Huw Irranca-Davies MS: What do we Need? An Integrated Transport Plan for Bridgend and Ogmore!    When do we want it? NOW!

Huw Irranca-Davies MS shares his frustrations with public transport in South Wales

Okay, so “An Integrated Transport Plan for Bridgend and Ogmore” doesn’t really trip off the tongue as a campaign slogan. But it means what it says and says what it means. We need it now!

One of the greatest frustrations I have – and shared by many constituents from Gilfach Goch to Caerau Park to Pontyrhyl – is the lack of a joined-up transport masterplan for the area. Or to put it more succinctly: far too often you can’t get to the shops or your job or the doctor or to see your friends when you need to, if you rely mainly on public transport.

And I say that as someone who regularly uses the train and bus, and cycles and walks a fair bit too. I’m a public transport and active-travel (walking and cycling) fanatic.

Even with the best will in the world though, trying to do my bit to support public transport and to save the planet by travelling greener is not always easy. Sometimes it’s downright impossible. And it must be the same for all of us.

Wales-Wide and UK Wide

This is not just a Bridgend phenomena. It is a Wales-wide and a UK-wide phenomena, with the major exception of London (see below) and (partially) some other major metropolitan city-regions which are steadily getting their act together. Wales is also heading down the same track of “taking back control” of our transport network, with the expanding Metro developments and laws coming soon to take back control of our bus network.

The reasons why we’ve got to this sad point across the UK are many. Noticeably, the one part of the country where passenger numbers on buses (and wider public travel) has increased markedly over the last couple of decades is London. They kept their control of integrated travel – including prices and timetables – through Transport for London. The rest of the UK was left to go to hell in a handcart.

The utterly disastrous decision under Maggie Thatcher decades ago to deregulate buses led to a free-for-all competition in the bus market. It didn’t drive up standards and increase routes. It led to profitable routes being fought over till competition was killed off by larger and larger players, unprofitable routes being cut unless government could throw taxpayer subsidies at them, a patchwork of standards and customer service, and the absence of any integrated timetabling and ticketing. The exception was London.

Thatcher’s (yes her again, I’m afraid) privatisation of the railways – splitting train operators from track and rail maintenance – meant increased competition but not always increased services and customer satisfaction. Again, it led to fragmentation of the rail network, hampering efforts to have a more joined up rail network let alone a wider integration of bus and rail.

Even more recently, transport services have been hammered throughout the course of the pandemic. The staff and drivers on our rail and bus and coaches deserve praise too for keeping going through these last couple of years. Yet without Welsh Government and taxpayer support, our public transport would have simply gone under by now.

Shrinking Bus Routes and Struggling Services

But even before this, bus routes were shrinking year on year. Yes, local authorities had been able to step in here and there to try to correct market failures over the last few decades, by subsidising (offering taxpayer cash) to bus operators to run “unprofitable” routes. These “unprofitable routes” are often the feeder routes for the larger milk-runs of course. Without the unprofitable routes (thank you taxpayer) the commercial routes would wither and die (think of a bus version of the Beeching rail cuts).

But local authorities were punished in the post-2010 decade through year-after-year austerity cuts from the Tories in Westminster. That’s just a hard fact. Tough cuts across a range of council services were commonplace and unavoidable. Subsidised bus routes were often one of the casualties: the collateral damage of Tory austerity.

More importantly, these “unprofitable routes” tend to be the ones which are also most disadvantaged and suffering transport-poverty. Just so you know what I mean by transport-poverty, I can simplify this even further: it is those communities and families and individuals who have no access to their own car. Of course, there are plenty of people who have to struggle to run a car to get to work and get around, especially with the rising costs of petrol right now.

Not everyone has a car – and Caerau, Maesteg Park and Pontyrhyl are Particularly Challenging

The most transport-poor are those who have no car. They have no alternative. They will be isolated from work, from friends, from shops and socialising, from routine doctors’ appointments and from being part of their own community.

If you live on top of Maesteg Park – a great hilltop community above Maesteg – then it can feel pretty isolated unless you can get down that hill to the main town centre. From top Maesteg Park to Go Bananas grocery it’s only about a mile. But it’s 80 metres descent down to town, and 80 metres ascent back up. If your older and infirm, or have any mobility problems, you are not going to be walking that!

There is now no service bus there and hasn’t been for a few years. There is no service bus either in Caerau Park either. To get to the shops it’s a mile and 70m descent down and 70 m ascent back. Or Pontyrhyl in the Garw, where the subsidised bus service has long gone and the walk from the end of Rhondda to the nearest bus stop up on the other side of the valley is not quite as far, but after a descent into the valley bottom it’s then a path climbing steeply over 30m to the main road and any chance of flagging a bus down to Pontycymer and the shops.

So, we can keep on putting up with this, or we can do something about it. That is why I absolutely believe that we – Welsh Government and the councils – need to work with local communities to find a way through this. We need an integrated transport plan for the area, developed with and for local people.

Reintroduction of Subsidised Routes and More Fflecsi on Demand

This could include some reintroduction of subsidised services to the most isolated communities. But it should also include Fflecsi bus on-demand services, which have been piloted successfully already in other parts of Wales. It should include our brilliant Bridgend Community Transport. It should also include active travel (walking and biking and scooting) routes.

But most importantly of all, we should base our Integrated Transport Plan on the very simple idea that one way or another, no-one should be left isolated in their community through lack of transport options or through lack of information and ease of access to transport. That means a good communication plan to promote the travel options will also be crucial, as well as simple ways to access options like Fflecsi Bws etc.

In the medium term, I am looking forward to the laws we are bringing through in the Senedd (we were only given the powers by the UK government in the last Senedd term) so we can take back control of buses and transport and reverse the disastrous Tory deregulation and privatisation of the 1980s which has held us back and seen bus and integrated travel wither. Welsh Government’s “One bus, one timetable, one ticket” is the right call.

But we don’t just have to wait for this. We can start right now and make use of the tools we already have. People power locally working alongside the local authorities and Welsh Government is the way to make a difference. Identifying and filling some of the gaps in local provision.

Which brings us back to our rallying cry: “What do we Need? An Integrated Transport Plan for Bridgend and Ogmore! When do we want it? NOW!”

PS: Just replace “Bridgend and Ogmore” with your own part of Wales (or the UK) and we’ve got a grassroots political movement!