I once mooted how you could take the booking system of Uber, the telephone service of Cango and the flexibility of a bus; to create a rural transport solution.
Yesterday something similar was announced by Ford-backed Chariot in Greater London. Yes, I know, London is hardly rural, it does however provide a concept for the elements to show they work.
With a trial licence now granted by TfL across four routes, users must pre-book a guaranteed seat on a fleet of Ford Transit minibuses. The services are apparently designed to fulfil a gap in the market of first-line and last-mile services to other hubs which in this case are rail and tube stations.
I have always been a supporter of last-mile transport in places where there is not enough demand to divert regular services, but a social need for those that would use it. Many of these services are currently subsidised by local town or county councils to provide the necessary connections, but over time the out of money has dried up and cuts are made to the services that need the most subsidy. Quite often these are the services where the few users left are in the most need for it.
Chariot already has a history
Ford run the Chariot service in the US already and on first inspection the technology and process is the same as in San Francisco and New York, as well as Austin and Seattle.
A quick look around their San Fran operation shows, for example the Pacific Rush;
- running between Pacific Heights, through the Financial District to South Park
- between 0630 and 1000 (every 7 minutes) and
- returning between 1530 and 1940 (every 10 minutes)
and in London…
- Erith & West Heath to Abbey Wood station
- Shooter’s Hill to Greenwich North Tube
- Battersea Park & Nine Elms to Kennington (via, but not stopping at Vauxhall station)
- Wandsworth Riverside direct and largely Non-stop to Clapham Junction
All four routes operate Monday to Friday rush hours, not that there isn’t a rush hour in Greater London, and the few times I have looked at their live tracking there have been 2 or 3 vehicles running.
Interestingly, the routes are not the most obvious. For example passing busy stations at Vauxhall and Wandsworth Town and not are stopping. It is likely that this is because the routes would duplicate a busy TfL red bus route, the Chariot being neither red, nor accept the London transport smart card Oyster. Fares are also two-thirds higher than its primary competitor, at £2.40 rather than £1.50. Of course, season tickets do reduce this on both counts.
Moving the concept to a new environment
Outside the TfL boundary bus services are falling in many parts of the country.
Both independent operators and the big companies have been feeling the brunt of things and some of the problem is that there is no longer the innovation beyond leather seats and free Wi-Fi.
What most operators are quick to withdraw on though are the obscure and minor services that once run across the length and breadth of the country.
Ironically, as I go to check my figures the service has changed, but my favorite example of one such service is in Hampshire.
The Number 54
The Number 54 bus is a lifeline for a few.
Until recently, you could get the bus on a Wednesday from the minor villages and hamlets north-west of Basingstoke, into the town, and back again.
If the buses ran to time, you could get a whole 90 minutes in Basingstoke to do what you needed to do, shop, eat, visit the doctors. We all know that the NHS is rolling in so much money they can guarantee a right-time appointment for you! There is no place for sarcasm in such a serious post, but you get the point of how tight the service made you spend your time?
The irony of my research is that now, the service which also serves the towns hospital, gives you 2.5 hours in town, although not suitable for visiting hours. This may be because of the change of operator, being a Hampshire County Council supported service.
The fact that the service only runs on on a Wednesday is not in the slightest bit important for its long term demise.
There must be a better way
The problem is that the County Council are trying to save money whereas traditional operators are not prepared to take a financial risk with a financially marginal service.
They might gain a few more passengers is there was a long term commitment, but people’s jobs and plans would rely on the service.
This is where the Chariot model comes in.
Adapting the Cango Model
Cango was a partly pre-bookable, partly scheduled bus service under contract. A number of bus operators have run Cango services under contract over the years but many have now reverted back to infrequent scheduled bus services.
One of the problems, certainly from experience and by talking to others, was the inflexible planning model. You had to phone and book before 5pm the day before travel, to a central phone number at the council. These pre-bookable services run during the off-peak for shoppers and doctors rather than workers and schools.
Not really that useful for the market that would pay to support the rest of the service.
A commuter village service
The Chariot model can adapt to the commuter market so easily; small buses, negotiating the villages in the early morning and connecting at a transport hub or bus stop. It can run more often because it doesn’t have to duplicate existing services; meeting with buses or trains at a number of points on it’s journey.
In the example of the 54; a commuter service could start at Oakley run through the villages and hamlets Kingsclere and then run through the villages and hamlets to Overton. This, at a guess, would take between 30 and 40 minutes end to end; but adding in some stops as only bookable via an app or a website browser.
The only downside to such a responsive service is that in the short term, the state of public bus services means that it takes 56 days to register most scheduled bus services. This means that if demand increases, then there is a risk that people will not be able to book on a service of their choice. In London it is easy to introduce a frequent service, but less so in the provinces.
Making the service fully pre-booking only, similar to what National Express used to do with the majority of it’s services, would be a solution to start with, however at the same time this hinders access for all, which is the whole point of the exercise to start with.
Of course, one possible solution would be to run a scheduled service and additional services via a pre-booking only facility. That is then bordering on a grey area that the Traffic Commissioner may have to test.
Either way…. Chariot has promise not just in it’s London trial, but elsewhere in the UK; if the vehicle and the demand is not enough for a County Council supported service.