WHAT PRICE CHARITY?
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it so we can fix it.
• London's dial-a-ride mini-bus service, the public transport system for handicapped people, is to get more government money in the coming financial year — but officials at London Regional Transport (LRT) reckon that the 20% increase will not be enough to fund a major expansion of their services.
There are currently 29 schemes in operation throughout London. Since the demise of the GLC, which founded the system in 1983, LRT has managed the funding of the services. Under the terms of the 1984 Transport Act it has a responsibility, keenly supported by former transport minister Lynda Chalker, to provide public transport for the disabled.
Last year's no growth' funding from the Department of Transport amounted to £5 million, out of which had to be taken LRT's own administration costs; a figure that it's coy about revealing. The grant for 1986/7 will be £6 million.
A year into co-ordinating an area of transport of which it had little previous experience, LRT's strategy appears to be one of increasing operational efficiency while trying to maintain the value of the service to the users. Each dial-aride has a voluntary local management committee on which users are heavily represented, controlling the day-to-day operations of the professional staff. Each of these furnishes LRT with an annual budget and is funded accordingly.
LRT claims that the need to maintain and consolidate existing operations while retaining a sum for contingencies such as pay awards means that there is precious little cash available for growth. Instead the giant public transport concern is talking serious business with corporate vehicle and equipment suppliers to ensure the best value and choice is avail
able to the local committees. With the older established dial-a-rides now in their fourth working year, vehicles are coming up for replacement.
It is estimated that for this and each of the next two years, around 30% of the fleet of a hundred or so will be replaced. This will cost up to E1/2 million a year. Consequently, after extensive technical evaluation by LRT's in-house experts, discussions over the supply of diesel minibuses are going on with Ford, Mercedes, Renault and VW. Diesel engines are specified for reasons of both safety and economy. Outright purchase is the name of the game at the moment as the case for leasing specialist converted vehicles — all of them with tail-lifts — has yet to be fully investigated.
This investment in service efficiency, aimed at spreading existing resources further, doesn't end with vehicles. Fuel, office equipment and maintenance are also being examined for ways of reducing costs. A major area of future spending entails a plan to progressively install computers in every dial-a-ride. So far only Haringey has one on an experimental basis. This. scheme has the lowest unit cost in London, the computer proving successful in all areas of operation from telephone booking to expenditure analysis.
While LRT accepts in the short term that changing from one system to another and the training involved may cause strains, it is very optimistic about the long term benefits. It is hoped that computerisation will spread existing staff resources further. Services can then be developed without an increase in the wage costs which form such a high proportion of the expenditure of labour-intensive public services. Existing jobs will not be threatened. Staff at LRT's Disablement Unit believe that this concentration on improving infrastructure and overall co-ordination will assist management committees in the individual boroughs. They argue it will free them and their staff from arduous and technically complex decisions they may be ill-equipped to deal with, enabling them to capitalise on their strength: the ability to improve service quality by consulting directly with users. It is hoped that given the vast disparity in size and population of the various boroughs, schemes can develop policies tailored to meet local needs.
As yet there has been no time for consumer response. When it comes it may well depend on LRT's ability to communicate its reasoning to a vulnerable section of the community which fears the prospect of cuts.
Mobility handicaps are difficult to define exactly. They range from permanent disability, often requiring the use of wheelchairs, to conditions like arthritis that may improve in warmer weather. The basic criteria is that DAR users are unable to use public transport. Already, in the short time DARs have been functioning, they have over 42,000 members, the majority of them elderly. Referals come from doctors, social workers and disablement associations. Yet many professionals think existing DAR provision is only scratching the surface of the potential demand. Estimates, such as the respected OUTSET survey, suggest that up to one-in-ten Londoners may be mobility handicapped, although not all of them would require door-to-door transport.
The success or otherwise, of LRT's attempts at increasing efficient operaton while maintaining local services and autonomy will not be apparent until later in the year. Its a difficult balancing act, performed with little history to serve as a guide and at a time when passenger transport is more and more in the political arena.
London's disabled await the outcome with considerable interest.
DIALLING BY COMPUTER
• Haringey Dial-a-Ride is unique amongst its contemporaries in having been computer-based right from the start. It's been very much a guinea pig, but proof that the experiment has ultimately been successful is evinced by LRTE's plans to introduce computers to the remaining schemes over the next two years.
The initial system was a General Automation Zebra unit with four VDUs and a printer. Its use has expanded with experience and the development of specialist software by Fletcher Computer Services. Initially it stored records of membership, vehicles, maintenance and trips but as the operators confidence grows it is increasingly put to a more analytical use.
At the most basic level, phone calls from members booking trips are fed straight into the computer by the dispatcher receiving the call. Harringay operates from 8am-11pm, seven days a week. Bookings have to be made the morning prior to the required journey. When the driver starts a shift he or she receives a detailed print out of each job, listing the name age and disability (vitally important) of each passenger, together with the pickup point, destination, times and which vehicle to use.
As the information is also stored in the machine's memory, readouts can subsequently be extracted detailing monthly distances, the most popular destinations and profiles of passengers by age, location or disability. Practise is developing even more sophisticated usage, allowing vehicle fuel consumptions and maintenance costs to be closely monitored and costs controlled.
This speeds information retrieval and also cuts down on a lot of boring number crunching when it comes to preparing budgets and planning ahead to meet predicted demands.
Assessment of the system's success is inevitably subjective, but statistics seem to bear out co-ordinator Alan Rogers' statement: "In my eyes Haringey is top in terms of overall efficiency." Certainly staff acceptance has been good, although Alan realises the benefits of having had the computer from the very beginning, rather than having to introduce it in place of an existing manual system, as other DARs will have to. Aside from the coordinator, his assistant and the admin worker, about half the drivers are also trained as despatchers and regularly use the computer.
Close liaison with the staff union NALGO has led to a mutually-agreed series of guidelines that prevent staff spending too long at the VDU and risking the associated health problems.
The fact that the computer has been very much a piece of 'action research' with manufacturers and suppliers participating keenly in the experiment makes the true cost difficult to estimate. LRTE is now budgeting for systems for other DARs. The verdict from Haringey is that it's well worth it.
If it works for them then it may well be applicable to other small but possibly less specialised passenger transport operations.