Dial-A-Ride users finally have some good news – the decrepit and ancient fleet of minibuses the scheme relies on is finally being upgraded thanks to the incoming Ultra Low Emission Zone.
Due to come into effect next year, the ULEZ will see fleet owners whose old, polluting vehicles enter the zone fined on a daily basis.
As well as commercial owners, the risk of fines has spurred the Met and London Fire Brigade to clean up their fleets and, in a rare instance of investment in the scheme, Transport for London is also shelling out for 90 new Dial-A-Ride buses.
The scheme provides a vital lifeline to mobility impaired Londoners by allowing them to take journeys that would be impossible to complete by public transport, but managers have long seemed unbothered by the poor performance and falling service levels users have to endure.
Always keen to plunge headfirst into new fads, TfL bosses earlier this year got themselves excited about the potential for competing with app-based on-demand services such as Chariot, seemingly forgetting that they already have an demand service which is blighted daily by under-staffing and lengthening queues on the booking line.
The scale of under-investment in this vital service has been hammered home by a response to a Freedom of Information request I submitted which revealed that the 321-strong diesel fleet still includes buses bought in the earliest days of Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty and hasn’t gained a new vehicle since 2013.
Passengers on the overly hot New Routemasters justifiably complain about the sweaty rides they have to endure, but Dial-A-Ride users are being carried around on a fleet that’s been sweated for every last drop of value, with TfL confirming they cannibalise parts from some decommissioned vehicles to keep others on the road.
Unsurprisingly given that half the fleet is at least one, and in some cases almost two decades old, maintenance costs are soaring and last year stood at £1.9m, up £160,000 from 2015/16.
The agency says “these costs include regular safety inspections every 10 weeks to ensure the buses meet all safety requirements and are mechanically sound, maintenance services every 10,000-12,000 miles in line with manufacturers’ recommendations as well as any other servicing or repairs required.”
But it concedes that the costs are driven largely by the age of the fleet, saying “the increase in costs is to be expected as the fleet ages and requires more maintenance.
“TfL is currently undertaking a procurement exercise to ensure Dial-A-Ride is compliant with the ULEZ regulations, and these new buses should reduce the cost of maintenance.”
But the initial procurement will only see 90 new buses added to the fleet, leaving many of old and costly to maintain vehicles in service, and while TfL says it will look to replace the oldest vehicles first, “due to operational requirements this may not be the case in all instances.”
A full replacement of the fleet is factored into TfL’s five-year business plan but this runs until 2023 meaning that even the newest vehicle currently in service will be a full decade old by the time it’s replaced.
London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon, who has long called for improvements to Dial-A-Ride, is unimpressed, telling me:
“Having so many Dial-a-Ride vehicles which are 15, 16 and even 17 years old clearly indicates that there has not been sustained investment in the Dial-a-Ride service.
“This situation is in complete contrast to London’s wider bus fleet, which is regularly updated with new buses, and with older buses then moved on to cities and towns around the country.
“The existence of so many older vehicles still operating for Dial-a-Ride once again confirms that it is a service that is neglected within TfL. Thank goodness that the introduction of ULEZ is now forcing TfL’s hand to invest in new vehicles.”
And Labour’s Florence Eshalomi says:
“The ULEZ is going to play a vital role in allowing us to clean up London’s toxic air, but it’s good to see it acting as a catalyst for the wider good.
“Dial-A-Ride is a hugely valuable service, providing a lifeline for many people living with disabilities whose independence may otherwise be compromised.
“I’d like to see a renewed focus on investing in, and protecting, Dial-A-Ride so that it is there to help future generations.”
The TfL business plan neatly illustrates the agency’s paucity of ambition for this service with Key Performance Indicators such as the number of journeys scheduled unchanged from one year to another.
TfL promised in both 2015 and 2017 that it would start managing Dial-A-Ride properly and delivering a service users could rely on.
Perhaps this belated and enforced investment will finally help deliver on those promises, but the lack of meaningful progress to date suggests no-one should get their hopes up.