A free-for-all in Swansea

Saturday 31st July 2021

How many times have you heard local councillors or traders calling for reduced or even free car parking to encourage shoppers back to town centres? Many of us in the industry usually retort “how about making bus travel free instead?“.

That’s exactly what’s happened in Swansea where councillors have funded completely free bus travel for everyone within the council’s boundary for four consecutive days over long weekends – Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday – throughout the month of August.

Bus services operated by First Cymru, Adventure Travel and South Wales Transport are all included as well as those few journeys run by DANSA, Briggs and Stagecoach.

Exceptions are journeys which go over the Swansea Council boundary and First Cymru’s routes 9A and 34 to and from the city’s Park and Ride car parks which in a neat twist to the norm means motorists pay while bus users go free. Nice one Swansea.

It’s not clear how reimbursement to bus companies is being calculated and whether any shifting of journeys from mid week to weekend will be taken into account. Presumably experience of the free weekend travel “trial” on TrawsCymru routes has informed operators and the council of what to expect. But it must also be a bit of a venture into the unknown.

Passengers with weekly or longer duration tickets must be feeling a bit narked at seeing their tickets lose value if they usually travel most days, and presumably won’t buy another weekly during August especially as First Cymru’s day ticket is £4.20 and the weekly is £20.25 (offering not much of a saving over five days) with a Flexi5 at £19.

Plaudits must go to Rob Stewart, leader of Swansea Council, who has spearheaded this venture. He told the media “as we emerge from Covid restrictions we want to do everything we can to support residents and businesses to recover and succeed post-pandemic. Swansea has so much to offer, but many people haven’t been able to travel around Swansea and enjoy our amazing towns, villages and beaches. We want to help people travel local, enjoy local, shop local.

“Our free bus travel will give everyone the chance to travel for free during the summer and make the most of what’s on offer. We know many people will not be going abroad this summer so this gives them the chance to get around and discover the magic of Swansea and Gower for free. And it will help boost our tourism, retail and leisure businesses by encouraging more people to explore parts of Swansea they perhaps wouldn’t normally visit.”

Well said Rob.

It all kicked off yesterday, Friday 30th July, so I hot footed it over to Swansea to experience the free ride offer, not least because it was a great opportunity to return to one of my favourite parts of Wales, the splendid Gower Peninsular which falls within Swansea Council’s jurisdiction and therefore is included in the free travel zone.

I had a warm up run on Thursday afternoon buying a day ticket and taking First Cymru’s route 14 to Pennard Cliffs then walking a few miles along the coastal path with its magnificent views of the bays and coves to Caswell Bay.

It looks as though route 14 is still not back to its hourly service which was welcomed in a notice posted in the timetable case at the Pennard terminus…

… and although the outward journey I travelled on to Pennard only had half a dozen passengers on board the number waiting for the return looked more encouraging.

My journey back from Caswell Bay – where the service to the city centre runs hourly – only carried two other passengers from the terminus with a few more picked up in Oystermouth. This is a far cry from the days when I worked at South Wales Transport with full double deck loads to Caswell Bay commonplace. Mind you that was over 40 years ago.

I noticed the slow moving queue of cars down to, and from, the Mumbles is still a feature but perhaps that’s something the Council’s free ride scheme is trying to address.

With the overnight rain clearing I set off to the Gower again bright and early yesterday morning taking Adventure Travel’s 07:45 route 118 from Swansea all the way to Rhossili in the far south west corner of the Peninsular.

It’s a splendid ride with some great views across the Gower and tricky driving through the narrow parts of the A4118 through Parkmill. My driver managed it well.

I was interested to see if regular passengers would be aware of the free ride scheme. They weren’t, and were pleasantly surprised when the driver told them, albeit there were only a handful on board, and numbers doubled from Killay when four boarded from what looked like a broken down bus on route 116 which serves the communities in north Gower.

From Rossili the bus returns to the city as a 119 taking in Port Eynon and Horton (missed on our outward journey) then nipping north from Reynoldstone to serve Llanrhidian then along the B4271 through the centre of Gower – including a double run to serve the tiny hamlet of Lunnon (no passengers) – and rejoining the 118 route at Upper Killay.

More puzzled-then-pleasantly-surprised looks as boarding passengers were waved through by the driver while concessionary passholders continued to tap their passes on the ticket machine as we travelled back to Swansea with about a dozen on board.

Once back in Swansea I took a few short rides on a number of buses operating on the city network including the busy routes 12 to Townhill and 4 towards Morriston.

Passengers are mainly concessionary passholders – I’d say 70% – but there were young people and mums and dads making up the other 30% and I’d estimate about a third of these (ie 10%) were aware bus travel was free and two-thirds were not.

Obviously this awareness will increase as word spreads but it makes me wonder whether it would have been better to have had free travel every day throughout August rather than add a complication of reverting to charging on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays which will upset the continuity and understanding.

Maybe every day free travel was beyond the council’s budget but then I wonder if starting it on Saturday 7th and running continuously to Bank Holiday Monday 30th might have worked better.

My experience yesterday morning was drivers didn’t have time to explain to everyone as they boarded it was Fridays to Mondays only, just saying “it’s free today” and a wave indicating to take a seat.

I made one journey on a cross boundary service and told the driver how far I was travelling but I wondered if all drivers were asking how far passengers were going or just letting people on for free. On the inbound journey it didn’t matter of course, but outbound I could have been travelling all the way to Neath or Llanelli for example although it’s no different in principle to overriding a paid for fare or a zonal boundary day or weekly ticket.

Swansea Council had installed posters in the Quadrant bus station promoting the offer and electronic signs above each departure door flashed to a message about the free ride offer every minute or so.

The imagery promoting the scheme does have a somewhat childish nature but I suspect it’s been done at minimal cost. Not everyone was impressed.

More positively the Council’s Twitter feed was impressively updated at 07:04 yesterday morning with a tweet about the promotion.

Which was a bit of a contrast with First Cymru’s Twitter feed which has a pinned tweet from 6th June warning rather negatively you might not be able to travel by bus; and no mention yesterday’s revolutionary free travel deal.

And that in turn was a contrast with Adventure Travel who not only retweeted the Swansea City Council tweet …

… but put out their own positive content including a zonal map showing where the free travel applies on their website.

This highlights yet again the uselessness of companies like First Bus who misguidedly think it’s a great idea to centralise ‘customer contact’, tweeting etc. I see Stagecoach were trumpeting last week they’re going to set up a centralised customer contact centre in Perth – how wrong can they be as they race to the bottom against Arriva and First to see who can be the most out of touch with the local market. Running local buses is not the same as Sky and never will be.

Swansea’s free ride promotion is a classic of showing up First’s policy for how out of touch it is.

A hard day’s tweeting from First Cymru yesterday … you wouldn’t think a revolutionary free travel scheme began!

Surely coming out of the pandemic, which has hit ridership hard in Wales, something as eye catching an offer as this while Government and Councils are financially supporting buses has got to be a good thing?

If I was still an Area Manager based in Swansea (I left to move to Brighton in 1982) I’d be shouting about this superb offer from the rooftops to encourage passengers back on board and into the bus habit.

In even more good news, First Cymru’s open top bus route 1 down to Bracelet Bay is also included in the free ride scheme and encouragingly was doing a good trade when I saw it yesterday morning. No thanks to First’s non promoting of it though.

And I was puzzled why the upper deck was sealed off on one double deck I travelled on on route 4, when you’d think all the seats possible should be available, making for a busy lower deck.

This was the route at one time operated by the infamous ftr articulated buses and branded as ‘Metro’ and I’d assumed had now been double decked to increase capacity for social distancing, so it seemed a bit incongruous to close it off.

There were a few other incongruities I spotted during my time in Swansea too and I may return to these in another post sometime, but I’ve probably done enough First Bus bashing for today.

In the meantime let’s keep positive as this is all about #FreeRideSwansea and it needs to succeed. Why? Because the Council also operate the car park attached to the Quadrant shopping centre next to the bus station. And guess what – it’s just £2 to park all day (after 09:30) and completely free on Sundays. Buses need all the help they can get against that competitive background.

It’ll certainly be interesting to see how #FreeRideSwansea pans out.

Roger French

5 thoughts on “A free-for-all in Swansea

Add yours

  1. Regarding the failure of First Cymru to promote the free bus fares initiative, I don’t think that the blame for this can be laid at the door of FirstBus. Sister companies like First Kernow make effective use of Facebook and Twitter to communicate with their market. I see it more as a reflection on the competence of the local MD and his management team. The fact that this business has allowed its former local name – South Wales Transport – to be acquired by a competitor, says it all for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great initiative. Pleasing that bus companies have supported the scheme and most are promoting it. Perhaps not perfect, but others can learn from the experience.
    Disappointing that Best Impressions choose to criticise a pro bus initiative, but I guess they were not involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Whilst it seems rather attractive to fund free bus travel I would question whether this really does represent good value for money since no doubt this will prove very expensive. Swansea Council is administered by Labour who have 47 of the 72 councillors elected and offering free travel for a few days in the Summer will not result in changing the longer term travel behaviour that is required to achieve climate change targets, The level of fares charged is an important factor in deciding which mode to use when travelling but I would have thought that a much better use of public money would be to invest in measures that make buses a real alternative to using cars like giving buses more priority along routes were traffic congestion is an issue making the operation of reliable bus services difficult and resulting in slower journey times. This is no more than a political gimmick that just cannot be sustained for any length of time,

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes a nice twist that the ‘park n ride set’.Have to pay and normal passengers don’t.Perhaps the park n riders and parkwayers should have to pay for the damage they’re doing to our urban fringe countyside with huge cars parks, floodlights,rain run off,etc all to try and accommodate the unsustainable mighty God Car.It’s strange that they try and use the bus and train as a solution to the huge hole the motorist has dug.Cars take up a lot of space and use up a lot of resources and electric cars aren’t going to change that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s a great trial and well done to Swansea for having the guts to try something bold.

    The only issue for me is that concessionary pass holders are still expected to present their pass. If the adult fare is free why should the operator be able to claim a concession?

    Liked by 1 person

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