An opinion piece contributed by Patrick Adams
Public transport in Powys is not generally at a level where it is a practical alternative to the private car. Even where provision is reasonably good, there are usually no services in the evenings, Sundays or on Bank Holidays. Some communities have no service at all, while others have a very basic “safety net” of a service, running perhaps one or two days a week, providing a daytime return journey to the nearest town.
Many people are reliant on the car to access even the basic services – health centres, dentists, opticians etc, as well as shopping, sports and leisure centres, as well as opportunities to take employment or training. Some resort to taxis and lifts, and other households need to have a second vehicle. Anyone who, for any reason, cannot drive or has no access to a car is severely disadvantaged. Some decide to move away because of this problem.
What about the teenager who wants to visit friends or attend an event in a nearby town? A lift from parents is often needed, with a double car journey – taking them there and then fetching them back. Then there is the journey to the train station – quite often a double car journey is needed at both ends of the train journey, or the car occupies parking space at the station, sometimes for days on end. If there were more public transport opportunities, there would likely be fewer households running second cars. There would even be opportunities for visitors and tourists without cars.
Any increase in local housing provision is accompanied by an increase in traffic – most of which is simply the additional car usage. Traffic generation is often a reason to oppose housing developments, and most new rural housing plans assume complete car dependency, so they tend to be aimed at the better off.
Providing public transport in rural areas is always a challenge. There are no commercial bus services within Powys – they need a subsidy, provided by the Council, usually with support from the Welsh Govt. Currently twice as much is spent on providing bespoke learner transport as on public service buses.
From the carbon emissions point of view, the advent of electric cars is perceived as a solution, but there will still be a large proportion of people without the ability to drive or afford a vehicle. Also, it will be several years before electric vehicles fully replace petrol and diesel vehicles. Electric cars are far better, but they still have a significant carbon and environmental footprint
Improvements in public transport would benefit the whole of society, socially, economically and environmentally. They would make Powys a much better-connected place. Reaching the level where public transport becomes the first choice for most journeys is a bigger challenge, but there are some practical ways to reduce significant vehicle mileage with some basic improvements.
HOW DO WE IMPROVE IT?
The Welsh Government has produced an ambitious policy to make public transport in Wales “among the best in Europe” (see Bws Cymru connecting people with places – bws-cymru-connecting-people-with-places.pdf). It is expected to report back from its consultation soon, and Councils will be invited to draw up action plans to qualify for funding.
New technology and innovative methods of service delivery are particularly appropriate in rural areas such as ours. On-demand services are already being trialled in some parts of Wales -“fflecsibus”. This could extend the reach of conventional timetabled buses – with more flexible routing as well as timetabling.
Better integration – with train services and with learner (school and college) transport, would help matters greatly. Linking some bus services to train timetables would be a great improvement. For example, Llanidloes has 7 buses a day each way, passing near Caersws station, but the buses do not connect with the trains – some even miss the train by a few minutes!
My village (Trefeglwys) has had no bus service at all for several years, despite significant recent and planned house building. Recently many local residents have signed a petition calling for bus service. Meanwhile, the local area has buses, minibuses and taxis contracted for learner transport. It is particularly galling for people to see the empty bus returning to the depot after the school run. Could these vehicles not be used for public transport beyond the school run? It would be wonderful if they were able to take people to the medical centre, or the nearest railway station or town.
Perhaps the key is for local communities to identify local needs and opportunities. The Welsh Government is aiming to establish community transport partnerships to forward this aim. At present, there are a number of voluntary community transport schemes in Powys, but these are limited in scope and usually restricted to those with mobility issues – they are not mainstream public transport, although they receive some public funding.
COULD POWYS BECOME AN INNOVATIVE LEADER IN RURAL TRANSPORT?
To make public transport in Wales “among the best in Europe” would entail at least an hourly bus at every village, including evenings and Sundays. Buses would link almost seamlessly to train services on regular user-friendly “clock face” timetables. This would be regarded as part of the essential service infrastructure, alongside waste collection, health, education and utilities. A reachable target in urban areas perhaps, but for Powys – which has a large land area and a low population density without any sizeable towns? If rural areas such as Powys are not to be left behind and disadvantaged, some innovative approaches will be needed.
Perhaps we need some outside-the-box thinking, draw on experiences from other countries and take full advantage of new and emerging technology. The latter could be crucial to providing demand-responsive transport. In the long term, automated vehicles could be in the frame, but there is much already to hand without such extreme futuristic ideals.
So, let’s start with the basics. Wherever possible buses should be scheduled to connect with train services. Llanidloes – Caersws is perhaps the best example, where it should be possible to connect with train services to and from Shrewsbury. It should be possible to provide even better integration between trains and buses at Welshpool because trains usually pass one another there. So well-timed buses could provide connections to and from both directions – a fully integrated hub. Linking with larger nearby communities, such as Montgomery and Guilsfield, would be very useful. These are just a few of the opportunities to provide bus/rail integration in Powys.
How to serve small remoter communities beyond providing a “safety net” or nothing at all? This is where a “Total Transport” approach is needed – defined as the integration of learner transport, any non-emergency bespoke health service transport and existing voluntary community transport schemes with public service transport. Such integration should provide significant efficiency savings. For example, if a minibus is used for learner transport – could that minibus be available at other times to provide other services – and how much would it cost? The same applies to larger buses and taxis currently contracted for learner transport.
Using a fully integrated and coordinated fleet of buses, minibuses and taxis, to its full capability, should provide a more complete and more cost-effective service. Couple that with demand-responsive transport aided by information technology and another level becomes possible. Full-sized buses could provide an hourly service along main routes, supplemented by demand-responsive feeder services using the smaller vehicles. Instead of the service completely closing down at times of lower demand (evenings and Sundays) the demand-responsive element could potentially be continued.
Community taxi services – booked like a commercial taxi, but coordinated and shared by other users, under the administrative umbrella of public transport, are surely worth investigating, both as a means to serve isolated communities and extend the range and availability of public transport.
Thus we would have a hierarchy of integrated and coordinated services:
- Train – long-distance routes and connects with the national network through local railhead stations, while providing some local connections – eg Machynlleth – Newtown
- Full standard size bus – seats 40+, operates along fixed main routes at regular interval timetables – normally hourly, from early morning to early evening
- Minibus – seats 12 or 16, operates on secondary routes, either to timetable or as demand responsive service, can cover main routes late evenings
- Community taxi – seats up to 6, provides on-demand feeder services and covers wider area “out of hours” services.
The range of services would be administered by the local public transport authority. Rail services are provided nationally and generally operate on hourly (or 2 hourly) clock-face timetables. The bus timetable should be subservient to the rail timetable. In addition, there are TrawsCymru long-distance bus services, provided by the Welsh Government that provide long-distance services where there is no rail alternative – these should also be integrated both with rail services and local buses.
With modern and developing information technology, the potential demand for each service could be forecast to ensure that adequate provision is made – particularly with demand-responsive services. The system would be developed and improved as usage builds up.
HOW DO WE GET PEOPLE TO LEAVE THEIR CARS AT HOME
“I wish I could use the car less and have a convenient bus service instead” is a common survey response. But, experience shows, the car is often used even where there is a good bus service – due to its convenience, flexibility, spontaneity and carrying capacity. In big towns and cities, the bus can provide better service, penetration and accessibility, without the need to park or drive. Such incentives are much reduced in rural areas. Even so, avoiding the hassles of parking and driving provides some incentive. Behaviour and habits can be influenced by gentle nudges, and these can come in several forms.
Better services, more user-friendly timetable information, better bus stops with shelters and better penetration of town centres would all provide a nudge. Above all the public image of the bus needs to improve.
If local communities are to be instrumental in identifying local needs and shaping services, then local initiatives could also help. Perhaps communities could provide an allocation of free tickets to each household. If these were paid for out of the community precept then this would provide a meaningful link between a service and its community. If the local bus had a community profile and was a source of community pride, with distinctive local branding, providing a much-valued service, the incentives would increase further. A far cry indeed from the current situation, where some people mistakenly believe that buses are deliberately timed to miss the train so as to increase the bus operators’ revenue.
HOW WOULD IMPROVED SERVICES BE PAID FOR?
Society as a whole benefits in many ways from good public transport. It is arguably more of an investment in the future as expanding roads. The current Welsh Govt plans for overtaking lanes on the A470 would cost as much as is spent on public transport buses in the whole of Powys in an entire year. If the budgets for learner transport, public buses and various community schemes were integrated (Total Transport) a better service all round could be provided from the same resources. But of course, much more is needed to provide enough to achieve a significant modal switch from car to bus across Powys.
If we are committed to reducing car dependency, and increasing mobility and connectivity for all, while providing the associated economic, social and environmental benefits, then perhaps there should be a levy on motoring taxation to help pay. The switchover to electric vehicles will necessitate a reset of motoring taxes – likely to be selective road usage pricing. This raises a whole lot of possibilities for cross-funding – similar to parking place levies being charged in some cities to help pay for public transport. The balance between fare revenue and external direct funding would be in a dynamic equation and should not entail punitive taxation. More like another gentle nudge.