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Welsh public transport: Time travel trial

The Welsh may be rejecting buses and trains in favour of the comfort of their cars − but should they think again? Alexandra Wynne samples cross-country public transport through the Valleys to test the theory.

The rolling countryside of Wales may be inviting for weekenders, trekkers and nature seekers, but it can create a hostile environment for those simply trying to get from A to B without hopping behind the wheel.

The country is light on motorways and dual carriageways − typical of a rural region. Yet the locals complain about the lack of a national public transport network to tempt them out of their cars.

ICE Wales director Keith Jones says there is no immediate solution to the problem of getting around Wales.

Recent figures from the Welsh Assembly Government show a steady increase in the number of people turning to cars for the journey to work − 82.6% in 2008 compared to 79.5% in 1999.

According to ICE Wales director Keith Jones, there is no immediate solution to the problem of getting around Wales − despite recent announcements such as the UK government’s plans for electrification of the London to Swansea Great Western railway (NCE 6 August).

“Travelling from the east to the west − in both the north and the south − is fine,” says Jones. “But north to south is very difficult.” He adds that making that difficult north-south journey means crossing the border into England for convenience. “That’s just nonsense,” he says.

In June, the ICE released its State of the Nation − Defending Critical Infrastructure report, which highlighted that rail services between England and west Wales are dependent on an elderly Severn Tunnel that is susceptible to flooding and requires frequent repair. It added that north and mid Wales rail transport links are fragile, and called for urgent improvements.

The desperate situation has not gone unnoticed. Transport minister Ieuan Wyn Jones set out plans to create what he called “a system of transport fit for the 21st century” − one that is modern and sustainable .

But the desperate situation has not gone unnoticed. Last month Welsh deputy first minister and economy and transport minister Ieuan Wyn Jones set out plans to create what he called “a system of transport fit for the 21st century” − one that is modern and sustainable. As a result, the country’s first ever National Transport Plan is now out for consultation.

“Newly acquired powers have given us the opportunity to use that thread to weave together the patchwork of transport provision across the nation, from roads to railways, and buses to bicycles,” says Wyn Jones.

“But there is more we must do. We must work towards a decarbonised transport system, where people are able to choose healthier and more sustainable modes of travel. That is why we are aiming to increase the number of people walking or cycling.”

Which brings us to NCE’s summer challenge: A single trip by car from north London to the Brecon Beacons, and a return to the starting point using the finest integrated transport options south Wales has to offer.

London to Wales by car

The journey begins at Highbury, north London, with a bleary-eyed 4.30am start for the 320km drive to a small farmhouse near Trecastle in Powys. A swift drive along the M4 ends with the sun breaking through for the first time as I hit the Brecon Beacons for the cross-country section. I arrive at my destination − a remote farm near the Usk Reservoir in Cwmwysg − by 9am.

The return journey

Making good time on the first leg allows for a coffee and rest before setting off on my return journey, starting with an 8km stretch between Cwmwysg and Trecastle. Here I encounter the first major hurdle: Welsh public transport seems unable to provide an alternative to walking.

There is no road name for this country lane, and no cars passed me on the drive up it, despite it being rush hour around much of the rest of the country. It would be too much to expect a bus service here. Having ditched the idea of bringing a bike (not so easy to hop on and off buses), the only option is a two hour mountain hike to the nearest bus stop.

Having ditched the idea of bringing a bike, the only option is a two hour mountain hike to the nearest bus stop.

It is a welcome treat to be out of the car and in the midst of beautiful countryside for the hike down the mountain − although the supposed “downhill” route does include 10 decent uphill climbs.

The key is to keep a steady pace if I am to catch the 12.30pm bus that will take me the 19km along the A40 to Brecon. If I miss it, the next one is not until 2.50pm.

Eventually the road heads downhill, and I arrive at the bus stop in good time, as does the G14 bus to take me on the next leg − right on the minute it is due and just in time, as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Twenty five minutes later the bus reaches its destination leaving a window of an hour and a quarter − plenty of time for lunch − until I’m due to catch the next bus out of town to link up with a train at Abergavenny. The second bus departs slightly late, but picks up pace along its 32km stretch, and reaches Abergavenny on time at 3.28pm.

My experiences in Brecon and Abergavenny suggest that the transport system is anything but integrated. I had to wander through the town (and ask directions at the Tourist Information Centre) to find the second bus.

My experiences in Brecon and Abergavenny suggest that the transport system is anything but integrated. My first bus dropped its passengers off in Brecon, but not at the main bus interchange, and I had to wander through the town (and ask directions at the Tourist Information Centre) to find the second bus. Later I discover that, on arrival at Abergavenny, only about half the X43 buses drive near the train station.

Unfortunately, this does not include the one I’m on, and I am directed by confusing signs on a very meandering loop around the houses to get to the train station. Thankfully there is another window − this time 37 minutes − before the train leaves to make the 50km journey to Newport.

Here I do encounter some joined up thinking, with a simple changeover at the station and only five minutes until the Swansea to London Paddington train arrives at Newport. The final stretch is a straightforward affair, and the train speeds along the final leg of somewhere close to 220km back to London, arriving at 6.24pm.

Tiredness and London Tube delays are the only barrier between this NCE traveller and her final destination, and the round trip comes to its conclusion, arriving back at Highbury 15 hours after leaving.

The result

The integrated transport test has been a mini adventure, which went according to plan thanks to the punctuality of the Welsh bus services, local train and inter-city connection.

But NCE’s test was a leisurely pursuit and does not inspire confidence for rural locals trying to get to work in the towns of Powys. The Llandovery to Brecon (via Trecastle) service only operates five buses a day in each direction, and there was a distinct lack of joined up thinking when it came to bus and train connections in small towns.

All in all, integrated transport in Wales has some way to go. Now is the time for the Welsh to respond to their government’s National Transport Plan to push for investment − or the numbers opting to get behind the wheel will continue to rise.

Welsh transport facts

Welsh public transport

Lows

  • Latest figures show increasing numbers of commuters using their cars − 82.6% in 2008 up from 79.5% in 1999 − while those going by foot, bicycle or bus and coach fall.
  • ICE’s State of the Nation − Defending Critical Infrastructure report labels north and mid Wales rail transport links “fragile” and calls on improvements to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

Highs

  • In its first appearance in the National Passenger Survey by Passenger Focus, independent rail operator Wrexham and Shropshire achieves 97% overall customer satisfaction for spring 2009 − the highest score for an operator since the survey began 10 years ago.
  • The Welsh Assembly Government launches consultation on its first National Transport Plan, set out to reflect the four main movement corridors in Wales. The proposals aim to improve reliability, quality and speed of rail, and journey times and safety on trunk roads.

Readers' comments (6)

  • I live in N Wales and agree with alot of this article. While spending a weekend in Dublin lately, We were miffed when the ferry arrived 20 mins after the connecting train had left Holyhead on the return journey. I believe as a country we should look to either Germany or Switzerland, thier system is very intergrated... ever tired to book a train ticket from Holyhead to Hull Online, Its Impossible!!

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  • An interesting read, although perhaps a journey that was predominately in Wales may have illustrated the point better.

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  • I fail to see what this article is trying to prove. The increase in private car usage has been predominately down to the collapse of the manufacturing sector and the concentration of new jobs in compararively few areas. Due to its geography, people are forced to drive for jobs.
    The route taken for this article is a meaningless journey that is irrelevant to the day to day travelling that people in Wales do. You have missed a golden opportunity here to look at the North South links that Keith Jones rightly referred to and to consider the radical options being floated to improve them. You could have also looked at the potential of the southern valleys train network; the fastest growing network in the UK.
    Next time, maybe it would be more beneficial to ask an ICE Cymru officer to write the article.

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  • An interesting departure time from London. Not much traffic about at 04.30hrs!!

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  • I am very puzzled by the public transport route chosen. Quite obviously this is a car user's mentality which fails to grasp how those who don't own a car plan their journeys. Two hours and twenty minutes of the overall journey time is used in waiting for just 2 of the connections, and the tube route will include a substantial walk at Kings Cross plus the wait times for the trains. Paddington to Kings Cross by bike is 15-20 minutes and Islington is just over the hill via Pentonville Road - so reckon to cut a further 30 minutes off the trip by cycling that bit - and with a folding bike that initial 8Km hike will take under 30 minutes.

    An early start, as practised for the trip from London might also bear fruit as there are often local deliveries which stock local shops and in some parts of the UK the operators even register their return trips as local bus services.

    But of course the non car person as already highlighted, would have got a local taxi or cycled to a bus or rail route which gave a more direct link to the fast trains from Swansea or Cardiff to London. Unfortunately the algorithms designed in to the Journey Planner don't work very well for those of us who prefer to download the National Rail timetable and plan our journeys based on a real knowledge of the rail network, and you need a bit of inspired thinking to beat the Journey Planner software.

    Just 7 minutes on the bus (and only slightly longer to cycle) from Trecastle is Sennybridge and the 09.27 bus will take you directly to Neath Railway Station in 56 minutes from whence a direct train gets you to Paddington for 13.30 with just a single change at Neath and 12 minutes to get from the bus stop to the platform (a 1 minute walk). An earlier start on the 08.16 service and going via Brecon gets you in to Cardiff for the earlier train, also with a 12 minute overlap at Cardiff, and arriving Paddington at 12.32. I'd allow around 50 minutes as a minimum safe margin for cycling, and if the wind is in the wrong direction allow a bit longer. A more adventurous route might cut the corner and catch the bus at Crai Junction (09.33).

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  • This is a very biased test. If the car had left North London at 8am the journey time would have been very different. I travel all over the country (and to other countries) with my folding bike, anywhere within 15 miles of a station is no problem. Of course I can use the time on the train to relax, read, do work, eat, watch the world go by. I consider train time to be valuable and driving time to be a stressful waste of time and energy. Time riding the bike is fun and health-giving whereas if I drove I'd have to go running or to a gym to restore the physical condition I was losing in the car.

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