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.
First 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 I blogged about that route just before it was withdrawn back on 3rd April.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.
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.
Wednesday, 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.
Indeed, 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).
There’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.
Aside 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.
And I do mean narrow.
It 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) …..
…. although the 405 still appears on the flag!
Good luck to Jay in making this pilot work; if anyone can, he can.
Kent’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.
This 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.
At 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.
After 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.
Back 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.
Mongeham 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.
There 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.
On to the third pilot over in Tenterden.
The 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!
Whereas 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.
Two 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.
One 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.
I 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.
The 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.
Interestingly 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.
I 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.
Route 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).
During 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.
My 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.
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.