Reconnecting rural territories in the UK: Interview with Stuart Eccles, DRT supervisor at Lincolnshire County Council

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Lincolnshire County Council has been operating a DRT system for 20 years. Recently, the county switched to Padam Mobility’s technology to operate the service. Grégoire Bonnat, CEO and Co-founder of Padam Mobility, interviewed Stuart Eccles, Lincs’ DRT Supervisor, on the impact of this change on their service and users.

What is Call Connect?

Call Connect is the bus service that we use in Lincolnshire, a very rural county, which has historical transport difficulties just with the nature of how disparate the villages are and how difficult it is to get from point A to point B.

Those villages are away from the main transport hubs. We have had, for the last 20 years, a Demand-Responsive Transport system in place to ensure that every settlement has adequate access to public transport, rather than having very long bus routes that could take an hour and a half to get from the villages into the main towns.

Who are the users and what kind of needs does the DRT answer for them?

The majority of users are elderly and probably don’t drive themselves. They find it difficult to walk to access where main bus routes exist. We also carry quite a number of students because, just as it can be difficult for people to get into town, getting access to schools and doctors can also be difficult.

I think one of the big benefits is where the small Demand-Responsive vehicles can go, because we can provide a more personalized service and offer enhanced transport needs for those who struggle to physically access the vehicle.

“Having the DRT service makes their lives so much easier”.

If it were not for the on-demand service, people would use their private car. Are there any alternatives for them?

They would struggle because taxis are very expensive in a rural location, to the point that it’s probably cost prohibitive for them. So, if Call Connect wasn’t there for a large number of rural communities, they would maybe overly rely on neighbours and friends, having the DRT service makes their lives so much easier.

Call Connect has been there for 20 years and you felt the need to change something. What changed from an operational point of view?

The technology and what exists out there has moved on quite drastically, whereas we haven’t necessarily engaged with that as much as we would have liked.

The main goal for us is trying to make it as easy as possible for people to access the service. Today, everything is very much mobile app driven, and we try to make the services easy for people to access, especially for the younger market. For them, having to phone to make the bookings is not how they do things. So trying to bring that into our services is a key feature for us and we’re hoping that we can engage with that market and get them to use public transport more often. I think having that freedom is a massive win for them, to be able to control their own destiny and control their own access to transport.

“We’re hoping that the net result is to make it easier for the existing passengers to use it but also to bring in new people”.

Is it easier for the drivers, too?

For the drivers, the system is very intuitive. It makes their lives infinitely easier because they can see the information in an easy to digest format, especially with the navigation options that come with the app, in case there are new locations they haven’t been to before, or if they’re not quite sure where they are.

Do you expect it will also have an impact on ridership?

We’re hoping so. When we first started 20 years ago, we only had the option of telephone bookings and that’s all we had for a long time. When we introduced online booking through a web page, we actually saw an increase in passengers. Actually, the app gives passengers the option to do it outside of normal booking hours. That might entice more people in. With the app, users can see all the options that they might have in a day and they can make an informed decision on their needs. So yes, we’re hoping that the net result is to make it easier for the existing passengers to use it but also to bring in new people.

It might even change the behaviour of users and how they organise their day…

I think you’re right. We’ve seen in the initial days that the bookings occur closer to the time of travel, which is interesting because that again gives them greater freedom. The service has always offered up to 7 days in advance, which is perfect if the passenger has regular patterns of things he does, like school and work. But if he’s having to plan going shopping a week ahead because that’s when he can get transport, that’s quite difficult and quite limiting. If passengers can book the next day or even better on the same day, it will change people’s habits. That gives users a great deal of freedom because they can control their lives much better. If you had the option to go on the same day and you had the confidence in knowing you can get your booking, that’s brilliant, especially here in the UK where the weather can change at the drop of a hat.

“The granularity of the data is huge, being able to see the number of passengers per hour across a day, across a week, gives us a greater insight into how people are using the service and when they’re using it. That gives us a good theory as to how the service needs to develop, we can see live the needs of the passengers”.

I guess on one hand there are some people who are happy that the system changes and some other people who are just happy with the way they used it until today. Is it equally important for you to maintain that? 

Absolutely! There are still a large number of people who are still accessing the service through the call centre, and that will always remain. For some people who access it that way, it might be one of the only calls that they make in the week. So having that human interaction for them is very important, having a little discussion, because of how isolated they are in rural communities. It’s definitely a balancing act. It’s bringing the service forward and up to date with modern technology and also maintaining the level of service that our consumer base has been used to.

How are you using the data generated by the service?

The data that we get in at our level is one of the biggest wins that we’ve got out of this transition to Padam Mobility, so far. We’ve got greater visibility of how the service is performing. The granularity of the data is huge, being able to see the number of passengers per hour across a day, across a week, gives us a greater insight into how people are using the service and when they’re using it. That gives us a good theory as to how the service needs to develop, we can see live the needs of the passengers.

The big one for me is the map flows feature, where you can see graphically all the flows that exist and it shows what areas are being utilised and whether we need to have a promotional drive or change something in the service.

It’s just being able to see that data in a single place in an easy fashion, we’re used to having data thrown back into Excel documents and manipulating it and trying to find some meaning in it, which is quite laborious and intensive. But how it is now on the statistics is phenomenal. The insights it gives is brilliant.

One of the really interesting features is the trip feedback (users can rate and give feedback on each trip) because historically, you’d probably only see the two extremes, the very good or the very bad, because that’s what people would like to tell you about. But now we see the whole spectrum. The constant feedback the passengers can give us on how the trip went, what they liked about it, what they didn’t, is great because it gives us an opportunity to go back to our operators and drivers to inform them that they’re doing a good job, which is very much appreciated.

There are many things happening around mobility in the UK and especially rural mobility. There seems to be a new ambition. 

In the past year, the Department for Transport has put up a lot of funding for rural mobility. So whilst in Lincolnshire we’ve had a well-established DRT network for 20 years, a lot of places have looked at DRT and have tried to implement it with varying degrees of success. But now the government is pushing and suggesting it.

I think the last year has shown everybody that transport can be delivered in a different way. Lots of authorities and transport providers have utilised the technology that exists for DRT, and seen that that might be a model that’s going to work when we come out of the covid-19 situation.

I think the industry is going to be a long way back from where we were and we might have to provide services in a different way. There’s a shift that is occurring and the technology allows people to interact with it in a much easier and a much more manageable way. The technology is now hugely different than it was five years ago and it’s so much easier for people to put a service in, on short notice.

The timeline of this pilot is also quite interesting because it comes in when the UK is actually opening up again after this very difficult covid period…

Yes, it’s been a difficult year for everyone. We’ve soft launched the service to try and embed it amongst our users. They have been using it throughout lockdown just so they can get used to it.

But in terms of timing for promotion and pushing this service and saying to the public “This is here” is quite timely because it actually then gives the confidence to people to say “Yes we can get out and we can we can travel again”. They can go out and interact in a way that they used to, which seems like a lifetime ago now.

“DRT isn’t necessarily the cheapest method of delivering transport. However, it does provide the best value for money in certain locations”.

There is also another transition which is sustainability and the UK demonstrates a strong ambition for this as well. But this is happening locally, right?

For us, we actually partner with a few local authorities to the south of the county and we’ve looked at pooling resources and trying to make the service sustainable long term, because DRT isn’t necessarily the cheapest method of delivering transport. However, it does provide the best value for money in certain locations. Also the carbon footprint is lower because you’re only running services when people want to use it.

You’ve also got the option to look at potential for electric or hybrid vehicles, which also feeds into the sustainability model and the environmental plan that the government and local authorities are heavily looking at. The technology can help drive that as well because without the tech behind, it’s difficult to implement.

So a great future for Call Connect?

Absolutely, yes! It’s been a long time coming. We’re really pleased with how the pilot is working and I’m very confident that it will bring new life to certain parts of the service and encourage more people to use it which is absolutely what we want to achieve.

This is one of a number of recent Padam Mobility Blogs to be included on the Smart Classes Knowledge Base. We look forward to learning more about “Dynamic DRT” and “Best Practices in Shared Mobility for Lower Density Areas” at TRANSPORT Smart Class, North of England 2021 (Manchester, July 9th) and TRANSPORT Smart Class, Scotland 2021 (Edinburgh, September 16th) where Padam’s experts will feature amongst our innovator speakers and roundtable hosts. Those meeting our delegate qualification criteria can register for a free place at these events.

Feature Image Source: https://unsplash.com/@emily5370

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