Concerns were raised at City Hall on Thursday (18th) over the performance of Transport for London’s (TfL) Dial-a-Ride service.
Sadiq Khan was told during a Mayor’s Question Time session that there had been several issues with the on-demand minibuses, which help elderly and disabled Londoners travel around the capital.
Khan insisted that Dial-a-Ride continues to offer a “gold standard service”, though he admitted that it had experienced “teething problems” since the release of a new journey-booking app in November.
Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat on the London Assembly, said she had heard “heartbreaking” stories from Londoners unable to use the app or get a minibus to arrive when they needed one.
She told the mayor that the number of Dial-a-Ride vehicles had been cut 63% in recent years, from 460 in 2019 down to 170 in 2023. Similarly, the number of drivers employed by the service has plummeted 46%, from 321 to 173.
“Week after week, I am receiving heartbreaking cases about the state of this vital service,” Pidgeon said.
“Older and disabled residents can struggle sometimes with new technology. Many don’t own a smartphone.
“Given how inaccessible people are finding the new app, they’re calling the call centre, they’re struggling to get through, they’re getting cut off after being on hold for over an hour.
“One resident told me they’d called 14 times before finally being able to speak to someone. Other people are getting confusing text messages sent to landlines.”
Mr Khan apologised to those who had received a poor service from Dial-a-Ride and said his team would investigate the examples listed by Pidgeon.
He agreed that for many users of the service, “the app isn’t the way forward”, and said that this was why “the phone line still exists”, though he acknowledged it was important that calls to it are answered.
But Pidgeon said there were further issues with the service which needed to be addressed.
“Residents have been telling me, since this new system came in, even when they’ve secured a booking, the vehicles are turning up perhaps up to an hour early, [or] late, [and] sometimes they don’t turn up at all,” she said.
“Regular bookings have not been transferred properly to the new system. People are finding, once again, they can get a one-way-only booking and not a return. Bookings are being cancelled at short notice and without real justification.
“Many elderly and disabled residents have been stuck at home, missing out on social activities, particularly painful over the Christmas period.
“But also I have heard from residents that drivers have been told not to leave their vehicles – so in one case this meant a resident with sight loss had to try to make her own way from her home to the Dial-a-Ride bus – it’s supposed to be a door-to-door service.”
She asked the mayor how he personally will ensure Dial-a-Ride becomes a “gold standard service”.
Khan responded: “The Dial-a-Ride is a gold standard service. Over 35,000 Londoners [with long-term disabilities or aged 85 and over, in 2023] have used the service.
“A small minority have received a poor service – and you’re referring to the small minority.”
He added that it was important to fix things for that minority of users, “because for them, it’s 100% a poor service”.
Earlier in the meeting, the mayor said he was proud that TfL offers Dial-a-Ride and that bookings to the service increased 22% in 2023, compared with 2022.
He pointed out that TfL has extended its operating hours for the service, meaning that minibuses run until 11pm, rather than 10pm.
The app was released to “enable customers to book trips more quickly and easily”, he said, and TfL has increased training for drivers and booking agents on topics like dementia and neurodiversity, “to improve the user experience, keeping in mind the particular needs of users of this service” .
In a written answer to Pidgeon regarding the reduced number of vehicles since 2019, the mayor’s office wrote: “It should be noted that the number of Dial-a-Ride buses was reduced prior to the pandemic, as the fleet had reached the end of its lifespan after well over a decade of service. The renewed fleet reflected the demand and service requirements at the time.
“The overall number of Dial-a-Ride drivers was reduced through offering a voluntary exit package or the opportunity to transfer to London Underground. There were no redundancies. The reduction in the number of drivers and buses reflected the passenger demand at the time.
“However, TfL is monitoring the increase in demand and taking steps to respond to it through various measures such as increasing the number of shifts offered to its community transport suppliers, recruiting new drivers and control centre staff and using technology to optimise service delivery. Dial-a-Ride’s performance levels have remained stable over the past several years.”