zeelo lands at Gatwick Airport

Wednesday 21st August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger French

 

The m1 arrives in Bristol

Sunday 6th January 2019

Today saw the launch of the third route in Bristol’s metrobus trilogy: the m1. And this is the biggy. Route m3 was first out of the blocks last May between Emersons Green and the city centre using a new bus only exit off the M32 for easy access to the University of West of England campus. This was followed in September by the former Long Ashton Park & Ride service rebranded and renumbered m2 and diverted to use some new fancy bus only roads and completely unnecessary guided busway sections (reviewed here).

In reverse number order, we now have the m1. From the gigantic leisure and retail park just off the M5 known as Cribbs Causeway in north west Bristol the m1 runs via Bradley Stoke in the north east and the University of West of England to the city centre then via Bedminster and Hengrove to terminate outside South Bristol Community Hospital having taken a whopping 85 peak minutes for an end to end journey. A Monday to Saturday 10 minute frequency impressively runs from 6am right through to 1am (20 minutely on Sundays). The extended peak running time means at least fifteen buses are needed to run the route.

Cribbs Causeway
South Bristol Community Hospital, Hengrove

Uniquely the route is being operated by Bristol Community Transport (BCT) under a fixed cost contract to First West of England who are taking the revenue risk. BCT is part of CT Plus which in turn is part of the expansive HCT Group (a social enterpise formerly known as Hackney Community Transport) who specialise in fixed contract operations. This arrangement is a win-win for all concerned. BCT get an extensive contract with no risk; First West of England get to develop revenue on a high profile new route overlaying their extensive Bristol city network rather than competition from a third party, and I suspect First are paying CT Plus less than if they’d operated it directly, and the local authorities, who have backed the metrobus concept and funded all the infrastructure, get an integrated package and their vision of a better quality bus service to tempt motorists out of their cars. With First West of England’s recent difficulties with staff shortages it’s also a sensible arrangement to contract out a significant resource uplift such as the m1.

It all sounds like a sensible arrangement with local operators working pragmatically together playing to their strengths and local authorities putting they money where their vision is. And the evidence is metrobus is working too. Coinciding with the m1’s introduction this week, a new timetable is being introduced on the m3 with peak hour with-flow express journeys (numbered m3x) using more of the M32 and shaving eight minutes off the journey time, due to overloading from Emersons Green and the Science Park.

I had a ride up and down the m1 today; it was encouraging to see so many people giving the new route a try (many buses ran full), and noteworthy how many families with young children were travelling. Extra buses were drafted on to the route to cope with the numbers travelling, helped by a first day free travel promotion – just the kind of thing to get people trying a bus route. I overheard many positive comments about the bus interiors and the service in general and I’m sure this bodes well. The interiors are nothing plush, but very smart, very comfortable and very practical. The usual usb sockets and wifi are available but sadly no next stop announcements were working on the buses I travelled on although I’m told they were working on other buses – no doubt some teething issues.

I’m always puzzled why some bus companies still go for large screens which block the forward view and the ones I saw weren’t providing anything useful – other than a reminder to exit via the rear doors which was displayed only once the bus had stopped.

Overlaying fifteen buses on to an already comprehensive city network without damaging profit margins is risky, but James Freeman, the well experienced managing director of First West of England, told me initially no reductions are being made to routes which now face competition from metrobus until things settle down. This is a very wise strategy as the m1 takes a different route to existing First buses at both ends of the route as well as a different route into the city. In Hengrove confusingly, existing buses into the city centre serve the opposite side of the road, and in one case (the 50A) is quicker than the new m1, so it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to this new high profile entrant. I suspect there’ll be both abstraction and generation and hopefully the latter will exceed the former (and by some margin – to cover fifteen buses!).

Confusingly some bus stops in Hengrove are served by traditional First bus routes but not the m1; the lady photographed above was politely advised by our driver who stopped to explain the situation.

The m1 serves the University of West of England, including the exclusive access to and from the M32, so the northern section of the route has a ready market especially as the m3 has shown, students are a great market to attract and respond in large numbers to improvements to bus routes.

Despite extensive stretches of bus lanes, the m1 running time has been expanded at peak times to cope with Bristol’s notorious traffic congestion. This is sensible, as even today, albeit with first day teething problems as drivers and passengers got used to the new arrangements, on one journey I travelled on we lost fifteen minutes on the northbound journey between Bedminster and the city centre, not helped by a delayed five minute driver handover – and at a bus stop not served by metrobus (not good!).

As with the m2 and m3, no tickets are sold by the driver. Every stop has a pod with clear instructions how to buy a ticket or to use a smartphone or smartcard.

The fleet of buses on the m1 are powered by gas. A nice touch, but I’m not convinced many passengers notice, and even if they did, it would make a difference to their travel arrangements. But it’s good to see alternative propulsion sources continue to be trialled.

All in all an exciting development and congratulations to all involved. It’s certainly worth a trip to Bristol to take a look.

Roger French

Bristol’s latest metrobus m2 begins

The second of the three new metrobus routes began operating in Bristol yesterday. The m2 links the Long Ashton Park & Ride site (south west of the city) via some impressive newly constructed exclusive busway road to the city centre where the bus does a large anti-clockwise circuit.

It’s been controversial and way behind schedule. This route’s £50 million budget is part of an overall £200 million scheme being overseen by Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucester Councils.

I’m not complaining about the high cost though; compared to rail schemes or roads it’s virtually petty cash and it’s good to see buses receiving impressive infrastructure investment.

First West of England has bravely taken the route on as a commercial proposition and I reckon they’re going to have their work cut out to achieve the elusive double digit margins City analysts demand of PLCs.

Unlike route m3 which began in May serving the busy University of West of England campus at the route’s southern end (north of the Uni is a bit barren) the m2’s main objective is bringing Long Ashton Park and Riders into the city centre. There’s not really much else to it.

Helped by well over a mile of new exclusive busway buses bypass any traffic congestion until they’re close to the city centre. That’s good for journey time and timekeeping (28 mins to Broadmead/22 mins back again) but not so good for picking up other revenue potential.

The circular city centre route has proved controversial as many commuters have complained the new circuit means a much longer walk to their workplace than the previous 903 service, but I’m sure such criticism will die down once the new arrangements become familiar. There are always winners and losers and a circular routing does make sense for Bristol’s central road layout.

The £4 First Bus day ticket is good value and can be used across their network with longer period tickets also available as are First’s M-ticket range. Despite this it’s surprising there’s only one ‘iPoint’ ticket machine at the Park & Ride terminus. As metrobus drivers don’t handle fares that’s surely a recipe for frustration with queues building up at busy times with a bus about to leave. Considering the investment in these ‘iPoint’ totems along the routes, even at quiet stops (on both sides of the road) this seems very shortsighted and penny pinching.

I also see the frequency is only every 20 minutes before 10am on Saturdays and would have thought that’ll be unpopular in the busy weekends leading up to Christmas. Otherwise it runs every 10 minutes at peak times. 12 minutes off peak and 20 minutes in the evenings.

Astonishingly the Park & Ride is closed on Sundays and route m2 doesn’t run! That is a bizarre omission.

The busway has sections of guided track which, just like in Leigh in Greater Manchester, are completely unnecessary. I suspect it may be to do with getting grant funding from the DfT that required a certain percentage of route to be ‘guided’, if so it’s bureaucracy gone bonkers as it slows the bus down, costs more to build and operate when there’s no issue with available road width.

The route serves Ashton Gate stadium but buses won’t stop on Bristol City home game days as capacity is a problem.

It’s also advertised as serving Temple Meads Station but not via the bus stops right outside nor on Temple Gate at the bottom of the access road but to the side in Temple Way accessed through the station’s side entrance/exit. In the event the connection to the station is a bit tenuous as, other than people like myself, few arriving by train would want a bus to a Park & Ride site on the city’s fringe and there are plenty of other buses to the city centre from right outside the station or on Temple Gate. It’s a shame the m2 bus stop in Temple Way hadn’t yet been updated from the former 903.

Despite these shortcomings Ashton Gate stadium and Temple Meads are highlighted in the route’s inflation leaflet.

There were copious supplies of the leaflet available at the impressive Park and Ride kiosk along with other facilities.

The buses are functional and comfortable rather than luxurious and are clean and well presented. The livery is a bit drab and doesn’t really excite.

The bus stop facilities along the route are excellent, if anything, a little over the top but better to over provide than under.

If I didn’t fancy using First West of England’s smart newly branded Excel excellent bus routes but instead was an ardent motorist living in North Somerset with commitments in central Bristol I’d definitely use Long Ashton’s Park and Ride car park and hop on an m2 bus into the city centre. It beats sitting in Bristol’s notorious congestion.

It remains to be seen whether sufficient people will do likewise to make it viable. Certainly every effort’s been made to make it an attractive option and well done to all concerned.

If you’re down Bristol way soon give it a try – it’s free on the last two Saturdays this month.

Roger French 4th September 2018