Speke up for Arriva Click

Wednesday 28th August 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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 That service reduction obviously hasn’t worked as just four months later the service is being withdrawn ‘replaced by Arriva Click as part of an initial 12 month trial’ (note the word ‘initial’).IMG_8861.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a thought.

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

Roger French

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

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

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

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

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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

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