I tried out the secret free buses in Newport

Thursday 24th March 2022

March is free bus travel month in Newport but shhh, don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.

This latest month’s worth of free bus fares follows a similar arrangement in December last year up to Christmas Eve and arises following what’s known as the Burns Commission report (named after its chairman Lord Burns) which came up with 58 recommendations for alternative actions after the Welsh Government decided not to proceed with expanding the congested M4 through the Brynglas tunnels.

These include increasing track capacity through this part of south east Wales, building new stations, installing bus rapid corridors, enhanced integrated interchanges, attractive integrated tickets, promoting active travel and many other initiatives to encourage modal shift.

Following the Commission’s final report published in November 2020 a Burns Delivery Unit was established in Spring last year “to accelerate implementation of the 58 recommendations”. The Unit has a £4 million budget for this financial year, so it’s not just a one-person-wth-an-assistant-affair. In fact the Unit is “resourced by Transport for Wales and overseen by a Steering Group bringing together Welsh Government, Local Authorities, Network Rail and the Department for Transport (DfT). The group is independently Chaired by Simon Gibson CBE, assisted by Dr Lynn Sloman MBE. Together, they will drive a package of transport improvement across South East Wales, by planning, leading and monitoring against all 58 Burns recommendations”.

Initial focus of the Unit is facilitating enhancements to the South Wales Main Line and the proposed new stations as well as a “hands on approach to designing options for bus and active travel corridors in and between Cardiff, Newport and Monmouthshire and improving bus and active travel access to new, and existing rail stations”. Which all sounds like bonanza time for consultants.

The Burns Delivery Unit’s first annual report has recently been published and contains lots of impressive artists impressions, visualisations and graphics to demonstrate the proposed attractive alternatives to slogging it along the M4 in stop-start congestion.

There’s a table in the Report which helpfully lists all of the 58 recommendations which the Delivery Unit are working on.

Except, as you can see ‘Introduce free bus travel during random months in Newport’ isn’t listed as one of them, so it’s a bit of a puzzle why it’s happening. Not least because Welsh Government Deputy Minister Lee Waters went on record when he visited the Newport Bus depot on 3rd February to launch the free travel deal for March “revealing this was one of 58 recommendations in the Burns Report” as reported in the South Wales Argus that day.

There is a mention of the concept in the final Burns Commission report from November 2020. A couple of paragraphs at the end of chapter 6 on the theme of “Behaviour change package” include a bullet point in the header list stating “affordable public transport fares, particularly for bus travel within cities”. I guess you can’t get more affordable than free.

Paragraphs 255 and 256 give a preamble referring to “a number of towns in France and the US are introducing free bus travel, in parallel with service improvements. There is evidence that the introduction of fare-free buses can lead to large increases in patronage, although the impact on mode shift can vary (in some cases, there is a drop in car use; in others, active travel trips shift to bus, although there may still be more active travel overall).”

“Most prominently, we note that free bus services and service enhancements in Dunkirk led to an 85% increase in patronage in a year (half of the new bus users previously drove). The scheme is considered instrumental to reviving the fortunes of a town that was struggling economically and was culturally very attached to the car. Free bus travel in Dunkirk is funded through an employer public transport payroll levy, which is a widely used source of funding for public transport in French cities.”

Before paragraph 257 states, despite what Deputy Minister Waters says: “free bus travel in Newport is not a formal recommendation because decisions need to be made by government in the light of other funding priorities. We note that while a Workplace Parking Levy could be used as a source of revenue funding for these reductions, a significant top-up would be necessary.”

It’s not clear where the funding for Newport’s unrecommended free bus fare bonanza in March is coming from as clearly there’s not been enough time for a “Workplace Parking Levy”, let alone any “significant top-up”. I’m assuming the Welsh Government has slipped its hand down the back of the sofa and found the £800,000 pounds or so it must be costing to compensate Newport Bus (as well as Cardiff Bus on cross boundary route 30 within the city but bizarrely not Stagecoach or Phil Anslow Coaches’ cross boundary routes) for giving their business away to passengers for free for a few weeks.

So how’s it going? The first thing that struck me when I arrived in Newport on Tuesday morning was a complete lack of any information or marketing material about the free fares deal. It truly is a secret fares offer only known by those in the know.

Dedicated Internet watchers will have seen a news item on the Newport Bus webpage about the launch but there’s nothing under “Fares & Tickets” which continues to promote the usual range of ticket deals.

The Newport Bus twitter feed has given it a mention just three times this month – on 1st, 3rd and 8th March – whereas the Ukraine liveried bus – highly commendable that it is – has had eight mentions.

Wandering through the city’s two bus stations won’t enlighten you, as there’s no mention of the free bus deal anywhere that I could see.

The Newport Bus Tavel Shop remains closed as it’s done since March 2020 and even before that didn’t offer much in the way of information.

An effort’s been made to display spreadsheet style timetables to the windows if you can manage to read them but absolutely no mention of the great offer of free bus travel throughout March.

Departure stands display slightly more colourful departure times and a route diagram and if you’re a mind reader and guess which stand is for your service that’s all very helpful but there’s also a table showing the different fare and ticket options along the bottom rather than any mention about the free fares.

As you go to board the bus there’s a poster showing fares and ticket prices in the front nearside window but nothing to say these have been waived during March and you can hop on board for free

So it was with some trepidation I boarded my first bus wondering if it really was free or whether I’d imagined reading about it in the trade press, especially as concessionary passholders were boarding ahead of me and registering their passes on the ticket machine in the normal way.

But yes, it was free and I just breezed past the driver with a knowing nod to the fact it was a free ride for this English oap who’d normally have to pay.

Settling down for a ride around the route I noticed no mention of free travel inside the bus let alone an explanation or rationale as to why such a policy was in place for 31 days.

I made a few trips around the town as well as observing buses arriving and departing the bus station. Average numbers on board were between 15 and 25 leaving the town during the period between late morning and early afternoon with about half that number arriving on incoming journeys.

My guess is that’s between a third and double normal numbers and that by day 22 (when I travelled) word had spread among passengers about the offer. I only saw two passengers go to pay their fare as they boarded and being surprised it was a free ride. It’s reported that passenger numbers were up 80% in the December free fare offer.

I saw a couple of Fflecsi branded minibuses on the DRT scheme and wasn’t sure whether these were also included in the free travel deal – I recalled they had been in December. I tried to book a ride and after a few unsuccessful attempts got offered a pick up with the advice to “Pay on board” so I assumed it wasn’t included and being a mean spirited person rejected the offer.

Later when I saw a bus in the bus station I asked the driver and he confirmed it was all free during March.

As I assume Newport’s other longer established DRT schemes are too, but who knows? It’s a secret.

Inevitably the poster at the dedicated departure stand for DRT/Fflecsi in the bus station showed a list of ticket prices with no mention of free travel.

I also noticed the departure stand for the jointly operated route 30 to Cardiff was confusingly promoting “Cross City Ticket Info” which turned out to be out of date information relating to Adventure Travel in Cardiff.

Meanwhile Phil Anslow Coaches on its service to Cwmbran was promoting “Lower Fares Better Value” ….

….and “Getting you there with money to spare”. It’s odd that the free travel doesn’t apply to local journeys on this cross-boundary route (as it does on the 30 to Cardiff) or on Stagecoach’s routes.

It must be all very confusing for any Brynglas tunnel motorists forsaking their motorway commute for a month especially if they could travel from outside Newport on a cross boundary bus route.

Another oddity in the small print is the free travel offer doesn’t apply to pets, with the Newport Bus website confirming owners have to pay a £1 flat fare for any pets in the normal way. I hope our pet loving PM isn’t aware or he’d be sure to intervene – but not officially obviously.

It’s nice for bus passengers in Newport to be benefitting from the Welsh Government’s generosity paying for free travel during March – and makes for a stark contrast to yesterday’s announcement by the UK Government Chancellor of a 5p fuel duty cut for 12 months – but the rationale for spending around £800,000 on such a one-off venture for a month is totally lost on me.

Peak hour motorists queueing to drive through the Brynglas tunnels would be hard pressed to know free bus fares was a thing and even if by some miracle the news of free travel had filtered through they’re not likely to be making a local journey within Newport anyway as if they were, why would they be on the M4?

I did read the Welsh Government see this as a bit of a trial before considering rolling out free bus travel nationwide. Quite how that is remotely affordable I don’t know, let alone how travelling free on buses in Caernarfon, Aberystwyth or Tenby will impact congestion in the Brynglas tunnels – which was what Lord Burns was concerned with.

Meanwhile at a time when public funding purse strings are being ever tightened and forthcoming cuts to bus services are an inevitability it truly is a scandalous waste of taxpayers money to flitter so much money away on a scheme that’s being kept secret and has no strategic benefit.

It’s such a secret it’s not even in that list of recommendations.

Roger French

Blogging timetable 06:00 TThSSu.

Next blog, Saturday 26th March 2022: F is for Folkestone.

37 thoughts on “I tried out the secret free buses in Newport

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  1. “Employer public transport payroll levy”. Yes this is how French towns, whether free or paying, subsidise their buses and trams. It is the “Versement transport” and varies in each town from 0.5% to a few percent. It has made a huge difference to French urban transport in the last decades, but would no doubt make employers in the UK scream if introduced here – as it should be.

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    1. I wonder how the Estonian scheme in Tallinn is funded? It’s a hybrid of free for residents but chargeable for non-residents.

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    2. Interestingly Employers are happy to provide free car parking but to be fair that’s probably because the public transport is so bad you need to drive to the office

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  2. Cardiff Bus certainly placed quite a prominent announcement on their website. However it will be of little use to most travellers on the 30 as it only applies to journeys entirely within Newport.

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  3. The “Burns Delivery Unit” sounds like it’s a very expensive set-up, but presumably hasn’t taken any advice on marketing and promotion. (It also sounds like something that you might find in a hospital).

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  4. Was March supposed to be a “control” month . . . free travel with no promotion with a view of another month coming up with loads of promotion?? Or was December already the “free with promotion” month??

    Either way it’s a brave attempt to rebuild passenger numbers . . . albeit a strange way to do it . . . I wonder when the results will be made available . . .

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  5. I does apply to Stagecoach but only if the journey is wholly withing the Newport boundaries. I am unsure as to whether Phil Anslow are taking part in the scheme.

    The publicity has been poor and if you go to the bus company sites they only tend to mention their own services

    See link for some background info

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    1. Totally bonkers waste of money, money better spent on subsidising evening and Sunday services or on infrastructure like new stations etc. Reminiscent of the South Yorkshire 2p bus fares in the 1980s, millions spent on cheap fares but when the policy changes you don’t leave a legacy like MPTE, Tyne & Wear etc who invested in infrastructure such as Merseyrail and the Metro systems for permanent use for future generations

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      1. South Yorkshire’s 2p bus fares were a step along a long running policy to eventually reduce fares so much that it cost more to collect than the revenue gained, at which point buses would have become free to travel on. That 1980s 2p fare would today be around £1.50, so not much cheaper than TfL’s flat fare.

        You can’t blame the PTEs for Nicholas Ridley’s determined attempt to privatise everything in sight destroying the previous two decade’s political consensus; thankfully he was never allowed to be in control of anything like education or the NHS as if he had you would be paying through the nose for children’s education and for all healthcare.

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  6. Hi Roger,

    Having visited Newport last month, just wished to give clarification in relation to Cross City Boundary services.

    Both Cardiff Bus & Stagecoach allow local travel in the Newport suburbs. However travel beyond the city limits does still incur a charge

    In relation to the Phil Anslow 24x and the Stagecoach X24 to Cwmbran, they operate express out of the city, with the first stops outside of the city boundary.

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  7. It’s always interesting to read a visitor’s view on the buses in my city (not town) of residence. Thank you for coming and writing this article.

    Stagecoach and Cardiff Bus are offering free travel within the city boundary. Phil Anslow’s 24X doesn’t stop until after it crosses into Torfaen so isn’t included.

    The offer is mentioned in the Council’s free newspaper delivered to all households but only in a short article on an inside page.

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  8. Looking at those list of 58 items they are going to cost a fortune and many offer little benefit

    A bus and Cycle lane on the Newport to Cardiff Road? . It is a very busy arterial road . I cannot see many cyclist using it and there are only two buses an hour along most of the Cardiff road. Newport to Cardiff is well served by rail and a lot quicker

    The main difference is in fares with rail being a lot more expensive. It would make more sense to align the bus and train fares. There is the Newport Plus bus that enable a bus and train ticket to be purchased but it is not well marketed and it is not cheap

    It was looked at by Westminster as to electrifying the line to Swansea but the cost/benefit made no sense. The trains are bimode and were designed with the possible conversion to battery power or Hydrogen at some point in the future. I assume the Welsh Assembly are now going to fund the electrification from Cardiff to Swansea. That will not be cheap

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  9. What is not mentioned is that this could be a sweetener for buying votes in the forthcoming local council elections in May. The timing of doing this in March may be just a coincidence!!

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  10. The Newport-Cardiff “Active Travel Route” has been widely promoted by Cardiff Council, at least, and in the local press. Many people will have received an invitation to fill in an online survey (now closed).

    Wales would like to electrify the Cardiff-Swansea main line on environmental grounds. Having said that, (some) bi-mode trains would still be used on services beyond Swansea – and diesel haulage for freight.

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    1. The cost of putting bus and cycle lanes on the Cardiff road between Newport and Cardiff would be very high and would have little benefit

      There are only two buses an hour between Newport and Cardiff and outside of the peaks have plenty of capacity., Most of the users are concessionary pass holders who travel for free

      Buses take close on an hour for that journey but the train can takes as little as 6 minutes and the trains are far more frequent

      The more sensible approach is to integrate bus and local trains so that fare are similar. At the moment there in plus bus but that make the bus/rail journey very expensive

      If you has a bus/train ticket for travel to Cardiff from Newport at about £3 that makes he train attractive. Most of the rail stations in Newport as well are quite well served by bus

      Why spend huge amount of money on a bus lane and create more congestion to just duplicate the rail service ?

      Electrifying the line from Cardiff to Swansea does not justify the cost. It would cost in the region of £1B. The service to Swansea is only every hour. It uses modern bimode trains that produce little pollution

      The only other trains are a very occasional TW service that goes beyond Swansea. These would probably have to be bimode

      The Bimodes are diesel electric meaning the diesel is used to produce electricity to power the trains. £1B to electrify 60 miles of track with one train an hour is poor vcalue even on environmental grounds

      You could get much more environmental benefit by spending that money on other schemes. It could be the bus and cycle lane would increase pollution as the Cardiff road would become even more congested then it is now

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      1. Other recommendations included increasing the frequency of local and intercity trains on that corridor. Trains from Cardiff to London are half-hourly, so if the trains that currently terminate at Cardiff were extended to Swansea then you’ve got 2tph that can run off the electric straight away. TfW are buying new bi-mode trains for South Wales – if the local services to Swansea were increased to hourly then you’ve got 3tph, and with the hourly Maesteg services you’ve got 3-4tph (or 3-5tph if they are increased to half-hourly, which I believe is the plan). And now that electrification plan is looking a lot easier to justify.

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  11. I’ve got it, at last! Public transport is part of the entertainment industry. Just for laughs! This site is the best soap in the media! Though if the plots were submitted to any soap director, they’d be rejected as too far-fetched.

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    1. Most of those 58 items are expensive day dreams that offer little benefit. Some are though sensible

      It talks about having employment in town centre butt town centres were not designed for large employer’s needs and town centre location are not viable. They dont exist for a start. These employers also need a large catchment area to attract the staff they need. Town cen tre sites as well are very expensive

      Try to focus them in one area though would be sensible but it is probably to late for that the retail and industrial and business parkees are all over the place and most are poorly served by public transport

      The £1B it would cost to electrify the Cardiff to Swansea line could massively improve bus services across Wales

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  12. So reminiscent of the Blair regime throwing a cool £50 million at rural buses without having a clue if it were to be spent wisely. Which, unsurprisingly, virtually none of it was.

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  13. Wow, Cardiff-Newport in 6 minutes – that must be the new secret Maglev train!

    Running time for a Class 80x is 13 minutes – it’s about 12 miles.

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      1. The trains might be capable of that speed, but they can’t run at that speed in Wales. The maximum linespeed anywhere in Wales is 90mph, which includes the line between Cardiff and Newport, although many other sections of the line are limited to 75mph or less. And you have to allow for the time accelerating and braking where the train is doing considerably less than the linespeed. Even if the track and signalling were improved to allow 125mph running, which is the most that could realistically be achieved, you’re not going to get a 12 mile journey down to 6 minutes.

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  14. Why an earth does Newport have DRT & Fflexci is it just to confuse potential passengers and cannot they come up with a sensible name for the service sand better publicity and marketing

    DRT service are expensive so why they are duplicating existing service who knows

    Why are they proposing to upgrade Newport station when they upgraded it at great expense several years ago

    The upgrade in view was daft as the moved the entrance from near the town centre to as far away as they could get it. The existing station entrance was perfectly sensible and accessible so why an earth did they move it ?

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    1. Fflecsi is the brand name for DRT services in Wales developed by TfW.
      In Newport fflecsi operates an urban network within the city. Not to duplicate existing services, more a replacement for them. When I visited Newport last October what struck me about the bus network were the relatively poor frequencies, around all of the houses circuitous routes and early evening finish to their some of their services. Newport Transport operate the fflecsi scheme in the city so they’re effectively contracted to plug gaps in their own network.

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      1. The Fflecsi doesn’t duplicate Newport Transport Services; the app wont let you book one if there is a suitable NT one for your journey. It DOES duplicate Stagecoach services as it doesn’t know / isn’t told about their routes and timetables.

        In the evenings and on Sundays Fflecsi replaces NT within the city. With only four buses out it’s virtually impossible to book one.

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      2. What if Newport Bus has only a slow hourly service but Stagecoach has a fast, more frequent, fairly straight shot? Could I book fflecsi anyway?

        I do actually see the things go on Bassaleg Road, presumably they aren’t serving people living near my stop (Gaer Christian Centre I think on 2A/2C/50A, Bassaleg Road Post Office on 50/151).

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  15. Metroline Route 84

    Metroline have been mass cancelling journeys for several weeks. This must be having a severe adverse impact on passenger numbers and is going to maker it tougher for Sullivan’s to make it pay

    Surprised HCC are not taking action against Metroline, I notice they do not cancel journeys on the two HCC contracted routes as presumably that would cost them money and potentially the loss of the contracts

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    1. Oh dear! Neighbours FEx have been mass – cancelling for years, not that anyone pays attention, with just a slap on the wrist from the TC a few years back, when they bothered (though S&M/TownLink got their license revoked). Passengers cope, by giving up and finding alternatives, even by begging for help from competitors. Perhaps they should, more often!

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  16. Re trains: (a) they have to start up and slow down – I’d have thought a 60mph average over 12 miles is pretty good; (b) I think there’s an overall line limit of 90mph west of the Severn; there certainly was a year or two ago (and a 125mph limit from Bristol eastwards). As I say, the scheduled working timetable allowance for a Class 80x unit is 13 minutes, a minute of two longer for a Voyager or Class 170.

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  17. Bus Back Better Funding Allocation

    Still nothing on this. THe orignal date given for the funding allocations was end of February

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  18. Perhaps that 58 item list should be 60:

    59 – Keep the Newport Bus Travel Centre open at all times when buses are operating
    60 – send all staff (including the board) of the Burns Delivery Unit on a decent course about publicity.

    I think both those would increase public transport use – free or otherwise.

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  19. According to last week’s N&P Essex cc were starting two new anywhere to anywhere on-demand services in mid-Essex from 28th March. So where are they?

    Are they what the DTp gave a cool £1.4m for? (if so, including the replacement to ECC’s existing private minibus fleet?) I’m sure there’d be a few others who may be interested in a similar offer!

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  20. Newport Bus changers, A lot of it seems to be reintroducing Sundays services

    2A/C Newport – Gaer: The Saturday service will now operate hourly.

    5 Newport – Gwent Europark: This new service will operate from stand 5 four times a day in each direction to serve both Wilko and Tesco Distribution Centres at the Gwent Europark. This is service is open to all.

    9A/C Newport – Ringland & Newport Retail Park: This is a new Sunday service – from stand 6 that will operate to the Newport Retail Park in Spytty, 2-hourly in each direction. It will serve Corporation Road, Cromwell Road, Ringland, Aberthaw Road and Chepstow Road.

    15/16 Newport – Bettws: Both services will now depart from stand 1 in the bus station. The timetable has been slightly adjusted. A new Monday to Saturday early morning and late evening journeys are added as well as an hourly Sunday service.

    19E Newport – Malpas: All journeys will depart from stand 2. There are slight changes to the timetables, particularly the Saturday journeys serving Blaen-Y-Pant, Oliphant Circle and Montgomery Road. We have also added two journeys via Montgomery Road Monday to Friday and one additional journey on Saturdays.

    20A/C Newport – Newport Retail Park: All journeys will now depart from stand 5

    26A/C Newport – St. Julian’s: The Saturday service will now operate hourly instead of 2-hourly. To enable this, on Saturdays, the service will no longer operate via Clevedon Road/Tennyson Road.

    29 Newport – Cwmbran: All Sunday departures from Newport will operate 20 minutes later, from 8:20 till 19:20, every hour.

    37 Newport – Rhiwderin: All journeys will depart from stand 10. On Saturdays, the 11:00 return journey from Newport is replaced by a journey at 1015.

    40/41 Newport – Pillgwenlly: All journeys will depart from stand 10.

    60 Newport – Monmouth: On Saturdays, the first journey in each direction operates 20 minutes earlier. There are slight changes to the overall timetable.

    73 Newport – Chepstow: On Saturdays, the 11:05 from Newport and 15:05 from Chepstow will divert to serve Mathern following a request from Monmouthshire County Council. There are also minor revisions to the timetable.

    74 Newport – Chepstow: The route of the service to Chepstow will change to operate via Somerton Road and Newport Retail Park, providing an additional evening service to the retail park from the city centre.

    X74 Newport – Chepstow: Some journeys will divert to serve the Gwent Europark, Tesco distribution centre only.

    B1 Mount Pleasant – Bassaleg School: The two buses will be replaced by one bus only and the route is revised as follows: start from The Uplands (facing Newport), then Tredegar Arms, loop the Mount Pleasant estate then direct to the school via Chartist Drive and the A467. The school have been made aware. The B2 (Foxgloves – St. John’s Crescent – Bassaleg School) is unchanged and will continue to be provided by two buses.

    SJ1 Ringland – St. Joseph’s RC High School: The morning journey will operate 10 minutes earlier at 0800.

    SJ12 Cwmbran – St. Joseph’s RC High School: The morning journey is withdrawn and replaced by a similar journey on the regular route 29 service. This service will operate through to St. Joseph’s RC High School. Pupils will not need to change at the bus station. The afternoon journeys are unchanged.

    YGI1 and YGI2 Ysgol Gwent Is Coed: Revised running times for the afternoon journeys to reflect the current schedule.

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  21. As others have stated, Stagecoach *was* free within the boundary only. My main local bus is the 50 and 151 which are Stagecoach (there is a very limited Newport Bus service) and indeed that was free for March 2022.

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