I was somewhat disappointed to see one of Suffolk's County Councillors criticise the Suffolk Links service recently. As a regular user, dependent on it to get me to and from the station, I have grown to appreciate the service, and have campaigned locally to encourage usage.
And strangely, contrary to the belief of some, it is a remarkably reliable service, very rarely late - often due to the failure of a preceding passenger to turn up on time - reasonably priced, and far more flexible than the fixed bus service that my village hasn't had in recent memory.
When I first came to Creeting St Peter in 2007, and asked about public transport, I was told that there was a bus service. The catch? It ran once a week, on market day, and was of no use to anyone unless they wanted a brief shopping expedition to Stowmarket. As a non-driver, that meant that living in the village was virtually impossible, especially with Ros in London most weekdays, unless I was willing to spend more than £50 each week in taxi fares just to get to Stowmarket station.
And then Suffolk Links Gipping North was introduced into my life. Originally, the morning service consisted of a fixed route in the morning, running from Stowmarket to Little Stonham to connect with buses to Diss and Ipswich, before reverting to a demand responsive service in the afternoon. This solved half of my problem, but left mornings rather difficult, as the bus connection wasn't guaranteed as Little Stonham, and the connecting bus ran on an hourly basis or worse.
Common sense won through eventually though, and the service became wholly demand responsive, just in time for me to arrange a transfer to my employer's Ipswich office and be able to use it to get to and from work. Come rain, snow or shine, Kathy or Philip are there in the middle of Creeting St Peter at 7.55 each workday morning, ready to drive me to the station, and either Philip, Alan or Ann are at Stowmarket station at 6.40 most evenings to drive me home again. They've become part of my routine, and we chat about our days, and about stuff generally. I learn more about my area, and sometimes I can suggest things that might be helpful. I even take copies of their leaflet to drop through the doors of new residents in the village.
There are some complexities. The policy of only allowing passengers to have two future bookings (a return counts as one) does mean that I have to ring daily to make the next booking, and I can't book more than a week in advance, but both restrictions mean that availability is more evenly spread. I also have to be willing to be flexible as someone may have booked earlier than I have for a time that I want, although I tend to travel earlier in the morning and later in the evening to reduce the likelihood of that.
At the core of the service is Margaret, who takes bookings and organises the schedule. It's a more difficult job than it sounds, as she needs to estimate how long each journey will take, and ensure that the bus is used as effectively as possible. She's a dab hand at matching up passengers to ensure that journeys aren't wasted, and is always keen to promote usage of the service. She also deals with those people who confuse it for a taxi service and are annoyed when it isn't available exactly when they require it.
Unlike the remaining fixed service bus routes, Suffolk Links connects up some fairly remote outlying areas, where county gritting services are less prevalent, using smaller back roads with low levels of traffic. When there is heavy snow, or flooding, this can mean that providing a service is difficult, or unsafe, but even during this month's bad weather, Suffolk Links Gipping North has made it through.
So, when considering the notion of Demand Responsive Transport, bear in mind that it serves places that wouldn't have any public transport otherwise, costs far less and is more flexible than a fixed route service, and is a vital lifeline to those in more remote communities who would otherwise be seriously isolated. And talk to your local provider, they'll be able to explain what they do, how they operate and what their challenges are.