Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On - and off - the buses

You might need a bank loan if you're planning
to leave Porthleven by bus
Now that I’m in training for the Cardiff half marathon, I’ve been forced to abandon some of my shorter lane and riverside runs, and focus my efforts on pounding the streets of Newport West.
This morning, as I puffed along the pavements of Bassaleg, Western Avenue, High Cross and Rogerstone, something occurred to me. Despite passing numerous bus stops on several different routes, not one of the people waiting at them looked under retirement age.

Despite its terrain, most of Madeira is
accessible by bus
Of course, this could be because I’d waited until after rush hour to set off (unlike my mate Merv, I’m pretty useless at ‘car dodging’), however it is the middle of the summer holidays and with flexi-time/shift working pretty much the norm now, there must be plenty of younger people catching buses after 9am – or is there?

I love travelling on public transport; in San Diego, Paris, Barcelona, Madeira, Rome – anywhere, in fact, where it’s abundant, cheap and reliable, anywhere other than the UK.

In Wales, public transport is universally lamentable and costly – unless you’re travelling to Cardiff. The imaginatively named coastal bus services in Pembrokeshire – the Poppit Rocket, Strumble Shuttle, Puffin Shuttle and Coastal and Celtic Cruisers – are also great value and run regularly throughout the summer season but, unfortunately, services like these are in the minority. 

Elsewhere, the buses that do run are increasingly sporadic and, worse, completely unaffordable to those on low incomes.

My daughter, a social worker in the Rhondda, sees firsthand how many families and young people are effectively trapped because they lack the means to travel from their deprived communities to look for work or educational opportunities. How unfair and illogical that the retired teacher or nurse enjoys free bus travel for a shopping trip to Cardiff or lunch ‘down the Bay’ when a young person desperately seeking employment can barely scrape together the bus fare for an interview.

Travelling by bus to Lisbon from Setubal was cheap and easy
Let me make it clear, I’m not ageist; after all, at 51 I’m not exactly a spring chicken myself. I also think it's commendable that the Welsh Government recognises the importance of getting out and about for individual well-being. No older person should be cut off from their family and friends, from leisure activities and shopping, simply because they don’t drive and can’t afford the bus fare.

I agree wholeheartedly with these lofty ‘aims’ (good public sector word there) but not with the wholly predictable knock-on effect, i.e. massively inflated bus fares for everyone else, whatever their financial situation.

I went to a school reunion a few weeks ago and decided to catch the last bus home. The fare cost £1.60 for a single journey of around four miles, not too bad as a one off but it soon mounts up if you do the journey regularly. A quick glance around the bus informed me I was the youngest passenger by a good decade making me the only paying customer.

Journeys between neighbouring towns demand increasingly crazy fares. When Harri and I walked the Torfaen Trail  a few years ago, the deteriorating weather almost persuaded us to abort our plans in Blaenavon. It was only the cost of the bus fare back to Pontypool that kept us going – two single fares for a five-mile journey would have cost us over £9. 

It was a similar story when we were doing the South West Coast Path in Cornwall. The bus driver on the Porthleven to Penzance route admitted that demanding the astronomical fares really embarrassed him. 

I’m convinced that bus fares have risen dramatically since free travel for over 60s was introduced. It’s only a theory but I’m guessing that now the majority of the bus-travelling population does so absolutely free of charge, bus companies are hiking their prices (Freudian slip there) for everyone else.

Tomorrow as we embark on the Amroth-Swansea section of the Wales Coast Path (Harri is writing the official guide for Northern Eye Books), there is no doubt that the escalating cost of bus fares will raise its ugly head again. We have two buses to catch to our starting point at Amroth (we then spend the day walking back to the car) so, over the next few weeks, I’m certain to utter those immortal words ‘how much?’ 

I’m a socialist; I have no desire to see older people struggling to make ends meet or to experience social isolation because they can’t afford bus fares.

I often wonder, however, if the Welsh Assembly could have better used the money spent on free bus passes for the over 60s to subsidise public transport for everyone. I really am struggling to think of even one over 60 who isn’t far better off than Harri and me!

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