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

I won’t let a software glitch beat me

Monday 1st April 2019

IMG_3381.jpgI’d seen the build up in the trade press last summer. Another ‘on-demand’ ‘ride-sharing’ ‘app-based’ ‘innovative’ minibus service due to start running between central/north London and Luton airport from October 2018.

The operation called ‘Blue Bus’ would “drop you off as near to your home as we can”. Obviously there would be an “Uber-style app … matching customers to the closest pick up point”. It sounded too good to be true to be covering all of central and north London. I bookmarked it to follow up the launch with a ride.

October 2018 came and went but no news of the new service starting. I emailed Blue Bus founder and owner, Tazio Puri Negri to enquire about progress and he said he’d “keep me posted”.

IMG_E3308.jpgI heard no more until last week when a fullsome effusive  four page article appeared in the same trade magazine confirming what was now called B.Bus has been up and running for a month ….. and “we already carried around 20 passengers in the first two weeks”.

The article continued “at the moment the service is offered 7am till 5.30pm and is only available between Luton Airport and central and north London …. the long term strategy is to cover all the major airports of London. Gatwick is planned as our second expansion. There are even plans for airports to be served outside of the UK, but currently the Luton operation is where the focus for the time being will remain”. Just as well.

Unable to resist trying out anything new (and innovative) I downloaded the prerequisite B.Bus app, registered as a customer, and made my plans.IMG_3390.jpgI must have missed the bit when it said pick ups/set downs are initially only in the Paddington and Bayswater area, and it could well be my personal technical limitations at how to use apps but I found I could only default to having Luton Airport as the origin rather than destination for my journey.

Undeterred I headed off to Luton airport today to give B.Bus a try for a central London bound journey.

I’m sure it was something I’d not ticked or perhaps unwittingly opted out of, but arriving at the airport, my app wouldn’t accept any destination I entered despite using the inbuilt map or typing its name in manually. It got as far as telling me Paddington was a 3 minute walk away from Paddington Station but that’s as far as I got.

I decided to try the nuclear option of deleting the app and starting again. Trouble was the App Store wanted Wi-fi and I found my phone fighting between the various Wi-fi offers from National Express, Green Line and Arriva vehicles arriving and departing in the coach station – all of which need logging into or getting their own back by blocking Internet access. Increasingly frustrated I took refuge in the Terminal building and used their Wi-fi.

App successfully downloaded again and having logged back in as an already registered customer, I impressed myself with finally successfully booking and paying for a journey to Paddington and very impressively being advised a bus would be with me within 10 minutes. All I needed to do was take a 9 minute walk to the drop off/pick up point for cars and non scheduled coaches as B.Bus doesn’t come into Luton Airport’s coach station right in front of the Terminal building.

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I’d looked on the app on my way to the Airport at likely waiting times and saw what looked like an hourly service so was well chuffed to have dropped lucky at just a ten minute wait.IMG_3160.jpgI received a confirmatory text at 1306 that my journey was booked and scurried off to try and find the rendezvous point in ‘Drop Off zone area Bay F’ ready for a 1316 departure. This was impressive stuff.

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Once I’d worked out which way to walk it only took about five minutes and although the Bay letters are marked and positioned for the convenience of drivers and hidden from approaching passengers (other than Bay O) I eventually found Bay F and waited.

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And waited.

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And waited.

By 1330, fifteen minutes after my driver Simon had been due, I began to have that nagging feeling this wasn’t going to work out well. By 1345 I was on the point of giving up. The problem being there’s no contact details in the app and replying to the confirmation text just brought back ‘message not delivered’.

Luckily a bus industry insider had the mobile phone number of B.Bus owner Tazio Puri Negri so I gave him a ring to find out what was happening. A colleague answered and said he’d look into it and call me back within five minutes.

Which he did. Simon would be with me in twenty minutes and I’d be refunded my £7.99 fare. Sincere apologies were given with Simon’s non appearance put down to a software glitch which had shown no bookings for the afternoon.

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Simon duly arrived with me at 1430 and I was finally on my way. We had a nice chat as we drove down the M1 and encountered only a short stretch of slow moving traffic near the M25 delaying progress and some minor delays on the Finchley Road.

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Simon explained he’d got seriously delayed on the way up to the Airport by a crash on the M1 and also apologised for keeping me waiting as I boarded. I explained that I understood there’d been a software problem and he acknowledged he hadn’t received details of my booked journey.

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The Iveco minibus is comfortable and its nineteen seats give good leg room. A usb socket is available in the side panels. There is Wi-fi but my phone didn’t seem to pick it up. Three of the minibuses are natural gas (CNG) powered necessitating a special trip to fuel up in London while the fleet has another similar three diesel powered Iveco Daily Tourys vehicles.

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As we approached the end of the M1 Simon explained he was getting tight on drivers’ hours as he had to get back and fuel up before finishing his duty so we mutually agreed it would suit us both if I bailed out at Finchley Road and I’d jump on the Jubilee line and Simon could head back north before the homebound rush hour hit the M1.

It had taken 50 minutes to reach Finchley Road from Luton Airport and we bid our farewells.

 

Tazio and his B.Bus team are joining a highly competitive central London to Luton Airport market. Who can forget the legal battles between Arriva’s Green Line and National Express over the airport coach station access a few years ago. No wonder B.Bus is banished to the outer fringe of the airport although that presumably means a nice saving on departure charges.

The £7.99 fare is a bargain; setting aside software glitches, if I was a regular passenger needing to get to the Paddington area and was able to easily master the app and could summon up a comfortable luxury looking minibus to arrive within ten minutes, that’s a very attractive proposition at a great deal. When I travelled on Arriva’s Green Line 757 last September it cost £11 one way to Victoria.

On the strength of today’s experience though, it’s going to be a monumental task to make it a commercial success. Sure there are lots of hotels in the Paddington/Bayswater area and no doubt a percentage of their visitors pass through Luton Airport but I’m not convinced that market is big enough to sustain six minibuses.

As ever promotion and getting the service known in the marketplace is a Himalayan mountain to climb, and very costly too. It’s early days but I couldn’t see a social media presence (certainly the link from the app doesn’t work) and I can’t find a website by Googling ‘B.Bus Luton Airport’ or anything similar.

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Apps are the current fashion but why not run a scheduled hourly shuttle on fixed times between Paddington and Luton Airport – at least we’d all know what to expect and when to expect it rather than the lottery of whether a minibus is around and can be with me “within minutes”.

It might be today’s software glitch but when I tried to rebook my journey the app was telling me “There are no buses available at this moment please try scheduling a ride”. That’s not much good if I’ve just stepped off the plane especially when trying to schedule a ride, the app could only offer me a journey tomorrow morning after 0730.

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It’s always good to see new services being tried and I wish Team Tazio good luck; I think they’ll need it. I wouldn’t worry too much about those expansion plans for Gatwick and other airports just yet though and definitely and urgently get today’s software glitch sorted.

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Roger French