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Ting-ling sums needed for ‘Uber’ bus service

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A Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) initiative in Huntingdonshire – the Ting – will attract funding of £550,000 from 2023/24 according to papers to be considered by Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA).

Until now the service has been operated by Stagecoach, but CAPCA says the service will be operated by Vectare from November 28 “after a successful tender bid”.

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson says Ting “is attracting a new generation of younger travellers and delivering a real shift in how people travel”.

It is also ensuring people can travel and “access vital services such as hospitals and supermarkets”.

In essence Ting is a ‘Uber style’ bus service that covers the West Huntingdonshire area including St Neots, Cambourne, Sawtry and surrounding villages.

Users can book their Ting journeys, just before they travel, either by telephone to a call centre or directly using an app.

Vectare says from November the service will start earlier in the morning to help people get to work, with bookings from 0600 instead of 0700, and the service will run until 2000, six days a week.

In March, CAPCA agreed a £120,000 three-month extension of the Ting trial which had begun in October 2021.

“Extending the trial would enable the service to review progress and consequently tender for a revised service to commence in July 2022 subject to a successful review,” it said.

It pointed out that the DRT project had been rated five stars over the first ten weeks of service and serviced c.110 rides a day, with the West Huntingdonshire DRT bus increasing access from 52-92%.

And there was talk of expanding Ting services into other areas, with eight ‘potential’ sites identified.

Board members were also assured that “current data allowed the officer to estimate that the DRT would be cost neutral or profiting in six months, not including set up cost”, but seemingly not.

With CAPCA embroiled in major internal disputes this summer, most members had concentrated on these which reflected unease over the way Mayor Johnson has run the authority.

Board member Anna Bailey – also leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council – vented her frustrations about Ting on Twitter.

She tweeted that the board “asked for detailed information months ago.

“Back then the costs were eye-watering. I asked for it again in September. Then I discover it’s been renewed and expanded, and no details in terms of governance of this decision.

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“I chased again a few days ago.”

Her views are echoed by Cllr Steve Count, Conservative opposition leader on Cambridgeshire County Council.

“It’s a great theoretical advance in public transport,” he tweeted. “All I want to know is, is it value for money, does it work, did the mayor follow governance when re-tendering (state aid challenge is a reality in Cambs).”

The seeds for Ting were sown back in January 2021, under Mayor James Palmer, when it was reported that negotiations were already under way to find a provider for a Demand Responsive Transport initiative in Huntingdonshire.

His then board were formulating plans for Ting to cover most of west Huntingdonshire including Glatton, Sawtry, Great Gidding, Molesworth, Keyston, Catworth, Kimbolton, Hammerton, Alconbury & Alconbury Weston, Old Weston, Buckworth, Leighton Bromswold, Spaldwick, Ellington, Grafham, Gt Staughton, Perry, Buckden, Southoe, Hail Weston, Paxton, Offord, Graveley, Toseland, Papworth Everard, St Neots, Eynesbury and Eltisley.

And “a small number of out of area destinations” were also being looked at: Cambourne Morrisons, Huntingdon town centre, Hinchingbrooke Hospital and Thrapston Industrial Park.

CAPCA pointed out that this operating area contained only one commercial bus service and two minimum subsidy services, with most buses being subsidised on a minimum cost basis.

“Therefore, the introduction of the DRT scheme will not directly damage the existing bus network,” it noted.

And so, Ting was born.

New operators Vectare even have a ‘passenger promise’ which ensures that no passenger will be left stranded. If their bus doesn’t turn up or is full, and the next bus is more than 30 minutes away, Vectare will pay for a taxi “whether to your destination or back home”.

The question being asked, of course, is whether Mayor Johnson had delegated authority to approve the re-tendering process.

With a new chief interim chief executive in place, it is improbable to suggest otherwise.

Initial funding for the DRT project was agreed as far back in September 2020 when cash was set aside for “several trial public transport services”.

The debate when the issue is raised at this week’s overview and scrutiny committee will focus on the money needed to maintain Ting and whether authorisation procedures were thorough and appropriate.

For passengers in West Huntingdonshire, Ting remains, in the words of a CAPCA report, a service which is “a trial of the technology, a trial of the public’s enthusiasm for a very different type of bus service, and a test of the system’s financial viability”.

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