DaRT about in Dengie

Saturday 29th June 2019

IMG_2185.jpgBack in April I took a ride on the bus route formerly known as the ‘Wiltshire Wigglybus’ between Pewsey and Devizes – a traditional rural bus route combined with a Dial-a-Ride flexible option and wrote about it here. Yesterday I thought it might be interesting to sample a similar type of rural bus service branded as DaRT over in the Dengie peninsular in Essex.

(The small ‘a’ in DaRT comes from the Essex County Council website to indicate, I assume, the D, R and T stand for Demand Responsive Transport but I noticed the branding on the bus was DART rather than DaRT.)

The Dengie peninsular is the bit of Essex between the River Blackwater (to the north) and River Crouch (to the south) jutting out south east of Chelmsford. It’s a sparsely populated part of the County, which most people tend to avoid unless they’ve got business or leisure there, making it very challenging to provide attractive public transport. It’s a lovely part of the country, topologically rather flat but with an attractive tranquil air about the area.

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 20.39.15.pngFortunately there is a train service operated by Abellio run Greater Anglia along the southern edge of the peninsular from Southminster which connects at Wickford with the Southend-on-Sea to Liverpool Street service in the off peak, albiet at an annoying off-peak forty minute frequency, although there are convenient through trains to London in the peaks. Bus services to the small communities across the peninsula are a mix of a traditional route operated by First Essex, school buses and two DaRT routes funded by Essex County Council.

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 20.51.16.pngThe First Essex route is a traditional half hourly trunk service numbered 31 running between Chelmsford, Maldon, Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch (together with four minor route variations denoted as B, C, X and the Sunday 33).

Screen Shot 2019-06-29 at 05.49.54.pngDaRT 4 provides links between the small villages in the north east of Dengie such as Bradwell and Tillingham with Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch while DaRT 5 does the same for villages across the middle, eg Cold Norton, Latchingdon and Althorne.

The idea behind DaRT is like a shared minibus-come-taxi service. This is how the Essex County Council website explains it…

It’s mainly DaRT routes 1, 2 and 3 which operate in the rural area north of the County which run to a completely flexible route pattern (around Braintree and West Uttlesford) whereas on Dengie, DaRT 4 runs more like a traditional bus route with a fixed route and timetable while DaRT 5 has a fixed route but with no timetable. Both routes are operated by Ace Taxis using minibuses.

I was a bit put off by the “there must be sufficient volume of passengers with similar itineraries” clause in the ‘instructions’ wondering how you’re fixed for travel if there aren’t (sufficient volume) so decided to play it safe by trying out DaRT 4 and travelled to Tillingham yesterday (in the east of Dengie) on the Friday only shopping journey run between school trips by Fords Coaches of Althorne from Chelmsford.

This off-peak weekly shopping journey from Dengie alternates between a fortnightly route 3 from Tillingham and a fortnightly route 6 from Althorne and Burnham-on-Crouch and both return from the bus stops adjacent to Chelmsford Market at 13:30. I was impressed to see a good crowd of shoppers already waiting by 13:15.

IMG_2120.jpgBy 13:25 the bus had arrived and twenty-eight boarded ready for the journey home. Everyone just piled on the bus without showing any tickets or passes and I guess the transactions had all been sorted on the outward journey with it being a rarity for anyone to be making a single journey back to Tillingham on the return. I surprised the driver by not only explaining that’s what I was doing but also needed to pay rather than have a concessionary pass. A single for £4 seemed fairly good value.

IMG_2124.jpgIMG_2149.jpgIt was one of those chatty buses where everyone knew everyone and all wished each other fond farewells as they alighted at bus stops along the route. We left Chelmsford spot on time and were due to arrive in Tillingham at 14:45 so I wasn’t unduly worried that my connection on to the DaRT 4 minibus gave six minutes before that departed at 14:51 having begun its journey at Bradwell Waterside.

Route 3 also went via nearby Bradwell-on-Sea which was a delightful village with a lovely Bedford vintage bus on a wedding private hire outside the church…

IMG_2177.jpg… but I got concerned that by then with all the prolonged fond farewells we were six minutes behind schedule making for a tight connection in Tillingham just down the road. I kept an eye out for the DaRT minibus to come into view behind us and sure enough it appeared just as we entered the village of Tillingham….

IMG_2178.jpgI strategically placed myself downstairs by the driver and asked if he wouldn’t mind waving his hand out the cab window to indicate I needed the bus which was just as well as the body language of the minibus was definitely not to hang around looking for passengers…

IMG_2179.jpgLuckily the driver got the message and beckoned me to come back and board before he continued overtaking the double decker and within seconds we were on our way to Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch.

IMG_2180.jpgThe driver didn’t seem interested in wanting me to pay a fare and drove off straight away at some speed while chatting to the passenger on board returning home from his day’s fishing.

I’d rung the operator, Ace Taxis, earlier in the morning when in Chelmsford to book my journey as instructed but was told I needn’t do that as it’s just like a bus service. I guess with a fixed timetable …

….. and a standard sized 14 seat minibus …..

IMG_2181.jpg… that’s the case with this route although when we got to Southminster there was a bus and driver change ….

IMG_2183.jpgIMG_2186.jpg…to a smaller taxi-sized minibus with a self-opening door which I guess is more often used on the flexible booked DaRT 5 route ….

Our fisherman friend had got off at the bus change in Southminster so it was just me and the friendly new driver travelling on to Burnham-on-Crouch where we did a loop around a residential area and picked up a waiting passenger (Peter, who’s “on the bus committee”) before arriving at the station where I got off as they continued to the terminus at the Clock Tower, a little further on, before returning on the next journey back to Bradwell Waterside for one more return trip. It didn’t look to me that it was going to be busy.

So the DaRT idea left me a bit confused as to whether it’s a bus or a taxi; whether it’s fixed or flexible; whether it’s for passengers travelling singly or a minimum group required. But at least it’s providing rural transport in a difficult to serve sparsely populated area, and good on Essex for doing just that. I hope the sparse loadings were not typical.

Meanwhile the shoppers special route 3 (and 6) to Chelmsford obviously bring in useful income for Fords Coaches to supplement a school contract while also providing a useful service for around thirty people living in Dengie.

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