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Railwatch 081 - October 1999

Still waiting for the bus

Rail travellers often curse the bus which fails to get them to the station for their train or fails to turn up at their destination station. After sitting in air-conditioned comfort on the train and covering 50 miles in 35 minutes, it is often a battle to find the bus which when it does appear is sometimes driven by a miserable, frustrated under-paid Grouch.

But even rail travellers cannot have failed to notice the many gleaming new buses that have appeared on the streets in the past year. Many villages which only had a weekly bus, now have several buses a day, some even at the weekend, for the first time for many years. This is a great development for us because we can now get to many places not previously acessible by train and bus.

WAGN's leaflet about Hunstanton publicises how bus and train can take you to a seaside town ripped off the rail network by Beeching. The rest of North Norfolk, which had a dearth of both buses and trains now has a much better bus service linking rail-connected King's Lynn with Fakenham, Holt and rail-connected Cromer. (Details: 0500 959099)

Much of the improvement is thanks to John Prescott's rural bus grant. But progress is patchy. The town of Masham in North Yorkshire got its reliable bus to the rail station at Northallerton and Garsdale only to find it taken away a few months later.

Your editor has missed three trains from Worthing to London in as many months because Stagecoach "connecting" buses failed to appear. So although there are many new bus services, not many people are yet convinced that they can rely on them.

The TRAIN consultancy team recently tried out some of the new rail-bus connecting services. Several worked well, particularly the dedicated Rail Link 2 bus from Ystrad Rhondda to Maerdy, the RL3 from Aberdare to Rhigos. But on the Stagecoach-operated Rhymney to Tredegar route, uncertainty led to high stress levels. However on the Stagecoach-operated Bordon to Liphook route in Hampshire, reliability was good and confidence returned.

TRAIN concluded: "The lessons from South Wales and Hampshire are that you've got to be serious and look at every aspect of the service, with regular drivers, good quality, strongly branded vehicles, through ticketing, good information and publicity, and a dependable service which operates seven days a week, evenings included."

For ordinary bus services, some order and discipline is needed among the bus operators who are fighting attempts to impose a regulator on them. There are few restraints on bus operators to withdraw a service at short notice.

Unless the cavalier attitude of many bus operators and drivers to timetable and service changes, few people with a choice will take the bus. Instead they will jump into cars and by physically blocking the bus's progress provide another reason for the bus's unreliability. Many places in London have a theoretically superb bus service, ruined by the reality of traffic jams making timetables the stuff of fantasy.

Even in Cambridge, the campaign group BusStopWatch has calculated that passengers are more likely to win the National Lottery jackpot than for all their buses to turn up on time over a period of four weeks.

That makes it all the more infuriating when rail operators substitute buses for trains. It has been shown time and time again that the bus is no substitute. Even worse, at a time when politicians talk of improving public transport, we hear suggestions for converting rail lines for use by buses! The latest threat is to the Watford-St Albans rail route where there is a half-baked plan to replace it with a busway.

One of the problems seems to be that the Government is prepared to put money into guided buses but not into light rail. Just a few years ago, enlightened people saw the potential of this rail route. It was electrified only 11 years ago and could have provided a through service to London Euston and (with a little ingenuity) even on to the Midland main line.

In contrast to every bus route in the area, the Watford-St Albans trains run punctually and reliably. Opposition to the guided bus scheme is being organised by the local rail user group. If you would like a four-page briefing on this disastrous plan to close a railway and send in "noisy and uncomfortable" buses, please send an SAE and, if possible a donation, to Dr A A Ogilvy, 14 Westminster Court, St Albans AL1 2DU

We have rightly complained for years about the dead hand of the Treasury. It seems the grip can still be deadly. We have also complained about the bus men in the Department of Transport. They too obviously still have a vice-like grip on the controls of power.

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Railfuture campaigns for cheap and convenient rail services for everyone; better links for buses, bikes and pedestrians; policies to get more heavy lorries on to rail; new lines, stations and freight terminals. In short, a better rail service and a bigger rail system for both passengers and freight.

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