Sunday 24th July 2022
It’s been nice to be able to select a mid-size town to visit in Wales for my fortnightly A-to-Z wanderings and although Neath is located fairly close to its near neighbour and local authority partner, Port Talbot, with pretty much continuous ribbon development through Briton Ferry and Baglan joining the two, my other N contender was Newton Abbot which is similarly located fairly close to Torquay and Paignton.
So Neath it is and many thanks to Chris for the suggestion. I headed over there on Friday morning on the hourly GWR inter-city service from Paddington to Swansea looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with my pre Brighton stomping ground when Area Manager (East) with the then NBC subsidiary South Wales Transport with responsibility for the Swansea, Neath and Port Talbot area in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In those days Neath had a Borough Council within West Glamorgan County Council but that was swept away in a 1996 reorganisation when the two-tier local government system across Wales was replaced with 22 unitary authorities and Neath Port Talbot Council was created.
Neath’s population is about 50,000 being located on the River Neath which flows into Swansea Bay and at the southern end of the famous A465 ‘Heads of the Valley Road’ as well as alongside the M4 as it curves round from Port Talbot (in the east) to form the northern boundary of Swansea (lying to the west).
Glynneath sits at the top of Neath Valley with Banwen at the top of the adjacent Dulais Valley.
As well as the aforementioned hourly GWR train service to the town’s centrally located rail station there are Transport for Wales trains linking Neath with local stations to the west (at Skewen and Llansamlet) and to the east (to Briton Ferry and Baglan) before continuing west to Swansea, Llanelli Carmarthen and Milford Haven and east to Port Talbot, Bridgend, Cardiff and eventually Manchester. Overall frequency with GWR is roughly half-hourly but not every train stops at the many smaller stations on the line, which are generally served every two-hours.
Journey time to Swansea by train is between 12 and 16 minutes depending on whether it’s a stopper and eight minutes to Port Talbot and 45 minutes to Cardiff.
If you fancy a longer ride it’s about two hours to Milford Haven and just over four hours to Manchester. On the usual Class 175 it’s a nice ride, but you’ll certainly know it if you’re unlucky and drop for a Class 153 all that way.
Neath’s bus routes are in the hands of First Cymru and the independently owned and (using the former’s long time trading name until First Group let it go) South Wales Transport.
There are also a few very short bus routes operated by Skewen based Select Bus Services which was taken over by (New) Adventure Travel in 2015 which in turn was taken over by Comfort DelGro in 2018.
Aside from TrawsCymru route T6 (which departs from outside the rail station) all bus routes depart from the eleven stand bus station in Victoria Gardens.
It’s a rather lovely setting for a bus station right alongside the fabulous Victoria Gardens with attractive floral displays and a bandstand and although showing it’s age is located close to the retail centre and just a few minutes walk from the station.
There’s a variety of shelters providing weather protection ….
…. and each of the 11 stands has a shelter too.
There are also public toilets …
…. and a number of real time displays in different shapes and sizes.
Static displays at each stand show timetables and updated information which also come in a variety of shapes, sizes and brands.
Only one timetable case was devoid of timetables.
It’s a bit basic as a bus station with not much room for pedestrians to pass along the pavement by the bus stands and there are some rather scruffy free standing poster holders which are disused and could usefully be removed, but at least it is a bus station. If only it could get the same caring attention as the adjacent gardens. It looks very much as though there’s no ‘revenue budget’ for any upkeep so it gradually deteriorates. Which is a shame.
Elsewhere in the town there seems to be a dearth of bus stop flags with old style shelters (no Global commercial adverts to be seen) marking where buses stop.
First Cymru used to have a manned information point on the bus station with timetable books but this has long disappeared in the name of progress. Indeed going back 40 years to my time there used to be a travel office and offices for South Wales Transport drivers and conductors as well as the local manager in this building to the right of the station where many buses departed from Station Square.
First Cymru dominate the inter-urban network while South Wales Transport look after most of the town’s local routes as well as forays to Swansea, Pontadawe and Port Talbot.
The most frequent bus route is the 20 minute frequency First Cymru route 87 serving the main road via Briton Ferry and Baglan as well as the huge Sandfields and Aberaron estate to Port Talbot and Margam. This has buses branded as ‘metro’ on it which I guess may have been transferred over from Swansea when the former ‘metro’ brand was abandoned in the city.
Oddly the nearsides of all the branded buses I saw had a or some destination/s – presumably Neath – removed.
First Cymru operate four routes between Neath and Swansea. Route 34 runs half hourly via Skewen. Llansamlet and Landor taking 46 minutes….
…. operated by smart red route branded buses as part of a Swansea based branding scheme (and still displaying the pre Covid 15 minute frequency).
Shorter journey times to Swansea are available on the more direct hourly routes 38 and X5 which provide combined (almost) half-hourly departures operating via Jersey Marine and Skewen (38) and Briton Ferry and Fabion Way Bay Campus (X5) taking 35 minutes.
Quickest of all is the hourly X7 taking 30 minutes on the most direct route but also serving Jersey Marine. Eastwards from Neath the route heads up the valley to Glynneath taking 45 minutes.
The Dulais Valley sees hourly route X8 to Banwen and Coelbren, a 50 minute journey…
…. while hourly route 56 heads over to Pontardawe taking 27 minutes.
Finally for First Cymru, route 59 operates hourly to Pontrhydyfen via Cimla taking 20 minutes where it connects with route 83 to and from Cymmer (hourly), Glyncorrwg (two-hourly) or Blaengwynfi (two-hourly), that route having come from Port Talbot.
You may have spotted from the above photographs the branding of the aforementioned routes is a bit of a mishmash.
The CymruClipper branding has been updated but it’s not clear whether this still applies to routes up the valleys. Certainly one or two buses were displaying a distinctly uncared for image.
Neath is also on the extensive inter-urban network provided by TrawsCymru with hourly route T6 linking the town to Brecon (as well as Swansea). It’s an 80 minute wonderful ride through to Brecon and well recommended for some spectacular scenery spotting.
As already mentioned, buses in both directions pick up from outside the rail station (rather than the bus station) at 35 minutes past each hour and Brecon bound buses were certainly busy on Friday lunch time.
It seems odd to have this route using the rail station as while that provides good interchange between modes it means connections from local bus routes to the T6 are not so good.
As already mentioned, South Wales Transport’s network mainly comprises local bus routes within Neath and its immediate surrounds although hourly route 256 competes, or more accurately compliments with First Cymru’s 56 to Pontardawe in that each departure is roughly half an hour apart (every 25/35 minutes).
Hourly route 202 connects Neath with Port Talbot but takes in the residential area of Brynhyfryd (which First Cymru’s 87 bypasses) and runs direct from Baglan (whereas the 87 goes via Sandfields).
Town routes include the half hourly 204 to Caewathan, 251 to Cimla, Ridgewood Gardens and 252 to Westernmoor while three other routes (150 Leiros Park; 153 Fairyland and 155 Llandarcy) all run five off-peak journeys on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in one combined timetable operated by one bus. The first two are very local routes with a 7 minute running time with Llandarcy a bit further at 32 minutes. Obviously it being Friday when I visited I didn’t get the chance for a ride on these odd ball routes.
I had a ride on the Cimla routes which where carrying half a dozen passengers home at lunch time but only bringing ones and twos back in.
There was a rather interesting display behind the driver which among other things displayed the “cleaning log” for the bus rather like you get in public toilets that are well looked after. An interesting idea.
First Cymru’s buses were departing with more passengers – around a dozen or so – from the bus station, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as busy.
Select’s few departures were carrying threes and fours at most on their routes being very local.
There’s a bespoke notice board giving details of their services together with Ron’s phone number for further information.
They don’t have a website.
Despite the excitement displayed concerning the launch of route 3 (back in 2017) I couldn’t find any evidence it still runs.
I also spotted a bus on the four journeys a day route 161 via Resolven and Glynneath to Min yr Awel operated by Dansa – the community bus operation. It had three on board.
Aside from what’s on display at the bus station Neath is one of those many towns where you struggle to find information out about what bus route goes where. There’s no network map either from First or South Wales Transport, or perish the thought, a joint map from both, with Select and Dansa too. There’s nothing produced by the Council either.
I did find a Cymru Clipper map buried on First Cymru’s website which purports to show four routes serving Neath under this branding – including an X4 to Port Talbot and Bridgend (coloured red) as well as the aforementioned X5, X7 and X8.
But that must be there just to confuse and bamboozle would be passengers. There no longer is a route X4.
I dug out a 1981 timetable from my archives from the time I worked in the area, which proved more helpful than First’s current offerings in that it did actually contain a map of sorts (cartography wasn’t as advanced in those pre computer days) and at least it gave me a sense of what went where even though it was 41 years ago.
I enjoyed my visit back to Neath but am struggling to find a word to encapsulate how I found it. For a place its size there’s a reasonable network of town routes and good inter-urban frequencies but it all comes over as rather unloved and just ‘hanging on in there’ with no sense of making it easy and attractive so the number of passengers travelling will grow.
‘Lacklustre’ is the word I’m looking for. To me that would be Neath.
It’s certainly beNeath its potential.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu