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HomeLondon NewsFailures in London's on-demand minibus service leave elderly and disabled isolated

Failures in London’s on-demand minibus service leave elderly and disabled isolated

Elderly and disabled Londoners have warned that ongoing failures with the capital’s on-demand minibus service have left them isolated and less able to leave their homes.

Serious problems with Transport for London’s (TfL) Dial-a-Ride scheme were raised with mayor Sadiq Khan in January, but five months on, users of the service say the minibuses can still run hours late, or sometimes fail to arrive at all.

The issues first arose in November last year, when TfL released a new journey-booking app for the service which Mr Khan admitted had experienced “teething problems”.

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The Dial-a-Ride service is a free membership scheme, open to Londoners aged 85 and older, or for those with a long-term disability.

The mayor said he accepted that for many people, “the app isn’t the way forward”, saying this was why “the phone line still exists”.

But while the availability of call handlers on the phone line has improved since Christmas – and TfL says more than 90 per cent of trip requests are met – concerns have been raised that the minibuses are still far less reliable than before.

At the Diamond Club – a weekly social group for older people in Lewisham – several attendees told the Local Democracy Reporting Service they’d been having frustrating experiences with Dial-a-Ride for months.

Failures in London's on-demand minibus service leave elderly and disabled isolated Harrow Online
Fred Hawley. Credit: Noah Vickers/Local Democracy Reporting Service

“I think that since they’ve changed to this [app-based] system, they’ve been having more problems,” said 80-year-old Blanche Mcpherson. “It’s a lot more difficult now to get Dial-a-Ride.”

She added that the service is “a blessing” and “a good service, when it works”.

Part of the issue appears to be a simple lack of drivers to meet demand. Mary Donohue, 82, said she has tried making bookings two weeks in advance, only to be told no minibuses are available.

She added that she used to go to another social club, but stopped going after Dial-a-Ride took three hours to arrive and get her home.

The scheme’s members said they are also sometimes told there is only capacity in the system to take them one way, rather than a round trip.

Lesley Allen, the Diamond Club’s manager, pointed out that only offering a journey one way “defeats the purpose of supportive transport”.

Another issue, the service’s users say, is that the minibuses can be inefficiently filled with passengers. Three people who use Dial-a-Ride to get home from the Diamond Club at the same time every week said they are often each given their own minibus, despite all living only a few minutes’ apart from one another.

Fred Hawley, 93, said: “The staff on the buses and in the offices are terrific, they really are. It’s just the organisation goes a little bit skew-whiff.”

Mr Hawley, who has an amputated leg and uses a wheelchair, was recently left waiting hours for a Dial-a-Ride bus to collect him from the club, which never came.

Despite ringing up to check, and receiving assurances that his journey was booked into the system, he was later told to instead to take a subsidised taxi, using the taxicard service jointly funded by TfL and London’s councils.

But no taxicard driver was available, meaning Mr Hawley had to instead rely on Ms Allen to get him home.

“Eventually Fred had to get from his wheelchair into my car,” said Ms Allen, adding that this was “undignified and stressful” for him as he had to find a way of transferring himself out of his chair to get into the vehicle.

Failures in London's on-demand minibus service leave elderly and disabled isolated Harrow Online
Blanche Mcpherson. Credit: Noah Vickers/Local Democracy Reporting Service

Not being able to depend on Dial-a-Ride in the same way as before “means a great deal”, said Mr Hawley. “Because you look forward to it [visiting the Diamond Club], you really do. I know it’s only a few hours, but it’s a godsend, it really is.”

Ms Donohue agreed: “It’s the only day I get out now… I find it nice to meet up with your friends and have a chat and do a little bit of exercise.”

According to TfL, a Dial-a-Ride bus not turning up at all is “extremely rare”. Within the last three months buses have failed to arrive on only three per cent of journeys, TfL said, adding that they will always notify the passenger if there is an issue.

The number of Dial-a-Ride drivers has reduced in recent years, so there are now around half as many as there were ten years ago – though TfL say the numbers are matched to customer demand. The transport authority says it recruited 12 extra drivers last year, along with five more so far this year, and more staff to improve call waiting times.

John McGeachy, campaigns manager at Age UK London, said he was concerned that due to TfL’s short-term Government funding deals in the aftermath of the pandemic, services like Dial-a-Ride may suffer from under-investment.

“There’s so many issues, from replacing trains on the Bakerloo line, or whatever it is, that things like Dial-a-Ride, and taxi services [can receive less attention],” he said.

“Proportionally they have far fewer people [using them], but for the people that do benefit from them, they make a really significant difference.”

James Mead, Dial-a-Ride’s general manager, said: “We’re sorry if any of our customers have experienced difficulties using our Dial-a-Ride service and we welcome any feedback we receive, as we constantly strive to make improvements to the service.

“Dial-a-Ride is a vital free service for many Londoners, and we are meeting more than 90 per cent of our customers’ trip requests. We remain committed to improving the service further, which is why we are hiring more staff and have implemented a new booking service.”

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