The people of Wales would love to do without their cars – but where are the buses?
Llŷr Huws Gruffydd AM
The bus industry in Wales is falling off a metaphorical cliff. In just a decade, journey miles have fallen by one fifth – as have passenger numbers.
This is not the case in other parts of the UK. London has actually seen a growth in passenger numbers during the same period.
There is, of course, a crucial difference. The buses of London are part of an integrated transport strategy under the public ownership and control of Transport for London.
Thanks to that long-term certainty it is perfectly possible to make long-term strategic plans, to invest in making public transport more attractive, reliable and efficient for passengers.
As a result, those passengers to see it as a viable alternative to the car for commuting and travelling on a daily basis.
Several parts of Wales have seen bus companies disappear in the past couple of years – Express Motors in Penygroes, GHA Coaches from Corwen and D Jones and Son from Wrexham are just some in my region alone.
When they do fold, for whatever reason, they are not being replaced because private bus operators only want to cherry pick the most commercial routes and councils do not have the funds coming from the Welsh Government to increase subsidised routes.
In fact, the Welsh Government’s funding for subsidised services (the Bus Support Subsidy Grant) has been frozen on £25 million annually for all councils since 2013. This equates to a 20% cut in real terms at a time when diesel and other costs are rising significantly.
To make matters worse, having an annual subsidy makes it all but impossible to plan any kind of long-term public transport strategy for the benefit of those who currently or wish to use buses.
Among the worst affected areas is Wrexham, which has seen several bus companies disappear in the past three years with a resulting 31% drop in departures from the town’s bus station between 2015-6 and 2016-7.
The collapse of smaller bus companies has led to the emergence of an effective private monopoly by Arriva Wales, which now owns 40 of the 42 buses operating bus routes in the borough.
A vicious circle emerges of fewer bus routes, fewer evening and weekend services, reduced passenger numbers, increasing fares, and reduced reliability leading to fewer bus routes. The situation, quite simply, is unsustainable.
Following the withdrawal of services by D Jones & Son late last year, there was no bus service from the town’s industrial estate to the town centre between 5-6pm in the evening.
Despite it being regularly full and commercially viable, Arriva chose not to operate the service leaving many workers stranded without notice.
Bus de-regulation, going back to 1986, has clearly failed spectacularly to deliver promised improvements as private bus companies have cherry picked the most profitable routes and left many communities – especially those in rural areas – without public transport options.
So what are the answers?
Taking a cue from cities such as London, we must look at integrated and long-term solutions, where public transport is seen as an effective way to get around.
We must look again at municipal bus services that work for the benefit of commuters and other passengers – so that they get people from where they are to where they want to go, rather than where bus operators want to operate. Both Cardiff and Newport have municipal bus services.
Transport for Wales as a concept is a good one but is it more than a concept? Ensuring free bus transportation during the weekends via the Trawscambria network is all well and good, but it doesn’t assist people who are trying to travel to work on a daily basis.
Neither is capital spending on shiny new transport hubs to link bus and rail if the bus services have disappeared. A Plaid Cymru government for Wales would invest in a long-term strategy for public transport.
There are wider environmental and economic implications too – car ownership in London is falling due, no doubt, to the availability of a public transport network.
It’s a choice many people in Wales would love to be able to make as well.