Sunday 6th October 2019
I picked up an old Western National timetable book for Cornwall when visiting the Isle of Wight Bus Museum last weekend. It’s always fascinating to see how bus routes have changed over the decades so as I was heading down to Cornwall over this weekend I took it with me to compare and contrast May 1976 with October 2019. Would things have improved or deteriorated?
I arrived at Bodmin Parkway station bang on time on GWR’s grandly named Cornish Riviera train at 13:50 thanks to the generous time allowance still pertaining on the Great Western for a few more weeks until the faster acceleration of the new bi-mode Hitachi trains is built into a tighter schedule on the Penzance timetable in December.
There’s a good connection with Plymouth Citybus route 11/11A which runs from Plymouth to Padstow via Bodmin and Wadebridge.
The bus also arrived on time (at 14:05) for the 14:07 departure and it was good to see a busy bus with a fair few already on board and thirteen passengers in addition to myself making the connection from train to bus.
Route 11/11A operates hourly (two-hourly on Sundays) but back in 1976, I’d have had a long wait to get to Padstow arriving on a train at 13:50 as Western National’s route 575 left Bodmin Road station (before it got renamed to a Parkway in 1983) at 11:30 then nothing until 16:00.
There were also departures at 07:50, 09:55, 1650, 18:20 and 20:20 with a summer only extra at 13:30 on Saturdays. So not particularly convenient bearing in mind there was once a railway plying its way along the route to Wadebridge/Padstow many years ago. Today’s hourly bus is definitely an improvement.
In Padstow I switched to First Kernow’s picturesque route A5 for Newquay branded as part of their Atlantic Coaster network for bus routes around the coast to Lands End and Penzance.
I caught the 15:35 departure from Padstow, one of nine daytime journeys (ten in the summer) giving a roughly hourly service.
It wasn’t the cleanest of buses; in fact it was filthy with plastic drink bottles rolling around the floor and no end of crisp packets and other detritus ….
…. but the views from the top deck are amazing……
We left Padstow with about fifteen on board and picked up another half dozen or so during the eighty minute journey which is quite spectacular taking in a number of Cornwall’s north coastal beaches accessed by precarious narrow lanes and some steep twisty inclines.
The route also serves Newquay Airport offering an hourly bus service for passengers flying in or out on the few flights there but no takers today.
Back in 1976 I’d have only been able to get as far as Constantine Bay about twenty minutes after Padstow on the four journey a day route Western National route 574 – and indeed would have had to catch the last journey of the day at 15:25 too.
No chance of getting as far as Newquay with Western National. Constantine Post Office would have been it. However it may be the neighbouring Southern National bus company also ran between Padstow and Newquay but sadly I don’t have their 1976 timetable to check. I doubt the service was better than today’s A5.
(Update note: thanks to reader comments since publishing this post it seems there were indeed significant unserved gaps including between Padstow and Newquay – Southern National having been absorbed into Western National well before 1976.)
From Newquay I took advantage of the St Columb Major bus interchange – established in Western Greyhound’s time in this market town where buses taking various routes between Newquay and Truro provide handy connections for journeys across this part of Cornwall.
My early evening connection on Friday wasn’t particularly well timed catching the 17:35 route 93 from Newquay (it continues to Truro) arriving St Columb Major at 18:00 then having a 38 minute wait for route 95 on to Wadebridge.
This would have been another journey served by Southern National as the Western National map inside the timetable book unhelpfully indicates there are no bus routes – you’d think NBC good practice would have insisted a coordinated map and timetable book for Cornwall in those so called halcyon nationalised regulated days!
(See update note above – it would seem there was no link from Newquay/Columb St Major to Wadebridge in 1976.)
After an overnight stop off I headed north from a bus busy Wadebridge on Saturday morning along the coast via Polzeath and Port Isaac on the four journey a day scenic route 96.
Two journeys a day on this route seamlessly continue to or from route 55 at Delabole back round to Bodmin via Camelford and Wenfordbridge including the first journey I caught which left Wadebridge at 08:35. This finally arrives in Bodmin at 11:21 giving an almost three hour round trip with some short breaks in Delabole and Camelford.
We took only four passengers on the 96 including a surfer who got off in Polzeath where we also paused to wait time, the driver explaining during busy summer months he can often be seriously delayed meeting traffic on the very narrow roads.
Five passengers travelled on the 55 which included a diversion along the route due to a road closure in St Breward.
This time we weren’t so lucky on the narrow roads meeting a tractor and trailer necessitating our driver having to skilfully reverse for about a mile.
I can’t make a comparison with 1976 as this was still Southern National territory but my guess is the small villages served on the 55 probably had about the same level of service.
(See update note above: my optimism was ill founded – no services existed of the 96 and 55 kind in 1976.)
From Bodmin I took route 27 through to Truro. This double deck hourly service doesn’t take the most direct route clocking up a journey time just under two hours and taking in Roche, Stenalees, Bugle, Penwithick and St Austell.
It even takes in a trip around the Cornwall Services on the A30.
Comparisons with 1976 are tricky as the 27 is an amalgam of two separate former routes (527 and 529) which ran on this corridor serving the aforementioned via points in a more logical order. But the combined routes only ran as far as St Austell at the same hourly frequency as today and with no Sunday service whereas today’s 27 has five journeys every two hours on Sundays.
Western National route 532 ran hourly between St Austell and Truro every hour with three journeys on Sundays so a slightly better effort in 1976 almost matching today’s service.
From Truro I headed down to Falmouth on the busy route U1 which forms part of the network serving Exeter University’s outpost at Penryn.
This provides a half hourly service from Truro as far as Penryn then every fifteen minutes into Falmouth ….
…. comparing very favourably with Western National’s route 590 which only ran hourly back in 1976 demonstrating very effectively the important part students play in today’s contemporary bus networks.
I then took a lovely rural route, the 35, from Falmouth down to Helford Passage and back.
This is another route serving small communities along very narrow roads (after its done a an annoying detour of some narrow residential roads in Falmouth where no one got on or off – as well as getting stuck behind a parked ambulance necessitating a long reverse and diversion) and impressively running to an approximate hourly frequency ….
…. whereas it’s predecessor route 563 in 1976 only ran two-hourly with three extra journeys on a variant 564 in the high summer.
Only three passengers travelled south from Falmouth on the outward journey but the return did better with seven on board. I saw a later departure from Falmouth at the end of the afternoon which had a much better load on board. It’s a lovely route.
My surprising conclusion from taking these few random journeys is today’s bus frequencies compare extremely well with 1976 either being the same or much better than applied forty-three years ago. Certainly the quality of bus provided is now quite outstanding. Who said buses, including rural buses, have got worse?!
Even better the latest First Kernow timetable book is a masterpiece in presentation, far better than the 1976 offering, with full colour maps and all routes operated by First included from Penzance to Bude making it more useful than in NBC days.
One small criticism: I’d like to see town maps of places like St Austell and Falmouth where route patterns are quite complex and virtually impossible to work out – something the 1976 book did do well. Although I appreciate these can be found in the separate comprehensive timetable book produced by Cornwall Council but this is not so widely available.
I know First Kernow have a nice map of Falmouth, for example, as I picked up a leaflet aimed at students on the U1 which contained one.
It would be good to include this in the main book too.
Aside from that, 43 years on, Cornwall Council working with First Kernow are providing a bus network that’s never looked so good. Well done to all concerned.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.