Demand responsive transport – there’s no demand for it, and it simply won’t work

On 26 January 2016 a report from the Strategic Director – Economy, Transport and Environment for Derbyshire County Council (DCC), Mike Ashworth, entitled “Proposed Changes to Local Bus Support (Highways, Transport and Infrastructure)” (the “January 2016 report”) was published which recommended that a public consultation should be undertaken on a proposal to cease all funding for subsidised conventional bus services, with effect from 1 October 2017.

Currently bus service provision throughout Derbyshire is provided by a network of commercially operated services, supplemented by subsidised conventional bus services where services are not commercially viable, with Community Transport (CT) schemes operating in particularly rural areas where even the provision of supported bus services would be logistically and economy ideally prohibitive. The report acknowledged that DCC “has an important role in supplementing this commercial network by subsidising public transport services for less populated areas of the County”.

In spite of this, DCC are proposing to withdraw all supported bus services and Community Transport schemes. The report went on: “A mitigation measure which could, in part, address this would be the development of funded Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) solutions, as an alternative to conventional fixed route scheduled services. Such services do not provide the frequency or the simplicity of a conventional ‘turn up and go’ service, but they do enable a level of service to be maintained in areas that may otherwise be without a service. It is an approach that has been adopted in other areas of the country where there has been a desire to maintain some level of public transport service. Examples include Lincolnshire’s CallConnect.”

This simply is not true. On 17 April 2016 Andrew Addo-Smith, Transport Officer at Lincolnshire County Council, when asked to confirm that “the model for bus service provision in Lincolnshire is a network of commercial services supplemented by a number of fixed route (registered local) bus services funded by Lincolnshire County Council, and in the most rural areas provided by CallConnect” he replied: “I can confirm that the model of bus service provision is as described.” Mr Addo-Smith supplied a list of 151 bus services supported by Lincolnshire County Council. In other words, in Lincolnshire a DRT scheme runs ALONGSIDE supported bus services, and is NOT “an alternative” which is clearly stated in the January 2016 report. Therefore to cite CallConnect as an example of how Derbyshire can replace all subsidised conventional bus services with a DRT scheme is very definitely NOT “an approach that has been adopted in other areas of the country [including] Lincolnshire”, and to state or even suggest this is clearly misleading to the residents of Derbyshire, especially those who wish to make an informed contribution to the public consultation.

Further, the evening edition of BBC East Midlands Today on 15 April 2016 featured a report on the DCC proposed bus cuts. A transcript has been provided by Kevin Hall, Assistant Editor, BBC East Midlands Today:

Reporter: “But the Councillor in charge of Transport (Councillor Dean Collins) told me they’ve seen how bookable services already work in Lincolnshire.”

Councillor Collins: “Removing just over £4million out of the budget is going to have a big effect on the whole transport network and it is a concern of mine that the rural side of the county will be the worst affected.”

It is of great concern that these misleading comments may have led residents of Derbyshire to be reassured that the proposed DRT scheme would provide the same level of public transport provision enjoyed in Lincolnshire, and they would then either feel that it was not necessary to participate in the consultation, or they may have answered questions in a different way to that had they not been misled. This could, at a later date, bring into question the whole consultation process.

Indeed, the Lincolnshire CallConnect website describes their scheme as follows: “Anyone can use the CallConnect bus service for any reason and as frequently as required. The service is operated by modern, fully accessible minibuses and operates between 7am-7pm Monday to Saturday. In most cases CallConnect will pick up and set down at designated locations in each village or town. Passengers with a disability or those living in more isolated locations (where there is no natural pick up point) can be picked up and returned to their home address, if it is safe and practical to do so. You can use CallConnect to travel to any location within each service operating area, and if you are travelling further afield you can connect with the main Interconnect bus service.”

The service operating areas are clearly defined (examples include Kesteven, Peterborough, Louth from where they connect with Interconnect bus services which operate on main trunk routes. Derbyshire doesn’t have anywhere near as many such services, with just the X17 (Matlock – Chesterfield – Sheffield) and the Transpeak (Derby – Buxton – Manchester) offering anything comparable.

While Lincolnshire’s CallConnect scheme is very mature and details of how it operates are very clear, the January 2016 report outlined a very vague outline of the DRT scheme DCC proposed to provide: “The DRT proposal would be to provide a minimum of 10 modern accessible vehicles, operating between 0700 hours and 1900 hours Monday to Friday, offering an opportunity to travel for those remote from commercial bus services.”

“The service would operate as pre-booked only and would principally offer a service transporting users from designated pick up points to their nearest town, providing access to essential services, or for onward travel using conventional commercial bus services.”

“The ability of an individual to travel at any time within the window of operation would depend on what other bookings have been made. It may be, for example, that they would need to change the time when they intend to travel or they may find that a particular service is fully booked. Individual bookings would, however, be grouped together to travel on a single journey where possible. Concessionary pass holders would continue to be able to use their passes on the DRT services, which would be operated using accessible vehicles.”

“As well as providing an alternative for supported bus services, where commercial services are least likely to be viable, the proposed DRT service would offer a potential alternative for some of the current users of the Dial-a-Bus (DAB) services provided through Community Transport organisations with grant funding from the Council. This is an important consideration given the separate proposal to withdraw grant funding for Community Transport services.”

“Whilst a DRT service would help maintain opportunities to travel for those rural areas remote from commercial bus services, enabling each vehicle to cover a much bigger area than would be the case through a conventional bus service, it should be noted that DRT services are an inherently less efficient means of provision compared with a conventional bus service. This is because average passenger loadings per vehicle trip are considerably lower, due to logistical limitations. Consequently, DRT typically involves significantly higher subsidy costs per passenger journey made than would be the case with a conventional bus service.”

“Although the DRT proposal would focus on those areas likely to be the most affected by the proposed cessation of funding for supported bus services, these do not typically correspond with areas of highest use. It should also be highlighted that DRT would be likely to provide an alternative for only a small proportion of the current users of the supported bus network, and that overall DRT passenger use would probably equate to less than 5% of the 4.0m journeys currently made on supported bus services.”

This, the misleading comparison with Lincolnshire CallConnect scheme, and a simple outline map of Derbyshire shaded in four different colours at the back of the consultation questionnaire was the only information provided by DCC for the public consultation on which participants could base their opinions on.

In fairness to DCC, they simply weren’t able to supply any further information. Because despite somehow being able to publicly state that they could provide adequate public transport provision over an area of 1,014 square miles with “10 modern accessible vehicles” at a cost of £1.3million, they hadn’t a clue how. This is evident in their response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by me on 7 March 2016. In order to ascertain the viability of DCC’s proposed DRT scheme, DCC were asked to supply a number of pieces of the information under the terms of the FOI Act 2000:

“1. The total annual mileage for subsidised regular local bus services.” DCC reply : “This information is not recorded or held by DCC.”

“2. Details of how the proposal to use 10 vehicles for the DRT scheme was calculated.” DCC reply : “At the moment, this is still being considered by officers, therefore, this information is not currently held.”

“3. The anticipated average length of route for the new DRT services.” DCC reply : “This information is not recorded or held by DCC.”

“4. The anticipated frequency of services to be provided by DRT to villages currently served by subsidised bus services.”
DCC reply : “This information is not recorded or held by DCC.”

“5. The anticipated subsidy per passenger under DRT.”
DCC reply : “This information is not recorded or held by DCC.”

The reply concluded laughably: “I hope this now satisfies your request.”

It didn’t. But on BBC East Midlands Today Councillor Collins went onto say: “We’re hopeful that some of these routes will be picked up by the commercial sector.” Sadly, in the January 2016 report Mike Ashworth didn’t share his confidence:

“Whilst it is likely that other commercial alternatives would emerge to replace withdrawn supported services, these are likely to focus on the most popular routes at the most popular times of day, rather than complete like for like replacement of existing services. The Council cannot, however, oblige any operator to provide commercial services and it is therefore not possible, at this stage, to anticipate the extent that commercial alternatives may develop if the proposals to withdraw financial support were implemented.”

“There may be circumstances where it would be appropriate to continue to provide some financial support, for example, for a limited period to ensure continuity of some of the better used urban services where there is a reasonable prospect of them becoming commercially viable with a modest increase in passenger use. However, it is unlikely that funding would be sufficient to do this other than on a limited scale. It is recognised that commercial alternatives are unlikely to be viable in many areas, particularly for deeply rural areas where population is sparse.”

An alternative proposal, submitted to DCC on 7 April details various criteria for determining which subsidised conventional bus services should have funding withdrawn. Two particular groups, Monday to Saturday evenings and Sundays often have services which carry more passengers than subsidised conventional bus services which operate during Monday to Saturday daytime. It could be argued (and almost certainly would be by Stagecoach in Chesterfield) that the loss of Monday to Saturday evening and Sunday services may impact on the commercial Monday to Saturday daytime network.

Indeed, the January 2016 report observes that: “The withdrawal of funding for early morning, evening and Sunday supported bus services, which often complement daytime commercial bus services, would additionally impact on further areas of the County. Loss of the supported bus network would also impact on the ongoing viability of commercial bus services. For example, if a passenger could no longer make their return journey because their supported evening bus service had been withdrawn, they may be unlikely to continue to make their outbound journey on the commercially provided daytime bus service.”

But whenever funding is cut from any service provision, public transport or otherwise, it is important to do the best for the most, and therefore DCC should be targeting this limited funding to provide a core network of the most viable services. It should not be subsidising Monday to Saturday evening and Sunday conventional bus services to increase the profits of large, multinational transport groups providing a commercial network.

Returning to DRT, with DCC admitting that they have no clue how the DRT scheme would operate, and misleading the public by incorrectly stating that “it is an approach that has been adopted in other areas of the country”, maybe they are basing their proposal on previous experience. Perhaps, for DRT has been tried in Derbyshire before, albeit very briefly. In May 2012, as part of a review of their commercial network Stagecoach in Chesterfield withdrew their service 98 (Chesterfield – Clay Cross – Stonebroom – Alfreton), and in order to maintain a connection between Clay Cross, Morton and Stonebroom DCC diverted service 150 (then operated by DW Coaches) away from Hallfieldgate Lane and Higham. At around the same time, K & H Doyle Coaches withdrew their service 99 (Hilcote – Alfreton – Somercotes). In order to provide some level of public transport service to these areas which found themselves with none, DCC introduced two small-scale DRT schemes: the “Higham Connect” and the “Hilcote Connect”. They operated in precisely the same way as DCC envisage for the proposed countywide scheme.

And failed after less than 18 months. For two reasons: firstly, because average passenger loadings per vehicle trip were considerably lower, due to logistical limitations, and therefore secondly because they were expensive, there being a significantly higher subsidy costs per passenger journey made than would be the case with a conventional bus service – exactly the same reservations outlined in the January 2016 report.

In October 2013 the “Higham Connect” and “Hilcote Connect” were replaced by a conventional supported bus service, the 149, which runs from Alfreton to Sutton via Higham, Morton and Hilcote. Based on DCC’s own figures (that a DRT scheme can be expected to provide less than 5% of the passenger journeys achieved by conventional services), the 149 now carries almost 6,000 passengers per year, and therefore DCC’s first foray into DRT carried, on average, less than one passenger per day.

So why are DCC looking to impose a previously failed scheme, based on no information and misleading comparisons, onto the travelling Derbyshire public? What if it fails again?

If all subsidised services are withdrawn, inevitably some operators will cease trading, most likely those that are the smallest and most competitive and have provided many subsidised conventional bus services for many years with low overheads and consequently at a relatively low cost to DCC. And if DRT does fail (as it has in the past) and DCC are forced to return to the tried, trusted and tested model of subsidised conventional bus services return there will, of course, be fewer operators to bid for their operation, meaning that tenders in future will be far less competitive, and DCC will end up paying even more for less.

To spend the entire public transport budget of £1.3million on a DRT scheme that has failed in the past, that DCC have admitted in a FOI response that “information is not recorded or held by DCC” relating to any potential route, frequency or subsidy for DRT, and that both the Strategic Director for Economy, Transport and Environment, Mike Ashworth, and the Cabinet Member for Transport, Dean Collins, have compared misleadingly to Lincolnshire County Council’s CallConnect scheme has to be a mistake, the consequences of which could be the loss of jobs, social isolation and inaccessibility to vital services including hospitals and GP surgeries.

By DCC’s own admission, the proposed DRT scheme would be “less efficient” and with a “significantly higher subsidy cost per passenger” than conventional bus services, and “that DRT would be likely to provide an alternative for only a small proportion of the current users of the supported bus network, and that overall DRT passenger use would probably equate to less than 5% of the 4.0m journeys currently made on supported bus services.”

Surely it would be far better to provide an efficient, core Monday to Saturday turn up and go network which would in itself provide over a million passenger journeys – plus half a million more with passengers who currently use subsidised conventional bus services which would be withdrawn being easily able to use those that would not. The administrative and logistical infrastructure is already in place (it would simply be a matter of terminating the contracts for the subsidised conventional bus services that would be withdrawn under the alternative proposal and retaining under the original terms those for the subsidised conventional bus services that would not).

By contrast, I fear the administrative and logistical nightmare that would be foist upon DCC by the failure of the proposed DRT scheme would be hugely expensive. A heavy burden to bear both for Derbyshire taxpayers, and a Cabinet who was foolish enough – in spite of all the evidence against the proposed DRT scheme and a solid, feasible and fully costed alternative – to press ahead with a proposal which has previously failed, based on no information and misleading comparisons,