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