A black hole in green transport?

June 30, 2023 0 Comments

An anecdote is a dangerous base for an argument, I know, but today that’s not going to stop me from a grouse about public transport. 

Yesterday I needed to get from Mumbles to Cardiff Bay.  These days I try to keep the car in the drive, unless there’s no reasonable alternative, and I didn’t think this would be a difficult journey by public transport.  So I set off from the house, leaving plenty of time. 

There used to be fours buses an hour from our street into Swansea bus station.  Now there are only two, and I needed to walk down to Langland Corner (18 minutes) to catch the 2B.  But that was fine: the bus came when it was supposed to, and it got to the bus station in good time.  Next, I planned to catch an excellent service from there, the X10, that I used in the past because it called in at the Bay before going on to Cardiff city centre; it was also free, for oldies like me.  But no X10 was mentioned on the departures board.  I asked at the information kiosk and was told that the X10 service was abolished two years ago, ‘because it didn’t make a profit’.  This surprised me.  ‘Two years ago’ was at the height of the Covid pandemic, and not many public services ‘made a profit’ then.  And in any case, do all bus services have to make a profit these days?

it appears, then, that there are now no bus services linking Swansea and Cardiff (and certainly Cardiff Bay), except for occasional longer-distance services run by National Express and Megabus.  No such buses were available or advertised. 

So I walked up to the railway station (15 minutes), and bought a train ticket.  I’d just missed a GWR train, but never mind, a Transport for Wales service was expected in less than half an hour; I was still in plenty of time.  I bought a coffee and waited.  Then, an announcement: the 10.55 service was cancelled, because there were no staff available to run it.  That meant waiting a whole hour for the next GWR train, which, fortunately, was on time.  (The quiet carriage was full of people ignoring the ‘quiet carriage’ signs, but you’ve heard enough grumpiness by now.)

All this meant that I arrived, not in Cardiff Bay, but in Cardiff Central.  Should I aim for a second train to go the short distance to Cardiff Queen Street, and from there, a third train to Butetown?  Or wait for a bus, I knew not where (Cardiff still doesn’t have a bus station)?  I calculated that it might be quicker to walk, directly down Bute Street (25 minutes).  The sun was shining, it was a good brisk walk, and I arrived in the Bay with just ten minutes to spare.

If it’s possible to generalise from this single story – and I realise it may be misleading – what conclusion would I draw about current transport policy and practice in Wales? 

Well, I start from the assumption that the Welsh Government is genuinely trying to shift transport, at least in part, towards a more ecologically sustainable position.  (Whereas the UK government, as its Climate Change Committee recently confirmed, is steaming fast in the opposite direction, towards environmental destruction.)  To his credit, Lee Waters, the Deputy Minister responsible for climate change matters, has made several brave decisions to blunt the disastrous expansion of car culture, halting plans for the Newport M4 extension, introducing a general moratorium on new major roads, and insisting on a reduction of 30mph to 20mph speed limits in urban areas.  Of course, it’s nowhere near enough to make a substantial impact on emissions and other deleterious effects of private traffic.  And local authorities, at least to judge from experience here, haven’t yet got the message.  Swansea Council is still building huge, brand new car parks in the city centre and excitedly announcing free parking on some weekends, instead of thinking how it can get people out of cars  But it’s a start.

The difficulty, though, with the government’s policy is that it’s no good taking action to curb the private car unless you boost alternative public alternatives and make them attractive to people.  And here, to judge from my own experience – not just today but on several recent occasions – the news isn’t good.

Transport for Wales took over the previous Arriva train franchise.  Almost everyone agreed that Arriva had provided a dismal train service and that nationalisation made sense.  Unfortunately, Transport for Wales’s service is turning out to be just as poor.  No up-to-date performance statistics are available, but it’s clear that many services are now cancelled, often at short notice, and many are overcrowded and badly delayed (including the one that brought me back from Cardiff to Swansea today).  New and reconditioned trains and carriages are being introduced, I know, but very slowly, and in the meantime the existing ones are antique and unreliable.  There’s obviously a problem with recruitment and retention of staff, or at least with the deployment of existing staff.

You can sympathise with TfW’s position, to some extent.  They’re starved of cash for investment and maintenance.  What, for example, could they have achieved had Wales received its ‘Barnett consequentials’ for the construction of the astronomically costly HS2 line?  (That it hasn’t is a national scandal.) It’s also true that in time the ‘South Wales Metro’ should in future improve public transport, but only in Cardiff and its feeder valleys.  But how can the public be encouraged out of their cars and on to rail when the service simply can’t be relied on?

More important than trains, in terms of journeys made, are buses.  I’m not sure about other parts of Wales, but here in Swansea services have been in decline for many years, and the decline is accelerating.  The frequency of services has been cut, and buses are much less reliable that they were before Covid.  On several occasions recently I’ve waited for buses which never arrived, and often they’re late.  Again, it seems that First Bus has suffered from recruitment and retention problems. 

Instead of suffering constant decline, shouldn’t bus transport be vastly expanded and improved, so that it becomes a much more attractive option than driving your car?  According to the International Energy Agency, ‘transport has the highest reliance on fossil fuels of any sector and accounted for 37% of CO2 emissions from end‐use sectors in 2021.’  If continental cities can succeed in reducing car transport by making their buses frequent, comfortable and cheap, why can’t Wales?  In the 1980s the GLC’s ‘Fare’s Fair’ policy and South Yorkshire’s earlier policy of making bus fares so cheap it was pointless collecting them, were ahead their time (they were crushed by a combination of the courts and the Tories).  Now that we know we’re living in a climate emergency, the case for radical action is unanswerable.

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