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

Commuting with Zeelo

Friday 24th May 2019

There was a time if you fancied running a coach travel business you’d get yourself a coach or two (probably decent second-hand stock to begin with), pick up a school contract to run, get known among well-to-do local clubs and societies for those lucrative private hires and maybe run a small excursion programme.

Nowadays if you’re an aspiring travel entrepreneur you’ll get yourself some ‘angel investment’ backing, a friend who understands algorithms, a website and social media presence and a list of decent coach companies you can call on. You won’t be owning any coaches, renting a garage and employing drivers.

That’s exactly what Snap are doing to build a share of the express coach market which I tried out last October between London and Bristol and this morning I gave a try out of another new player in the ‘online-travel-with-no vehicles-of-their-own’ sector called Zeelo who’ve recently started a new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol.

According to their website Zeelo founders Sam Ryan and Barney Williams “didn’t understand why public transport options outside of cities were slow, crowded and too expensive”. Travelling to support their football team playing away matches turned out to be a right hassle.

So they teamed up with their friend Dani and “unlocked the power of data”. Dani built an algorithm for Sam and Barney “that understood when large groups of underserved people wanted to travel”.

Their travel-to-event business was born “transporting 750 like-minded fans to Wembley”. Unfortunately their team lost but that experience “was just the start” as the Zeelo website goes on to explain “that daily grind needed fixing, so they rolled out their commuting service, offering car users a viable stress free alternative to get to work”. Apparently “Zeelo is now loved by thousands of riders. By providing exceptional rider experience Zeelo has grown rapidly, but we’re just getting started. Join us on the journey.”

I couldn’t resist an invitation like that and was full of eager anticipation to join the growing band of happy commuters full of smiles over their laptops as they leave the daily grind behind.

All the more so as although the single ride fare of £7 for a peak hour trip from Newport to Bristol seemed reasonable enough I spotted on the Zeelo website a sign up offer of ten free rides by using the promotional codeword COMMUTE.

That was just as well as I then realised you’re not able to buy just one ride for £7, you have to spend a minimum of £70 on a ten-ride package which I wasn’t so keen on in the name of just a one-off research project for this blog, but I suppose it’s fair enough for a five-day a week regular commuter to buy a week’s travel in one hit and have the option of using any leftover rides with days missed in a following week.

This same bulk purchase of rides is the norm on Zeelo’s more bespoke commuter trips they’re promoting on their website to places like Jaguar Land Rover’s plant at Gaydon, Ocado’s head office in Hatfield or to three private schools in the Hampstead area London NW3. Those are just some of the journeys that come up when you hit the ‘Browse Rides’ button on Dani’s website masterpiece.

But unless I’m an employee of JLR or Aston Martin in Gaydon, Ocado in Hatfield or a student in Hampstead the options are not particularly attractive for me.

However, I did try entering ‘Brighton’ in the ‘Where are you going?’ box as encouraged and up came a ride option on each of the five days programme of horse racing at Goodwood at the end of July with pick ups in Hastings, Brighton or Portsmouth for £14.99. In the old days we’d list those trips in a colourful leaflet/brochure called Excursions now you have the fun of entering somewhere you might want to go in a blank box on a screen and see what comes back!

I spotted on the Zeelo twitter feed some excitement a week or so ago about the upcoming Tottenham Hotspur versus Liverpool Champions League final in Madrid. “No need to spend £1,000 on air fares” as it turns out Zeelo have arranged coaches from north London to the match for £299.99 leaving at 0530 and arriving 0600 (the next day obviously!). So far no coaches from Liverpool but you can register an interest and see what the algorithm comes up with.

Dani’s algorithm’s secret is to keep an eye on all sorts of events and monitor chitter chatter or expressions of interest on social media and then marry the two together when it looks as though a coach of paying punters can be mustered. Hire in a coach from a preferred supplier who’s happy to take a guaranteed price irrespective of how many may be on board and away you go.

In the old days you’d stick a chalkboard outside your physical shop window; now you have a virtual shop window available anywhere in the world – indeed Zeelo also have transport interests in South Africa.

Talking of anywhere in the world brings me to Newport and this morning’s commuter trip to Bristol. Apparently Sam and Barney reckon there’ve picked up vibes there’s a gap in the commuter market across the Severn and the Zeelo business model’s the way to fill it.

There’s a choice of two journeys from Newport at either 0645 or 0730 both scheduled to take an hour for the trip across to Bristol with return times offered at 1715 or 1815.

I booked a ride online yesterday morning for the 0730 journey this morning grabbing the first of my sign up ten free rides. I didn’t receive any electronic acknowledgment but could reassuringly see confirmation was recorded whenever I logged on to the website.

A confirmatory text arrived on my mobile phone at 0645 this morning including the driver’s name and registration number of the coach …

….and the coach was impressively already waiting at the departure bus stop alongside Newport station when I arrived at 0715.

It was an eight year old Mercedes Benz Tourismo operated by Creigiau Travel of Cardiff (formerly owned by Clarkes of Sydenham, London). Sadly not quite up to the luxury standards depicted on the Zeelo website but what did surprise me was being liveried in prominent Zeelo branding, something rival Snap doesn’t do, as they use companies with high quality coaches used on other prestigious work when not ‘snapping’.

There was no wi-if, nor usb sockets, no luxury seats, no tables and with 51 seats (albeit spaced in 12 metres) the leg room wasn’t generous. There was a hot water supply to enable free coffee and the usual toilet crammed under that by the centre emergency exit.

We were expecting six passengers but by our 0730 departure time only four of us were on board. Our friendly driver made a call to base and I guess was told to give it five minutes as we left spot on 0735 with two no shows (the problem of giving free rides presumably).

Whilst the quality of the coach interior may have been underwhelming the smooth congestion free ride was excellent and I was impressed as we joined the M4 just outside Newport after ten minutes at 0745…

…went over the second Severn Crossing five minutes later at 0755…

…the start of the M32 at 0805…

…Cabot Circus at 0815, just forty minutes after leaving Newport…

…and alongside the walkway through to Temple Meads at 0820: a ride time of 45 minutes.

Using the new bus lane on the M32 approach into Bristol probably saved us around 5-10 minutes but otherwise we encountered no congestion along the peak hour motorway journey at all.

GWR run an hourly train service between Newport and Bristol Temple Meads taking 38 minutes so there’s not much difference in journey time and Zeelo definitely wins if you work in the Cabot Circus area of Bristol which is a fair walk or bus ride from the station.

Zeelo’s ‘£70 for ten rides’ price is comparable with GWR’s weekly season price of £67.40 which of course doesn’t offer the flexibility of carrying forward rides not used.

If you’re a truly committed Zeelo fan and trust their longevity in the market you can grab yourself a 100 ride package for £540 working out at just £5.40 per ride.

Railcard holders can get discounts on the full whack GWR day return price of £15.80 which with my Senior Railcard would reduce to £10.45 so attractively cheaper than £14 with Zeelo. But most commuters aren’t Railcard holders so Zeelo have got good comparability on both price and journey time with rail.

GWR are upping their game on train quality as new trains cascade stock to other lines including the Cardiff-Bristol-Portsmouth route so it may be less of a squeeze on board in the future but with Zeelo you’re guaranteed a seat and so all the more reason I would suggest to make sure that’s a comfortable ‘luxury’ seat as promoted on the website.

Aside from myself, this morning’s three fellow passengers are obviously not going to make Sam, Barney and Dani a profitable future and their hope must be to build the business; and that, as always, is the hard part. Building a website and even an algorithm is one thing, finding a sustainable profitable market in the coach commuting business and building that up is quite another.

Creating product awareness and turning that into a committed purchase is as hard to achieve online as in the physical world of selling travel. It costs a lot of money.

For now, as explained on Zeelo’s website, after initial “angel investment” a recent injection of £4.25 million into the business by sustainability investor ETF Partners whose managing partner Patrick Sheehan has joined the Zeelo board is giving the team optimism and confidence.

Zeelo are on a mission to reduce car use for commuting. Whereas traditionally transport entrepreneurs would probably have splashed £4.25 million on some shiny new coaches the Zeelo team are investing it in ‘doubling down on our data led approach; investing in product and technology; investing in new vehicle technology including EVs and AVs; investing in the onboard experience; and continuing putting our customers first”.

Good luck Zeelo, hopefully this time your team won’t lose.

Roger French

Click for Leicester

Wednesday 1st May 2019

IMG_6344.jpgIt’s day three of Arriva’s latest Click venture introduced in Leicester on Monday, so I thought it was worth a trip to see how it’s panning out.

IMG_6210.jpgCorporates love to boast about being the first to do something; they salivate over ‘ground-breaking initiatives’ and associated hype reckoning it makes for a great PR story in the trade press. Only they think that of course; most readers just raises their eyes upwards, emoji style.

Sittingbourne was ArrivaClick’s DRT debut of course, so truly was a ‘first’; then came Liverpool which was cheekily promoted as the ‘first’ such DRT service in a city. When I pointed out Oxford Bus was up and running with their Pick-Me-Up service in a city the Click PR people countered their’s was the ‘first’ ‘Click’ in a city.

Now we have the ‘first’ Click to be funded by a Section 106 Agreement. This ‘ground breaking initiative’ has seen an organisation called Go Travel Solutions broker a deal between Arriva and Drummond Estate, the owners of a huge swathe of land on the western edge of Leicester on which developers have plans for a massive development of houses, two primary schools, a secondary school a “pioneering community centre” and employment park. The area is called New Lubbesthorpe; it’s south west of the Leicester Forest East service area west of the M1 as shown on the aerial view below.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.08.46.pngThe Developer’s brochures are full of all the essential buzzwords: “Arriva Click …. part of Drummond Estate’s drive to provide a sustainable way to work, live, learn and play for those living in New Lubbesthorpe’.

The area will naturally have “vibrant urban amenities, and it is important we provide sustainable transport options”.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.07.45.pngGo Travel Solutions reckon Click “will deliver shorter end-to-end journey times” (it doesn’t say shorter than what) and explains “customers request an executive minibus from their pick-up point at a time they want and to a destination of their choosing”. That’s the hype that’s consistently pedalled with these “innovative digitalised DRT services” but as I consistently find, the reality never quite matches up.

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Take this morning for example. My train was due to arrive in Leicester at 1006, so knowing you can only pre-book Click journeys in half hour segments, I fiddled around with the App as I was leaving St Pancras at around 0900 to schedule a journey in the 1015-1045 slot from outside the station to take me to Barrett’s show house on the fledgling New Lubbesthorpe estate.

IMG_6205.jpgIt’s not entirely clear whether your journey is booked – sometimes I checked on the App, and it showed a “(1)” alongside “Next Journeys” but with no details given; other times I checked and the “(1)” had disappeared. I’ve learnt not to worry about these things, being retired it doesn’t matter whether I have to wait or not, but for someone intent on making an appointment, firstly a half hour’s window with no indication of a precise arrival time is pretty useless and secondly I’d want more definitive confirmation.

IMG_6295.jpgI left the station to find a mass of roadworks outside preventing any bus pick-ups and then received a text at 1010 advising my pick up was 12 minutes away.

IMG_E6365.jpgKen arrived at 1028. It’s an algorithm mystery of why he couldn’t have been dispatched by the software to pick me up at 1015 (the start of my half hour booked window slot) rather than the middle of it. All it had done was kept me waiting unnecessarily for twenty minutes – I could have been in a taxi and away instantly on arrival.

It wasn’t that Ken had been busy with other passengers; I was his very first pick up (ever) since he’d begun work at 0600 this morning! I’ve had a similar experience when using the journey schedule option in Sittingbourne.

IMG_6179.jpgWe had a right old kerfuffle with the pick up too; with Ken passing the App’s designated pick up point in Campbell Street just before the station, and instead headed down narrow Station Street (there he goes pictured above) which is a dead-end and necessitated much skillful manoeuvring to turn round and get going.

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IMG_6180.jpgIt turns out this was Ken’s first day on Click and I was his first passenger. He’s based at Arriva’s Hinckley garage and drives on the big bus rota but had been asked to help out on Click, also based at Hinckley, for today and he was already enjoying the contrast; not least being directed by a SatNav on a tablet rather than a duty card and timetable. Even more interesting was the SatNav’s habit of routing him the wrong way down one-way streets in the centre of Leicester!

IMG_6192.jpg There’s no expense spared when it comes to transport access to New Lubbesthorpe. A brand new access road has been built over the M1 (we’re approaching the flyover pictured below) ….

IMG_6190.jpg…. which Ken pointed out includes twenty-two road humps to slow you down ….

IMG_6194.jpg…. as you approach the area’s planned central node where the first primary school is under construction, and due to open in September.

IMG_6195.jpgIMG_6207.jpgI also spotted the main roundabout on the new access road was sporting a Click advert as we passed by. Nice thought.

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Arriva have no doubt been canny in costing a ‘bells and whistles’ Click service that’s funded by the Developers. Apparently there are five vehicles out on the road seven days a week from 0600 to 2300 necessitating a rota of fifteen drivers’ jobs.

With such extensive vehicle availability and few homes currently built and occupied it’s not surprising my journeys today were soon fulfilled with drivers allocated strategic parking spots throughout the Click operating area just waiting for a booking.

As I’ve commented previously, the problem with these DRT services is, the moment they become more popular with more bookings, the more the risk is waiting time for a vehicle to arrive will increase. The luxury of having drivers like Ken hanging around for four and a half hours waiting for me to turn up is not what can be called “a sustainable transport solution”.

I picked up a leaflet aimed at new residents giving details of some hefty financial inducements to give Arriva Click a try. There’s “£10 free credit” for every adult moving in as well as two redemptions of “£100 credit for just £10” (or “£50 for £5”) and a permanent offer of 5% off weekly tickets. I tried to sign up but unsurprisingly needed to declare plot numbers and other information I was unable to blag!

IMG_E6366.jpgWhen these freebies run out it will be interesting to see how many residents opt to pay the £4.50 a ride it cost me for my travels today. And, of course, there are no concessions for seniors (although New Lubbesthorpe looks as though its target market is a younger generation and families) … but there aren’t child rate prices on ArrivaClick either.

The journey from Leicester station to the edge of New Lubbesthorpe took half an hour but my arrival was about an hour after I’d got off the train what with all the waiting time and I’m not convinced the algorithm routed us along the most direct journey. At one point Ken mistakingly went past a slip road we needed and we almost ended up on the M69 before turning back.

IMG_6198.jpgOn arrival Ken and I (and probably the algorithm too – if algorithms have yet been invented to experience feelings) were both surprised to find a resident who’d booked a ride was waiting our arrival and ready to be whisked away. Ken had his second passenger of the day.

IMG_6206.jpgMeanwhile I took a walk around the development so far, which is very much in its early stages, and noticed that Barrett Homes (one of the house builders involved) has a smart show home and reception area with ample “Visitor Parking”. Old habits die hard.

IMG_6209.jpgIt was time for my next trip. Down to Narborough in the extreme south of Click’s area and the nearest station to New Lubbesthorpe (on the Cross Country hourly route from Leicester to Nuneaton and Birmingham).

IMG_E6208.jpgThe App told me Paul would arrive in 9 minutes which was just as well as the designated pick up point was a good 7 minute walk away from where I’d wandered to. Yet again destroying the myth that DRT picks you up at your desired pick up point; oh no it doesn’t; it’s at the algorithm’s desired pick up point.

IMG_6212.jpgI made it to the designated spot only to see Paul disappearing where I hadn’t expected – but he did a ‘back double’ and reappeared down another dead-end. He explained the SatNav doesn’t think it’s a dead-end but as a local, he knows better and thwarted the algorithm.

IMG_6214.jpgLike Ken, Paul was a very friendly, normally Arriva big bus, driver who’s helping out in Click’s early days and he was clearly enjoying the change. He’d already had a passenger on board this morning and had carried three during yesterday’s shift, so not bad going. It took us just 12 minutes to reach Narborough but still cost £4.50, as my half hour journey from Leicester had done.

IMG_6283.jpgI was just in time to catch a late running Cross Country train back into Leicester and decided to give up on trying to find where buses for the city centre were picking up during the roadworks hiatus and walked instead.

IMG_6311.jpgIMG_6301.jpgA quick visit to both St Margaret’s and Haymarket bus stations observing the contrasting attitudes to timetable provision between Arriva ……IMG_6309.jpg

IMG_6310.jpgIMG_6304.jpgIMG_6307.jpg…..(the very helpful Arriva man in the Travel Centre seems to have thwarted official policy of not printing timetables [to save the planet], aside from the 44/44A, by printing a few of each to hand out from behind the counter – the contrast with yesterday in the Lake District couldn’t be more marked) …. and First Leicester who were displaying a colourful selection of all their city routes…..

IMG_6326.jpgIMG_6325.jpg….. and I thought I’d catch a standard Arriva bus out to the Fosse Shopping Park adjacent to the M1 and full of retail sheds that are popular with browsers before they go home to buy online. Still, browsing is good business for bus companies, thankfully, and I’m sure residents of New Lubbesthorpe will be taking a Click to ride over there as it’s within the designated area.

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Route 50 operates to Fosse Shopping Park on its way to Narborough every 20 minutes and as luck would have it I was just eight or nine minutes from the 1305 departure. The bus arrived in good time and we loaded up with around twenty passengers and headed off, taking around 25 minutes for the journey. I’d bought a Plusbus which, with Railcard discount, cost just £2.30 – just half the price of a Click journey – and of course would give me unlimited journeys around Leicester all day (but not as far as New Lubbesthorpe or Narborough). The contrast with Click couldn’t be more stark.

IMG_6327.jpgArriving at Fosse I was impressed to order my third Click journey to take me back to the station and be given a pick up point just around the corner from where I’d got off the 50, and a pick up time just five minutes away.

IMG_6336.jpgExcept when I walked round the corner I realised I’d stumbled upon one of the designated waiting areas for Click vehicles to hang out with two languishing in the lay-by opposite Asda.

IMG_6338.jpgI ascertained Darren, my driver, was one of the two and we were soon away heading back to Leicester city centre for the station.

Darren had been with Arriva and it’s predecessors for nineteen years and had taken up the offer of transferring permanently over to Click duties. He’d been with the service since Monday and I was his thirteenth passenger. He had high hopes for Click’s success and thought it an ideal compromise between a standard bus and a taxi, with the fare priced accordingly.

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Encouragingly I heard much positivity about Click from all three drivers today; they all cited Liverpool as being a rip roaring success with various figures being banded about: “500 passengers a day” “26 buses now on the road” and even “100 buses on the road”.

(I made a mental note to head up to Liverpool again soon and check out this “too good to be true” positivity.)

IMG_6341.jpgThere’s no doubt in New Lubbesthorpe and its Drummond Estate owner, Arriva have found a willing partner with a strong business interest in handing a large sum of money over in return for an “innovative sustainable transport solution” to help achieve their development objectives.

To that extent this must be considered a success. Whether it will actually meet the transport needs of New Lubbesthorpe’s new residents without frustrating waits and uncertainty over pick up times as well as potentially indirect journeys once more passengers come on board, only time will tell. I reckon once hundreds more houses are built five buses over such a large operating area isn’t going to work, but perhaps there are plans for expansion and higher funding.

However, I couldn’t help reflecting that deploying five buses on a conventional limited stop service between Leicester city centre and New Lubbesthorpe serving the key attractions (Fosse, Hospital, sporting venues etc) with an hour’s round trip time therefore providing a 12 minute frequency would probably fit the bill for residents – but then that wouldn’t be a ‘groundbreaking initiative’ and hardly make for a trade press story. Just saying.

As I’ve commented before, these new DRT services are nothing new by the way – indeed I spotted a Dial-a-Ride bus laying over in St Margaret’s bus station!

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Roger French

Three month Meridian countdown

Saturday 16th February 2019

There’s another rail construction project approaching its deadline for completion – the opening of a brand new train station in London.

Meridian Water is due to welcome its first passengers coinciding with the summer timetable change on 19th May. That’s just twelve weeks away so I thought I’d pop along for a sneak peep through the hoardings and see if it’s worth ordering the cupcakes and balloons for the opening ceremony.

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Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 20.56.32.pngMeridian Water is a huge long term (twenty years) £6bn regeneration scheme in the south east corner of the London Borough of Enfield, in an area east of the Edmonton to Tottenham corridor between the North Circular Road and Northumberland Park where a massive Tesco Extra, IKEA and other retail sheds dominate the landscape to the east of the rail line. The Master Plan boasts of 10,000 homes and “thousands of high quality new jobs” benefiting the local, regional and national economy.

Commendably the project has kicked off with construction of the new Meridian Water station which began in November 2017. It’s situated on the line from Liverpool Street and Stratford via Tottenham Hale to Bishops Stortford, Cambridge and Stansted Airport. The location of the new station can be seen under construction on the above satellite image just to the west of Tesco Extra which is in the centre.

The two track railway is being enhanced with a third track which will run from the south through Tottenham Hale and Northumberland Park stations (where London bound platforms are being widened into new island platforms) and ends in a new “turn back” facility at Meridian Water.

IMG_8475.jpgThe new station is just south of Angel Road station (as seen above and in the satellite image just north of the North Circular Road). Angel Road is famed for not only being London’s least used station but also having one of the most desolate and uninviting entrances. The station will shut when Meridian Water opens which is effectively a replacement station in a more convenient location for the development.

The extra track will enable a more frequent service with extra trains starting at Meridian Water to Stratford and Liverpool Street as the development builds over the next couple of decades.

IMG_8542.jpgIt’ll be a slow build though as construction of the first 725 homes on land to the west of the new station (see satellite image above and photograph below) in an area endearingly called Meridian Angel isn’t due to start until next year. These new homes will be in the shadow of Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground seen in the distance – another late running construction project!

IMG_8543.jpgMeanwhile those few passengers who currently use Angel Road (pictured below looking south) and wander off to their homes sited north west and west of the current station will have a much longer and circuitous walk to and from the new site.

IMG_8472.jpgI thought it was worth visiting Angel Road to savour the dying embers of London’s iconic least used station before it closes. It doesn’t inspire, being adjacent to various scrap metal dealers and assorted light industry. As you can see from the following photographs, even the Samaritans have given up presenting a decent image. Talk about down at heel. The only bright spot was a notice pointing the way to a telephone (goodness knows why in this smartphone era) but even that proved elusive – I couldn’t find it. It’s safe to say Angel Road won’t be missed for its ambience and Meridian Water can’t come soon enough.

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IMG_8474.jpgBut is three months soon enough for the work still left to do in finishing off? I know these things always look as though they’ll never be finished in time and all of a sudden, the last bit of tarmac is laid, the paint is touched up, the windows polished and it’s all fine for the opening, but when I visited this week, the site had the usual handful of hard-hat-industrial-boots-orange-high-viz wearing construction gang present but I didn’t detect any sense of urgency as they wandered around the site sauntering up and down the vast number of steps the new station will offer its new passengers who’ll certainly keep fit to and from the platforms on their daily commute.

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IMG_8540.jpgI may have missed it, but I didn’t spot any easy pedestrian access across from Tesco Extra and IKEA with no crossing facility at the very busy adjacent traffic light controlled junction. I also had to walk along a muddy grass verge with no footpath approaching the new site from the south. However the architects visionary mock up computer generated image shows a utopian world of just pedestrians and cyclists approaching the station and that busy junction has completely vanished.

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Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 20.45.05.pngThe mock up also shows the first 750 homes (as in blocks of flats) all fully built with lots of potential passengers flocking to the station but with construction of those homes not starting until next year I’m thinking it may take a year or two for Meridian Water to climb into a busier passenger usage league. There has to be a strong chance Meridian Water’s first year will see it retaining Angel Road’s crown as the least used station in London … but with the newest and most pristine facilities!

I’m far from an expert on construction projects but it looked to me as though there’s quite a lot of ‘finishing touches’ still to be done, and then there’ll be the usual rail bureaucracy hoops to go through before the station can open (think Kenilworth) so I wouldn’t put serious money on a 19th May opening judging by what I saw this week. Still at least Angel Road can live on a bit longer, if necessary.

Further south down the line, Northumberland Park is also wrapped in hoardings with a new footbridge access over the extra track looking ready to open as is Tottenham Hale, which is undergoing a complete transformation including a new and expanded ticket hall for the Victoria Line, which I can very confidently say won’t be ready for 19th May. As the photograph below shows, there’s quite a bit of fitting out yet to do!

IMG_8447.jpgIt will be good for the credibility of rail project deliverability if Meridian Water actually does meet its promised 19th May opening date, but it’s not looking hopeful.

Roger French

railair & you’re there

Thursday 24th January 2019

IMG_7489.jpgThe recent launch of First Bus’s nine brand new Scania Irizar i6 bodied K-series coaches for its prestigous RailAir nonstop service linking Reading Station with Heathrow Airport attracted a shoal of positive comments on Twitter and in the trade press so I thought I’d give it a road test today.

IMG_7509.jpgAll the more so as I realised I’d never actually travelled on this bespoke route before; living in Sussex I don’t have much need to reach Heathrow from Reading, although back in my student days at Reading University in the early 1970s I remember trips up to London on Thames Valley’s (sadly rebranded Alder Valley in its ill fated merger with Aldershot & District) infamous routes A and B which took an age to reach London; and I really can’t remember whether one of them nipped into Heathrow to serve the airport on the way.

 

IMG_7481.jpgThese new coaches do look very smart indeed in their attractive Best Impressions designed livery. Sleek lines, lovely blue and grey colours and an attractive no-fuss typeface and logo with the slogan ‘railair & you’re there’. The professional design’s a world away from the busy bus-crash style message overload which befits some of First’s bus fleet in metropolitan areas (Leeds I’m looking at you!).

 

IMG_7511.jpgThe step entrance is noticeably nice and wide, and, naturally the coaches are equipped for wheelchair accessibility, although sadly three days advance notice is required if you want to travel in a wheelchair. It looked like it’s much more than a five minute job to remove the seats that make way for a wheechair.

IMG_7532.jpgThe gorgeous interior design matches the exterior and really is very attractive and welcoming, as are the 47 seats including twelve arranged around three tables spread through the coach. USB sockets are available as is wi-fi, although I couldn’t get a connection on my journey.

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IMG_7529.jpgThe seats really are the most sumptuous and comfortable I’ve travelled in for a long time, and all the more so for passengers making the transition from a Class 800 IEP train and its rather unwelcoming seat comfort and transferring in Reading over to this luxury and comfort for the onward journey to Heathrow. It even beats First Class on an 800.

IMG_7530.jpgAs I showed on Twitter this afternoon, there was a rather disturbing amount of vibration on the table surface as the coach tackled the uneven road surfaces, especially on the M4 where long term roadworks are upgrading it to a ‘Smart Motorway’. That aside, the coach really did glide along and I found it a smooth enjoyable ride. The plaudits are well deserved.

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IMG_7482.jpgOne or two observations and suggestions about RailAir: we set off exactly on time at 1300 and after seven minutes in free flowing off-peak Reading traffic reached the A329(M) at 1307, joining the M4 five minutes later at 1312. The motorway’s temporary 50mph speed limit impacted our speed until we reached the end of the roadworks by Junction 7 for Slough at 1325 when we speeded up, reaching the M25 at 1333 with a smooth run round to Terminal 5, our first drop off two minutes early at 1338 where four passengers got off and we left on time at 1340. Four more alighted on time at Terminal 2 at 1352 with our final two passengers deposited at Terminal 3 at 1358, just two minutes down. We reached Heathrow’s bus station at 1402 (instead of 1400), and the coach got ready for its 1410 departure back to Reading.

IMG_7537.jpgTen passengers may not seem many, (around the same number took the previous journey from Reading at 1240 – the service runs every 20 minutes) but at a fare of around £20 (for both single and return) that’s not bad going for an hours work.

I booked online in advance last night, but there are a few inconsistencies with the booking arrangement. The RailAir website advises passengers must book online at the latest by 5pm the previous day, yet I found I was able to book at about 8pm without any difficulty, so that seems an unnecessary restriction. Once you receive your email confirmation and ticket, it contains the instruction “YOU MUST PRINT YOUR TICKET AND SHOW IT TO THE DRIVER”. Not only is this in block capitals but is repeated twice more and a similar warning is contained on the website.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 19.30.58The only problem for me was my email came with a large promotional graphic which didn’t fully download in any event, which took up so much of page 1 of the 3 page email I MUST PRINT OUT that what looked like the all important QR Code was split between page 1 and page 2! Not being a computer expert and knowing how to change the settings I was a bit befuddled!

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 20.28.11.pngIn the event, the railair representative in the lounge at Reading Station confirmed it’s quite in order to simply show the email to the driver on a smartphone, and indeed my driver was very happy to see it that way!

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The inevitable ‘wet floor’ (it wasn’t) bollard too!

The reception area at Reading Station has also been given a much welcome Best Impressions designed makeover and really looks quite splendid inside with its TV screen showing the latest news, complimentary newspapers (The Times at that too), complimentary hot drinks machine, comfortable seats as well as seats to sit and work at. It made up for the ineptness of the website booking arrangement to be honest.

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IMG_7506.jpgAnother small inconsistency is that the only benefit of booking online is for an ‘Early Bird’ ticket, defined as booking more than three months before travel; otherwise, despite the messages, despite the 5pm cut off, there didn’t seem to be any difference between online prices and just paying in the lounge or to the driver.

I was pleased to see the main Railcards are accepted for a third discount, which meant my fare for a single journey was £13.20; which I ranked as good value for the service provided.

IMG_7525.jpgBearing in mind railair is operated by First Bus and GWR has long been in the hands of First Group, you’d think there’d be close working between the two companies. There’s a lovely railair leaflet I spotted at Reading, but I’d be surprised if it was to be found at stations westwards to the West Country and South Wales. Although I did spot a GWR leaflet giving details of links to many airports from GWR’s network which included mention of RailAir.

IMG_7480 (1).jpgThere are signs for the RailAir coach inside Reading Station and commendably departures appear on screens and therefore on apps too. I was surprised there wasn’t better signage directing you to the departure lounge as you exit through the barriers and would suggest this would help those unfamiliar that this gem is hidden behind M&S Simply Food’s central outlet.

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IMG_7410.jpgI would also suggest ways be found to include the service on National Rail’s journey planner. I caught the 1158 from Newbury arriving Reading at 1220 giving a good connection with the 1240 railair departure (had I needed it) which would’ve got me to Terminal 5 at 1320. However, if you put Newbury to Terminal 5 in the Journey Planner it will take you into Paddington and out again on the overpriced and extortionately expensive Heathrow Express arriving Terminal 5 twelve minutes later at 1332. Pay more and arrive later; I don’t think so!

Screen Shot 2019-01-24 at 19.43.13.pngThe long term future of RailAir is in some doubt with talk getting louder about constructing a new western link into Heathrow from the Great Western main line. At the pace of change on the rail network it will be some time before we see such a development, so in the meantime these new coaches are indeed very welcome; well worth a ride and you’re there.

IMG_7535.jpgRoger French