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

Hard and soft launches in Edinburgh

Thursday 1st August 2019

IMG_5231.jpgLNER know all about high profile launches. I guess it helps being in the public sector with a generous marketing budget rather than being a cash strapped TOC with unattainable winning franchise pledges submitted to the DfT in misplaced optimism a few years back.

Following LNER’s all singing, all dancing Kings Cross launch of their Azuma train in May there was no high pressure streams of dry ice on Tuesday for the Azuma’s PR debut in York – instead Mallard was rolled out from the nearby National Rail Museum for a photo-call alongside a smart new Azuma followed by the same procedure in Darlington but where the iconic Flying Scotsman itself made a similar comparator appearance. After all, everyone loves a stream engine; while it was inevitable a bagpipe player welcomed an Azuma rolling into Edinburgh Waverley for the media cameras yesterday.

IMG_5225.jpgThe media dealt with it was time to get the public on board especially with expectations raised through huge billboards around central Edinburgh; a bit overkill at the moment as it’s only the 05:40 southbound departure that’s so far been allocated an Azuma train!

The iconic 05:40 departure from Edinburgh is famous for only stopping at Newcastle and making the 400 odd mile trip in exactly four hours. The journey is given the romantic title of Flying Scotsman. Oh yes.

IMG_5229.jpgUnsurprisingly LNER staff were in abundance handing out breakfast boxes, juice and water on the platform in front of especially commissioned back drops ….

IMG_5233.jpg…..standing sentry style at each coach door to welcome everyone on board…

IMG_5234.jpg….posing for photographs with an especially commissioned LNER Tartan in the background….

IMG_5237.jpg….doing pieces to cameras for the PR records ….

IMG_5240.jpg….and generally getting excited and looking important.

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No wonder First Class was packed out with not a spare seat to be had whereas Standard Class was looking rather underwhelmed by comparison as we left Edinburgh.

When I travelled on this crack-of-dawn journey last summer I was the only passenger in one First Class carriage as far as Newcastle where we took on a decent number of London bound business suits and laptops. It was very different this morning.

Newcastle station was even busier than Edinburgh as we pulled in on time just before 07:00 and I wondered where everyone would sit but some LNER staff obviously had desks to get to back in Edinburgh and got off the train to create room, although a good number carried on south for this historic experience.

Despite the large number of staff on board, the catering team were doing their best to get everyone served but by the time the hot drinks trolley reached the third First Class coach it was forty minutes into the journey and we were cruising through Berwick-upon-Tweed.

IMG_5256.jpgIt was impressive to see LNER managing director David Horne come round to shake everyone’s hand and stop and chat.

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I bent his ear about handing out complimentary scotch whiskey to everyone on the assumption we’re all alcohol drinkers which he took in good part until scurrying off probably thinking ‘what an ungrateful spoil sport’. But I do think there’s an issue with stereo-typical assumptions of who travels by train, particularly in First Class. Inclusivity is the name of the game these days.

IMG_5267.jpgThe journey south made very good time and as we approached the stretch of line near Grantham where Mallard set its world speed record of 126mph for steam locomotives in 1938 we were three minutes early as we sped along hovering around 125mph.

IMG_5259.jpgA brief slow down as we neared Grantham itself where the Azuma on the LNER southbound working from Hull was just leaving still kept us ahead of time and we reached Kings Cross to a stop in an impressive 3 hours and 59 minutes to be met with more cameras and yet another bagpipe player.

IMG_5287.jpgIMG_5290.jpgGoodness knows what LNER’s PR and marketing people have got up their sleeves for the upcoming launch in Inverness and Aberdeen when Azumas reach that far north, but whatever it is, you can be sure it’ll be full of razzmatazz. A helicopter hovering over the Forth Bridge will be a must surely.

IMG_5197.jpgMeanwhile back in Edinburgh I missed another launch of a great new initiative on Monday of this week ….. because there wasn’t one. As Greater Anglia were soft launching their Class 755 trains on the Wherry Lines and Frederick soft launched his PediCab across Hammersmith Bridge, Lothian Buses were also joining the soft launch craze as they opened their impressive new ‘Travel Hub’ on Shandwick Place, the western continuation of Princes Street, for the first time.

This is not just any old bus company travel shop. Lothian’s ‘Travel Hub’ takes travel shops to a whole new level. It’s in a double fronted property previously used as a Co-Op convenience store but now kitted out with a slick low five position desk for travel enquiries and ticket sales…

IMG_5221.jpg…as well as a glass fronted booth for customers to discuss matters in a little more privacy (on the left) and a waiting area for passengers waiting to board the next Airlink 100 bus to Edinburgh Airport – even though it’s a frequent ‘every 10 minutes’.IMG_5222.jpgOn the right side of the front entrance is a well apportioned coffee shop which looks like it’s aiming to compete with an upmarket Costa and others providing a good selection of snacks as well as the usual coffees and other hot drinks (I was told there are three varieties of hot chocolate available alone).

IMG_5218.jpgIMG_5220.jpgThere’s a very generous selection of different seating arrangements in the coffee shop area, many close to sockets for dealing with the ever prevalent battery anxiety phenomenon.

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IMG_5224.jpgThere’s even a glass cabinet displaying Lothian ‘merch’ for sale on the travel shop side and a high definition TV screen playing promotional videos.

IMG_5223.jpgMy visit on Wednesday was only the third day after the ‘Travel Hub’ opened on Monday so the staff were still getting used to the new arrangements and receiving training but one thing that was noticeably missing was any timetable leaflets or literature of any kind on display.

I understand this is a deliberate policy to be in keeping with the digital age in which we live. Call me old fashioned (“you’re old fashioned, Roger”) but I like nothing better than having a printed copy of a timetable and map with me as I travel around, especially in a large city such as Edinburgh. In fact I popped down to Lothian’s long standing Travel Shop on Waverley Bridge for just that purpose to obtain the Lothian Country and Green Arrow timetables as I’m still trying to work out where all these routes go and printed information is essential to make sense of it all. I don’t have the print capacity to print all these leaflets out at home and I’m a regular sufferer of battery anxiety while out and about.

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Without these leaflets I’m unlikely to travel. On one of my two visits to the new ‘Travel Hub’ a passenger asked for a couple of timetables and she was provided with leaflets from the supply kept in the closed cupboards behind the counter.

Come on Lothian, this is no way to be selling your products. You’ve got a great network of bus routes….. sell them; don’t hide them away behind closed cupboards. It’s akin to how a newsagent has to sell cigarette packets – and remember ‘Smoking Kills’.

After all, if we’re really embracing the digital age, we wouldn’t need a smart impressive new Travel Hub, as just as the argument goes timetables are all online, so are ticket sales.

It’s great to see what must be the most luxuriously furnished bus travel shop in the UK and it’s a novel idea to invest in a coffee shop alongside, which I understand is staffed by Lothian employees rather than contracting it out to a specialist operator. It’s very brave for Lothian to be taking on the big boys of Costa, Starbucks and Pret (there’s a Starbucks branch almost opposite the ‘Travel Hub’ on Shandwick Place) but the Lothian innovative team might find these highly skilled market led operators in the coffee shop market will prove tougher competition than taking on First Bus in the West Lothian bus market.

Good luck with the venture though. I’m intrigued to see how it works out. Edinburgh’s certainly proving to be a fascinating place for public transport innovation and competition.

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Roger French

Another rural pilot in Kent

Friday 12th July 2019

IMG_3687.jpgKent County Council’s fourth ‘Rural Transport Initiative’ gets underway on Monday next week so earlier today I took a ride on the last weekday operation of the old order to get a sense of what this one’s all about. (My write up of the first three pilot schemes can be read here.)IMG_3703.jpgThis latest ‘Initiative’ involves truncating the Nu-Venture operated rural route 58, which serves villages around West and East Malling off the A20 from its current Maidstone town centre terminus to instead only run as far as Maidstone Hospital where from Monday passengers will have to change buses on to other bus routes which Arriva operate for the remaining four mile journey into the town centre.

It’s about an eighteen minute ride from the Hospital to the town centre and to offset the negativity of passengers having to change buses the County Council and Nu-Venture are promoting a more frequent timetable on the shortened route 58 around the villages.

The current timetable (above) which ends tomorrow includes just three off peak journeys into Maidstone (aside from a peak journey primarily aimed at scholars which will continue to operate as a through journey as now) and four journeys suitable for returning. However, the new timetable boasts seven journeys to and from Maidstone Hospital which offers pretty much an hourly service except for a gap around 15:00 when it looks like one of the two buses is tied up with a school journey.Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 20.13.14.pngResidents of Addington, Trottiscliffe, Wrotham Heath, Ryarsh and Birling as well as West and East Malling will have a much greater choice of journeys from Monday but if they want to travel all the way to Maidstone town centre there will be a time penalty in changing buses.

IMG_3767.jpgThe recommended point to make the change is alongside Aylesford Retail Park on the A20 where there’s a bus shelter and real time information rather than continuing for another six minutes to the Maidstone Hospital terminus but Kent County Council’s leaflet also helpfully explains “passengers can choose to change buses at any stop served by a different bus service that operates to their end destination”.

IMG_3726.jpgArriva operate four buses an hour on routes 71/71A and another hourly 72 between the Retail Park and the town centre while there’s a twenty minute frequency on route 3 and an hourly route 8 to and from Maidstone Hospital. The Kent County Council timetable leaflet gives details of connecion times towards Maidstone which as you can see in the timetable above are a bit tight at either just one minute, or a bit inconvenient at 16 minutes on most journeys.

As always with these things it’ll be the return journey when there’ll be the most angst as astute passengers will need to allow enough time to make the connection with the fixed departure on the 58 they’re aiming for else risking missing the bus and endure an hour’s wait for the next one. You won’t be best pleased if that happens more than once and could easily be dissuaded from travelling again.

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The Kent timetable leaflet highlights suggested arrival times from the 71/71A at the Retail Park (with either a long 23 minute connection or 8 minutes) but rather unhelpfully doesn’t show what time these buses leave Maidstone town centre which is an unfortunate omission.Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 20.19.19.pngKent and the operators have commendably arranged for the issue and acceptance of through tickets so passengers will not have to pay more, but I suspect this arrangement only applies on journeys towards Maidstone and passengers boarding an Arriva bus on the 71/71A/72 or even the 3/8 in Maidstone town centre asking for a fare to Addington will be met with a blank stare by the driver. I chatted to Norman Kemp at Nu-Venture this afternoon about this and he was seeking clarification from Kent County Council on what arrangements have been made with Arriva for people boarding in the town centre and wanting a through ticket. The timetable leaflet is somewhat silent on this point!Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 20.28.13.png

The new regime from Monday involves Nu-Venture operating two 16-seater Mercedes Sprinter minibuses on the truncated route 58 which from my observations earlier today will be well able to cater for the numbers travelling as well as being more appropriate vehicles for the narrow lanes on part of the route – we met a few vehicles while on route which necessitated them reversing to let us through.

IMG_3707.jpgI rocked up this morning for the departure to Addington and Trottiscliffe from Maidstone at midday at the first stop outside Boots, which was just as well as the driver wasn’t able to change the £10 note I offered for the £7.20 return fare, which also struck me as a bit on the pricey side.

Luckily there was six minutes until departure so I offered to go and buy something in Boots to acquire some change but what to buy for up to £2.80 when you only have a couple of minutes to decide and end up in a queue behind a customer querying the balance on her Advantage card! I made it back to the bus just in time at 11:59!

On the positive side the driver handed me a leaflet explaining the changes and the new timetable from Monday which was very helpful.

We left with seven other passengers on board but five alighted before we reached Maidstone Hospital so will be able to travel on other Arriva bus routes from Monday and won’t miss the 58 disappearing.

At the Hospital two gentlemen boarded in a state of consternation asking the driver why he was so late. It turned out they’d been looking at the new timetable not realising it hadn’t started yet so were expecting us at 11:34 whereas we’d arrived at 12:17. Our driver handed them a copy of the new timetable leaflet so hopefully they’re now better informed of the new arrangements and when they start.IMG_3688.jpgI had noticed new timetables had already been posted at bus stops along the route together with a poster explaining the changes and I’d also spotted there were no 58 times showing at the Boots bus stop (photographed below), assuming the service had already been withdrawn from there. It’s always difficult to get timetables posted at bus stops exactly as routes change, and on balance it’s better to have new times a day early than old times a day late, but the ideal is to change over on a Sunday of course. In the old days I remember London Transport used to print the commencing date across the timetable in outline print which gradually faded over time!IMG_3706.jpgAt the recommended new changeover point at the Retail Park by Sainsbury’s we picked up three new passengers but two stayed with us for only a couple of stops along the A20 and they also have other bus options from Monday; the third alighted in East Malling so, together with the two gents from the Hospital who got off at West Malling will benefit from the new more frequent service. One more passenger who’ll benefit boarded at West Malling and travelled to the village of Ryarsh.

However two passengers who’ll find Monday’s timetable less convenient are the two still left on board after Ryarsh who’d boarded in Maidstone town centre. These two teenagers alighted at Ford Place , a rather nice Grade II listed property just before we reached Wrotham Heath (photographed below).IMG_3789.jpgRoute 58 operates on a large one-way loop through Addington, Trottiscliffe and Wrotham Heath before returning through Ryarsh and Birling then Leybourne and the Mallings to Maidstone. On our return journey we took one passenger from Ryarsh to West Malling and two more from West Malling to just after East Malling – they’ll also have a more frequent bus from Monday.

But that was it. Not exactly overloaded, and two 16-seaters will easily be able to cope from Monday.

Kent County Council reckon this new “feeder bus” arrangement, coupled with the greater frequency of service, is a possible way forward for rural communities. I have my doubts there’ll be the generation of passengers needed to justify the extra mileage and staff costs as well as committing more vehicle resource than currently, but it’s encouraging to see both Nu-Venture and the Council giving this a try, and with a guaranteed one year funding for the pilot, it will at least have time to settle down and residents become used to the new arrangement and hopefully give it a try.IMG_3776.jpgThe villages we passed through (eg Trottiscliffe above) were certainly “desireable” and “high end” (in Estate Agents parlance) and if more rural bus passengers can be generated from the palatial residences we passed then we certainly will be on the way to solving the rural transport challenge. I reckon it’s going to be the need to change buses that will be a downer on the potential, especially with those connectional times. It really needs to be ‘feeding’ a more frequent “turn-up-and-go” bus to stand any chance of success.

The fifth and final Pilot involves a similar feeder service to the east of Maidstone involving Nu-Venture route 13 and Arriva route 59 but this is delayed until the Autumn pending highway and utility works needed to create a change-over point for the feeder bus.

Well done to Kent and Nu-Venture for giving this a go and good luck. I told Norman I’d take a ride some time soon on the truncated 58 to give the new arrangements a try out, so I hope my scepticism about that through fare from the Maidstone end proves unfounded!

Roger French

Rural pilots take off in Kent

Tuesday 18th June 2019

Kent County Council’s ‘Rural Transport Initiative’ using ‘Taxi Buses’ has begun so I thought I’d take a look to see how it’s going.

It’s early days but there are already signs of interest building in the rural communities now enjoying public transport either for the first time or after quite a gap since bus routes last ran. And it’s not surprising passengers are happy as the new timetables see journeys running every weekday with more journeys than ran before.

Kent County Council have committed £0.5 million funding for five pilot schemes spread across the county with each trial running for twelve months. Schemes in Maidstone and West Malling have yet to start but the first three in Sevenoaks, Sandwich and Tenterden are now up and running.

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IMG_0799.jpgFirst to launch was the Sevenoaks Taxi Bus at the beginning of the month. Now in its third week this really is a taxi-sized ‘Taxi Bus’ using an eight seater private hire licensed vehicle operated by Maidstone based Express Cars.

The service links West Kingsdown and the isolated East Hill Residential Park with Sevenoaks. East Hill was previously served by the Wednesday-only one-return journey-a-week route 405 operated by Go-Coach Hire. I blogged about that route just before it was withdrawn back on 3rd April. After a two month gap with no service to Sevenoaks at all, East Hill residents can’t believe their luck they now have three return journeys a day, five days a week.

Even better, residents in the tiny hamlets of Stansted and Fairseat (beyond West Kingsdown off the A20/M20 north of Wrotham) have a ‘bus’ service for the first time – probably ever – as this new route continues beyond West Kingsdown down the A20 to serve these micro-communities.

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Kent County Council have astutely specified the off-peak only timetable to slot between a peak commitment to transport children with special needs to school meaning a big chunk of the vehicle and driver costs are already funded. Passenger revenue on the three return journeys between 09:30 and 14:45 merely needs to cover the marginal costs of the extra mileage and any other off-peak ad-hoc private hire work the vehicle has now foregone.

That’s just as well as there’s a bit of a problem with this service being limited to just those eight seats – six of which are in the rear (three facing each other) and two alongside the driver with the middle seats distinctly ‘cosy’ and with tight leg room in the front.

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IMG_0775.jpgWednesday, being ‘market day’ in Sevenoaks and the traditional day for the erstwhile route 405, is already proving crunch day as more than half a dozen regulars from East Hill could often be found on the 405 whereas now, it’s pot luck whether  they’ll get on as no pre-booking is allowed. I hear passengers have already been turned away on Wednesday last week.

Obviously the hope is passengers will spread themselves out across the journey options during the week, but old habits die hard and it’s not easy to second guess who might travel when. It also takes no account of new passengers being generated by the more frequent service.

IMG_0797.jpgIndeed, when I travelled yesterday a resident in Fairseat came out to meet us when we arrived and chatted to Jay, our driver, about using the new service and when she said she might try it on Wednesday he explained it would be a busy day but at least she’d be getting on at the terminus so would be alright (heading towards Sevenoaks, at least).

IMG_0796.jpgThere’s one great thing about this new service and that is regular driver Jay. He’s an absolute gem; totally customer centric and firmly committed to making this pilot a success. He’s had bus driving experience with Arriva and Nu-Venture as well as running his own taxi and is absolutely ideal for this new role.

Jay’s already suggested a very sensible change to the timetable (which is being implemented once the registration notice period has elapsed) as it’s proven to be far too optimistic with running times ostensibly compiled assuming no passengers boarding and no allowance for meeting traffic on what must be the narrowest roads any registered bus travels along in the Country.

IMG_E1250.jpgAside from one passenger making a journey from the big Sainsbury’s on the outskirts of Sevenoaks back to East Hill (who’d come out on the first journey to shop there for some cigarettes while Jay continued on with three other passengers to the bus station) no-one joined us on the 10:15 from Sevenoaks to Fairseat or the journey back again at 11:00 yesterday morning, yet we only just kept to time.

As Jay pointed out, once Express Cars ‘O’ licence application for the service becomes effective, he needs the 45 minute break when he gets back to Sevenoaks after the second journey in from Fairseat for drivers’ hours requirements so an adjustment to the timetable is urgently needed. Jay’s sensible plan is to route the 10:15 Sevenoaks to Fairseat journey direct along the A25 and A227/A20 (ie effectively dead running) as well as the 13:15 journey back from Fairseat as these journeys serve no real function as the purpose of the route is to provide a shopping facility in Sevenoaks – on those journeys you’ve only enough time to nip into a shop for a packet of fags (as we saw) rather than a linger around the shops.

The slackened timetable will not only ensure Jay has a proper break but give the much needed time for passengers, mainly elderly, to board and alight as accessibility is not particularly brilliant in the eight-seater not least because of the manually operated door. There is a facility for a wheelchair to be accommodated but it would be a right old faff to accommodate it and mean even less seats available. Ideally, once the O licence comes through a proper sized minibus (12-16 seats) with low floor access and remotely operated door is required for a route like this except the roads really are very narrow.

IMG_0795.jpgAnd I do mean narrow.

IMG_0800.jpgVery narrow.

IMG_0803.jpgIt was always a breath-holding moment when the old 405 went out to East Hill and West Kingsdown but at least it was just one return journey a week, now it’s three return journeys, five days a week (until Jay’s change takes two of those single journeys away) and as you can see we met a few cars along the way.

I was pleased to see timetable leaflets for the new service available in Go-Coach Hire’s travel office in Sevenoaks bus station and a new timetable was posted at the bus stop at East Hill (along with the Thursday only 422 to Gravesend) …..

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…. although the 405 still appears on the flag!

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Good luck to Jay in making this pilot work; if anyone can, he can.

 

IMG_0901.jpgKent’s second ‘Taxi Bus’ began operating on Monday of last week over in the eastern side of the county based on Sandwich. This ‘Taxi Bus’ is more bus than taxi using an Optare Solo sixteen seater operated by Britannia Coaches who run an extensive fleet of luxury coaches and minibuses/coaches based in Dover and the eastern side of Kent.

IMG_0877.jpgThis pilot is a route of two halves to the villages of Staple and Northbourne/Mongeham either side of Sandwich. A real Sandwich sandwich. Like Sevenoaks, the timetable looks tight with perpetual motion from the moment it kicks off at 09:30 until it finishes for the day after four round trips at 15:30. A spare minute is allowed each time the bus passes Sandwich’s impressive Guildhall but eight minutes in a six hour operating day is cutting it tight.

IMG_E1252.jpgAt least passenger access is much better on the Solo than a taxi, and on my journey out to Staple at 13:40 we took four passengers home including one with a four-wheeler walking aid. I was impressed to see Britannia drivers turned out very smart in their uniform and I noted a shift changeover when I boarded at 13:40.

IMG_0842.jpgAfter dropping the four ladies off in Staple and we turned round to head back we picked up another passenger who took us as far as the edge of Ash where she got off to catch the Stagecoach route 43 from there to Canterbury – just what the team at Kent County Council had in mind for this kind of service. The only trouble is there’d be no connection for her return journey; still, it’s a start.

IMG_0908.jpgBack in Sandwich for the next trip at 14:21 down to Northbourne and Mongeham we picked up a couple taking a ride around the complete circuit like myself just out of curiosity, but no other passengers.

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IMG_0808.jpgMongeham is almost part of Deal, the bus pretty much touches the outskirts of that town to turn round where it meets the Stagecoach routes 80/81 which connect Dover and Sandwich (and on to Canterbury). I understand Northbourne lost its regular bus a couple of years ago, so there’s been much cheering and flag waving to see the Sandwich TaxiBus bring public transport back.

IMG_0918.jpgThere are Stagecoach branded bus stops along the route as well as in Staple as a school bus operates through all these villages, but not much good for off-peak shopping trips, so the new service is naturally being warmly welcomed.

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On to the third pilot over in Tenterden.

IMG_1021.jpgThe Tenterden Hopper, as it’s called, began this week so my visit earlier today was only on its second day. I made reference to these four new routes in my blog about the demise of bus routes 293 and 294 last week, so it was interesting to try them out now they’re operational. Although no ticket machines have been set up yet on this route, so I benefited from introductory free rides!

IMG_1022.jpgWhereas the Sevenoaks trial comprises a taxi running under a Private Hire licence and the Sandwich scheme is a minibus under a full O Licence held by a substantial coach company, the Tenterden initiative involves a charity running a minibus under a Section 22 Community Bus Permit arrangement. The Tenterden Social Hub (previously known as the Tenterden & District Day Centre) runs a fleet of small minibuses to bring its clients to the club building in the centre of Tenterden, and the Tenterden Hopper is a new string to their bow.

The 16 seat minibus with a rear tail lift for wheelchairs used on the four new rural routes open to the public has been bought especially and unlike in Sevenoaks is not used on peak workings before and after.

IMG_0980.jpgTwo of the four routes, lettered B and C, are based on the former routes 293 and 294, albeit the former no longer serves Wittersham as this is served by the regular Stagecoach 312 bus route. Route A to Shirkoak and the Rare Breeds Centre (both near Woodchurch to the north east of Tenterden) and Route D to Benenden and Iden Green (to the south west of Tenterden) are new innovations.

IMG_E1251One return journey operates on each of the four routes in turn (A to D) providing around two and a half to three hours in Tenterden for shopping before the return trip. Whereas the 293 and 294 only ran on Mondays and Fridays new routes A, B, C and D run all five days, Mondays to Fridays.

IMG_1020.jpgI had a ride on both the new routes A and D and unsurprisingly for day 2 was the only passenger. It was good to meet up with Owen from the Tenterden Social Hub who was route learning the drivers and taking a keen interest in how the new service he now has responsibility for was settling in.

I have my doubts about both these new routes making an impact. On Route A, the Rare Breeds Centre looked a fascinating place to visit if you’re on a school trip but I can’t see the departure at 09:30 from Tenterden (arriving at the Centre at 10:00) with a return at 13:15 appealing to many families who need to make their way into Tenterden for 09:30.

IMG_1249.jpgThe other objective, Shirkoak Park is another mobile home residential park just north of Woodchurch and although the minibus travels a couple of hundred yards up the drive from the main road to better serve it, back on the main Bethersden Road is Stagecoach’s route 2A which operates around 9 to 10 times a day (approximately every two hours) between Ashford and Tenterden. The original plan was for the minibus to encircle the Park but Owen was concerned the road was too narrow and found a sensible turning point not far up the entrance road.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 19.36.53.pngInterestingly Owen also explained this morning’s first run picked up around ten passengers from there who had all been waiting for the 2A! They obviously went back on the 2A (at 12:25) as we carried no-one on our 13:00 journey.

IMG_1029.jpgI couldn’t see any justification for running route A bearing in mind, aside from the Rare Breed Centre, it’s all served by route 2A.

The same was true for route D too. I travelled on the first journey from Tenterden at 11:45. The route operates via the (private) Benenden Hospital at ‘East End’ which sounds as though it might be a good trip generator but the hospital has a long standing arrangement of running a bookable shuttle connection from both Headcorn and Ashford stations. The route then continues via the narrowest of Kent lanes (including a 6 foot 6 inches width restriction) to Benenden itself where there are other bus connections to Tenterden including Hams Travel route 297 which operates seven journeys a day.

IMG_1169.jpgRoute D then continues the short distance to turn at the hamlet of Iden Green but this has a number of established once/twice a week routes to Maidstone (route 24 on Tuesdays), Tunbridge Wells (route 255 on Wednesdays and Fridays), Tenterden and Rye (route 293 on Thursdays) and Tenterden (route 299 on Fridays). I doubt adding a shopping trip every day of the week to Tenterden is going to make any impact among the 380 people who live in Iden Green (photographed below).

IMG_1117.jpgDuring our trip Owen made the pertinent observation the route via that narrow road (which to me smacks of someone designing the route with a map in an office) could be amended by using a slightly different route (continuing via Goddards Green Road and New Pond Road – see map below) which we tried on the way back and was indeed much more suitable, albeit it would miss out part of Benenden but as mentioned above thus is well served by route 297. I really don’t understand the reason for route D.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 19.16.04.pngMy suggestion would be to abandon the A and D and link routes B and C to run a cross Tenterden route from Rolvenden Layne to Appledore running three or even four journeys a day rather like in Sandwich, giving passengers more options for either a shorter or longer stay in Tenterden. It might also enable an earlier finish for the bus than the current 16:00 so it could be utilised on some other work for the day centre at the Hub and be more cost effective.

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As I highlighted in my previous blog, Kent County Council explain that ENCTS passes are valid for travel but donations of £1 are welcomed “to help with the financial sustainability of the pilots”. Otherwise there’s a single fare of £2 adult (£1 child) in Tenterden and £3 (adult) with a £5 return in Sevenoaks and Sandwich.

It’s been interesting to see these three different models (Taxi; O licence minibus; Community Minibus) in action and credit to Kent County Council for trying something positive to support rural transport. I look forward to trying out the Maidstone and West Malling pilots when they get going next month.

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Roger French

293 and 294 bow out in Kent

Tuesday 11th June 2019

Yesterday was the final time routes 293 and 294 connected various Kent villages with Tenterden. The routes’ withdrawal are a consequence of Kent County Council’s slimmed down funding cut to uncommercial bus services following its ‘Big Conversation’ consultation about rural transport last year.

I’d been alerted to the withdrawals on social media and checked operator Hams Travel’s website to get clear confirmation the routes would be withdrawn from this coming weekend with new arrangements commencing 17th June.

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Checking the Hams Travel website further showed a comprehensive listing of timetables for various routes they provide on behalf of Kent County Council in the Tunbridge Wells, Hawkhust and Tenterden areas, including route 293.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 22.34.46.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-09 at 22.34.58.pngIt was six years since I’d last taken a ride on the Thursday route 293 from Tunbridge Wells to Rye. Back in 2013 it was operated by a company called New Enterprise which was owned by Arriva; and indeed used Arriva liveried buses.

Romney Marsh - August 2013 007.jpgIn view of its imminent withdrawal I decided to take another ride and made the journey back from Rye to Tunbridge Wells on Thursday last week to see how many people were travelling. Rye’s always busy on a Thursday because it’s the town’s traditional market day. The old Maidstone & District depot in Station Approach has long gone but the market continues as its always done on land opposite and in front of the rail tracks.

IMG_0039.jpgI’m not sure why the market attracts so many people, and an amazing number of visiting coaches but I guess most are exploring the town itself with its rich history and lovely narrow streets full of interest.

IMG_0037.jpgThe Hams Travel 293 sets off on its return journey to Tunbridge Wells at 1345 and the driver pulled up at the bus stop in good time to load all twenty of us, including many shopping trolleys and a wheelchair.

IMG_0045 (1).jpgAs I stepped on the bus after everyone else had boarded, the driver was quite taken aback to have a cash paying passenger on board and had to get back into his cab, from helping everyone on the bus, to issue me with a ticket. Concessionary passes rule here.

IMG_0047.jpgIt’s a two hour six minute run back to Tunbridge Wells across delightful scenic Kent countryside.IMG_0049.jpgIt was obvious from the start that everyone on the bus knew everyone and a right old social club atmosphere was evident, indeed far noisier than I’ve known many school buses. Sweets were passed round; comments made about fellow passengers but only after they’d got off (“I’m sure they cut each other’s hair – with pudding bowls – they look identical”; “it’s such a shame, she looks worse than last week”) making me pleased to be going all the way to Tunbridge Wells and be the last one to get off minus comments.

I was very surprised just how far everyone travelled on the 293 to Rye. We first headed north towards Appledore and dropped our first passenger in the tiny hamlet of Stone-in-Oxney (twenty minutes after leaving Rye) on the border of Romney Marsh. No-one got off in Tenterden, unsurprising as Stagecoach run a more regular route 312 between there and Rye via a quicker route, but three alighted in Rolvenden (fifty minutes from Rye) and another in the nearby Rolvenden Layne which necessitated a dog leg off our route to serve this isolated community. Five alighted in Hawkhurst (75 minutes from Rye); two in Kilndown (93 minutes); two in Pembury (almost two hours from Rye) and five at various stops as we entered Tunbridge Wells.

IMG_0044.jpgOddly amongst all the banter on board there was no talk about this being the penultimate time the bus would run down to Rye; and I was intrigued to overhear titbits of conversation that there was another route 293 being withdrawn rather than this one. I asked the driver when getting off, but he wasn’t entirely sure but thought there was another journey on a Monday that was facing the chop and this one is indeed continuing.

I was intrigued this wasn’t clarified on Hams Travel’s website which made no reference to another journey on the 293 or indeed the 294, so on my way home I called Hams Travel to find out more. I was told by the person answering they had no knowledge of bus routes and I needed to speak to Nick at the other garage in Flimwell but he’d be out on a school journey so it would be best to ring back the next day.

I tried Nick again last Friday but he was out again, so left my number to call me back. In the meantime having found no reference to the demise of routes 293 and 294 on Kent County Council’s website I called the advertised contact number for their Highways and Transport Department. I reckon I must have been the first person to call Kent H&T about buses as the person answering was completely thrown by my request to be put through to the person who oversees tendered bus routes. She insisted I needed to speak to the bus company; but I insisted they were unable to help and there must be someone there who contracts bus companies to run buses and who could help me. She asked me to hold on.

Having consulted with her manager she advised me firmly but completely incorrectly I “needed to speak to the Borough Council”. I decided to use the nuclear option of searching the online database of Notices and Proceedings for the London and South East of England Traffic Area around about early April to check out whether Hams Travel had deregistered with the Traffic Commissioners the withdrawal of the 293 and 294 – I opened up each of the fortnightly publications from late March to mid April and checked section 3.5 for ‘Cancellations of Existing Services” – as any passenger would know to do of course!

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And there it was, and indeed referring to the 293/294 running circular routes from Tenterden and a further search in the Traveline database finally gave me two return journeys which were being withdrawn (although you’d never know they only operate on a Monday and Friday …. unless you changed the specified date in the drop down box and realise those are the only two days the details appear)…..

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It turns out there’s a “short 293” which takes a forty-five minute circular route from Tenterden via the Stagecoach 312 to Wittersham and then almost parallels a section of the Thursday route from Rye to Tunbridge Wells (hence using the same route number) via Stone-in-Oxney and Appledore and back again to Tenterden, while the 294 is a Monday only short trip from Tenterden to the isolated hamlet of Rolvenden Layne and back.

I decided to head back to Tenterden in the pouring rain yesterday morning to check out these two bus routes on their final Monday.

IMG_0149.jpgI caught the first of the two circular “short 293” journeys at 1031 from Tenterden. Sadly a lose wire had shorted out the destination blind, but I realised it must be the 293 by stepping on to an empty bus. The driver managed to overcome his surprise at a passenger without a concessionary pass and work out what I needed to pay for a circular round trip without a terminus at the other end – I could have got a return ticket, but that would have included another trip on the second circular journey which I didn’t need, so we settled on a single back to Tenterden!

IMG_0158.jpgIt was a lonely run with just me and the driver until we got to Stone-in-Oxney and the same high-viz wearing passenger who got off the bus there on Thursday from Rye to Tunbridge Wells with his shopping trolley was back out again for more yesterday – good to see he was making full use of the very limited journeys a week open to him from that hamlet.

IMG_0159.jpgAs we deviated via some narrow residential roads arriving back in Tenterden we picked up three more passengers for their short ride to the shops and there was much talk about the bus being withdrawn, except that the friendly and knowledgeable driver said it was being replaced from next Monday by a new service run by something called the Tenterden Social Hub using a minibus. Not only that, it would be running every day, Monday to Friday, as will the 294. Our driver was mystified how Kent County Council could be saving money by replacing a twice a week service carrying four passengers with a daily service, as was I.

IMG_0150.jpgSo I wandered off to seek out Tenterden Social Hub based in Church Road and find out more. It was fairly easy to find their offices where they had a printed timetable leaflet available giving full details of the new arrangements from next week. It’s all part of Kent County Council’s Rural Transport Initiative – and I’ve now been able to find the relevant webpage (you won’t find it under ‘Bus Travel’ on the ‘Travelling around Kent’ page – that would be too obvious). A new link has been added at the bottom of that page taking you to ‘Rural transport initiatives’ which gives full details, not only of the Monday to Friday new timetables to the hamlets around Tenterden but also taxibus schemes in Sevenoaks (which began last week) and Sandwich (which began yesterday).

IMG_E0255.jpgInterestingly Kent County Council explain fares are £2 per journey but “we encourage ENCTS passholders to pay a voluntary contribution of £1 per journey to help with the sustainability of the 12 month pilot, however, ENCTS passes will be accepted in the usual way”. It’s the first time I’ve seen a County Council promoting voluntary donations for bus fares. I seem to recall Peter Shipp’s EYMS got a strong telling off from the DfT by doing something similar in East Yorkshire a few years ago.

It’s going to be an interesting twelve month pilot; I’m not a great fan of taxibuses (not easy to get on and off and not enough room for shopping etc) but at least Kent County Council is trying something different in place of a traditional twice-a-week under-used rural bus. I have my doubts running five days a week will generate more passengers though. It might also be worth briefing the staff who answer the phone in the relevant department about it too, as it’s no good saying “ring the bus company” if you don’t lnow who the bus company is. The leaflet needs wide distribution in each area being served too rather than just available in a back street office.

Before leaving Tenterden I popped back to wave off second and last 294 journey of the day and was pleased to see Hams Travel’s resourceful driver had managed to sort out the lose wire and got the destination screen almost working again. He left with the three passengers he’d brought in on the earlier incoming journey from Rolvenden Layne.

IMG_0226.jpgAnd to finish the story off, I was pleased to finally receive a call back from Nick yesterday afternoon who confirmed the “long 293” (Tunbridge Wells to Rye on Thursdays) was continuing as normal and when I explained it had been a bit confusing to see a notice online and in the bus that the “293” was being withdrawn he acknowledged the point saying the wording had subsequently been clarified “on social media” about which 293 journey was being withdrawn (although I doubt that reached the target market). The reason there was no reference to the “short 293” and 294 on their website was he’d put the new timetable up online a while ago as it needed reprinting and left out the 293 and 294 as they were under notice.

Stranraer update

Before ending this post, a small update from Stagecoach West Scotland who replied today to my email complaint about the 408 not operating from Stranraer to Kirkcolm last Monday afternoon, when I gave up after waiting ten minutes. Melissa explained the journey did run, although she didn’t say when. Apparently it was delayed “due to an operational issue”. Turns out I needed a mobile phone signal and checked the App.

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 17.30.12.pngNo mention of my request for a part refund of the day ticket I purchased and couldn’t fully use!

Roger French

Free ‘taxis’ for seniors in Sutton?

Tuesday 28th May 2019

TfL jumped on the digital DRT bandwagon today launching its own version of Arriva Click and Oxford Pick Me Up. This latest app-based Demand Responsive Transport has landed in upmarket car dominated Sutton and Carshalton using six minibuses out of a fleet of eight between 06:30 and 21:30, seven days a week, operated by GoAhead London from its Sutton bus garage.

Logo overload nearside…
…and offside

I missed this morning’s launch party no doubt with the usual ceremonial ribbon cutting and broad smiles for the cameras featuring the Mayor of Sutton along with TfL and GoAhead London bigwigs but I understand there were no cupcakes or goodie bags going free anyway.

Indeed there’s not been much, if any, publicity or promotion to speak of at all. I was searching online over the weekend for news of this exciting initiative but all I could find on the TfL website was a broken link to the obligatory public consultation about the scheme which closed a few weeks ago. I see there’s now a news release following this morning’s launch with the usual excitable quotes from all the partners involved, which is always an uplifting read…..not!

Keeping my ear to the ground last week, as I do, I’d downloaded the GoSutton app and registered as a user with my credit card details so I’d be all ready to ride around at £3.50 a journey earlier today.

No promotional introductory fare offers here and no daily or weekly price capping. No Oyster either as no fares are taken on the bus. It’s all done online. The fare is £1 more than Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up fare and £2 more than the standard London bus fare so it’ll be an interesting trade off for users weighing up their new travel options around Sutton. Additional GoSutton passengers in a group pay £2 each and its free for accompanied under 13s.

There’s a map on the new GoSutton.co.uk website showing the area where GoSutton Mercedes fourteen seater minibuses roam but it’s a little hard to decipher in detail so not much good for journey planning. As you can see above, it’s just an outline of the area served.

The interactive map on the App even though it’s zoomable is also awkward to use so I spent a happy hour last night piecing together a larger scale map from my Greater London street atlas except frustratingly the area extended over the hard spine of the book making copying a clear image quite difficult.

I then superimposed the bus routes which cross-cross the area served by GoSutton which with the various rail lines shows the full public transport offer. It seems to me that’s what anyone seriously thinking of ditching their car needs to know, but curiously is impossible to obtain in the TfL land of not-really-integrated transport.

Mike Harris’s superb privately funded network wide bus map indicates quite an intense network of bus routes in the area as does Open Street Maps, but it wasn’t until I’d completed my home made version I realised that many of the journeys I’d planned to try out with GoSutton could be made using conventional bus routes, albeit with a bit of a circuitous routing.

And herein lies the key issue. My first day travels this morning as usual were met with minimal wait times, attractive direct routes and completely solo rides (my own personal 14 seater taxi); but that’s not how it’s designed to be of course. Once more people become aware of GoSutton the inevitability is my wait and journey times will become extended as ride sharing becomes more common. I might find myself on a route not too dissimilar to a conventional bus, and stopping along the way making me question that £2 premium and no price cap. As TfL’s news release explains “the system will be powered by advanced algorithms, which enable multiple passengers to seamlessly share a single vehicle”. It’ll be “quick and efficient shared trips without lengthy detours”.

It seems to me the critical point with GoSutton is TfL’s decision to allow Freedom Passes and National Concessionary pass holders free travel meaning any London resident age sixty and over, perhaps even going to work, can enjoy what currently is effectively a free door-to-door personal taxi service.

Why go out to catch the half hourly route S4 when you can call up a 14 seater luxury minibus almost to your front door and will take you right to your destination free of charge. And this being TfL means those without a smartphone are not left behind as the option is given of phoning up to book a journey instead of using the App. It really is like an old style Dial-A-Ride.

Another TfL quirk I noticed this morning was the six minibuses out today when not needed to fulfill my journey requests were strategically parked as per ViaVan’s software demands, but had to be on an official TfL designated bus stand!

How did it go? Here’s the rundown of the three journeys I took.

Journey 1

Wallington Station to the Royal Marsden Hospital

Waiting time: 3 minutes (minibus waiting on bus stand not far from station)

Journey time: 12 minutes.

Alternative option: bus route S4 runs every 30 minutes and takes 18 minutes journey time.

Oddity: despite requesting a pick up at the bus stop adjacent to the station exit (used by the S4 as below) I was tasked to walk a short distance to the bus stop on the main road to meet the bus.

Bing, my driver was a great ambassador welcoming me aboard as his very first GoSutton passenger at 1024. He was really pleased to have transferred over to GoSutton from big bus driving and had high hopes for the service success. I diplomatically explained it depends on how you define ‘success’ and unlike Oxford (which he had heard “was going great guns”) in London it will depend how much money TfL is prepared to invest (and how much money it actually has) in its future.

Journey 2

Royal Marsden Hospital to St Helier Hospital

Waiting time: 9 minutes (minibus waiting in Carshalton Wythe Lane)

Journey time: 13 minutes.

Alternative option: bus route S4 runs every half hour and takes 30 minutes.

Simon had driven the S4 previously and reckoned in the 13 minutes it took with GoSutton we’d have only reached Sutton Ststion on that round-the-houses route. He was pleased to be driving with GoAhead London having recently moved across from RATP owned Quality Line/Epsom Coaches where the “family atmosphere had now gone after the takeover”. He was also pleased to welcome me aboard as his first customer at 1055 although he’d been tasked to chauffeur John Trayner, GoAhead London’s highly respected managing director back to his Merton based HQ following the Mayoral launch, but Simon didn’t count John as a real passenger, especially as it had involved a normally off-limits over the border trip into neighbouring Merton.

Journey 3

Sutton Hospital to Sutton Station

Waiting time: 3 minutes (minibus waiting at Sutton Station) according to App but actual wait was 4-5 minutes.

Journey time: 4 minutes.

Alternative option: was bus 80 or Metrobus 420 (not part of TfL network) and didn’t show up on TfL journey planner (so much for TfL being about integrated transport). As the 80 was 9 minutes away I was confident I’d backed the right option of summoning up a GoSutton minibus which was showing just a 3 minute wait.

In the event a 420 came by within one minute…

…. followed by an 80 within another minute despite TfL’s journey planner predicting that 9 minute wait. My GoSutton minibus arrived last.

But Fatima was a great friendly driver also welcoming me aboard as her first customer at 1224 this morning. She usually drives big buses at Sutton but is helping out while the sixteen new GoSutton vacancies get filled. Her first minibus allocated this morning broke down but she was pleased to be driving one of the ’19’ plate Mercedes (some are 2017 vintage). And she skilfully overtook the 80 as it stopped along the way so we beat it to Sutton Station.

As is standard on such schemes elsewhere for each journey I received a text two minutes before the minibus arrived confirming its imminent arrival along with the vehicle registration details and pick up location (but not the driver’s name) and unlike other places, another text while on board two minutes before the destination reminding me to gather up my belongings and a thank you. Afterwards you’re invited to rate the journey but only if you open up the App again, and are then given your driver’s name – bit odd not to have had it before really.

Another welcome development unlike other areas is the absence of a full blown assault screen around the driver. Simon was particularly pleased to see this and felt it will lead to a much friendlier rapport with passengers. He’s absolutely right.

There are also some differences between the 2017 Mercedes minibuses and the later 2019 versions in that the former have bright red interior panels and floors while the latter have a more upmarket wood effect.

Otherwise the interiors are very similar to the Mercedes used in Oxford, Liverpool and Leicester with ten seats to the rear (including two over the wheel arches (for enhanced discomfort) and four tip-ups in the wheelchair/buggy area. USB sockets and wifi comes as standard, but you’re not really on the bus long enough to take advantage of these – even a journey from one side of the operating area to the other (my journey 2) only took 13 minutes.

Will GoSutton be a success.? As I explained to Bing, it depends how you define ‘success’. With TfL strapped for cash and about to make swingeing cuts to central London bus routes it seems an odd time to be spending what must be well in excess of £0.5million (probably nearer £0.75million) on a trial of this kind. I see TfL have also committed to introduce a similar twelve month trial later this year in Ealing with RATP as operator and “technology partner MOIA who currently power ride sharing in Germany”.

GoSutton’s £3.50 compared to £1.50 per ride on a conventional bus (and £4.50 daily cap) may put people off switching but all the official explanations say this scheme is about tempting people out of cars as the main market. In that case there’s going to need to be a much bigger promotional push to raise awareness; and that won’t come cheap. There’s no social media presence as far as I can see and the web presence is currently pedestrian at best. It’s certainly not persuasive in any sense.

I asked a black cab driver at the Royal Marsden Hospital how much the fare was from Sutton Station, and she told me around £7. So £3.50 would offer a fifty per cent saving, but if you don’t mind a slightly longer wait and journey time the S4 would only cost £1.50.

My prediction is GoSutton will become well used by Freedom Pass holders taking advantage of free rides, and whilst the service is in its infancy, effectively enjoying a free personalised door-to-door taxi service around this part of Sutton.

Personally I’d prefer a few hundred thousand be invested in a decent regularly updated easy-to-follow bus map showing journey possibilities by bus rather than just the unhelpful spider maps as all that TfL can muster. Proper maps rather like passengers on the Tube and DLR enjoy.

That would get me out of my car.

Roger French