Thursday, 8 October 2015

That'll Teach You To Live There

Since I started voicing my concerns about rural transport I have heard that a lot. People saying that as I chose to live in the country I must have known what I was letting myself in for. Well it's not quite that. When I moved to Wickham Market from Ipswich as - and I know I was being selfish - I didn't really want to live in a rabbit hutch bedsit or a run down drug ridden estate the main box that was ticked was buses. 2 buses an hour to Ipswich, Sunday and late evening buses. Now, as I have well publicised there are 6 buses to Ipswich a day, nothing evenings and Sundays. All that in the space of less than 7 years. When I moved to my current village I had a car - incidentally it took me over 6 months to find somewhere I could afford - but it proved financially impossible to keep it on the road. Since I moved here, again, existing services have been cut. If I had a crystal ball not only could I have seen those cuts coming but I'd have also won the lottery several times, have bought my own island somewhere exotic and wouldn't give a flying E400 about transport anymore. So those who say those living in rural areas have made their bed so should lie in it know what they can do.

But it's not only the buses is it. Let's be even handed here. All the Greater Anglia ads recently have been about how cheap advance single tickes to London are, the 2 for 1 offers available once you're up there and so on. Sounds tempting doesn't it. So imagine you live in Leiston and want to go to a London show, taking advantage of the offers Greater Anglia are proudly boasting. Let's even imagine you have a car. So you drive to your nearest station, which would be Saxmundham, catch the train to Ipswich (no through trains to London now), change on to the fast modern mainline train - oh sorry got that wrong - your 40 year old coach pulled by a 25yo loco, and if you're really lucky there won't be any signal failures, points failures, overhead line failures, broken down freight trains, suicides, deer on the line, inconveniently shaped snow, excessive heat or Autumn, and you'll get to London in time for a relaxing drink and a meal before settling down in your plush theatre seat, watching the best the West End can provide, before making your way back to Liverpool St.

Unfortunately though to make up for your 40yo coach and 25yo loco Network Rail are putting down some fresh, comfortable ballast to justify their existence. This means your train terminates at Witham and you have to get a bus to Colchester, onto another train which hasn't yet been cleaned and is full of beer cans and burger wrappers to Ipswich where you discover the last train to Saxmundham left 3 hours ago and you are stranded.

Ok that is a bit of a worst case scenario - although evening trans have been disrupted for months now due to ballast being replaced. But the crux of it is true. The last connecting train from London for the East Suffolk Line is 2100, before the second act has started. So we'll abandon London despite Greater Anglia's attempts to lure us there and settle for a romantic evening in Ipswich - titter ye not - the Regent has some great shows and there must be some good restaurants that aren't kebab shops somewhere. However do check what time the show finishes and be prepared to run the mile back to the station as the last train to Sax leaves at 2217. Actually you're better off driving the whole way then you won't have to rush.

How about a fun night in Lowestoft? Ok I'm being silly now but the last train to Saxmundham from Lowestoft leaves at 2107 so even if there was something you wouldn't be able to do it.

To put it bluntly if you live in the sticks and want a social life you either need to drive or be rich enough to afford some very expensive taxis. This in no way ties in with the Government's apparent wish to get people out of their cars and back on to public transport. Mr Cameron, and indeed Mrs Coffey - you cannot use something which doesn't exist, and if something is only supplied in extremely limited quantities people won't use it anyway as they will find an alternative. All these houses your crusade is going to build - will the social infrastructure, including public transport be included in the crusade?

Have you any idea how long it takes to get a new train service in the timetable? Years that's how long. The operating companies are told what they have to operate in the franchise and hell and high water won't get them to add to that. So don't hold your breath for any later services on the East Suffolk Line, or initiatives to make it any easier. Don't expect the train and bus operators to co-operate by making sure everything connects with each other to encourage greater passenger use. Don't expect train and taxi companies to join up offering reduced taxi fares to rail passengers. We want you on our trains but how you get to them is your problem seems to be the message. But then it's our fault for living out here isn't it - after all we chose to.....


  1. AGA are a waste of space, as are all privatized train networks.

  2. You are quite correct if you want to go somewhere don't live here/there etc just live in a large conurbation and be a faceless one. It's just how it seems to me, I suppose it sort of harks back to the invention of the "Suburbs" or "metroland where you lived and commuted at the behest of the rail company so speak. Whereas the advent of the short set is a joy for us enthusiasts the reality speaks volumes in the lack of new or even cascaded rolling stock all over the network(not just Anglia...Pacer anyone?) I don't hold out much hope for the new franchise as it only specifies "state of the art" not new and only 2 trains must do "Norwich in 90" and that seems to be it not even any thought as to the towns they want people to move to to use the services and here's my Beccles needs a proper car park soapbox but it does!!! then maybe they will come!

  3. not everyone chooses to live out in the sticks ( however i do), but for some people to come out and say " serves you right", just shows how ignorant (or maybe arrogant) they are. not everyone wants to or can afford to live in a town.not everyone wants to or can afford to drive.surely it isn't too much to ask for us rural dwellers to have access to public transport,be it a bus 3 times a day or dial a ride etc etc. the biggest obstacle for people is a lack of connecting services for bus or train. if people are going to be waiting about for 50/60 mins for a connection, then they will just say "stuff this" and not bother again. with everything being slashed to the bone, we could end up with scraps. for a lot of villages,their bus service is all they have.

  4. Things can be done if the political will is there. They're not perfect by any means but look at the Essex bus review proposals and see what evening and Sunday services they are proposing to commission. Unlike much of Norfolk, Suffolk and most recently their neighbours Herts who have just abandoned the lot. The problem is they think (and even might have some experience) there is no demand. And frankly it comes low on most people's (selfish) idea of what their money should be spent on. So no it's not the fault of those who live in rural areas, but of the rest of us who don't care (and don't read this blog either). I was (but shouldn't have been, I suppose) surprised to find that Herts for example every year spend £11m on taxis for the disabled and infirm and £7m on bus support for everyone else. I don't begrudge expenditure on education and social services of course, but it's also easy to chuck money around even in a good cause. It's what our modern world has come to, the individual takes precedence over the community every time. Despite us all being richer than our parents or grandparents ever were. There we are, I can be more controversial than you, Steve.

  5. Simply saying "you chose to live there" is pointless, people have to live there to do the jobs that exist in the countryside (farming & related industries for instance) so we shouldn't just write people off. The problem is that providing public transport for the countryside is very difficult, this has been known for years and no one has yet found a sustainable solution. Essentially there simply there aren't enough passengers for too much of the countryside to enable services to be self-financing as traditional mainstream public transport modes. You have a couple of broad options on how to approach this issue:
    1. Abandon the countryside to it's fate - hardly realistic or fair to the countryside population.
    2. Try to provide a skeleton service where you can with what you can - largely where we are at.
    3. Accept a need for a level of subsidy and do the best with what you can get - largely where we were.
    4. Invest to develop within reason - additional cost but with benefits.
    5. Universal service - horrifically expensive

    The industry thought it had found a solution, the growth of a group of medium sized new independents who were developing marginal networks in weaker (often rural) areas led by experienced managers using a low cost base & innovative solution. This was working well for a while but relied on a level of benign government oversight & a stable economic environment as it relied on some subsidy, government kick-start projects, a decent level of rebate of fuel duty rates & a sensible reimbursement of concessionary fares. As each of those aspects has dwindled away we have seen most of the operators in question (along with many of their long established independent brethren) fall away either selling up or going out of business. New owners with higher cost bases & differing income requirements seeing major changes in much of these networks being broken up.

    We are currently at a point where no one has a clear idea of what the best option now is, a problem exacerbated by the fact that no one knows what form the industry & its regulatory environment will be in next year let alone five years in the future. If Britain remains at its current state of being unhappy to see an increased tax burden to increase subsidy the public transport industry is going to have to do more with less which is a policy that is starting to creak as the industry is being stretched beyond snapping point.

    1. It is likely that any future solution that doesn't rely on more money is going to see conventional bus routes concentrating back onto core interurban corridors on basic headways with a reliance on demand responsive or community transport to feed the more isolated communities into these spine routes (Lincolnshire Interconnect & CallConnect networks are the best example of this) with some low frequency conventional routes satisfying particular flows around them. It does require some level of support, and would struggle to solve issues around evening & weekend access but it provides a base. It would also require a level of risk taking by the bus operators (which won't come until they know whether they will have a company to manage in 2 years time), a period of stability by both local & national government to enable long term planning & an acceptance that supporting rural transport is an important political & economic policy. The first should come back (though many of the risk takers will have been driven out by then and that will need to be rebuilt), we have never really experienced the second and are unlikely to see that one and the last point requires a complete change in thought processes at most levels of society.

      Having written all that I'm not sure what point I was aiming to make and while we could come up with solutions, I'm not hopeful that there is the political will to create the environment to do so or fund the solutions that need funding - all that is happening at the moment is government is taking money out of the system and the commercial operators have no more fat to squeeze. Regulatory environment will make no difference to the countryside, if there is no money to fund the services there will still be no money to fix the problem if the councils control the services. A lot of these rural areas have been loss making for years and have been cross-subsidised by commercial work elsewhere (from what I was told by a former First finance manager their Cornwall operation hadn't made a profit in about 15-years! - I suspect much of Norfolk was the same) but there is no longer enough money in the system to maintain that way of working so services are falling off the end of a shortening plank to the detriment of the rural populations that relied on them.

    2. Not much I can add to that Dwarfer. I think you have summed it up perfectly. It does confirm my thinking though that the whole approach to how rural services are financed and operated needs to change. The communities served need to get more involved, even helping to fund raise if necessary. That way they might use them more.

      Certainly it seems that dereguation or no deregulation there is no more money in the pot so it means other ways need to be found. I think I might have got something, but it will take a lot of work and goodwill to get it off the ground. We'll see what happens.

  6. Andrew Kleissner10 October 2015 at 08:23

    How excellent and refreshing it is to have a rational, informed and sensible debate ... and some creative suggestions, too! Many thanks to all.

  7. Essex County Council continues with its bust cuts. It I proposing to cease most rural services and replace them with DRM services. More services are to be reviewed next year which pretty much means yet more cuts. Bus services are now becoming pretty rare in rural areas and rural means not in a very large town

  8. It needs to be far more imaginative than DRM which is inflexible very limited and very expensive to operate

    Maybe we need to look to Uber to set up flexible bus services around towns use people carriers or small mini buses. You would either have to pre book by phone the day before or use the Uber app to book it almost in real time. The app working out if it has room for you

  9. Um . . . yes technology can help much more, but Uber's benefit is its responsiveness, and once you have to start collating passengers/journeys that becomes more difficult, because you need more administration and overheads, which is what it gets rid of in the first place! And anyone who has relied on satnav apps outside urban areas and main routes knows its limitations, though some of the parcels firms have very sophisticated, accurate, and expensive, technology. They also have the demand to justify it, but hasn't it taken an effort with a few casualties along the way?

    The rural services being "abandoned" by Essex CC are for the most part occasional (1/2/3 times a week) buses that trundle around convoluted rural routes with a few passengers. Is DRM worse? It depends on your opinion, I think. We all have to be more flexible. With 40% cuts to local government budgets, transport can't be exempt. Nor can politicians ignore public opinion if most of it thinks it's a waste of money. So far Essex aren't proposing to wholesale cut out daytime regular services in most cases, and most evening and Sunday services they support, with even a bit of enhancement. Deep rural areas end up with a DRM replacement.

    So far thanks perhaps largely to new entrants subsidies seem to have been dropping, which have given services an extension of life. But so far Uber minibuses haven't been the solution in the rest of East Anglia and the Home Counties (or the rest of the country, for that matter) for the completely cut evening and Sunday services. Rather the commercial bus market has been prepared to adapt and take up some of the slack. I suspect a Uber-style taxibus solution is not quite that cheap n'easy. The same old problem too, is there the demand which they need? Or will taxi/private hire prices drop for rural as well as urban areas first? Give it time.

    1. The beauty of Uber is I can handle this all pretty much in real time. All bus stops have a number so it can work out the passenger loading

      There is enough work for shared Uber taxi bus. It would only need about 2 passengers to bring the fair down to bus fair level in many cases