Politicians think use buses) discover they can summon Jake, and even Carlyn on a good day if she happens to be popping over from Texas, with their “Ride Pingo” app, all could be lost come the inevitable scenario in two years time.
As always with these schemes, how much better this money could have been spent on improving that which we already have.
There are so many problems with DRT I cannot see them ever attracting sufficient numbers of passengers and with the cost of them it does not appear that they can ever be financially viable. The losses’ being far higher than a council would ever consider subsidizing a normal bus route
There is the inconvenience of having to pre book and the gamble of not knowing if you will get a journey when you need it and even then not knowing at what time you will arrive at your destination
Another problem is they invariably tend to use unsuitable non low flow vehicles, Given most of the passengers are likely to be elderly or disabled that’s not the greatest choice. They also tend to be cramped with little space for prams and buggies or walking frames shopping etc.
The above are probably not to much of a problem present as they hardly get any passengers but one they get more than one or two they become a problem
The other big issue is cost. These service are very costly and make very inefficient use of the vehicles
I suspect for the same cost you could run at least 20 normal vehicles on normal bus routes
In some cases semi flexible routes would make sense to maximize passenger numbers. The bus can basically go from A to B but can divert into a nearby village or housing estate
What little information that is publicly available on DRT suggests they do not work as the failure rate of these schemes is in the 70% to 80% region. It may be even higher. They generally only last until the initial funding runs out
Quite why you would continue rolling out DRT services when it is near certain they will fail remains a mystery. Well perhaps not a mystery. It is the one area of bus services where the government throws money at it in the mistaken belief that it will get more people using buses
Thanks Roger, very evocative, and quite a sense from 1983 of “plus ca change” …. except for Chris Brown’s hair and waistline! And except for the fact that something like CCB has succeeded and survived, whereas we fear for most of the bsip initiatives when the funding ends, and for the people that come to rely on them. Hopefully some elements will be sustained. Surely these competitions for funding are not the answer for long term aims, but authorities have worked hard to win backing, and have to play by the rules.
Wonder how long g it will be before they get a Solicitors letter from Flexibus the oach operator?
Thanks for being quick of the mark to sample the new Flexibus service. What we in our part of East Sussex are still unsure about is the future of the local Compass Bus routes supported by ESCC. The County Council Bus Service Improvement Plan shows our local routes replaced by Flexibus but to date there is no mention of any changes to local buses. I doubt if the Village Rider routes 167/168 will continue their twice weekly service to local villages. The Flexibus service will not accept a booking where there is a fixed route option. Interestingly our local 166 service (Lewes – Haywards Heath is shown in the BSIP as continuing but on a flexible route basis diverting to local villages as required. On a positive note the North Lewes Flexibus area is shown to include journeys to/from Hassocks. You can enjoy DDRT on your own doorstep from next week!
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Thanks for that – hadn’t picked up Hassocks will now be on the DRT map. Looking forward to that!
I note Stagecoach are covering some of the new areas if would appear East Surrey Rural Transport Partnership may have bitten of more th an they can chew
I wonder how much of the budget was spent on bringing Carlyn over from Houston, on air fare, hotel, subsistence etc.
Coincidentally I recently spent a few days in Eastbourne and traveled on various services in the area including Compass Bus service 125 which RF nearly traveled on. Sadly the journey I used (1330 ex Eastbourne) only had three passengers but as there are am and pm journeys for schools, little would be gained by withdrawing this part.
Off topic but I relied on bustimes.org and busatlas.uk for my information while on holiday. I’m sure many readers of this blog will be familiar with these websites but do the general public know about them?
My hotel had leaflets for the Eastbourne open top tour and for the Dotto Train albeit for 2022 in the case of the latter.
I overheard a couple of German tourists asking the receptionist about public transport information. Her response was that she was ok with trains but struggled with buses That probably meant that income from potential travelers was lost. When I first visited Eastbourne in 1968 there was a combined operators timetable for the Eastbourne and Hastings area which told you all you needed to know.
I will say that I did acquire a timetable for the famous service 12 from that modern rarity, an enquiry office in Brighton so all is not lost.
If you stayed in a Swiss (Basel for example) you would get a travel ticket valid on all local public transport for the duration of your stay.
In better UK example, Harry Blundred’s Devon General maintained leaflet racks at hotels.
I’m afraid that I’m not optimistic about the long term survival of this DDRT, nor the existing services that will have fallen by the wayside as sacrificial casualties.
But thanks for the link to the film, Roger. It was good to see the young Chris Brown and Denys Charnock again. Happy memories.