Tapping into confustion

Tuesday 26th November 2019

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It’s good to see more and more bus companies playing payment systems catch-up by accepting contactless cards as an alternative to cash. I’m not convinced the transaction time is quicker, and indeed could well be slower in the hands of a proficient and experienced cash handling driver, but it’s the way society has rapidly moved and the bus industry must respond and adapt. I very rarely buy anything with cash these days.

My concern is the potential confusion caused by mixing up the simple substitute of cash with a contactless card to buy a bus ticket from the driver with new systems of tap-on and tap-off being rolled out by some operators linked to daily, weekly or even monthly capping. The former is still very much traditional ticket buying; the latter is ticketless travel and sometimes known colloquially as ‘London style’ (ie previously with Oyster).

Before these tapping trials take off too extensively there’s an urgent need for bus companies to think very carefully about how their marketing is targeted, the terminology used and procedures adopted.

In London it has all worked smoothly since the introduction of Oyster to the Capital’s bus network in 2003 because the flat fare has obviated the need to touch out. One tap as you get on is all that’s needed. Everyone accepts the ticketless concept and the daily cap.

Out in the provinces where flat fares aren’t appropriate it’s not so simple. Tap a ticket machine too early and you could end up paying for a single journey whereas you might have wanted a return ticket or a day ticket from the driver. How are you to know the difference?

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For example, Brighton & Hove who accept both contactless to buy traditional tickets, and contactless to tap-on and tap-off are using various marketing messages including “Tap to pay and you’re on your way” while Stagecoach South operating through the city  accept contactless on their frequent Coastliner route 700 into the city only for buying traditional tickets and use the marketing message ‘Tap & Go’.

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Brighton & Hove also use the message ‘Tap on, tap off. Contactless is even easier’.

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I’m not sure what tap-on tap-off is meant to be ‘even easier’ than …. but an uninformed customer would be hard pressed to know there’s a fundamental difference between the two ‘taps’ – a “Tap & Go” is vastly different to a “Tap-on, tap-off” while a “Tap to pay” could mean anything.

Wellglade owned trentbarton and Kinchbus in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire both also offer contactless payments and use the terms ‘travel contactless’ (for tap-on and tap-off) and ‘contactless payments’ for buying traditional paper tickets by contactless. TrentBarton have the added complication of also still using their long standing proprietary mango smartcard which has always operated in tap-on and tap-off mode and indeed was the first such operation in the UK – initially offering an attractive 25% discount compared to cash fares but since those heady days has been scaled back to a more modest 10% saving. Mango now suffers from its limited functionality (limited to three timed caps and not possible to offer area zonal caps) compared to what can be achieved through contactless.

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The tap-on/tap-off system introduced by Brighton & Hove and Metrobus a few months ago is a good opportunity for Go-Ahead to trial what happens when passengers travel across two bus companies with a common cap. It’s the kind of thing that could be rolled out in Oxford, for example, across two competing bus companies (Oxford Bus and Stagecoach Oxford) with an integrated ticket scheme where the daily cap would effectively be that city’s Smartzone day ticket at £4.30.

Up until now, as a passenger, once I’d bought my Smartzone day ticket, I would know which operator I’d bought it from, and I have no interest in how the money is shared out between Oxford Bus and Stagecoach Oxford. Why would I need to know about that? But in the new world of tapping on and off, this becomes an issue as I found out on my recent trials travelling with Brighton & Hove and Metrobus.

Brighton & Hove have day tickets/daily caps of £5 (travel across the City network) and £7 (travel beyond the City). There’s also a £7.50 Metrovoyager ticket which includes all B&H and Metrobus routes and is quite a bargain if you use it extensively, but I doubt many folk use both Metrobus and B&H that much. Metrobus also have day tickets within each town served as well as across their network.

I was interested in how it would work by making journeys across both B&H and Metrobus which would be subject to the £7.50 Metrovoyager cap, so last Thursday, 21st November I set off for Brighton to give it a try out.

My first journey was from Hurstpierpoint into Brighton on Metrobus route 273. I tapped in as I boarded and tapped out as I alighted. As you tap out there’s nothing to confirm what you’ve paid (as happens when you tap out with Oyster at an Underground gate) – just an ‘accepted’ message.

I happen to know the single fare for the journey I made is £3.70, but otherwise I’d not have known that’s how much debt I’d incurred.

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A little concerning was the pole mounted exit reader had gone to sleep as I came to get off in Brighton with no green light displaying. The driver said to use his cab mounted machine instead but just at that moment the former machine came to life and displayed ‘accepted’ as I placed my contactless card on it.

Normally a passenger making a return journey from Hurstpierpoint to Brighton and back would ask the driver for a return ticket which costs £5.90 – a saving of £1.50 compared to buying two singles (at £3.70 each way) for £7.40.

But for that I’d need to know not to immediately tap on to the ticket machine but instead ask the driver for a return ticket in the traditional way, wait for it to be keyed into the ticket machine and then tap my card for the fixed payment to go through and receive a paper ticket. Tap too soon and I’d be £1.50 worse off as the driver would be unable to cancel the £3.70 lined up to be deducted from my bank account; and when I returned home it would be another £3.70 as the tap-on and tap-off system is not clever enough to cap fares paid from and to the same origin/destination at the return fare. Effectively it’s either singles or day tickets in this new world of contactless – tap-on and tap-off may be ‘even easier’ but it could also be ‘even costlier’.

Once I’d arrived in Brighton I took a short ride on a Brighton & Hove bus through the central area with my tap-on and tap-off card clocking up a fare of £2.20.

My third journey was a return trip to Hurstpierpoint which the tap-on and tap-off would calculate as another £3.70 single but I was expecting the Metrovoyager cap of £7.50 to kick in limiting my payment to £1.60 (£3.70+£2.20+£1.60=£7.50).

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I eagerly logged on to the Metrobus website when I got home to see if that is indeed what had happened only to get a message ‘no records found’.

I realised I was probably being premature and left it until the next day (Friday 22nd) and had another try.

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Somewhat disconcertingly a similar message of no entries matching my ‘search criteria’ came back both when entering my credit card details on the link for unregistered users and, after registering as a user and trying that way. Still nothing. On the upside no transaction had been recorded against my credit card for the previous day’s travel either.

I tried again 48 hours later (on Saturday 23rd) and still nothing as a registered user.

However by checking as an unregistered user up came an entry showing a deduction of £5.30 for Friday 22nd (the day after I’d made the journeys on Thursday 21st).

This puzzled me at first as I couldn’t see why a daily cap would kick in at £5.30 rather than the £7.50 I was expecting; however, when clicking on the icon for further details I then saw the two entries for my outward journey for £3.70 and return journey shown as £1.60.

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That’s when it dawned on me that the missing £2.20 (£7.50 less £5.30) would no doubt be listed on the Brighton & Hove website and sure enough, although nothing was showing at that time, later on during Saturday, it popped up as a record – also showing the incorrect travel date as Friday.

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Clicking on the ‘Details” icon brought up that journey on route 49 for £2.20.

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I checked my credit card transactions again with my credit card company and the Metrobus entry for £5.30 had been deducted and after another 24 hours (on Sunday 24th) the £2.20 was shown as a deduction for Brighton & Hove.

This all seemed a bit confusing to me, and the lack of information being available for 48 hours giving rise to consternation and not helpful in building trust into the system. One of the key elements of ticketless payment systems of this kind, as TfL always point out with Oyster and their use of contactless, is how absolutely vital it is for passengers to trust the system to charge the best fare. Whilst it did do that for my trips, I’m not convinced the presentation across two bus company websites is the best way to show it. Had I bought a Metrovoyager from the driver of the 273 for £7.50 on my first journey I wouldn’t be knowing B&H got £2.20 of this and Metrobus £5.30; indeed the whole £7.50 would have gone to Metrobus and been retained by them.

Following that expereince, I thought I’d give the system another try and so this morning began my tapping in central Brighton and made four short journeys in quick succession.

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The first £2.20 centre-fare journey was on a B&H smart new electric bus on route 5B from Preston Circus down to London Road shops.

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Short journey number two, just to add to the confusion, was on a Metrobus route 272 from London Road shops to the Old Steine. Although this journey is charged at £2.20 in line with B&H’s fares, and although Metrobus and B&H are effectively run as one company, this journey wouldn’t have been possible with a Brighton & Hove one day City Saver ticket for £5 – only the Metrovoyager £7.50 ticket includes both Metrobus and B&H buses, so I’m not expecting this journey to count towards the daily B&H cap of £5 when it comes to analysing my contactless tap-on and tap-off journey record.

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My third shop hop was on a B&H route 1 from the Old Steine just one stop further on in North Street which counts as a £2 ‘short hop’ rather than the £2.20 centre fare, although I couldn’t find a list online showing where these slightly cheaper fares apply.

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The fourth and final short hop was on a B&H route 49 from North Street to Churchill Square, which could be £2 or maybe £2.20, but as the £5 cap should kick in I’ll never know!

I’m expecting the B&H £5 cap to cover my three B&H bus fares and the Metrobus £2.20 to be set against the extra £2.50 to take my cap from £5 to £7.50 for the Metrovoyager ticket leaving 30p still to use.

After my four short hops I headed back from Brighton to Hassocks and Hurstpierpoint on a Metrobus 273 which would normally be £3.70 for the single journey, as explained earlier, so I would expect to pay just the 30p outstanding within the £7.50 cap for that journey.

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This evening, I’ve checked both the Metrobus and B&H websites to see if my travels have been recorded yet, and much to my surprise following last week’s posting delays, four of my five journeys have appeared. The fifth, that £2.20 journey on Metrobus 272 seems to have disappeared.

On the B&H website using the non-registered user function, it shows the three journeys I made (on routes 5B, 1 and 49) with the £5 daily cap kicking in. (As you can see my journey on Thursday 21st November is still erroneosly listed as Friday 22nd November).

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On the Metrobus website using the non-registered user function, it shows only my journey back to Hurstpierpoint on route 273 valued at £2.50 (the difference between the B&H cap of £5 and the Metrovoyager ticket cap of £7.50. The £2.20 journey on route 272 has disappeared into the ether.

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When I click on to My Account to see a record of journeys, it still tells me there are no entries to be found.

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Update insert: Wednesday 27th November 

Checking my transactions record on the Metrobus website this morning (below) I see the elusive journey I made yesterday on route 272 is now listed but showing a zero value being within the £7.50 cap even though the journey was made sequentially earlier than the later journey on route 273 which is given a value of £2.50. Even more confusingly the date of both journeys has now changed to today’s date rather than yesterday!

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Also, this morning (Wednesday) on checking the ‘pending transactions’ with my credit card company on their online website, an entry for “Brighton & Hove Bus An Brihgotn & Hogbr” appeared for 10p and an hour later a similar entry for Metrobus, although with no gobblegook spelling. I’m told on Twitter these are verfication deductions, but it seems odd (a) to have one from both companies; (b) that I had none last week and (c) they’re both still showing this afternoon, seven hours after first appearing with no sign of the actual expenditure appearing.

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Update insert: Friday 29th November 

The 10p entries highlighted above were deleted from my credit card statement after 24 hours and finally today the entries for my travels on Tuesday 26th November have appeared – dated 28th November, but only appearing this morning, three days after travelling.

 

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I’m pleased to see my former Company in the vanguard of using this new technology and well done to all involved in setting it all up which I can imagine must have entailed a lot of hard work, but it would seem there are teething problems to sort out, especially how the system works across two companies, which will be critical for those areas where pundits want to see “integrated London style ticketing”.

There’s also wider issues for the bus industry as to how paying for travel is going to be communicated and marketed in the future. Are return tickets old hat; will it all be tap-on and tap-off with daily caps? If so, what about all those who don’t have or don’t want to pay with a bank card? Or those bus companies mainly running trunk routes where daily caps are not appropriate? Will maintaining a range of alternative systems and ticket options add to confusion? What is the difference between “Tap to Pay”, “Tap & Go” and “Tap-on and Tap off”?

There’s a lot to think about, and in the meantime there’s a risk confusion leads to passengers giving up.

Good luck to cities and towns with more than one operator like Oxford in sorting this out in ways passengers will understand, and importantly have the trust and confidence to use.

London Oyster style this isn’t.

Roger French

Slip ‘n Slide

Thursday 21st November 2019

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Following last Friday’s try out of TfL’s latest Demand Responsive Transport trial in Ealing, I found myself back in the Borough with two bus industry colleague friends to give it another try yesterday afternoon.

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There was a Slide vehicle parked up waiting for custom as we came out of Ealing Broadway station so to give the system a proper try we caught the next bus on route E1 along to Drayton Green station where we alighted and ordered a Slide from there to Greenford Broadway.

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We made two bookings using apps on two separate smartphones at pretty much the same time, so not surprisingly the software combined us all on to the same vehicle which was indeed the one we saw parked up and arrived with us within the estimated seven minutes.

I booked for two people and paid £2 for that second booking rather than the standard £3.50 fare.

When the minibus arrived it seems the driver wasn’t expecting three of us but on checking his in-cab tablet he then noticed the second booking had come through, and it then appeared on the monitor behind the driver – but oddly with a slightly later arrival time at the same destination.

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Off we set and it then became obvious there was a problem – the driver’s SstNav on the tablet kept reverting to recalculating the journey and wouldn’t show the driver where to go. No route appeared ahead of where he currently was.

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Luckily he knew our destination and the route to take so used his initiative and got us to Greenford Broadway in spite of, rather than helped by, the SatNav software.

Our next journey about half an hour later began with me booking for two passengers from Greenford Broadway to Northfields station which after acceptance and being advised a minibus would be with us in six minutes, my friend, a few minutes later, booked his journey from Greenford Broadway to South Ealing station (not far from Northfields). The software duly allocated us the same shared ride on the same minibus and it soon appeared at the designated pick up point by Lidl.

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This proved to be a tricky point to pick us up with peak afternoon-post-school turn out time traffic and cars trying to get into Lidl’s car park; but our driver managed to reverse back into the main road and turn the minibus round and pick us up. I wasn’t sure about that manoeuvre as we were now pointing in the wrong direction.

Our second driver, like the first, also wasn’t aware there would be three of us but then spotted my booking was for two people so was reassured. But the biggest consternation was the SatNav taking us off in a north-westerly direction rather than south-eastwards towards Northfields and South Ealing.

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After struggling in the wrong direction through Greenford’s congested traffic and ending up doing a complete circuit around residential roads in north west Greenford, after ten minutes we were back at Greenford Broadway and Lidl where we’d started the journey.IMG_3050.jpg

Our driver valiantly struggled on using his local knowledge to get us on our way, as it seems the routing software had once again packed up not being able to cope with more than one booked passenger on board.

It’s a bit of a fundamental problem for a ride sharing operation not being able to cope with ride sharing; but hopefully it’s just teething problems and will soon be sorted out.

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The monitor behind the driver (still using unfriendly destination names rather than Northfields and South Ealing stations) gave worsening predicted arrival times as our journey included off route deviations and worsening traffic congestion.

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At one point during the journey the monitor turned itself off but my friend Phil managed to find the on/off switch at the back and turned it back on again.

In the event the journey to Northfields took 45 minutes instead of the originally expected range of 17-29 minutes.

I emailed the ‘SlideEaling’ Hello address during our prolonged journey to pass on feedback about the loss of SatNav and to explain how well the driver was coping as he was gutted and embarrassed about the problems – especially as we were his first and only passengers all day. I also asked for a refund of the £2 I’d paid!

James at SlideEaling has replied this evening to say:

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Hopefully ‘a fix’ is now implemented and there’ll be no more slips on Slide.

Roger French

DRT Slides into Ealing

Friday 15th November 2019

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It’s all change in the world of Bus Demand Responsive Transport (DRT). This week sees the final foray for Arriva Click’s pioneering ‘pilot’ in Sittingbourne and Zeelo’s scheme for pilots (and others) living in Crawley and working at Gatwick Airport. The former ends tomorrow having been launched with much fanfare back in March 2017 (quite a long ‘pilot’ then) and the latter packed up today after just three months operation.

No-one with any grasp of the economics of public transport (or new fancy terms such as ‘integrated mobility solutions’) will be surprised these initiatives have failed. It really was obvious from the start the DRT business model simply doesn’t stack up; as I’ve written and explained a number of times in these blogs and in my quarterly Inside Track column in Buses magazine.

But lessons are seldom learned and as Sittingbourne bites the dust Arriva are already announcing they’ll be announcing another DRT scheme some place else very soon – update: just heard this will be in Watford. More fool them; unless they’ve convinced another Local Authority and Developer (as in Leicester) to hand over Section 106 money to financially prop up the operation for a couple of years.

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TfL are also intent on splashing the cash (they haven’t got) on loss making DRT trials. And not only on one heavy loss making DRT venture in Sutton launched in May, but from this Wednesday starting the promised second year long trial based in Ealing.

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This one is supported by Slide – the company behind the financially disastrous ridesharing DRT/taxi venture in Bristol that was withdrawn a year ago – being run by RATP Dev as a ‘pilot project’ for just over two years from July 2016. I’d only just got round to deleting that Slide app from my smartphone so had to download this latest ‘SlideEaling’ version as I headed over to Ealing this morning to give it a try as I spotted a news release from TfL on Wednesday announcing the new service began that very day – not exactly giving much forewarning!

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Whenever I travel on these new DRT ventures I get mixed feelings hearing the optimism of the drivers. Today was no exception with Will, Ovi and Pat, on the three journeys I made, all amazingly positive about their career change and the future success of the venture which on the one hand is great to hear, but I fear their naivety will lead to disappointment in a few months time.

I don’t like to pop their positive bubble and I hope behind the scenes senior managers at RATP Dev owned London Sovereign, who are running this operation for TfL, are not giving them false hope.

There’s no way this operation is ever going to succeed; it’s only hope is for some equalities or diversity issue to come up which could justify TfL spending vast sums on keeping the service going after its twelve month trial.

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The software for this scheme is provided by MOIA rather than Viavan as used in Sutton (as well as used by Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up and Arriva Click). It has a few detailed differences; for example there are no texts to say your vehicle is shortly arriving nor afterwards asking for feedback. MOIA prefer to use their app to show the vehicle approaching the pick up point by way of an icon on a map with a timed countdown alongside. That’s snazzy but it does mean you need to keep looking at your phone screen if you want an update, rather than wait for the text as per the Viavan system. I read that MOIA is “the flagship mobility services subsidiary of the VW Group”.

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SlideEaling are also using MAN minibuses rather than the more common Mercedes favoured elsewhere. They’re Euro VI so are Ultra Low Emission Zone compliant.  They have just ten seats (which will be ample) and a rear tail lift for wheelchair access which will slow things down compared to boarding through the side door.

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Seats are comfortable with moquette rather than leather and laid out 2+1. There’s a wide entrance by the door but it does involve a step up. Not so easy for the less agile. Quite extraordinary not to be running low floor accessible minibuses.

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Inevitably there’s usb but I didn’t find Wi-Fi but these days I prefer the former and am not bothered about the latter, especially on short journeys when it’s too much faff to log in.

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London Sovereign have ten of these minibuses for the service (with legal lettering for London United) housed at RATP’s engineering base in Twickenham. Five vehicles are used during the day with the spare five vehicles entering service with late turn drivers as the five early turn drivers take their buses back to base, so a bit inefficient on the capital employed front.

The operating day is an extensive 06:00 to 01:00, seven days a week. Yes, really. TfL certainly know how to splash the cash when it comes to DRT trials. The five vehicles will be covering a large part of the London Borough of Ealing from Southall in the west to the North Circular in the east and from the A40 down to Boston Manor on the southern Borough boundary.

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Everything else is pretty much the same as in Sutton with rides costing £3.50 a go with a daily cap of £10.50, a weekly £35 cap and a monthly top whack of £105. Additional passengers booked at the same time pay £2 a ride. The system doesn’t accept Oyster or contactless and although journeys are encouraged to be booked and paid for through the app, there is a phone number given for people without smartphones and an operator will book the journey for you and let you know pick up location and estimated time, but after that you’re on your own, with no further updates.

Children under 13 are not carried unless with an adult and those aged 13 to 16 need parental or guardian consent to register with the service.

Freedom Passes and English National Concessionary Travel Scheme Passes need to be pre-registered by email when a six digit coupon number will be provided within 24 hours which can be entered into the app to provide a full offset to the cost of each journey giving a ‘nil balance’. I applied yesterday and received a reply within three hours. The coupon lasts for 180 days (it also refers to 1,000 journeys, but I won’t be travelling that often) so I assume I need to apply for a new coupon number halfway through the twelve month trial if I want to continue enjoying a free personal taxi service across Ealing.

My first journey this morning was from Ealing Broadway to Boston Manor. I booked it at 10.35 with an expected arrival within 8 minutes at a pick up point at Bus Stop D on Haven Green just a stone’s throw from the station exit.

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One annoying thing about the booking software is despite putting the “destination” icon in the exact place I want to go, it comes back with “16 Cawdor Crescent” rather than something a bit more user-friendly like Boston Manor. I appreciate this is because the minibus won’t be actually taking me to the front door of the station at Boston Manor which is tantalizing just over the scheme boundary, but it assumes I know where Cawdor Crescent is, which I don’t.

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The app also gives an estimated range for the journey time, in this case of between 11 and 21 minutes, which seemed a bit vague. Anyway Will duly drove up within the expected waiting time, and I was well impressed to hear I was his second passenger of the day. So a busy day for him!

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There’s a fleet number in the top nearside corner of the front so you can be sure you’re boarding the correct vehicle. Whereas Viavan lets you know the driver’s name, MOIA doesn’t, so that’s a helpful feature.

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His dashboard mounted tablet with its zoom in map showing directions took us along some very narrow residential streets for the Boston Manor bound journey. The software seemed to be doing everything possible to take us on a route that avoided any main road.

We duly arrived in Cawdor Crescent after a 12 minute ride and I bid farewell to Will who’d been driving big buses on and off for a number of years with Metroline as his last employer, so he had high hopes for this new venture.

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I wandered around to Boston Manor station and caught a Piccadilly Line train the two stops to South Ealing to reposition myself for my next journey to Greenford Broadway which I ordered at 11:12am.

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Again, despite landing the “To” icon exactly in the middle of the crossroads of Greenford Broadway, the software wanted to take me to Clifton Road, which I was also told was a 1 minute walk from 424 Greenford Road. Sounded good, so I booked it and was told my “Slide arrives in 12 min”.

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I was impressed that the route to be taken by the incoming vehicle to pick me up took account of the roadworks right outside South Ealing station and that Dorset Road, a 2 minute walk from where I was at “82A S Ealing Road” aka South Ealing station was closed as part of the works.

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Ovi arrived ten minutes later and we set off with an expected journey time range between “17-29 min ride”. Interestingly that worse case 29 minute scenario was almost as long as the TfL Journey Planner recommendation of catching a 65 to Ealing Broadway and changing to an E10. Suffice to say the Journey Planner didn’t know about Slide.

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I was chatting to Ovi and found I was his first passenger of the day. He’d also been a big bus driver, but for him, with London Sovereign itself so no employer change had been needed. I then noticed a screen immediately behind the driver which showed my initials alongside the drop off destination and the estimated time.

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I guess this might be useful if there’s more passengers on board (some hope!) as you can see the order of when you’ll expect to reach your destination. As Andrew Garnett pointed out on Twitter it’s a shame the manufacturer’s sticker hadn’t been removed!

As you approach the drop off, the screen changes to add a reminder “don’t forget your personal belongings”.

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Another repositioning via TfL big bus route 92 down to Ealing Hospital where at 12:06 I ordered my third and final ride of the day to take me right up into the north east corner of the Borough, just a stones throw from Hanger Lane gyratory and Underground station.

IMG_2968.jpgI was wondering whether the pick up point at Ealing Hospital would be by the bus stops for routes 92, 282 and 483 within the hospital grounds and sure enough it came through as at “TfL Bus Stop – Ealing Hospital” but prior to that confirmation it was insisting I was trying to book “from Denman Avenue” which must be an internal hospital road as the icon was definitely in the hospital grounds.

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Even more bizarre the destination drop off was shown as “Hail & Ride Section” which was a “O min walk” from “112 Garrick Cl’. I just wanted Hanger Lane!

It would be another “23-37 min ride” and “Slide arrives in 7 min”. Which it did.

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And surprisingly was a blue liveried minibus, but otherwise the same as the previous two internally.

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Pat, my driver, explained five of the minibuses are coloured blue and five white as a base colour. He wasn’t sure why; he was just pleased to see me, as he’d been on an early shift and I was his very first customer at 12:15.

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Like Will and Ovi, Pat had had big bus driving experience during his career and had been attracted to the innovative nature of this service which he had great hopes would be a success although he admitted he was getting worried about not having had any customers all morning until I came along.

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There was a bit of a gremlin in the ‘drop off’ screen behind the driver seemingly on the wrong display ratio.

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Pat also had some confusion as we rounded the Hanger Lane gyratory when he thought his tablet was showing to head south down the North Circular instead of back round on to the westbound A40, so just to be sure he went round the gyratory a second time and it became obvious the directional arrow in the top left hand corner was indicating an instruction in the distance shown, rather than immediate.

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Confusion sorted and I duly arrived at my destination of “Hail & Ride Sec…” after a 25 minute ride just over the optimistic range of the predicted “23-37 min ride”.

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Pat explained that he’d been waiting at his chosen spot all morning for a customer and it only then dawned on me that whereas Viavan’s software designates a spot where it’s optimal for drivers to wait, the MOIA software allows drivers to wait anywhere of their choosing. This seems an odd way of working as Pat admitted, first thing in the morning the drivers could all end up waiting close by each other in one corner of the Borough. He explained a controller can see where they all are and can ask them to move, but that’s hardly an efficient and cost effective way of working. I thought the software was supposed to remove the requirement for a costly controller; albeit someone also needs to be available to book phone requests from non smartphone owning passengers too.

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So, another DRT launch, another handful of solo journeys in my (now, free to use) personal taxi, and no doubt more hyped up trade press coverage to come. I see the Confederation of Passenger Transport and the Campaign for Better Transport were busy sending out missives to politicians and the trade press this week calling for innovative DRT type schemes to be funded and supported as the salvation of rural transport. I wish they’d get out of their offices and see DRT in action, lest we have more wasted funding prior to more DRT ‘pilots’ being terminated as hopeless causes.

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Roger French

 

 

Road testing AIR

Thursday 7th November 2019

IMG_2670.jpgSeeing the photos online I was already hugely impressed by the sheer presence of the magnificent looking Alexander Dennis built Plaxton Panorama tri-axle coaches launched by Scottish Citylink on their AIR branded service between Glasgow and Edinburgh Airport towards the end of last month.

Costing a cool £400,000, each of the five vehicles entering service seats 75 giving a capacity increase of just over a third compared to the single decks being replaced which have hitherto run the service.

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Peter Knight, Citylink’s enthusiastic and dynamic Operations Director, suggested I gave it a couple of weeks or so before heading up to take a ride as the new buses are being drip fed into service as they become available. I thought today would be a good day to give it a try and luckily on arrival at Edinburgh Airport only had to let one of the two single deck coaches out in service go before one of the three smart new double decks on the road turned up.

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They look every bit as impressive in the flesh as the photographs portray. Edinburgh Airport is getting used to tri-axles following Lothian Buses’ recent upgrade of its Airlink service but the bright and sleek AIR livery takes image to a whole new level. My good friend Ray Stenning at Best Impressions has really come up trumps with this latest creation.

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Step on board and the interior is equally impressive. There are two staircases to the upper deck, one in the traditional location immediately behind the driver on the offside with a 180 degree climb and turn ….

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…. and another at the rear nearside by the rear access door for wheelchair users immediately in front of the rear luggage compartment.

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With this rear door only in use for wheelchair users there’s not really much to be gained from using the rear stairs as you still need to make your way through the lower deck to the front door to exit.

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I like the comfortable seats, the generous leg room (for a 75 seater), the decor and lighting, including contrasting colour floor, arm rests and smart moquette. You can tell a professional designer has been at work. It really does show.

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There are above seat reading lights, usb sockets, Wi-fi, seat back trays and smartphone holders.

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On the lower deck there are two slim width tables for four at the front with wireless charging.

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I like the light grey surround by the front entrance …..

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….. which contrasted with the darker lower deck interior behind the stairs especially without the interior lights on …

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I’m not so keen on the front upper deck ‘next stop’ display box, although at least it’s not a full on monitor completely blocking forward views.

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It’s good to see all these refinements becoming standard for new vehicles being introduced by enlightened operators determined to raise the quality bar to attract passengers. These vehicles for once almost do deserve the self awarded accolade in their launch news release of being ‘state of the art’ and ‘game changing’.

I say ‘almost’ as to be really ‘state of the art’ and ‘game changing’ a manufacturer really needs to crack the condensation and misting up problem when it rains, especially on the front upper deck windscreen.

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Granted it was raining during the journey but that’s not unusual for a Scottish November morning. The demisters above the windscreen were blowing cool air down but the ones along the bottom blowing up were pretty ineffective.

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Things did improve for a while but it soon misted up again. Hopefully this is just new vehicle teething problems. For me, a real ‘game changer’ would not only be effective demisters but upper deck windscreen wipers too.

The AIR service is operated for Citylink by West Coast Motors. Introduced in 2013 it runs a daily half hourly frequency from 04:45 to 18:15, hourly until 22:15 then hourly through the night as a diversion of the route 900 Glasgow to Edinburgh service. Journey time is around an hour.

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For a miserable mid November morning I was impressed to see a decent load catching the 10:25 departure and a similar number on the next 10:55 departure which I caught from Edinburgh Airport.

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The route follows the M8 across to Glasgow with a stop soon after leaving the Airport at Ratho Station before joining the motorway.

About halfway along the route we pulled into Harthill Services to observe a stop and set down a DHL employee from the airport and where I understand there’s an adjacent Park and Ride site which is handy for both AIR and the 900.

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The only other stop is just off the motorway at the swish ‘out-of-town’ barrier controlled business campus called Maxim Park (also given the Eurocentral name) with its massive car parking but as a nod to sustainability also facilitating a bus stop for AIR, the 900 and a few other bus routes.

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We picked up one passenger but I’m sure peak time buses are potentially busier with commuters helpfully complimenting the airport market.

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We had a smooth run into Glasgow and arrived at the busy Buchanan Bus Station pretty much on time.

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I noticed a wide area to the nearside of the parking up bay for the service had been marked up and barriered off to allow for the unloading of luggage which is either through a nearside door at the very rear or a flap into a smaller locker above the rearmost wheel.

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This looked a little awkward to me, especially at Edinburgh Airport where luggage loading and unloading had to be squeezed in the very narrow gap alongside the shelter. At both the Airport and in Glasgow a member of staff was on hand to do the loading and unloading.

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A £12.50 single fare (£21 return) is about average for a service of this kind, and these splendid vehicles certainly make you feel you’re getting a superior, comfortable, smooth, value for money ride. Which you are.

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Well done to Peter and the Citylink team. The bar has definitely been raised for airport coach quality.

Roger French

Go-Coach trailblazing in Sevenoaks

Wednesday 23rd October 2019

Small independently owned bus companies are a vital part of the industry. They serve small size towns and rural areas which other plc group companies cannot reach.

They’re becoming increasingly important as the Groups try and reverse falling margins. These small businesses are usually run by dedicated passionate individuals working very long hours for minimal reward. That’s why I was relieved to hear good sense has at last prevailed in Guildford with Arriva Surrey deregistering its competitive routes which were destabilising the long established and much admired Safeguard company, which has been in business for over ninety years.

Go-Coach Hire based in Sevenoaks is another such bus company, although much younger than Safeguard – it was set up by owner Austin Blackburn in 2008 – but over the ensuing eleven years has established itself as a much respected player on the bus scene. This is undoubtedly due to the dedication, enthusiasm and passion that Austin has brought to the business.

I had the pleasure to spend some time with Austin this morning as he wanted to share his innovative ideas to embrace a new style of taxi-bus operation for introduction next Spring.

It was very impressive to see behind the scenes at Go-Coach’s base in Sevenoaks. Austin is an engineer by profession and has worked for a myriad of bus companies during his long career which led to him establishing his own ‘Bus Doctor’ business in 2001. This led to an interest in the school contract market and acquiring a coach in 2008; then three coaches and soon after the bus business was born in 2009. It’s now a sizeable operation with over fifty vehicles and a PVR of 42.

Austin works a seventy-two hour week starting very early each morning to oversee the runout from the company’s Swanley outstation, then driving a school bus himself before taking the bus on to the Sevenoaks base to begin his day job of attending to the fleet’s engineering needs with his six fitters and two apprentices, purchasing the necessary spare parts, checking in with the operational and administrative team then taking the school bus back out in service in the afternoon.

It’s a busy day but you soon realise Austin’s engineering experience is a vital ingredient to the success of the business. He proudly showed me a 58 plate Optare Versa he’d purchased from RATP for an absolute bargain price which he’d made look as new (both on the outside and ‘under the bonnet’) together with another being cannibalised for spares.

But what was equally impressive for someone with an engineering pedigree was Austin proudly showing me the large sized maps he displays at all the main bus shelters in the town showing his Sevenoaks bus network and fares information as well as describing to me the changes being introduced next month and the positive reasons for each one. And that these had been discussed at a public meeting he’d arranged for passengers to come along to and give their feedback and comments.

Go-Coach’s branding is certainly bright and stands out, not least in Sevenoaks bus station which the company manages and where the information is presented clearly, including a manned travel office with one of the most friendly and helpful members of staff you’ll find anywhere.

IMG_0656.jpgSevenoaks is not an easy town in which to run buses. Austin explains his business is roughly two-thirds commercial and one-third tendered/contracted which is commendable for this part of prosperous England. Key to success is that every vehicle has busy peak school journeys in its schedule.

IMG_4083.jpgThere was a bit of a skirmish between Go-Coach and Arriva a couple of years ago on local routes and ironically just as Go-Coach backed down, Arriva made the mistake of introducing the completely inappropriate Mercedes Sprinter minibuses on the two routes ending in them abandoning the routes altogether which Go-Coach have now picked up and will shortly be marketing as part of a revitalised town network with routes numbered 1 to 8.

As if all this wasn’t impressive enough, it’s Austin’s plans for a Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) operation for Sevenoaks and part of its hinterland which are really capturing the imagination.

Whilst the Government hints it will be dangling inducement finance for swanky DRT trials and Arriva invest goodness knows how much in Click’s flawed business model, Austin has been quietly beavering away in his ‘spare time’ (in between school runs, engineering, stores, bus stop displays and other duties) to come up with a credible plan to replace an infrequent rural route; add new Special Education Needs (SEN) peak hour transport; take over off-peak commitments for Age UK; and introduce a new bespoke service for wealthy City bound commuters using Sevenoaks station with a fleet of four brand new seven-(leather)-seater taxis under a Private Hire licence rather than an O licence.

It’s an ingenious plan which he’s already in advanced stages of discussions with Kent County Council and Sevenoaks District Council with a view to phasing it in from next May.

The secret financial ingredient to its business success is packaging together statutory and publicly funded work (the SEN contracts), off peak work funded by the third sector (Age UK), replacing a full sized bus with smaller vehicles more appropriate for sparsely loaded subsidised rural routes but running more frequently and taking a commercial risk in developing growth from the commuter market. What a brilliant example of entrepreneurial flare.

The plan for the ‘DRT’ style rural routes is to serve five segments of the hinterland on just one day of the week each thereby being able to run a more intensive service with the three taxis (one spare) than if the whole area was covered each day. That seems like a good compromise to me as it gives a better quality of service but admittedly on a reduced number of days.

It’s also possible this model will be ideal for taking over the Sevenoaks Taxi Bus to East Hill Farm currently funded by Kent County Council as part of a trial for a number of rural services across the County which I reviewed when it was introduced back in June, following the withdrawal of the once a week route 405 which Go-Coach used to operate.

IMG_0806There are still lots of refinements yet to come to get the model right such as how much to rely on app based, phone based or turn-up-in-person-in-the-bus-station requests for the DRT elements or whether to use a fixed timetable as well as implications of what fares to charge to keep within taxi type regulations which requires everything to be pre-booked …. but that was the joy of my visit this morning to brainstorm ideas with someone as passionate and committed to delivering a good service as Austin.

As he said you have to adapt to keep ahead of the game and it’s good to see a small independently owned bus company innovating just as impressively, if not more so, as the big Groups. And just after I left him to travel home via Edenbridge on the Wednesday only single journey rural route 238 via Chartwell and Cowden to Holtye Common (coincidentally it carried a taxi load of just seven passengers), Austin was back in engineering mode changing a fuel return pipe on a Mercedes Solo – “a fairly miserable job” he observed.

Roger French

Only Connect in Kent

Monday 16th September 2019

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Back in July I took a ride on Nu-Venture’s route 58 between Maidstone, East and West Malling and villages and hamlets close to Wrotham Heath in Kent before it was transformed as part of one of Kent County Council’s rural pilots.

The idea was to cut the route back from the town centre to Maidstone Hospital (on the western side of the town), run more frequently (hourly), provide connections and through fares to Arriva’s town bus routes into the town centre and introduce two smart new Mercedes Sprinter minibuses.

The new arrangements began the week after I visited, on 15th July, so I thought it would be a good idea to pop back and see how things were settling down a couple of months on.

The publicity leaflet produced by Kent County Council for the new look 58 makes much of the ease of connections to and from Arriva’s bus routes. It suggests the best place to connect is alongside South Aylesford Retail Park, a few stops before the bus reaches Maidstone Hospital ‘due to the presence of shelters and real time information’ but ‘passengers may change buses at any stop on the route of the 71/72 that they choose’.

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The leaflet also explains ‘in addition, passengers can also choose to travel to Maidstone Hospital where connections to Maidstone Town Centre can be made with Arriva buses 3 and 8’.

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I’d been a bit sceptical about how easy all this sounded and particularly noted there was no mention of through fares if you began your journey on an Arriva bus in Maidstone town centre and wanted to travel out to the villages near Wrotham Heath but undeterred I gave it a go this morning.

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My scepticism wasn’t misplaced. Down in the bowels of Maidstone’s dingy Chequers Bus Station the driver of the Arriva Kent bus on route 71A immediately had a puzzled look and said he couldn’t issue any through fares to Trottiscliffe (one of the hamlets served by the 58 on the circuit via Wrotham Heath) and had never heard of such an arrangement. I decided not to press the point so bought a single ticket to Aylesford for £3.70.

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We arrived on time eighteen minutes later and I waited for the Nu-Venture 58 to arrive.

It turned out I got off at the stop before the suggested official interchange point at Homebase, but this stop, outside a large Sainsbury’s, is also endowed with a shelter and real time information, albeit not working, so seemed a good place to wait.

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There was an up to date timetable for the 58 and even a bum perch to sort of sit on.

The 58 arrived on time and the driver helpfully sold me a £7.20 return to take me on to Trottiscliffe and back to Maidstone town centre but emphasised when I returned it was best to alight at the stop opposite Homebase to change on to an Arriva bus there as drivers may not expect me at other stops – he also recommended having the leaflet to hand to show the driver.

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I said I was thinking of going on to Maidstone Hospital and changing to a bus on route 3 or 8 there as included as an option in the leaflet. The driver cautioned me against that as he thought that would only work for concessionary passholders rather than paid for tickets as Arriva drivers on those routes wouldn’t be aware of the arrangement.

He was also aghast to hear the driver of the 71A couldn’t issue a through ticket as he understood all the arrangements had been made for that to happen.

When I travelled on the 58 before it was modified back in July there were six passengers who had no alternative options travelling on a journey around midday (one of four off peak journeys). Today there were three already on board when I got on in Aylesford (one went to East Malling and two all the way to Trottiscliffe); two boarded in Larkfield (one to West Malling and one to Leybourne) and four and a buggy travelled from West Malling to Ryarsh. But sadly it was just me on the return journey back to Aylesford/Maidstone Hospital.

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We passed the second bus on service 58 in West Malling in both directions and it looked empty each time.

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The 16 seater Sprinter buses are smart looking inside with Arriva Click type seats and decor although the two front most offside seats are comfy tip-ups rather than standard tip ups by the wheelchair/buggy area.

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Heading back into Maidstone I got off at the Homebase stop with an Arriva 71A right behind us (the timetable shows an arrival on the 58 at 15 minutes past the hour and the 71A leaving at 16 minutes past) so that connection worked well….

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…except there was an inevitability as I presented my ticket that the driver firmly advised (twice) ‘we don’t accept Nu-Venture tickets’.

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Luckily the Mercedes Sprinter was just pulling away so I pointed to the unusual nature of the bus I’d just got off (not being a standard Nu-Venture route) and also produced in a flourish the Kent County Council leaflet for the driver to read – especially the section about through tickets.

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Fair play she accepted my return ticket even though there was a bit of ‘against my better judgment’ about it and ‘I’ve never heard of it’ and ‘it’s the first time I’ve seen one of those’. I stood my ground as I wasn’t going to shell out another £3.70!

This Rural Transport Initiative is a bold move which includes a more than doubling of the number of journeys serving the villages and hamlets near Wrotham and East and West Malling with direct journeys still provided to retail sheds at Aylesford as well as Maidstone Hospital; it’s seen two smart new minibuses and regular drivers too. My journey today had nine instead of six passengers (back in July) which is encouraging although the empty return journey and empty journeys on the other bus less so.

But although the connections for onward travel to and from Maidstone are pretty good and may work well enough for passholders not worried about through ticketing, for the few passengers who pay fares it’s incumbent on Arriva to make sure drivers are briefed and through ticketing made easily accessible on ticket machines especially in the outward direction. Otherwise passengers having a similar experience to mine today will be put off travelling.

It might also be a good idea for Kent County Council to take down reference to route 58 on all the bus stops on the section of withdrawn route into Maidstone town centre.

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Roger French

Pods in the Park

Tuesday 10th September 2019

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Readers will know of my scepticism concerning Demand Responsive Transport; I’ve made enough journeys to conclude there’s no way such schemes will ever be commercially viable let alone more convenient for passengers over a fixed timetabled bus route. The Speke trial comprising a one bus fixed timetabled route (with passengers knowing when and where the bus is located) replaced by a one bus flexible ‘on-demand’ route (with passengers never knowing where the bus might be or when it might come, until logging into a smartphone, before having to ‘demand’ it) is the latest example of hype over substance.

Autonomous vehicles are an even more fanciful idea for on-demand transport whose time, I reckon, will never come (in my lifetime) on public roads in any main stream application. However there may well be applications in restricted zones with specific characteristics such as within University campuses, at Airports, large hospital sites or shopping malls. Or in former Olympic Parks now redeveloped as a broad based leisure destination over an extensive area named after the monarch.

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Which brings me to another trial of autonomous pod type vehicles in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford. The previous trial, in September 2017 involved a partnership between French company Navya and Keolis.

IMG_2837.jpgThat team also operated a very small scale public service using pods with a capacity of twelve in Lyon.

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This latest trial in Stratford lasting two weeks began last Monday and involves Heathrow Airport and a British company – Westfield Autonomous Vehicles part of Westfield Sports Cars – using much smaller capacity pods, seating just four people in comfortable seats.

IMG_9566.jpgThe pods are to the same design as those used to connect Heathrow’s Terminal Five with the car park on exclusive guided track. Heathrow Airport are running this trial to test how the technology works on open pathways used by pedestrians and cyclists around the Park. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park prides itself on being a hub for innovation and may even use such pods to connect people to its various venues in the future.

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The pods have been ‘taught’ the circuit, which is just over a mile in length, by initially being taken around with a human pilot using a joy stick. This includes manoeuvring into three ‘bus stops’ at each ‘corner’ of the circuit as well as the ‘terminus’.

Having ‘learned’ the route the pod can take off on its own using a combination of RADAR, LADAR (some kind of lasar tech) and ultra sonic sensors to pick up anyone who comes within scope of the pods progress.

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There are twenty four cameras and sensors fitted all around the vehicle. If anyone or anything comes within a short range of the moving pod then it stops automatically until the ‘object’ moves out of the way – which obviously is the big downside on making autonomous vehicles work in practice in a public place with anti-social behaviour not uncommon.

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However I was told a follow up trial is planned for January when the next stage of development involves the pod being programmed to take avoiding action to manoeuvre around such objects which will certainly be interesting to see.

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There were two pods out when I visited the trial this morning. The idea is to provide a ten minute frequency on the circuit which takes about twenty minutes to complete based at the Timber Lodge restaurant/cafe. The pods can travel at speeds up to 25mph but are restricted to just 5mph in this trial in the Park and a marshall walks in front of each one while a technician monitors progress using a lap top inside the pod. This person also seems to get the pod started after it’s stopped at each bus stop.

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There’s only space therefore for three passengers on board but that seemed to be coping with the interest being shown from the public this morning. Originally the trial envisaged potential passengers asking a marshall using an app to request a pod from one of the bus stops around the circuit with a specific code which would then enable you to track where the pod was. Ominously for on-demand transport that idea was dropped soon after the trial began as being impractical.

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Heathrow Airport have a big financial stake in the technology and this trial. They see scope for further applications particularly airside where they have to move staff entailing costly contracts with bus companies. Autonomous pods will reduce the number of bus trips within and around the airport. Heathrow will also benefit financially if others find a suitable application for such vehicles and that’s why they’re heavily involved in this trial and January’s follow up. The technician on my pod trip was employed by Heathrow Airport.

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There are plans for more trials at Cribbs Causeway in Bristol as well as in the city centre, at Birmingham and Manchester airports and Grand Central in Birmingham. Westfield also state trails have taken place in the Lake District.

It’s certainly very clever technology; it’s got lots of funding both public and private, but it’s a small scale trial. Very small scale. Interesting nonetheless.

Roger French

Speke up for Arriva Click

Wednesday 28th August 2019

 

I was puzzled by a recent news item that Merseytravel are withdrawing a local bus route they fund in the Speke area of south east Liverpool from this weekend to be replaced on Monday by Arriva Click: ‘the new Arriva Click Speke Zone service will operate between the same hours as the current 211 service: 8.05am to 5.15pm Monday to Friday and 8.45am to 5.15pm on Saturdays’ – the News Release reassured.

This sounded as though Arriva were introducing a new tailor made Click on-demand service in a new zone to replace a fixed route traditional timetabled bus service. An intriguing development, but I thought Arriva’s Click venture in Liverpool already included Speke within its operating area, so not so much ‘new’ more like changing a loss making tendered bus route into a loss making Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) operation. I headed up to Liverpool today to find out what was going on.

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Bus route 211 provides a local circular ‘sideways figure of eight’ type service linking tight knit residential areas both to the west and east of Speke’s small centrally located community hub in South Parade and the nearby Morrisons supermarket and associated retail sheds just to the north.

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Buses run at a rather inconvenient 40 minute frequency with the Monday to Friday service contracted to small independent Huyton Travel and the Saturday service to municipally owned Halton Transport (goodness knows why the tender was split by day of the week, but that’s local authorities for you).

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It has all the hallmarks of an ailing tendered suburban service which doesn’t really go anywhere, other than providing local journeys around Speke. The Merseytravel timetable leaflet ‘valid from 29 April 2019’ states ‘What’s changed? Service frequency has reduced with a bus now every 40 minutes’. That service reduction obviously hasn’t worked as just four months later the service is being withdrawn ‘replaced by Arriva Click as part of an initial 12 month trial’ (note the word ‘initial’).IMG_8861.jpg

The thing about a fixed timetable is, even though a forty minute frequency is difficult to memorise, at least you know for sure a bus is due at a given time. I arrived in Speke’s South Parade at 12:30pm this lunchtime and set about catching the next 211 which I knew was due to leave at 12:45pm on the western circuit.

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Out of interest I checked the Arriva Click app to see when an ‘on-demand’ minibus would arrive to take me to Dymchurch Road – the furthest western bus stop on the 211 circuit.

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I was offered a pick up in 5 minutes and a fare of £2.35. That was impressive especially as the 211 bus arrived in South Parade at 12:35 and parked up (on the pavement) for its scheduled ten minute layover.

IMG_8862.jpgIt already had about four on board who’d almost certainly got on at Morrisons and now had a ten minute wait on their journey home as the driver popped over to the shops. I was beginning to warm to the idea of Click already; I could have been on my way.

I spotted two high-viz wearing Arriva managers also on board the stationary bus giving out information about the new arrangements as well as a packet of sweets and some kind of fridge magnet – well, you have to do these things.

After a bit of a delay after the driver reappeared and some dialogue with one of the high-viz managers ensued ….IMG_8867.jpg…. before the bus finally pulled up at the nearby stop and we were off on the circuit a few minutes late.

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The driver told me the comparable fare to Dymchurch Road on the 211 is £2.10 and interestingly I checked the Arriva app again and a bus was still available to take me there in just five minutes for £2.35 if I needed it.

I had a very interesting and informative chat with Arriva’s Liverpool Click manager on board who explained there would indeed be a dedicated Arriva Click minibus allocated to the newly defined ‘Speke zone’ from Monday which will effectively replace the 211 and its awkward 40 minute frequency.

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Although my fare to Dymchurch Road might increase by 25p, it was pointed out if I only travel a very short distance my fare might come down, with Arriva Click offering a minimum of £1.

Another upside of the new arrangements is Click’s acceptance of concessionary passes for free travel, but only within the ‘Speke zone’ – hence the necessity for a geographic definition from Monday.

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Loadings on the 211 looked to be about half a dozen passengers per journey per half circuit at most and that was from observations at a busy lunchtime. The service is dominated by concessionary pass holding passengers – remember the qualifying age is still 60 in Merseyside, so it’s obviously essential to continue the free travel on Click and part of this deal is Merseytravel reimbursing Arriva for passholders. But this will only apply on journeys within the zone so if a passenger wants to take Click further afield, rather than use it as a shuttle to change on to buses at South Parade or Morrisons as many do now, they’ll have to pay the standard Arriva Click rate which is about £1 per mile for onward travel beyond the zone. I expect Arriva are hoping it may encourage reluctant passholders to give Click a go for longer rides and pay up.

IMG_8872.jpgFrom my observations today, the other complication with morphing the 211 into DRT is the average passenger is probably not a smartphone owner or adept at using such technology. To get round this, as with GoSutton in London, passengers can ring up Merseytravel who’ll book the journey for them and provide the algorithm’s pick up details while they’re on the phone.

IMG_8873.jpgThis does introduce ‘noise’ into the system – will the communications always work and messages be accurately understood? – but the allocation of regular drivers to the dedicated ‘Speke zone’ Click vehicle and managers impressing on them the need to be flexible, especially in the first few weeks, is in hand.

For Merseytravel and Arriva Click this new deal makes sound financial sense. It’s a win win. Merseytravel get shot of an awkward tendered bus route and instead pay the money that went to Huyton and Halton to Arriva who benefit from some welcome guaranteed income towards Click’s challenging bottom line.

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Although Arriva are allocating a dedicated minibus to Speke, from my albeit brief observations today this could easily be achieved within existing resources – both times I passed through Liverpool South Parkway I saw three Click minibuses laying over or on standby and I was told three minibuses were on standby duties at the nearby John Lennon Airport. That’s a lot of spare resource.

IMG_8914.jpgAs well as the two times I tried a booking while in Speke and got a 5 minute response time (indicating a vehicle was available nearby), when I actually booked one to take me back to Liverpool South Parkway I was given a pick up within seven minutes; and it was just me travelling. So the evidence is it’s still a struggle to get that all important shared ridership as the pathway to DRT commercial success.

But the new look ‘DRT 211’ trial should certainly achieve shared riding for Arriva and that guaranteed income. It’s a very smart move.

However I’m not so sure it’s a smart move for passengers. It was obvious today the bus is used by regulars who know the times, albeit awkward times, to get them to Morrisons and back home again. In the new scenario, assuming no smartphone, they have to make a phone call from home to book a journey (reading out their ten digit concessionary pass ID) initially not knowing what time the pick up might be. It could be in five minutes, or it could be up to half an hour away if the minibus is on the other side of Speke. (30 minutes is the guaranteed maximum).

My guess is initially passengers will gravitate around the existing 211 times – we’re all creatures of habit – and this will be an algorithm’s dream outcome, but once passengers break ranks and opt for different times then the bus will become more unpredictable in its location and timings. This brings uncertainty into the journey, not least when it comes to returning home from Morrisons with the shopping. Apparently there are plans to put a phone into the foyer of Morrisons but in the meantime a phone-less passenger is stuck, unable to summon up a bus to get home.

And that could be a stumbling block not only for the passenger but for the trial. As a solution it might make sense to get Arriva to run the bespoke ‘Speke zone’ minibus on a fixed route to fixed times; and give it a route number … like 211 perhaps. It could be the ultimate in efficient shared riding!

Just a thought.

It’ll be interesting to see what passengers make of it next week.

Roger French

PS I requested my journey to Liverpool South Parkway from outside Morrisons but as well as the app telling me it was seven minutes away, it also gave me a pick up right on the far side of the supermarket/retail sheds car park – almost a five minute walk. If I’d had bags of shopping to carry I’d have been rightly miffed. I hope that’s sorted for Monday.

IMG_8903.jpgWhat’s more although I was set down by the Station entrance and Dan, my friendly driver, even told me which platform I needed and how to get there, I understand Merseytravel won’t let Click pick up from the bus station right by the station and you have to walk outside to the road network.

IMG_8909.jpgThis also happened to me on my last visit – not being picked up in Liverpool One bus station. Come on Merseytravel – if you’re now collaborating with Arriva it makes sense to sort these anomalies out.

IMG_8848.jpgPPS Liverpool South Parkway is an impressive airy bus station to wait in with lots of facilities but I was a bit surprised the man in the Travel Centre didn’t know Arriva’s Airport route 500 went to Speke when I enquired.

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zeelo lands at Gatwick Airport

Wednesday 21st August 2019

IMG_7431.jpgI sampled zeelo’s new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol back in the Spring and wrote about the company and my travel experience on 24th May. Now the enterprising entrepreneurs based at zeelo’s London Shoreditch HQ have started another new venture, also aimed at commuters, this time connecting part of Crawley with Gatwick Airport.

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You might be thinking “isn’t Crawley already well linked to Gatwick Airport by the award winning Metrobus company, part of the Go-Ahead Group” and you’d be bang on the runway with that thought. Frequent buses operating round the clock on a comprehensive network of routes aided by smart bus priority measures including Fastway branded segregated guided bus lanes whizzing buses straight across roundabouts and gliding passed traffic queues. It’s impressive.

IMG_7499.jpgAspiring bus companies have given the Crawley bus market a competitive try over the years, but none have survived; the well regarded Metrobus has proved unassailable against all upstart new entrants.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read zeelo fancied their chances in this already well served market. I’m guessing they reckon they’ll win over bus wary employees at Gatwick Airport by offering their unique “personalised bus service” business model necessitating pre-booking using smart technology on a less frequent but targetted service with cheaper fares.

According to the news release heralding this initiative, zeelo reckon their “new shared bus service targets areas where Gatwick Airport employees are currently poorly served by public transport”. Indeed, they’ve been canny in finding four bus stops (from which Metrobus don’t run a direct bus to Gatwick Airport) along a route on the Horsham Road originating at Breezehurst Roundabout between the well served Bewbush and Broadfield residential areas continuing via Southgate towards Crawley town centre (but avoiding stopping there) and instead taking in three more bus stops in London Road from where the bus runs non-stop to Gatwick’s South and North Terminal buildings.

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End to end journey time is scheduled for 27 minutes which compares to Metrobus route 10 taking 29 minutes for early morning journeys from Broadfield Barton to Gatwick’s North Terminal, as well as serving Crawley bus station, for the town centre, along the way.

It’s also noteworthy that Metrobus route 10 runs 24/7 (half hourly between midnight and 03:30) increasing to an impressive every 6-7 minutes between around 06:30 and 18:30. The new zeelo commuter service offers just eight journeys running half hourly between 05:10 and 08:40 with a similar service pattern in the afternoon between 15:10 and 18:40 only on Mondays to Fridays. Interestingly buses run in service “against the commuter flow” in both the morning and evening peaks, presumably because of shift workers, making for quite a tight schedule with three minutes stand time at the end of each journey for the two buses needed to run the service.

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Whereas on Metrobus you just turn up and board their frequent service at any bus stop, zeelo’s “personalised service” means you pre-book your journey either online or via their App and be committed to that particular departure time.

Zeelo offer various bulk buying options for this new service as they do with Newport/Bristol and their other bespoke commuter services for specific employers around the country (eg Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin in Warwickshire and Ocado in Hertfordshire ). For the Crawley to Gatwick market their best offer is 100 rides for £87.99 through deals covering 50, 30 and 10 rides down to a return ticket for £3.50 and a single trip for £2.50.

Metrobus also charge £2.50 for a single Bewbush/Broadfield to Gatwick ride reduced to £2.40 if bought on their App. A week’s travel is £19.20 on the Metrobus App which for a five-day-ten-journeys-a-week commuter works out at £1.92 per journey compared to zeelo’s £1.39 for the ten ride package; but you have “weekend” travel on Metrobus free as a bonus when not commuting. Zeelo’s 50 ride package at £52.99 is the same price as the Metrobus 25 journey package on their smartcard (£53) therefore offering a fifty per cent discount.

Zeelo are offering free travel for the first two weeks of operation (normal prices begin next Tuesday) so I downloaded my bundle of twenty free trips and headed to Crawley this afternoon to road test this latest market entrant to the world of ‘smarter travel’.

I decided to book myself on the first journey of the afternoon, at 15:10 from the first stop on the Gatwick bound route at the roundabout near Bewbush/Broadfield. I tried logging on to zeelo’s website last night to get this all sorted but for some odd reason my email address had got corrupted by one letter in the zeelo database and it couldn’t log me in nor send me a ‘forgotten your password’ link. I tried re-registering with a different email address but got stumped by having to add my mobile number which it understandably told me had “already been registered with another account”. So I was stuck; locked out.

I sent an email through to the “contact us” helpline explaining my dilemma, and within a couple of minutes, if that, Simon replied and he soon resolved the problem by correcting the corrupted email address and we were back in business. Highly impressive to have access to personal service sorting out a techy problem at about 20:30 in the evening, so full marks to the zeelo team and Simon in particular for that great service.

Another issue was finding the Gatwick service on the zeelo website. It doesn’t appear on the home page of their zeelo.co site nor through any links I could find; instead you need to visit the alternative travel.zeelo.co website which has news releases about the company, and from where you can click on news of the Gatwick service launch and land at the booking page.

When you book your journey on line, if it’s a return journey you’re after, for each journey inbound to Gatwick, an option is listed of a return on each of the individual journeys back from the Airport on that day, including the very next departure, three minutes after you’ve arrived. This seems a bit unnecessary and it might be better to just list all the journeys once with passengers ticking the journey on which they wish to travel.

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I decided to return back from Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal at 16:10 which would be the second departure after my 15:37 arrival.

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The vehicles and drivers are provided by Ashford (Middlesex) based Passenger Plus+. The two mini-coaches used are based closer to Gatwick Airport though, at Pfizer’s UK headquarters in Tadworth – I’m guessing Passenger Plus+ do some contract work for Pfizer, so have a parking facility there.

IMG_7449.jpgThe two vehicles branded for zeelo are a ’16’ plate Mercedes 19 seater and a brand new very smart ’19’ plate Indcar (a Spanish manufacturer) 29 seater. Neither mini-coaches are accessible for wheelchairs and I noticed there’s not much room for luggage – the wheelie type compact suitcases beloved of flight crews. Not a problem in the early stages of the operation when passenger loadings are likely to be small, but it could be an issue if the buses get busy, especially the 19 seater.

IMG_7412.jpgI arrived at the Breezehurst Roundabout bus stop on the Horsham Road in good time for my 15:10 departure this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to be joined soon after by another passenger. She was a student working as an intern at Gatwick Airport for a month and had seen the minibuses on the road over the last few days so booked herself a journey to work “especially as it’s free at the moment”.

IMG_7410.jpgThis bit of Horsham Road is unserved by Metrobus and the bus stop pole is flag-less but specific stop information available in the zeelo App as well as online reassures that this is exactly the correct place to be waiting, and sure enough, on the dot of 15:10, Peter arrives to pick us up.

There’s no need to show him an electronic copy of the ticket as Peter simply checks our names which he is aware of and we set off. I’d been sceptical about whether we’d pick anyone else up at this time of the day, but sure enough as the journey continued we picked up two more passengers – both easyJet cabin crew going to work for a late shift – one at the Orchard Street stop in Peglar Way (near the town centre) and another on London Road.

IMG_7448.jpgIMG_7438.jpgThe Mercedes mini-coach has a ‘luxurious’ feel to it with comfortable seats, wi-fi and usb sockets. Peter gave us a smooth ride to the Airport. No-one on board alighted at Atlantic House at the South Terminal and we all continued to the bus stop by Jubilee House at the North Terminal – just two to three minutes walk from the Terminal building itself – where we arrived at 15:30. An impressive twenty minute ride. At this time of the day, Metrobus’s route 10 would have taken around thirty minutes travelling through Broadfield and the town centre as well as Manor Royal.

My fellow ‘intern’ passenger told me she was impressed with the quickness of the journey compared to route 10 which she had been using.

Peter didn’t wait until the next departure time of 15:40 back to Crawley but drove off after just a few minutes, presumably because no-one had booked for a ride so there was no need to wait.

IMG_7525.jpgMy return journey was the next departure at 16:10 and my driver Tembi again arrived on the dot of that time – it turned out no-one had booked on the incoming journey so he’d started this part of his shift from the North Terminal.

IMG_7527.jpgThis was the very impressive brand new Indcar 29 seater. Again, nice comfortable seats and a smooth ride; and this time it was just me travelling.

IMG_7528.jpgWe had a bit of a delay leaving the North Terminal being stuck behind a trio of National Express coaches loading up and there was a hold up by the level crossing in Horsham Road where a badly parked taxi led to alternate working.

IMG_7532.jpgDespite this we arrived back at the Breezehurst Roundabout (this time marked with a flag for only the first journey on route 24!) at 16:34 taking just 24 minutes.

IMG_7534.jpgIt made me wonder though, whether the 27 minute journey time over the next couple of hours of Crawley’s heavy peak hour late afternoon traffic might be a bit tight, especially as the mini-coaches don’t use Crawley’s bus lanes.

IMG_7446.jpgTembi was very friendly and was naturally hoping this new zeelo venture would be a success. He’s been with Passenger Plus+ for some time, having previously worked with Metrobus, and explained that his duty involved working on other contract work Passenger Plus+ have in their portfolio in the Crawley area in the morning switching to the zeelo work in the afternoon. It looks as though zeelo is a perfect fit for Passenger Plus+ and being a quality operator, they’re a perfect fit for zeelo.

Whether this new venture is a success will simply come down to if zeelo have found a big enough market served by the seven bus stops in Horsham Road and London Road to sustain eight journeys morning and afternoon to and from Gatwick Airport. I have my doubts, but I was very impressed that three passengers travelled on my outward journey after just a few days operation.

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Travelling with zeelo offers a great customer experience and full marks for that, although in addition to the website confusion mentioned earlier, there were one or two other teething problems with the technology, for example not being able to track where the driver was (even though a link was provided by text to my phone) and pick up locations being duplicated rather than showing the drop off location.

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Metrobus also has a well deserved excellent reputation for offering a great customer experience too; their Crawley garage has topped the UK Bus Awards Garage of the Year on a number of occasions and the company as a whole is a regular in the finalists’ short list. You might conclude that if there was a profitable market from those seven bus stops, then Metrobus would already be there.

Zeelo’s prices are excellent value, but it might need a build up in confidence among passengers before they’re prepared to outlay £88 for that bargain 88p a ride within the 100 ride package.

Metrobus have the benefit of serving a much wider area including penertrating residential areas and serving the town centre and Manor Royal. Those markets are unavilable on the zeelo service.

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Comparing posters advertising departures at the North Terminal highlights the different options now on offer for Airport employees living on the edge of Bewbush and Broadfield. Frequency versus fast and cheap.

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It’s certainly an interesting development in the expanding Gatwick and Crawley transport market and certainly one to watch in the coming months.

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Roger French

 

GoSutton Go

Tuesday 13th August 2019

IMG_7390.jpgTfL’s first foray into the new fangled world of App based Dial-A-Ride (aka Demand Responsive Transport) in Sutton is now in its twelfth week and yesterday a rather impersonal email popped into my inbox announcing an exciting extension of the area served by the swish exec style wishy-washy liveried Mercedes Sprinter minibuses.

GoSutton hit the streets for the first time at the end of May when I sampled a few rides and wrote about it here. From yesterday, the operating area centred on Sutton now extends eastwards beyond Hackbridge and Wallington to include the Beddington Lane area of retail sheds, light industry and the residential areas of Beddington and Roundshaw and in the west includes more residential roads in Cheam, with the A24 Epsom Road, GoSutton’s new western boundary. The area served now stretches from the A24 across to the A23.

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TfL flagged up the idea of a possible eastern extension in its original consultation in March but the area now included is slightly larger than in that proposal while the extra roads out west weren’t originally flagged up but TfL admitted feedback from the consultation saw requests for more of Cheam to be included, so now they’ve delivered on that.

Another exciting change announced yesterday was a temporary reduction in the single journey fare from the usual pricey (by TfL bus fare standards) £3.50 to a more tempting £2. This applies for the rest of August and is clearly designed to stimulate interest and attract newbie travellers who are otherwise put off by the significant price differential to taking a conventional bus for just £1.50 (including hopper options).

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You’d think therefore there would be lots of promotional activity surrounding these new developments, especially that 43% price reduction, yet I had a look at the bespoke GoSutton website last night and while it included the updated map with eastern and western extensions, there was no mention of the new reduced fare, still quoting £3.50 a ride (point 3 above).

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I always find it ironic that for a service that’s supposed to be all about using technology the operators are so tardy at using it themselves to convey updated timely information. I’m pleased to report the website was updated today and now refers to the £2 a ride offer (see above, spot the difference); although the TfL official website still fails to mention it.

And the 44 page (!!) “easy read” manual explaining how to use GoSutton still quotes £3.50, including showing cash on page 22 … except you can’t pay using cash.

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Quite how TfL expect potential passengers to find out about this fare offer is beyond me; it’s no good just sending an email to existing customers; there needs to be extensive promotion among non users.

Intrigued by yesterday’s email I decided to give GoSutton another try out today to see how loadings are doing in the newly extended area and take advantage of the August holiday bargain basement £2 fare.

I began my adventure at the Ampere Way tram stop in the new north eastern top corner of the extended area and ordered a journey down into the far south western corner of the new western extension in Cheam, because I’m like that as a customer.

IMG_7180.jpgA minibus was close by at IKEA dropping a passenger off so I was given a convenient pick up time just five minutes away and the little map showed me where driver Shane would be coming from after that drop off.

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The thing was though the little minibus icon didn’t move for about five minutes. ViaVan’s software algorithm picked up something was wrong and sent me an auto-text advising of an (indeterminate) delay.IMG_E7178.jpg

In the interests of research I stuck with it and sure enough Shane began to move and arrived with me at 10:25 rather than the promised 10:16. A total wait from ordering at 10:11 of 14 minutes, just 4 minutes outside TfL’s target of ten minutes.

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I was a bit surprised Shane didn’t mention anything about the delay as I boarded so I broached the subject asking if he’d been held up – it turned out the passenger being dropped off was unsure where she’d be picked up and needed reassurance.

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We took a straight forward route through Carshalton and Sutton over to Cheam with an ETA showing of 10:51 as we set off.IMG_7203.jpg

It’s still an odd feeling to be on a bus in London driving past passengers waiting at bus stops, providing a slightly superior feeling of being in a special mode of transport that’s got no time for stopping hither and thither for conventional bus using folk.

IMG_7244.jpgDuring the journey the SatNav gives explicit directions even where the route has the right of way at junctions; eg turn left… on a bend to the left in the main road, if there’s another road off to the right. And every instruction is given twice; once with a precise assessment in feet of how far ahead the manoeuvre is and then at the actual location. It can all get a bit annoying background noise when sitting in the front seats.

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Interestingly at one point Shane chose to ignore the SatNav’s advice of where to turn right and continued to the next junction. He wasn’t told to do a “U-turn” though!

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We arrived in North Cheam after a twenty-seven minute journey at 10:52, just two minutes later than the originally predicted arrival of 10:50 as we set off from Ampere Way.

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I took a bus on route 93 up the A24 Epsom Road to the junction with Sutton Common Road which is in the extreme north west corner of the expanded operating area and called up my second ride at 11:11

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I thought I’d head over to the newly extended southeastern corner just off the Purley Way, not far north of Purley itself. This was becoming Extreme DRT Bus Riding; I was beginning to feel like a Guerilla DRT Tester.

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I was given two options of a minibus in either 9 or 20 minutes, but in the time it took to think about that (and take a screenshot) a message came back the options are no longer available – you have up to 30 seconds to decide; so I tried again and got the same options but with a more convenient pick up point exactly where I was rather than having to cross the junction.

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The minibus would be with me in six minutes. In the event it was 11:21, after ten minutes when Ivan appeared.

IMG_7260.jpgWe set off on a diagonal route right across the area, avoiding the centre of Sutton and using a number of residential roads not used by standard bus routes.

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We got to the edge of the area in a rather well-to-do leafy part of Purley arriving after just 22 minutes travelling at 11:43.

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Although the newly extended eastern boundary frustratingly doesn’t reach the A23 Purley Way I noticed there’s a small blip on the map to include the large Costco outlet by the former Croydon Airport and opposite the Colonnades retail park on the east side of Purley Way. I thought that would make for a good starting point for my next journey.

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I took a 289 the short ride north to this location and at 12:40 ordered my third GoSutton ride to take me north to the Beddington Lane tram stop – both my origin and destination being within the extended eastern area.

IMG_7321.jpgIt’s odd that you can only summon a minibus to appear on the far western side of Costco (at the bottom of the Google aerial shot below) rather than by the more logical and busy Colonnades on the eastern side of the A23 …….

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 18.39.48.png…… as it has to use Purley Way to get to Costco so could easily pick up at the Colonnades too.

The App gave me a pick up time of twenty minutes – the longest wait yet and double the TfL target. Alexandru was the driver of the nearest free minibus right over in Sutton.

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He arrived as expected at 13:00 and once we’d established how to turn round (using Costco’s car park was the best option) ….

IMG_7370.jpg…..we headed north taking just fourteen minutes instead of the predicted sixteen and I was dropped off at the official TfL bus stop used by route 463 south of Beddington Lane tram stop – I’ve noticed the algorithm likes dropping you off at official bus stops.

IMG_7373.jpgAlexandru then headed off to await his next passenger.

IMG_7374.jpgAnd I wandered up to the tram stop and headed back to East Croydon and home.

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It had been an interesting three hours. Three journeys. Three different minibuses. Three pleasant drivers. Three smooth journeys. Just me riding solo on each journey. Total wait time 44 minutes. Total ride time 63 minutes. Total minibus time devoted exclusively to me 1 hour, 47 minutes. At £2 a journey; TfL took £6 in revenue from me.

After almost three months which is a quarter of the way through the twelve month trial, it’s not looking very financially sustainable to me.

BUT before I close …… and just to show ride sharing can work I need to also report on a quite astonishing experience I had just a couple of weeks ago when I passed through the area and gave GoSutton a go.

IMG_4860.jpgIt was a gorgeous hot sunny Monday afternoon at the end of last month as I got off the train at Carshalton station and fired up the GoSutton App to order a minibus to take me over to the Royal Marsden Hospital in the south-western corner of the original operating area.

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I was well impressed to receive a reply reporting a minibus would pick me up within three minutes and sure enough it duly arrived pretty much three minutes later and not only that but another passenger was already on board.

IMG_4883.jpgNot only that but I became intrigued as the journey continued that we weren’t deviating from the expected route to the Royal Marsden to drop her off somewhere. It turned out my fellow passenger was also travelling to the Hospital, where she works, and had boarded just a couple of minutes before me up the road in Carshalton.

IMG_4887.jpgIt was the first time she’d used GoSutton and was understandably impressed with the convenience of only a short wait and then a ten minute direct journey; and what’s more she couldn’t believe as a Freedom Pass holder it had been a completely free ride for her.

Now how about that? What are the chances of my random arrival at Carshalton station at 13.30 on a Monday afternoon and choosing a destination to travel to completely at random which coincided with another person making pretty much exactly the same journey at the same time. The algorithm must have been in software heaven, not believing its luck. This is what the ViaVan techy geeks had been dreaming would happen during years of ride sharing software formulation. And on the afternoon of Monday 29th July, it finally delivered.

But the thing is, impressive though that was, and I’m still blown away at the coincidence of it all, my £3.50 fare together with the reimbursement contribution from the London Boroughs for my fellow passenger’s free ride (if there is indeed such reimbursement for the GoSutton trial) will not have gone anywhere near to covering the operating cost of providing that journey, let alone the set up development costs of the algorithm itself!

Two people riding around on a conventionally operated bus would mean instant withdrawal as it being hopelessly uneconomic; let alone one passenger paying £6 for over an hour and forty-seven minutes travels as I did today.

Meanwhile the Ealing trial begins shortly.

Roger French