COUNCILLOR SAYS: Cheaper to replace ‘Tees Flex’ bus service with taxi
A new Tees Flex Bus to run in rural areas of the Tees Valley, Image: Dave Charnley
A councillor has suggested a much-heralded ‘on-demand’ bus service financed by the Tees Valley Combined Authority would be better replaced by a taxi account.
Councillor Norma Stephenson, a member of the overview and scrutiny committee at the combined authority and its former chairperson, also said more than 60% of the mileage undertaken by the Tees Flex service only involved one passenger.
The service, which is operated by Stagecoach, covers Darlington, Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton, and is intended to help residents in more isolated communities.
It launched in February 2020 as part of a three-year pilot scheme and made 45,800 journeys in the first 12 months with more than 9,300 people creating online accounts in order to use it.
Between July 25 and August 21 this year it recorded its busiest ever four-week period with 5,816 completed journeys.
Customers can order one of nine minibuses to collect them using a mobile app, or by calling a number.
Passengers are directed to a nearby ‘virtual’ bus stop for their pick-up and drop-off points.
SIngle journeys cost from 50p for some aged under 19 travelling less than two miles to £4 for an adult travelling more than ten miles, and concessions are free.
Publicity from Stagecoach said the app’s “clever algorithms enable multiple passengers to seamlessly share the journey with other customers making similar trips in the area”.
But Labour’s Cllr Stephenson said the scheme could not be deemed a success as “in over 60% of the mileage you have one passenger on the bus”.
She said: “I don’t know whether we are wasting a lot of money on a service that would probably be cheaper if we took an account out from a taxi company.”
Tom Bryant, TVCA’s head of transport and infrastructure, said: “Absolutely we want to aggregate more trips and have more people travelling together.
“At each stage we are learning every day.”
Mr Bryant said Tees Flex was the biggest on-demand bus service in the country and had the misfortune to launch on the cusp of the coronavirus pandemic, which was something that could not have been foreseen.
He said consideration was being given to providing a discounted fare for people for instance travelling from the same village.
Mr Bryant said a lot of cancellations were still occurring and suggested anyone cancelling in the future may have to pay a portion of their planned fare.
He said: “The more cancellations we can reduce and the more people we can get travelling together, the more we can optimise the vehicles.”
The combined authority estimates there about 36,000 people living in rural areas across the Tees Valley who are not served by the commercial bus market, while access to transport is also a challenge in some deprived urban areas.
Mr Bryant said Tees Flex, the full costs of which have not been publicly revealed, was carrying about 1,500 people a week and without the service those same people would not be accessing public transport.
He added: “Providing public transport in public areas is always going to be expensive, there is no way around that, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer as to whether [the scheme] is value for money.
“We’ll have to take that judgement as the trial progresses and decide on what the next steps are.”
Cllr Stephenson said: “I don’t want to see people isolated, but let’s give it [the scheme] a bit longer as we come out of covid and consider if there is an alternative.”
Mr Bryant also said the customer feedback was exceptionally high.
He said: “People do like it, but it does cost money because it is providing a service in areas where there is not a mass of people.”
Cllr Stephenson said: “They are bound to like it if they are getting a whole bus to themselves.”
Other members on the scrutiny committee suggested the scheme had not been advertised enough and said there was not enough understanding of it.
When the service launched Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said there were “far too many people cut off in rural communities that find it difficult to see their friends and family, access essential health services, get to the supermarket or, most importantly, the jobs and training opportunities that we are creating across the region”.
He said: “By funding this service, students, families and people of all ages can request a bus to collect them from right outside their door and take them where they need to be, and at a great price.”
Tees Flex has been described as attracting a different demographic when compared with more standard bus services where the majority of customers are those travelling on concessionary fares, such as the elderly.
Recent figures show 67% of passengers are fare paying and another 20% are young people aged under 19.
The operator of the service, Stagecoach, was approached for comment, but no response was received before publication.
Words: Stuart Arnold, Local Democracy Reporter
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