Ability Community Transport is a social enterprise that was set up in 2018 by Lynn and Nigel Hinch. They identified a great need to connect isolated rural areas that were neglected by the wider transport network. The not-for-profit organisation operates with a big heart, priding themselves on reducing social isolation and loneliness in the community, through subsidised transport services.
We had the joy of speaking to company Director Nigel Hinch, and it was clear that providing the best possible service to members of the community was top of his agenda. Beginning with the story of how Ability implemented the Flexiroute system initially, Nigel was quick to share “we are totally reliant on the system.”
He elaborated further, “when we first set up the service, there was only two of us; one driving and one booking. We would use a spreadsheet to track the pick-ups and drop-offs, but we very quickly realised that this was not the best way and we needed to invest in a transport management system.”
Like many transport departments, the charity began using spreadsheets to manage their list of clients and locations. However, this resulted in multiple versions and no certain way of guaranteeing that they were working with the most up-to-date and accurate information. Fortunately, Nigel has a background in transport and logistics, so was able to quickly realise the benefits that a transport management system would bring; as well as being able to identify key requirements. He commented, “spreadsheets didn’t work, so I knew I needed to call Flexiroute!”.
Nigel has previous experience as the Chair of another community transport scheme and had knowledge of the systems available to help. He shared, “it’s a limited market because to manage a demand responsive transport service, you need a bespoke solution and to work with a business that understands the needs of the service. We found that in Flexiroute.”
The search for a system was short, as Nigel explained “we knew all of the failures of the other systems on the market and it was important to us that we worked with a business that understood the problems that we faced. We now know that if we need help, we can pick up the phone and speak to Mike or Dean, who truly understand what we are trying to deliver with our service. The system is perfect for our needs.”
365 Flexiroute provides a solution for the charity that combines a comprehensive back-office system with personalised checklists and simplified fare structures, for ease of booking and transport management. Bus drivers can securely access the information that they need to provide an exceptional service, directly from their Driver App.
“It is alarming that other organisations print off run sheets, post them out and send them via email to their drivers. The opportunity for highly sensitive information to go missing or get into the wrong hands is a chance we are not willing to take.”
A key concern for Nigel when considering solutions, was safeguarding. “It is alarming that other organisations print off run sheets, post them out and send them via email to their drivers. The opportunity for highly sensitive information to go missing or get into the wrong hands is a chance we are not willing to take.”
Continuing to explain the issues with physical copies of sensitive information, Nigel commented “we wanted to prevent these breaches – especially for our elderly and vulnerable passengers. With 365 Flexiroute, everything that our drivers need can be done within the Driver App. There is no requirement for printed information that can be lost or become inaccurate when changes are made.”
Featured within the Flexiroute system is the ability to include notes against a passenger or journey. “If there is any special requirements – such as a passenger that may need extra help getting on and off the bus – we just add a note in the system. This ensures no sensitive information is printed and that the driver always has all the information that they need to provide the best support to our passengers. Our drivers are totally reliant on the system.”
A key difference between the service offered by Ability and that of a normal bus service, is that the journeys are based on demand and require every passenger to pre-register for their trip. Not only does this provide a better service to the passengers, but more importantly, it ensures that there is always a seat available for them and negates any wasted mileage.
“Every passenger must pre-book our services. This allows us to forecast demand and the Flexiroute system automatically schedules our routes to include the right number of vehicles for the passengers. For instance, if we get a higher demand for one route, the system will search which of our fleet is in the area with spare capacity and divert it to the busier route.”
Nigel continued “when we have an instance of a passenger not showing up for their journey, we have all of their details on file so that we can call to check on them.”
The social value of the service has become essential to members of the community. Nigel and Lynn are heavily aware of the impact that the recent lockdowns have had on the wellbeing and independence of many of their elderly passengers. Utilising the 365 Flexiroute system, they have been able to grow their service substantially, unlike regular bus service providers that have still not yet returned to even 75% of the capacities they were experiencing pre-Covid.
Utilising the live mapping and automated booking within the system has proven an essential time-saving solution for the back-office team.
“The system is connected to real-time mapping and takes into account and delays that we may not have otherwise been aware of. If there is a road closure or traffic, it automatically updates the journey times. This is a big help for us when passengers phone us to get updates on where our buses are. We no longer need to phone the driver to see where they are, we can give instant live updates to reassure passengers, straight from the system.”
The 365 Flexiroute solution features a tailored Driver App. This links with the back-office system and provides drivers with all of the information that they need to do their job. Drivers save time by managing their bookings and navigating to their locations from within the app. The fully digital process ensures that they maintain the strict safeguarding standards set out by the charity.
Nigel commented, “previously we would have needed satnav kits for our drivers, but now they are able to get all of the information that they need for their journey from the Driver App. It makes life much easier knowing that they can click on their next pick-up and instantly get a map and directions to where they need to be, without having to type in the details each time.”
A key takeaway for the team at Ability is the efficient management of bookings and compliance standards. Nigel shared, “from a management point of view, the system really helps with our compliance. All operators are required to have vehicle inspections every ten weeks and we can easily manage this within the system. This is a really useful function.”
Nigel emphasised the importance of up-to-date information, “the more that you can adapt your procedures to work with your system, the better. It is so important not to rely on spreadsheets with duplicated information – the Flexiroute system lets you manage all of your data in one place.”
One aspect of the system that helps to provide added value to passengers of Ability is the option to filter data and export it from the system. Nigel shared, “every month, we use the Date of Birth field to highlight any birthdays. We then send birthday cards out to all of our passengers!”
The onset of the pandemic has accelerated the need for demand responsive services in the transport industry. This is something that Ability and many other community transport schemes have been doing for years, and has resulted in significant growth throughout Covid-19.
“The Flexiroute system automatically takes our journey bookings and schedules them onto routes using the fewest vehicles and the least road mileage. This helps us to achieve our goal of reducing emissions and being more environmentally friendly with our service.”
Ability Community Transport works hard to provide a low emission service, which included investing in an updated fleet of luxury minibuses and utilising the Flexiroute system to schedule bookings. Nigel commented, “together with our updated fleet and the use of 365 Flexiroute, we’re able to operate with significantly reduced emissions. The system drives our business to be more efficient, ensuring the least vehicles with the least mileage, but with the most efficient service for our passengers.”
“We provide a point-to-point service, which means we don’t waste time and mileage in looking for passengers at bus stops. Using the system, we can factor in the time it may take to help passengers with their shopping or plugging in their seatbelts. Our live mapping then lets us check that they’re running to schedule.”
Since implementing the Flexiroute system in 2018, the charity has grown from just one vehicle to six luxury minibuses and over 500 scheme members. Nigel attributes the success of the scheme to the Flexiroute system for managing the logistics of the service, so that his team can truly focus on connecting people and reducing isolation through transport.
Nigel concluded, “we have lots of plans to continue to expand our service and make the most of the 365 Flexiroute system. We are currently working with a large national coach company to bring demand responsive services to their routes, ensuring rural areas do not suffer from a lack of transport options. We will continue to grow and use the system to help us to adapt and respond to the changing needs of our community.”