Mayor Ben Houchen has praised the success of the Tees Flex on-demand bus service as it was revealed that in its first year it has helped local people across the Tees Valley make 45,800 journeys so far.
The service was launched by Mayor Houchen as part of a three-year pilot in February 2020, just weeks before national lockdown measures came into place as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the unprecedented challenges presented by the virus, the service has offered a vital lifeline to help keep the region’s most isolated communities connected with essential services and critical care workers on the road.
The Tees Flex fleet has been hitting the roads of the rural parts of Darlington & Stockton, Hartlepool and Redcar & Cleveland throughout lockdown, clocking up more than 400,000 miles – the equivalent of circling the globe ten times – and averaging nearly 1,000 journeys a week.
As well as ensuring local people can continue to access essential services and key workers can quickly and easily get around, Mayor Houchen has also made the Tees Flex buses available as part of the pandemic response.
During the first wave, Mayor Houchen worked with the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust so that the Tees Flex buses could be used to help vulnerable patients get to and from hospital during the coronavirus pandemic free of charge.
And as the vaccine was rolled out, Mayor Houchen teamed up with Hartlepool Borough Council to use the buses to help get home care workers from the town to the University Hospital of North Tees for their coronavirus jab.
With the estimated wait time before pick-up at just over 20 minutes, Tees Flex is proving a popular choice with local residents and more than 9,300 people have set up accounts.
Mayor Houchen said: “It’s fantastic to see Tees Flex having such a positive impact on local people, just one year into its pilot.
“Tees Flex is about keeping our rural communities connected and making sure that local people can get around the region easily and cheaply, whether that’s to access essential care and services, or simply to meet with friends and family when restrictions allow.
“Of course, this has been a year unlike any other and one in which the importance of being able to safely visit and provide support for vulnerable family members, neighbours or friends has really been driven home.
“Despite social distancing measures and buses running at a reduced capacity to keep people safe, these figures and the feedback received from riders show us that the service is doing exactly what is needed.
“This comes just days after we deployed the Tees Flex fleet to support the vaccination effort and help home care workers in Hartlepool to travel to get their jab, allowing them to continue their important work caring for the elderly and vulnerable with the peace of mind that they are protected.”
The Mayor is not the only person to praise the service, which has an average user rating of 4.9 out of 5 – or a 98% customer satisfaction ration – on the service’s own app.
Chrissie, a Hartlepool resident who uses the Tees Flex service regularly with her guide dog, Bridget, said: “I use Tees Flex for all of my essentials such as going shopping, collecting prescriptions and attending medical appointments.
“The service is clean and safe and the new vehicles are lovely. The Tees Flex drivers are extremely kind too, picking me up and dropping me off in all manner of unusual places. It is no exaggeration to say that they have changed my life and are a now a regular part of it, which is so important with having no relatives in the area. They have even offered to drop groceries off for me! Before lockdown, I used Tees Flex on a Saturday to go for a walk along the Headland for the first time in fourteen years! Tees Flex has given me that freedom back.”
Alan Lamb, a driver on the Tees Flex service, said: “The first twelve months has been a great success and we’ve seen passenger numbers growing into a great set of regulars, with new customers giving the bus a try each day too.
“In the current climate, it’s a privilege to play an active role in the daily lives of our lovely customers, helping them to make important journeys and to maintain a sense of normality. For lots of residents, the service provides a lifeline that wasn’t there before and has created a real sense of community spirit.”
When asked about his kind offer of delivering groceries to Chrissie in Hartlepool, Alan said: “All of the lads are kind and considerate and would all do the same if we could help someone out!”
Operating six days a week, Tees Flex can be booked via a smartphone app, a website or over the telephone.
Single and return journeys can be made to requested pick-up and drop-off points within one of three serviced areas to secondary destinations including train stations and hospitals across that borough.
The service has been funded by the Tees Valley Mayor and Combined Authority and is currently operated by Stagecoach on an initial three-year pilot. If the pilot is a success, there is the potential for the service to be rolled out further across the region.