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.
Blogging timetable 06:00 TThSSu.
Next blog, Saturday 26th March 2022: F is for Folkestone.