Rural pilots take off in Kent

Tuesday 18th June 2019

Kent County Council’s ‘Rural Transport Initiative’ using ‘Taxi Buses’ has begun so I thought I’d take a look to see how it’s going.

It’s early days but there are already signs of interest building in the rural communities now enjoying public transport either for the first time or after quite a gap since bus routes last ran. And it’s not surprising passengers are happy as the new timetables see journeys running every weekday with more journeys than ran before.

Kent County Council have committed £0.5 million funding for five pilot schemes spread across the county with each trial running for twelve months. Schemes in Maidstone and West Malling have yet to start but the first three in Sevenoaks, Sandwich and Tenterden are now up and running.

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IMG_0799.jpgFirst to launch was the Sevenoaks Taxi Bus at the beginning of the month. Now in its third week this really is a taxi-sized ‘Taxi Bus’ using an eight seater private hire licensed vehicle operated by Maidstone based Express Cars.

The service links West Kingsdown and the isolated East Hill Residential Park with Sevenoaks. East Hill was previously served by the Wednesday-only one-return journey-a-week route 405 operated by Go-Coach Hire. I blogged about that route just before it was withdrawn back on 3rd April. After a two month gap with no service to Sevenoaks at all, East Hill residents can’t believe their luck they now have three return journeys a day, five days a week.

Even better, residents in the tiny hamlets of Stansted and Fairseat (beyond West Kingsdown off the A20/M20 north of Wrotham) have a ‘bus’ service for the first time – probably ever – as this new route continues beyond West Kingsdown down the A20 to serve these micro-communities.

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Kent County Council have astutely specified the off-peak only timetable to slot between a peak commitment to transport children with special needs to school meaning a big chunk of the vehicle and driver costs are already funded. Passenger revenue on the three return journeys between 09:30 and 14:45 merely needs to cover the marginal costs of the extra mileage and any other off-peak ad-hoc private hire work the vehicle has now foregone.

That’s just as well as there’s a bit of a problem with this service being limited to just those eight seats – six of which are in the rear (three facing each other) and two alongside the driver with the middle seats distinctly ‘cosy’ and with tight leg room in the front.

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IMG_0775.jpgWednesday, being ‘market day’ in Sevenoaks and the traditional day for the erstwhile route 405, is already proving crunch day as more than half a dozen regulars from East Hill could often be found on the 405 whereas now, it’s pot luck whether  they’ll get on as no pre-booking is allowed. I hear passengers have already been turned away on Wednesday last week.

Obviously the hope is passengers will spread themselves out across the journey options during the week, but old habits die hard and it’s not easy to second guess who might travel when. It also takes no account of new passengers being generated by the more frequent service.

IMG_0797.jpgIndeed, when I travelled yesterday a resident in Fairseat came out to meet us when we arrived and chatted to Jay, our driver, about using the new service and when she said she might try it on Wednesday he explained it would be a busy day but at least she’d be getting on at the terminus so would be alright (heading towards Sevenoaks, at least).

IMG_0796.jpgThere’s one great thing about this new service and that is regular driver Jay. He’s an absolute gem; totally customer centric and firmly committed to making this pilot a success. He’s had bus driving experience with Arriva and Nu-Venture as well as running his own taxi and is absolutely ideal for this new role.

Jay’s already suggested a very sensible change to the timetable (which is being implemented once the registration notice period has elapsed) as it’s proven to be far too optimistic with running times ostensibly compiled assuming no passengers boarding and no allowance for meeting traffic on what must be the narrowest roads any registered bus travels along in the Country.

IMG_E1250.jpgAside from one passenger making a journey from the big Sainsbury’s on the outskirts of Sevenoaks back to East Hill (who’d come out on the first journey to shop there for some cigarettes while Jay continued on with three other passengers to the bus station) no-one joined us on the 10:15 from Sevenoaks to Fairseat or the journey back again at 11:00 yesterday morning, yet we only just kept to time.

As Jay pointed out, once Express Cars ‘O’ licence application for the service becomes effective, he needs the 45 minute break when he gets back to Sevenoaks after the second journey in from Fairseat for drivers’ hours requirements so an adjustment to the timetable is urgently needed. Jay’s sensible plan is to route the 10:15 Sevenoaks to Fairseat journey direct along the A25 and A227/A20 (ie effectively dead running) as well as the 13:15 journey back from Fairseat as these journeys serve no real function as the purpose of the route is to provide a shopping facility in Sevenoaks – on those journeys you’ve only enough time to nip into a shop for a packet of fags (as we saw) rather than a linger around the shops.

The slackened timetable will not only ensure Jay has a proper break but give the much needed time for passengers, mainly elderly, to board and alight as accessibility is not particularly brilliant in the eight-seater not least because of the manually operated door. There is a facility for a wheelchair to be accommodated but it would be a right old faff to accommodate it and mean even less seats available. Ideally, once the O licence comes through a proper sized minibus (12-16 seats) with low floor access and remotely operated door is required for a route like this except the roads really are very narrow.

IMG_0795.jpgAnd I do mean narrow.

IMG_0800.jpgVery narrow.

IMG_0803.jpgIt was always a breath-holding moment when the old 405 went out to East Hill and West Kingsdown but at least it was just one return journey a week, now it’s three return journeys, five days a week (until Jay’s change takes two of those single journeys away) and as you can see we met a few cars along the way.

I was pleased to see timetable leaflets for the new service available in Go-Coach Hire’s travel office in Sevenoaks bus station and a new timetable was posted at the bus stop at East Hill (along with the Thursday only 422 to Gravesend) …..

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…. although the 405 still appears on the flag!

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Good luck to Jay in making this pilot work; if anyone can, he can.

 

IMG_0901.jpgKent’s second ‘Taxi Bus’ began operating on Monday of last week over in the eastern side of the county based on Sandwich. This ‘Taxi Bus’ is more bus than taxi using an Optare Solo sixteen seater operated by Britannia Coaches who run an extensive fleet of luxury coaches and minibuses/coaches based in Dover and the eastern side of Kent.

IMG_0877.jpgThis pilot is a route of two halves to the villages of Staple and Northbourne/Mongeham either side of Sandwich. A real Sandwich sandwich. Like Sevenoaks, the timetable looks tight with perpetual motion from the moment it kicks off at 09:30 until it finishes for the day after four round trips at 15:30. A spare minute is allowed each time the bus passes Sandwich’s impressive Guildhall but eight minutes in a six hour operating day is cutting it tight.

IMG_E1252.jpgAt least passenger access is much better on the Solo than a taxi, and on my journey out to Staple at 13:40 we took four passengers home including one with a four-wheeler walking aid. I was impressed to see Britannia drivers turned out very smart in their uniform and I noted a shift changeover when I boarded at 13:40.

IMG_0842.jpgAfter dropping the four ladies off in Staple and we turned round to head back we picked up another passenger who took us as far as the edge of Ash where she got off to catch the Stagecoach route 43 from there to Canterbury – just what the team at Kent County Council had in mind for this kind of service. The only trouble is there’d be no connection for her return journey; still, it’s a start.

IMG_0908.jpgBack in Sandwich for the next trip at 14:21 down to Northbourne and Mongeham we picked up a couple taking a ride around the complete circuit like myself just out of curiosity, but no other passengers.

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IMG_0808.jpgMongeham is almost part of Deal, the bus pretty much touches the outskirts of that town to turn round where it meets the Stagecoach routes 80/81 which connect Dover and Sandwich (and on to Canterbury). I understand Northbourne lost its regular bus a couple of years ago, so there’s been much cheering and flag waving to see the Sandwich TaxiBus bring public transport back.

IMG_0918.jpgThere are Stagecoach branded bus stops along the route as well as in Staple as a school bus operates through all these villages, but not much good for off-peak shopping trips, so the new service is naturally being warmly welcomed.

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On to the third pilot over in Tenterden.

IMG_1021.jpgThe Tenterden Hopper, as it’s called, began this week so my visit earlier today was only on its second day. I made reference to these four new routes in my blog about the demise of bus routes 293 and 294 last week, so it was interesting to try them out now they’re operational. Although no ticket machines have been set up yet on this route, so I benefited from introductory free rides!

IMG_1022.jpgWhereas the Sevenoaks trial comprises a taxi running under a Private Hire licence and the Sandwich scheme is a minibus under a full O Licence held by a substantial coach company, the Tenterden initiative involves a charity running a minibus under a Section 22 Community Bus Permit arrangement. The Tenterden Social Hub (previously known as the Tenterden & District Day Centre) runs a fleet of small minibuses to bring its clients to the club building in the centre of Tenterden, and the Tenterden Hopper is a new string to their bow.

The 16 seat minibus with a rear tail lift for wheelchairs used on the four new rural routes open to the public has been bought especially and unlike in Sevenoaks is not used on peak workings before and after.

IMG_0980.jpgTwo of the four routes, lettered B and C, are based on the former routes 293 and 294, albeit the former no longer serves Wittersham as this is served by the regular Stagecoach 312 bus route. Route A to Shirkoak and the Rare Breeds Centre (both near Woodchurch to the north east of Tenterden) and Route D to Benenden and Iden Green (to the south west of Tenterden) are new innovations.

IMG_E1251One return journey operates on each of the four routes in turn (A to D) providing around two and a half to three hours in Tenterden for shopping before the return trip. Whereas the 293 and 294 only ran on Mondays and Fridays new routes A, B, C and D run all five days, Mondays to Fridays.

IMG_1020.jpgI had a ride on both the new routes A and D and unsurprisingly for day 2 was the only passenger. It was good to meet up with Owen from the Tenterden Social Hub who was route learning the drivers and taking a keen interest in how the new service he now has responsibility for was settling in.

I have my doubts about both these new routes making an impact. On Route A, the Rare Breeds Centre looked a fascinating place to visit if you’re on a school trip but I can’t see the departure at 09:30 from Tenterden (arriving at the Centre at 10:00) with a return at 13:15 appealing to many families who need to make their way into Tenterden for 09:30.

IMG_1249.jpgThe other objective, Shirkoak Park is another mobile home residential park just north of Woodchurch and although the minibus travels a couple of hundred yards up the drive from the main road to better serve it, back on the main Bethersden Road is Stagecoach’s route 2A which operates around 9 to 10 times a day (approximately every two hours) between Ashford and Tenterden. The original plan was for the minibus to encircle the Park but Owen was concerned the road was too narrow and found a sensible turning point not far up the entrance road.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 19.36.53.pngInterestingly Owen also explained this morning’s first run picked up around ten passengers from there who had all been waiting for the 2A! They obviously went back on the 2A (at 12:25) as we carried no-one on our 13:00 journey.

IMG_1029.jpgI couldn’t see any justification for running route A bearing in mind, aside from the Rare Breed Centre, it’s all served by route 2A.

The same was true for route D too. I travelled on the first journey from Tenterden at 11:45. The route operates via the (private) Benenden Hospital at ‘East End’ which sounds as though it might be a good trip generator but the hospital has a long standing arrangement of running a bookable shuttle connection from both Headcorn and Ashford stations. The route then continues via the narrowest of Kent lanes (including a 6 foot 6 inches width restriction) to Benenden itself where there are other bus connections to Tenterden including Hams Travel route 297 which operates seven journeys a day.

IMG_1169.jpgRoute D then continues the short distance to turn at the hamlet of Iden Green but this has a number of established once/twice a week routes to Maidstone (route 24 on Tuesdays), Tunbridge Wells (route 255 on Wednesdays and Fridays), Tenterden and Rye (route 293 on Thursdays) and Tenterden (route 299 on Fridays). I doubt adding a shopping trip every day of the week to Tenterden is going to make any impact among the 380 people who live in Iden Green (photographed below).

IMG_1117.jpgDuring our trip Owen made the pertinent observation the route via that narrow road (which to me smacks of someone designing the route with a map in an office) could be amended by using a slightly different route (continuing via Goddards Green Road and New Pond Road – see map below) which we tried on the way back and was indeed much more suitable, albeit it would miss out part of Benenden but as mentioned above thus is well served by route 297. I really don’t understand the reason for route D.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 19.16.04.pngMy suggestion would be to abandon the A and D and link routes B and C to run a cross Tenterden route from Rolvenden Layne to Appledore running three or even four journeys a day rather like in Sandwich, giving passengers more options for either a shorter or longer stay in Tenterden. It might also enable an earlier finish for the bus than the current 16:00 so it could be utilised on some other work for the day centre at the Hub and be more cost effective.

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As I highlighted in my previous blog, Kent County Council explain that ENCTS passes are valid for travel but donations of £1 are welcomed “to help with the financial sustainability of the pilots”. Otherwise there’s a single fare of £2 adult (£1 child) in Tenterden and £3 (adult) with a £5 return in Sevenoaks and Sandwich.

It’s been interesting to see these three different models (Taxi; O licence minibus; Community Minibus) in action and credit to Kent County Council for trying something positive to support rural transport. I look forward to trying out the Maidstone and West Malling pilots when they get going next month.

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Roger French

293 and 294 bow out in Kent

Tuesday 11th June 2019

Yesterday was the final time routes 293 and 294 connected various Kent villages with Tenterden. The routes’ withdrawal are a consequence of Kent County Council’s slimmed down funding cut to uncommercial bus services following its ‘Big Conversation’ consultation about rural transport last year.

I’d been alerted to the withdrawals on social media and checked operator Hams Travel’s website to get clear confirmation the routes would be withdrawn from this coming weekend with new arrangements commencing 17th June.

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Checking the Hams Travel website further showed a comprehensive listing of timetables for various routes they provide on behalf of Kent County Council in the Tunbridge Wells, Hawkhust and Tenterden areas, including route 293.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 22.34.46.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-09 at 22.34.58.pngIt was six years since I’d last taken a ride on the Thursday route 293 from Tunbridge Wells to Rye. Back in 2013 it was operated by a company called New Enterprise which was owned by Arriva; and indeed used Arriva liveried buses.

Romney Marsh - August 2013 007.jpgIn view of its imminent withdrawal I decided to take another ride and made the journey back from Rye to Tunbridge Wells on Thursday last week to see how many people were travelling. Rye’s always busy on a Thursday because it’s the town’s traditional market day. The old Maidstone & District depot in Station Approach has long gone but the market continues as its always done on land opposite and in front of the rail tracks.

IMG_0039.jpgI’m not sure why the market attracts so many people, and an amazing number of visiting coaches but I guess most are exploring the town itself with its rich history and lovely narrow streets full of interest.

IMG_0037.jpgThe Hams Travel 293 sets off on its return journey to Tunbridge Wells at 1345 and the driver pulled up at the bus stop in good time to load all twenty of us, including many shopping trolleys and a wheelchair.

IMG_0045 (1).jpgAs I stepped on the bus after everyone else had boarded, the driver was quite taken aback to have a cash paying passenger on board and had to get back into his cab, from helping everyone on the bus, to issue me with a ticket. Concessionary passes rule here.

IMG_0047.jpgIt’s a two hour six minute run back to Tunbridge Wells across delightful scenic Kent countryside.IMG_0049.jpgIt was obvious from the start that everyone on the bus knew everyone and a right old social club atmosphere was evident, indeed far noisier than I’ve known many school buses. Sweets were passed round; comments made about fellow passengers but only after they’d got off (“I’m sure they cut each other’s hair – with pudding bowls – they look identical”; “it’s such a shame, she looks worse than last week”) making me pleased to be going all the way to Tunbridge Wells and be the last one to get off minus comments.

I was very surprised just how far everyone travelled on the 293 to Rye. We first headed north towards Appledore and dropped our first passenger in the tiny hamlet of Stone-in-Oxney (twenty minutes after leaving Rye) on the border of Romney Marsh. No-one got off in Tenterden, unsurprising as Stagecoach run a more regular route 312 between there and Rye via a quicker route, but three alighted in Rolvenden (fifty minutes from Rye) and another in the nearby Rolvenden Layne which necessitated a dog leg off our route to serve this isolated community. Five alighted in Hawkhurst (75 minutes from Rye); two in Kilndown (93 minutes); two in Pembury (almost two hours from Rye) and five at various stops as we entered Tunbridge Wells.

IMG_0044.jpgOddly amongst all the banter on board there was no talk about this being the penultimate time the bus would run down to Rye; and I was intrigued to overhear titbits of conversation that there was another route 293 being withdrawn rather than this one. I asked the driver when getting off, but he wasn’t entirely sure but thought there was another journey on a Monday that was facing the chop and this one is indeed continuing.

I was intrigued this wasn’t clarified on Hams Travel’s website which made no reference to another journey on the 293 or indeed the 294, so on my way home I called Hams Travel to find out more. I was told by the person answering they had no knowledge of bus routes and I needed to speak to Nick at the other garage in Flimwell but he’d be out on a school journey so it would be best to ring back the next day.

I tried Nick again last Friday but he was out again, so left my number to call me back. In the meantime having found no reference to the demise of routes 293 and 294 on Kent County Council’s website I called the advertised contact number for their Highways and Transport Department. I reckon I must have been the first person to call Kent H&T about buses as the person answering was completely thrown by my request to be put through to the person who oversees tendered bus routes. She insisted I needed to speak to the bus company; but I insisted they were unable to help and there must be someone there who contracts bus companies to run buses and who could help me. She asked me to hold on.

Having consulted with her manager she advised me firmly but completely incorrectly I “needed to speak to the Borough Council”. I decided to use the nuclear option of searching the online database of Notices and Proceedings for the London and South East of England Traffic Area around about early April to check out whether Hams Travel had deregistered with the Traffic Commissioners the withdrawal of the 293 and 294 – I opened up each of the fortnightly publications from late March to mid April and checked section 3.5 for ‘Cancellations of Existing Services” – as any passenger would know to do of course!

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And there it was, and indeed referring to the 293/294 running circular routes from Tenterden and a further search in the Traveline database finally gave me two return journeys which were being withdrawn (although you’d never know they only operate on a Monday and Friday …. unless you changed the specified date in the drop down box and realise those are the only two days the details appear)…..

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It turns out there’s a “short 293” which takes a forty-five minute circular route from Tenterden via the Stagecoach 312 to Wittersham and then almost parallels a section of the Thursday route from Rye to Tunbridge Wells (hence using the same route number) via Stone-in-Oxney and Appledore and back again to Tenterden, while the 294 is a Monday only short trip from Tenterden to the isolated hamlet of Rolvenden Layne and back.

I decided to head back to Tenterden in the pouring rain yesterday morning to check out these two bus routes on their final Monday.

IMG_0149.jpgI caught the first of the two circular “short 293” journeys at 1031 from Tenterden. Sadly a lose wire had shorted out the destination blind, but I realised it must be the 293 by stepping on to an empty bus. The driver managed to overcome his surprise at a passenger without a concessionary pass and work out what I needed to pay for a circular round trip without a terminus at the other end – I could have got a return ticket, but that would have included another trip on the second circular journey which I didn’t need, so we settled on a single back to Tenterden!

IMG_0158.jpgIt was a lonely run with just me and the driver until we got to Stone-in-Oxney and the same high-viz wearing passenger who got off the bus there on Thursday from Rye to Tunbridge Wells with his shopping trolley was back out again for more yesterday – good to see he was making full use of the very limited journeys a week open to him from that hamlet.

IMG_0159.jpgAs we deviated via some narrow residential roads arriving back in Tenterden we picked up three more passengers for their short ride to the shops and there was much talk about the bus being withdrawn, except that the friendly and knowledgeable driver said it was being replaced from next Monday by a new service run by something called the Tenterden Social Hub using a minibus. Not only that, it would be running every day, Monday to Friday, as will the 294. Our driver was mystified how Kent County Council could be saving money by replacing a twice a week service carrying four passengers with a daily service, as was I.

IMG_0150.jpgSo I wandered off to seek out Tenterden Social Hub based in Church Road and find out more. It was fairly easy to find their offices where they had a printed timetable leaflet available giving full details of the new arrangements from next week. It’s all part of Kent County Council’s Rural Transport Initiative – and I’ve now been able to find the relevant webpage (you won’t find it under ‘Bus Travel’ on the ‘Travelling around Kent’ page – that would be too obvious). A new link has been added at the bottom of that page taking you to ‘Rural transport initiatives’ which gives full details, not only of the Monday to Friday new timetables to the hamlets around Tenterden but also taxibus schemes in Sevenoaks (which began last week) and Sandwich (which began yesterday).

IMG_E0255.jpgInterestingly Kent County Council explain fares are £2 per journey but “we encourage ENCTS passholders to pay a voluntary contribution of £1 per journey to help with the sustainability of the 12 month pilot, however, ENCTS passes will be accepted in the usual way”. It’s the first time I’ve seen a County Council promoting voluntary donations for bus fares. I seem to recall Peter Shipp’s EYMS got a strong telling off from the DfT by doing something similar in East Yorkshire a few years ago.

It’s going to be an interesting twelve month pilot; I’m not a great fan of taxibuses (not easy to get on and off and not enough room for shopping etc) but at least Kent County Council is trying something different in place of a traditional twice-a-week under-used rural bus. I have my doubts running five days a week will generate more passengers though. It might also be worth briefing the staff who answer the phone in the relevant department about it too, as it’s no good saying “ring the bus company” if you don’t lnow who the bus company is. The leaflet needs wide distribution in each area being served too rather than just available in a back street office.

Before leaving Tenterden I popped back to wave off second and last 294 journey of the day and was pleased to see Hams Travel’s resourceful driver had managed to sort out the lose wire and got the destination screen almost working again. He left with the three passengers he’d brought in on the earlier incoming journey from Rolvenden Layne.

IMG_0226.jpgAnd to finish the story off, I was pleased to finally receive a call back from Nick yesterday afternoon who confirmed the “long 293” (Tunbridge Wells to Rye on Thursdays) was continuing as normal and when I explained it had been a bit confusing to see a notice online and in the bus that the “293” was being withdrawn he acknowledged the point saying the wording had subsequently been clarified “on social media” about which 293 journey was being withdrawn (although I doubt that reached the target market). The reason there was no reference to the “short 293” and 294 on their website was he’d put the new timetable up online a while ago as it needed reprinting and left out the 293 and 294 as they were under notice.

Stranraer update

Before ending this post, a small update from Stagecoach West Scotland who replied today to my email complaint about the 408 not operating from Stranraer to Kirkcolm last Monday afternoon, when I gave up after waiting ten minutes. Melissa explained the journey did run, although she didn’t say when. Apparently it was delayed “due to an operational issue”. Turns out I needed a mobile phone signal and checked the App.

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 17.30.12.pngNo mention of my request for a part refund of the day ticket I purchased and couldn’t fully use!

Roger French

Who needs an App when John’s in Control?

Friday 12th April 2019

IMG_3840.jpgWiltshire’s Wigglybus was introduced way back in 1999. At one time it was considered so cutting edge as a project to solve the rural transport challenge it attracted £1million in Government funding for expansion. Rebranded, along with other shared taxi type services across Wiltshire, to the less colloquial ‘Connect2Wiltshire’ umbrella brand in 2007 the original routes in the Vale of Pewsey area are now operated by Go South Coast subsidiary Tourist Coaches, masquerading as sister company Salisbury Reds out on the road.

That’s the brand names dealt with. Now what exactly is it?

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.20.57.pngBasically it’s like one of the new fangled app based ‘Demand Responsive Transport’ (DRT) services operating to a flexible route as demanded by passenger bookings up to two hours before departure (think Arriva Click and Oxford Pick Me Up) ….. but without the app. Instead it’s got the wonderful John based in ‘Tourist Coaches Control’ answering the telephone when you ring to book your journey from one of the many small hamlets located across the delightfully scenic Vale of Pewsey between Pewsey and Devizes in southern Wiltshire.

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 21.34.37.pngThis is no ‘innovative bus operation’ in a large conurbation; this is a sensible and practical way for Wiltshire County Council to maintain a semblance of public transport in a deep rural area. Furthermore it’s based around a fixed bus route with advertised times from the route’s origin and final destination and at popular stops across the area but allowing flexibility to dive off down country lanes as needed to serve micro hamlets which would otherwise be isolated.Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.23.55.pngHaving experienced lonely solo rides and disappointingly long waits for app based DRT services (“no buses are currently available – please try later”) and frustratingly no means to contact a human being to ask how long the wait might be, I was intrigued to see how a hybrid scheme mixing fixed timetabled times and flexible routings with a human being in control rather than an AI driven algorithm worked in practice. So I wandered over to Pewsey yesterday to take a ride on the ‘Connect2Wiltshire’ routes 101 and 102 between Pewsey, Devizes and surrounding hamlets.

It was a delight to meet up with Tourist Coaches driver Andy again. He’d taken me from Newbury to Marlborough on the Friday only route X20 back in January. Andy’s memory is much better than mine as he could instantly recall where we’d meet before, I just remember him being a star driver on some previous jaunt around Wiltshire.

IMG_3843.jpgAndy pulled up outside Pewsey’s Co-op spot on time for the 1200 departure on route 102 which heads south to Upavon. This route is also covered by Salisbury Reds hourly X5 between Swindon and Salisbury which gets ten minutes for the direct journey. The flexible 102 can travel via Pewsey’s Broadfields Estate (we did; and took one returning shopper to her house there) as well as the hamlets of Manningford Bruce, North Newnton and Rushall which we had no-one on board for so let them be.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.27.17.pngIn fact we had no-one else on board for anywhere, so made it to Upavon in good time and continued beyond the village centre, and off the X5 route, to a small residential area called Avon Square on the A342 where our scheduled return time was 1218.

IMG_3844.jpgTime for a short photographic stop before returning direct to Pewsey and with no pick ups booked we arrived at 1230, six minutes ahead of schedule ready for the 1240 departure on route 101 across to Devizes.

IMG_3848.jpgOn arrival Andy pulled up in the corner of the Co-op car park to give John a call and hear details of the booked pick-ups for the next trip. It turned out just one passenger had booked us from a stop on the outskirts of a hamlet with the wonderful name of Honeystreet.

Andy kindly invited me to join the call and I had a great chat with John who I’d trust a million times more than any so called ‘Artificial Intelligence’ derived algorithm to schedule a bus departure for my needs. Previously, Wigglybus bookings were handled by a remote costly call centre in Exeter but as part of the new contract arrangements with Tourist Coaches/Salisbury Reds, control was localised in October 2017 and six-day a week working John is obviously a very cost effective way of managing the pick ups.

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Techy people are still catered for through an online booking form on the website although more notice is required.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.31.05.pngFive passengers were waiting for us as we pulled round to the bus stop right outside the front door of the Co-op for the 1240 departure. Three travelled all the way through to Devizes, one got off within a few stops as we left Pewsey and the fifth, a teenage girl, was travelling to Stanton St Bernard meaning we’d be wiggling off the standard route to drop her off.

Fifty-five minutes running time is allocated for this 101 journey to Devizes and the next fixed timing point after Pewsey is a third of the way at 1258 in Woodborough. When Wigglybus first started in 1999 the timetable allowed 40 minutes to complete the core route with an extra 20 minutes added to allow for wiggles.

Twenty years later Andy reckoned an end-to-end 55 minute schedule doesn’t allow much time for many wiggles. He proved right as our diversion to Stanton St Bernard cost us five minutes and we arrived to pick up our pre-booked passenger at Honeystreet a few minutes behind the expected time, only to find she wasn’t waiting.

IMG_3870.jpgAndy took this potential hiccup in his stride; parked up, stepped out of the bus to give John a ring and update him. “They often get picked up by someone they know passing by in a car” Andy explained. I asked if she would have let John know she no longer needed us, but apparently that rarely happens, but at least John is on hand for updates, something an app can’t help with.

We headed onwards on our westbound route having been travelling south for a while, so we now headed back north through Chilton and Patney (where we picked up a passenger at a scheduled timing point who was travelling to Devizes). Andy explained the very narrow country road we were travelling along has only recently been added to the route, buses previously wiggled another way, but we soon came to the largest hamlet, almost a village, on the route, All Cannings which is another fixed timing point and where we picked up two more passengers heading for Devizes.

Suffice to say Andy knew these (as well as the other passengers on board) and was presented with a gift from one who’d just returned from holiday and where it turns out the weather had been very nice and she’d had a great time. She was now off to work; her grandson was doing well and all was good.

IMG_3959.jpgAs the second passenger boarded he pointed out our further progress through All Cannings was blocked by a window cleaning van parked directly opposite a car so there was nothing for it but for me to get into ‘reversing supervision mode’ again and see Andy safely back into a driveway from where he skilfully did a shunt or two to turn around and wiggle back the way we’d come into the village and get back on route via another way.

Andy was not only an expert driver with a great friendly personality but was also a mine of information about the area we were passing through, providing a superb commentary not only for me but everyone on board as we wiggled around the Wiltshire countryside.

We’d passed over the Kennet & Avon Canal five times during the journey and the main railway line to Devon and Cornwall three times and for a short stretch after Woodborough drove parallel to it with Andy pointing out it’s a great location where steam enthusiasts came to catch a view when heritage trains speed by, just on queue as an ‘almost heritage’ GWR HST sped along towards Paddington.

IMG_3938.jpgCrossing the line at Woodbrough, Andy pointed out the extensive sidings still in situ which at one time would carry train loads of daffodils grown extensively in the area for sale in Covent Garden.

At another railway crossing just beyond Patney, Andy pointed out the site of the now long closed station with only a brick water tower now to be seen as a clue to what was once there. Soldiers would alight here and be taken to the nearby Salisbury Plain. When the station first opened in 1900 it was called Patney Bridge but soon changed to plain Patney to avoid confusion with Putney Bridge in London. I also spotted a footbridge over the railway which didn’t seem to be doing much – I reckon it needs shifting to Pilning who are crying out for a footbridge at their station.

IMG_3954.jpgAnother interesting insight was a long abandoned and grassed over war time runway alongside the road between Alton Barnes and Staton St Bernard which had been protected by dug out mound type shelters camouflaged with grass around a small entrance and which can still be clearly seen as you drive by today.

Alton Barnes has a church (Saint Mary the Virgin) which is partly Saxon being built in the 10th and 11th century. Indeed this journey took me back to my wander around Suffolk last month passing all these hamlets with just a handful of dwellings and their magnificent churches.

IMG_3957.jpgOther wonderful sights on the journey included so many thatched roofs, I lost count; including a rebuilt one which Andy explained followed a devastating fire (six fire engines attended); the farm where a thrashing machine was in full flow making the raw material ready for the thatchers; the famous Pewsey White Horse which can be seen from all over the area; and just mile upon mile of delightful scenery and splendid Wiltshire views.

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IMG_3856.jpgI was also impressed by the obvious availability of roadside information about Connect2Wiltshire; not only in Pewsey and Devizes but all along the route. Timetables were also available to pick up on the bus (as seen in the reflection of the dashboard below)!

IMG_3950.jpgYou couldn’t fail to miss the bus stop plate and information at Pewsey’s Co-op.

IMG_3841.jpgDevizes also sported a handy map at the main Market Square bus stops which is also available online.

IMG_4001.jpgWith all the excitement of the journey, we arrived in Devizes just over five minutes late and Andy welcomed the nine passengers boarding for the return journey to Pewsey and see how much wiggle room there’d be heading back to Pewsey.

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It had been a brilliant couple of journeys; made all the more enjoyable by Andy’s superb driving and fasincating commentary.

Loadings may have been on the low side; with eight/nine on the journey to/from Devizes; but that’s still eight/nine more than I’ve encountered on my app based rides in much larger towns, cities and conurabtions! Furthermore the bus stop information was commendably simple and easy to understand; much more so than fiddling around with apps.

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Secretary of State Chris Grayling was drooling at the idea in his speech to CPT”s Annual Dinner in January that app based DRT minibuses are the future of transport and will even solve the rural transport problem. I disagree. Who needs apps when you’ve got John in Control?

Wiltshire is wiggling and it seems to be working. Just as well, as there’s no chance of another £1million coming Wiltshire’s way!

Roger French

 

 

Two penultimate bus journeys

Friday 5th April 2019

IMG_3585.jpgIt’s that time of year when local authorities begin a fresh financial twelve months which with dindling Government funding often means less money to spend than the year just ended. For subsidised bus routes that can only mean one thing … another round of cuts and withdrawals. I’ve been out over the last fortnight taking a ride on rural routes facing the axe.

Following a public outcry at the scale of proposed cuts to seventy bus routes announced by Kent County Council in November 2017 the local authority embarked on a consultation exercise branded as the ‘Big Convesation’ along with an inevitable ‘Bus Summit’ or two. This led to a very positive outcome with savings in the bus support budget for 2019/20 scalled back from a reported whopping £2.25m to a more modest £455,000. Stagecoach and Go-Coach Hire had made suggestions for sensible economies in the Thanet and Sevenoaks/Edenbridge areas which are being implemented this weekend. I took a ride on the routes and journeys disappearing around Sevenoaks to see what will be missed.

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Go-Coach Hire operated route 404 is a route of two halves. It connects Edenbridge, Four Elms and Ide Hill to Sevenoaks from the south west with a journey at 0725 (principally for school children) and back again at 1555 as well as a later journey back at 1735 which only continues beyond Four Elms if needed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 14.35.17.pngSecondly it links the villages of Godden Green, Stone Street, Ivy Hatch, Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol to Sevenoaks from the east also with a school timed journey at 0740 and return at 1526 as well as three off peak journeys for shoppers two of which continue through to Ide Hill to the west of Sevenoaks (on the way towards Edenbridge). There’s a late afternoon journey at 1735 but this only continues beyond Ivy Hatch if needed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 14.36.18.pngThe new timetable from next Monday removes the off peak circuit serving Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol furthest east (but these villages are also served by route 222 operated by Autocar runing north-south between Borough Green and Tonbridge) and reduces the number off peak journeys from three to two as far as Ivy Hatch. However, in a positive development these journeys will continue all the way through to Edenbridge rather than Ide Hill as previously together with an extra new morning journey from Edenbridge as far as Sevenoaks.

What’s being taken away from the east, opens up new journey opportunities to the west of Sevenoaks.

IMG_3564.jpgYesterday was the penultimate day of the current timetable and I took a ride heading east on the 1415 journey from Sevenoaks to Plaxtol and back again. There were just two passengers besides me. The female passenger got off after a delightful twenty minute ride through Godden Green, Bitchet Common and Bitchet Green at the lovely village of Ivy Hatch while a man took the bus around the soon to be abandoned circular route including Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol (which was well worth it too, as can be seen in the photgraph below, taken while we waited time at Shipbourne Church) and he alighted at the National Trust property of Ightham Mote, where he had an hour and a half to explore before the bus would take him back on the return journey after the school trip.

IMG_3566.jpgIn the new timetable it’s good to see Ightham Mote (a medieval moated manor house) will still be served by bus with an arrival at 1043 and a departure at 1340. Not that the National Trust will be bothered, as their priority sadly seems to be to attract motorists more than anyone else as the notice on the driveway to Ightham Mote captured below confirmed.

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IMG_3569.jpgWe didn’t carry anyone else on the outward journey or anyone coming back into Sevenoaks on the return journey at all, so it’s unlikely this bus is going to be missed by many actual passengers and frankly it makes for a sensible economy. Mind you, when you see the large mansion style exclusive properties we passed on the journey it’s perhaps not surprising –  one private road even had a barrier to restrict entry, it was that exclusive!

IMG_3577.jpgReturning to Sevenoaks, this bus left again at 1526 for its next journey to Plaxtol but with no-one on board although it undoubtedly picks up school children returning home from the nearby academy.

The same thing happened on the next journey I took, heading west, the 1555 to Edenbridge, which had been to the nearby Knowle Academy first and picked up 27 school kids going home to Ide Hill, Four Elms and Edenbridge. I was the only non school kid travelling – and it was quite an experience too.

IMG_3595.jpgOn yesterday’s showing of such sparse loadings, rural residents around Sevenoaks are doing well to still be receiving a bus service running each day Monday to Friday, albeit limited in frequency. It’s a shame more journeys can’t be justified, as it really is a lovely rural ride and well worth seeking out if you’re ever in Sevenoaks.

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Service 405 is a Wednesday only bus route linking West Kingsdown (to the north east of Sevenoaks) and the hamlets of Woodlands and East Hill through Otford to Sevenoaks. Aside from the positioning journeys from and to Sevenoaks which avoid the circuitous routing, there’s just one return journey a week operated by Go-Coach Hire. It leaves West Kingsdown at 0935 arriving in Sevenoaks at 1017 and returns at 1230. It ran for the very last time this week on Wednesday, 3rd April as it’s now been completely withdrawn. I travelled on its penultimate journey last week.

IMG_2806.jpgThe main purpose of the route seems to be to serve the mobile home community, many of whom are of pensionable age, at East Hill Farm which is located at the end of a very long and extremely narrow, winding dead end road. These residents really are isolated and rely on their one Wednesday journey a week to travel into Sevenoaks for shopping.

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The report to Kent County Council’s Environment and Transport Cabinet Committee meeting on 17th January which approved the withdrawal reckoned “no more than two passengers use it weekly”. When I travelled last week there were twelve regular passengers returning on the 1230 bus (as well as another six taking a final ride like me, just out of interest before the route ends).

IMG_2864.jpgSeven got off at East Hill who all seemed to be regulars with two others alighting in the Hillingdon Rise residential area in Sevenoaks, exclusively served by the 405, and another in Otford, while two others continued into West Kingsdown.

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I saw a similar number boarding the journey in Sevenoaks bus station a few weeks ago. I do feel sorry for these people, who’ll now be completely cut off from a bus route to their nearest town.

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Kent County Council have committed to pilot a “Taxi-bus” as a part replacement for the 405, but this doesn’t seem to be starting until June. No wonder they all had overfull shopping trolleys last week.

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 20.56.45.pngHowever, all is not lost as I spotted a notice in the bus shelter in West Kingsdown explaining that Buses4U (a Community Bus Operator) runs a Thursday journey to Bluewater and Gravesend on route 422 but it would seem you have to be a “member” at East Hill to travel, so that rules me out.

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I’m indebted to fellow 405 passenger and blog reader, Terrence, who told me about the quirky history of route 405, explaining it has its origins in an initiative by Dr H Nesbitt Heffernan who started the Thames Weald Travel Society in the mid 1960s to provide services to villages left isolated when London Transport withdrew routes as well as running a route through the Dartford Tunnel to Romford and one to Crawley for a time. It’s done well to continue for so many years and it will be interesting to see whether the Taxi-bus proves to be a sensible alternative.

Kent County Council will save a modest sum from withdrawing the 405 but it’s not clear how much the taxibus initiative will be costing.

Go-Coach Hire may generate some extra business by switching resouces on the 404 from the Shipbourne and Plaxtol end of the route for a more regular link between Sevenoaks and Edenbridge which itself is a lovely ride with a great view of Bough Beech Reservoir leaving Ide Hill towards Edenbridge.

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Finally another positive shout out to Go-Coach Hire for their presentational skills. It was good to see timetables on display in Sevenoaks bus station ready for the new routes and their new numbers (the 404 becomes the 4) starting on Monday and bus stop plates had been updated with new numbers to reflect routes taken over from Arriva.

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Meanwhile Arriva still don’t know what year we’re in on their website despite being advised …..!

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As a postscript I also travelled on the aforementioned Autocar operated route 222 between Tonbridge and Borough Green yesterday, and as I tweeted while travelling, was somewhat appalled by the condition of the vehicle.

IMG_3519.jpgWhile it was nice to ride this pictureseque route on a double decker, the filthy condition of the interior and the cracked upper deck front window presented a terrible image for bus travel.

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IMG_3488.jpgI sat upstairs with two regular passengers who commented how busy the journey was yet we only had eight on board from Tonbridge at 1222 and only me and two others travelled the whole journey to Borough Green. We dropped one passenger off in Ightham, just before Borough Green, where it meets the Arriva route 308 from Sevenoaks via Borough Green to Gravesend at exactly the same arrival time, 1258. Luckily he made the connection, but he’d been worrying the whole journey whether he’d miss it and have an hour to wait for the next bus. Strikes me a small retiming of the 222 would make all the difference … as would a decent bus to travel on too.

Suffice to say we picked no-one up along the journey nor dropped anyone off in the Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol villages we passed through and being abandoned by the 404.

Roger French