Thursday 6th May 2021
I was struck by Baroness Vere’s forthright endorsement of Cornwall Council’s “vision for a high-quality, integrated and customer-focused public transport network” (quote from the Transport for Cornwall website) at the recent Transport Select Committee enquiring into the ‘Bus Back Better’ Strategy.
“You should be very excited about Cornwall” she told Committee member Chris Loder MP (the ex South West Trains guy who’s now MP for West Dorset) “because they are one of those areas that have grasped buses and they love buses. They are focused on it; they’re putting in a lot of local resources. And obviously we’ve supported them as well because we appreciate what they’re trying to do and obviously it’s a hugely varied country with different types of routes and so I think it’s well worth watching Cornwall and learning from them”.
Fourteen months worth of three lockdowns and their draconian travel restrictions has meant I’ve been following the Baroness’s advice, “watching Cornwall and learning from them” from my far away from Cornwall home in Sussex meaning I’d perhaps got a limited, and perhaps, biased view only being able to base experience on references to the Transport for Cornwall (TfC) website; a hard copy of a timetable book kindly sent to me in the post; the bespoke TfC app; social media posts; and listening to Cornwall Council’s officers extolling the virtues of their approach at a number of online presentations over the past year.
Now travel restrictions have eased I was able to get down to Cornwall today and sample some of the routes operated under the Transport for Cornwall banner and see how things actually are on the ground.
Planning out an itinerary is ostensibly easy to do using the Transport for Cornwall website as it has a bus route listing as well as a colourful countywide network map – something not available when the timetable book was compiled last Spring. The map’s a bit tricky to follow as there are many similar shades of colour making it challenging to work out which route number shown at the terminal points belongs to which coloured line.
However, that’s a minor issue compared to the major flaw in the format. The Minister’s enthralment at the Council’s protestations it’s delivering “One Public Transport System for Cornwall” (quote from the Transport for Cornwall website), is of course completely misplaced as it’s nothing of the sort. The Transport for Cornwall website is in fact the website of Go Cornwall Bus, part of the same GoAhead Group company running Plymouth CityBus and everything is to a standard Group layout and design thus ignoring reference to First Kernow and its significant commercially operated bus routes across the county.
The network map, for example, anomalously includes route T1 – the main bus route running between Truro and Penzance – shown in a kind of light purple colour – because there happens to be a handful of early and late journeys paid for by the Council and therefore given TfC branding and appear in a timetable page online and in the timetable book for that service – but its sister route T2 from Truro to St Ives is totally ignored as there are no tendered journeys on that route.
Routes T1 and T2 provide a combined frequency between Truro, Redruth, Cambourne and Hayle, but you’d never know by consulting the Transport for Cornwall map and timetable.
Even more bizarre, the Go Cornwall app, which was developed at public expense amid much fanfare still ignores First Kernow and GWR services. So unwary tourists visiting Cornwall and using the app to help them get around would be given the run around, literally. When asking the app’s journey planner how to travel between Truro and Penzance, for example, it ignores the most obvious options of either the train or route T1 and instead shows journey options involving up to three changes of bus with journey times around 5 hours long, and in one case a journey leaving at 14:52 in the afternoon includes an overnight stay in Cambourne with a total journey time of 17 hours and 38 minutes.
The scandal is public money has funded this joke of an app; the Council peddle it as something wonderful and the Minister thinks we can “learn from them”. “Learn” as in ‘learn how not to do it’ I would suggest.
My first intended journey this morning was on route 16A from Penzance to St Ives at 09:00. Luckily I didn’t rely on the app, as even though it’s a wholly TfC funded route, it doesn’t feature in the app, which instead recommends I catch a later journey, at 09:18 on route 16.
Whereas my planned route 16A departure at 09:00 operates via Zennor taking 48 minutes for the trip, with a St Ives arrival at 09:48, route 16 wouldn’t have got me there until 10:13 (see above).
I tried forcing the app to suggest route 16A by asking for a journey from Penzance to Zennor at 08:55 (see above), but even more bizarre, it determinedly kept me on the 16, routing me via St Ives to connect with a journey on the 16A coming out of St Ives towards Zennor arriving at 10:24, 56 minutes after the direct 16A was due there at 09:28. Crazy or what?
In the event I was ready to roll from Penzance sooner than anticipated this morning and caught an earlier departure on route 16A leaving Penzance at 08:25. This is marked in the timetable as schooldays only and I’d discounted it from my plans thinking there’d be no room for an ordinary punter like me. However as the bus was ready to leave the bus station with no one on board I grabbed the opportunity for a ride. The driver seemed grateful for the company.
The bonus also being the route takes in a scenic deviation from the other 3/4 journeys on the route to take in narrow Cornish lanes to serve Trythall Primary School at the hamlet of Lower Ninnes.
I needn’t have worried about any overloading – two children travelling alone and one with a parent were the only passengers and after they alighted at the school at 08:43 it was just me on board for the journey via Zennor to St Ives arriving there at 09:30.
St Ives was noticeably quiet this morning and even First Kernow’s refurbished bus turning area and waiting room at the Malakoff Bus Station was roped off and deserted.
As was the beach.
I took the train along the delightful branch line from St Ives changing at St Erth on the main line to Camborne where I caught my second TfC operated route – the 38 to Helston.
As I got off the train at Camborne Station for the short walk to the bus station I was struck by being passed by three TfC buses departing on other routes all of which I would have missed if I’d needed them, so the network hasn’t quite mastered the promised integration with train timetables yet.
Camborne’s bus station is of course operated by First Kernow being alongside their main engineering garage for Cornwall.
It’s looking a little worn these days and could do with a lick of paint. Obviously there’s no Transport for Cornwall branding here but elsewhere across the county I was impressed to see many new bus stop flags and timetable cases presenting proper timetable information for the TfC branded routes. Someone’s obviously been busy. In Penzance there’s a shared timetable case with First Kernow in the bus station ….
…. but there’s also an updated First Kernow network map …
…. which makes reference to TfC but could still be confusing for unwary visitors.
Back to my trip on the 38 from Camborne and there was a mother and young child also travelling to Helston as well as one other passenger who boarded along the route and we took two passengers locally in Helston, all of us alighting at the large Tesco on the eastern edge of the town.
Down in Heston, as in Camborne, you certainly notice buses in TfC branding and it was also noticeable how First Kernow’s fleet presentation has slipped a bit…
… with older vehicles brought in and wrong branded buses on the Tinner routes.
The need for social distancing and enhanced capacity on the large contract First are involved in as partners at the Hinckley Point construction project in Somerset has meant some double decks have been temporarily transferred from Cornwall which has impacted vehicle allocation, including older vehicles brought into Cornwall.
This is unfortunate as at a time when First need to present the best possible image on their commercial operations, Transport for Cornwall routes really are looking the business thanks to the publicly funded 102 new buses reportedly on the road over the last twelve months.
You can’t help but be impressed with their impact.
My next journey was an old favourite – the rural 35A which connects Helston across to Falmouth four or five times a day.
This is one of the many routes in the Falmouth area which have been subcontracted to local minibus operator OTS (aka as Office & Transport Services Ltd).
They have a sizeable collection of Mercedes and Mellor minibuses for use on Falmouth town services and the rural routes connecting the town with the surrounding area.
It was a smart move by Plymouth CityBus to involve small operators like OTS as subcontractors. Not only did it de-risk the logistical challenge of taking over such a huge network across a wide geographic area in one go but it came across when I travelled on the route 60 town circuit of Falmouth just how many people the driver knew. Not that they were passengers – there was only me on board after one other passenger alighted soon after I boarded – but there was lots of waving and hellos at passers by and occasional chats when we stopped at town centre bus stops.
Other sub contractors include Travel Cornwall and Hopleys.
The journey into Falmouth on route 35A was similarly lightly loaded with just one other passenger making a short journey from Helston and another boarding at Treverva into Falmouth.
I hear new routes 88 (two-hourly Redruth to Newquay) and 89 (Truro to Bodmin) are running around pretty much empty. At least another new route between Truro and Newquay Airport was pulled when lockdown began and the Airport closed.
Maybe passenger numbers will pick up as the summer season gets underway. First Kernow are certainly banking on a bumper summer with their plans for ambitious commercially operated routes aimed at the leisure market.
There’s scope for better timetable coordination too. At 05 minutes past the hour three buses leave Truro bus station in convoy on routes T1, 87 and 304 travelling along the popular westerly corridor via the city’s hospital, college and Threemilestone followed by a half hour’s gap before a T2 at 35 minutes past the hour, then another half hour until the convoy appears again. Maybe First Kernow could shift their 87 one way and TfC their 304 the other to create an even 15 minute frequency?
Passengers in Cornwall are also set to benefit in the Autumn when bus fares are reduced in price by a third thanks to the DfT agreeing to provide £23.5 million funding over four years into what’s known as a ‘Superbus’ area and reduced fares trial. At the recent Transport Select Committee meeting with the Baroness eulogising over Cornwall’s buses, DfT official Stephen Fidler told MPs a £4.20 fare, for example, “will be reduced in the first year to £2.80”. Thankfully this experiment will also involve First Kernow, who will also benefit from the Government funding. At least the previous crazy idea of having free fares which surfaced during Lockdown a year ago has been kicked into the long grass and the Council has thought better of it.
I’m also told it’s hoped to produce comprehensive timetable books and maps from September showing both TfC funded and branded routes and First Kernow’s commercial network. This will be a major step forward, and surely something that should have been sorted when all this launched back in March 2020. Cornwall Council’s officers blame First Kernow for a lack of cooperation. That’s not how First Kernow see it; they had understandable concerns about a timetable book and website with Go Cornwall Bus branding, fare information, tickets, contact details etc; ostensibly a ‘Transport for Cornwall’ coordinated production but patently not, with its lack of any reference to First Kernow’s fares, tickets, services and contact details. It didn’t seem right. They have a point.
It seems to me to have been a strategic error on the Council’s part to allow its Transport for Cornwall brand to effectively be taken over by Go Cornwall Bus, rather than keeping it as an independent over-arching brand rather like Hertfordshire County Council uses the Intalink brand.
The transportforcornwall.co.uk website address advertised on bus sides is exactly the same as the gocornwallbus.co.uk website. The website includes a tab called “Transport for Cornwall Funding” which is a page of historic background written before the network launched in March 2020 as it still talks in the future tense about the project. What’s going to happen further down the line when the tenders come up for renewal, and suppose Go Cornwall are unsuccessful and another operator wins the network?
Hertfordshire’s Intalink.org.uk website, overseen by the County Council rather than one bus operator, treats commercial and tendered routes equally and its network maps are comprehensive. A network Explorer ticket is widely available and marketed across all bus routes.
Cornwall Council’s “vision for a high-quality, integrated and customer-focused public transport network” still seems some way off but there’s definitely work in progress and if they could learn from others (eg Hertfordshire) rather than think they’ve got it all right, they might achieve their objectives. You’d hope so with the huge amount of public funding going in and the current paucity of passengers, albeit acknowledging the first year has not been typical.
It’s brilliant to see so many new buses trundling round the countryside and I’m sure the upcoming fares reductions will be welcomed by fare paying passengers. The aim of producing comprehensive timetables and maps will hopefully be achieved later this year. Who knows, maybe even an integrated ticket, akin to Hertfordshire’s Intalink Explorer? Maybe that could include rail travel too.
Hang on, strip away all the Transport for Cornwall hype and you find a Ride Cornwall ticket doing just that. It gives one day’s unlimited travel on what’s described as “most” bus routes and after-the-morning-peak rail journeys throughout the county and has been around for years. Perhaps it just needs promoting more heavily, and perhaps its £18 daily price is on the high side. How about a nice third reduction – that DfT hand out should pay for that.
Details about Ride Cornwall can be found on First Kernbow’s website (above) and in their “Price and ticket guide”.
You’d think this long standing integrated ticket would feature on the ‘Transport for Cornwall’ aka ‘Go Cornwall Bus’ website and timetable. I couldn’t find any details when I had a good search.
One Public Transport system for Cornwall? Not yet.