In which The Author finds himself on the road to nowhere
On December 15 I decided to stay up late and work on this blog at home. My back’s giving me a lot of trouble again, especially now that the cold weather has arrived in earnest. I’d left the house only three times in a week – and two of those were with Stella, just because we were both climbing the fucking walls with boredom! Rather than try and get comfortable in bed, which I’ve discovered to be a waste of effort, I sat in my middle room, opened a bottle of wine (with some difficulty) and listened to a random assortment of music while I tried to type out the first draft. However, before that I treated myself to a couple of films.
The first was The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978), starring Neil Innes and Eric Idle. I bought it on DVD about five years ago and watch it every few months when I need cheering up. It’s a very clever pastiche of The Beatles’ career, with some wonderful songs and videos performed in The Fab Four’s distinctive style. Although it’s a comedy, it’s not a laugh-a-minute romp by any means. In fact, it has the typical Monty Python characteristic of being a bit hit-and-miss. However, the songs and musical performances are spot-on. As the spectacular rise and fall of Dirk, Nasty, Stig and Barry (the Prefab Four) unfolds, the writers’ deep affection and high regard for the originals is obvious.
There are a few terrific one-liners and lovely visual gags, but Eric Idle’s documentary-style pieces to camera are over-long and rather dull. On the other hand, the cameo appearances by Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Michael Palin, and even George Harrison himself (among others) are superb.
Radio 4’s PM programme referred to the film subtly a couple of weeks ago. Eddie Mair introduced a very brief soundbite of Roger McGough, and outroduced it by saying, ‘Roger McGough – Liverpool poet, writer, author, humorist, bon viveur, and a man who knew The Beatles.’ If you hadn’t already seen All You Need is Cash, it would have been completely lost on you.
After watching it, I decided to revisit a picture I haven’t seen it since I was about twelve years old – Magical Mystery Tour. I recently got my hands on all of The Beatles’ movies, and I’ve been watching one of them every couple of weeks. Magical Mystery Tour is not a great film by any means. In hindsight, they all seem to be over-rated, maybe because they star The Beatles! and that’s enough of a seal of quality for most people. They’re somewhat Pythonesque too – there are some lovely high points, but they’re undoubtedly a lot less than the sum of their parts would suggest.
Aimless, self-indulgent, and (arguably) deservedly panned on its release at Xmas 1968, Magical Mystery Tour is nevertheless a curiosity and very much of its time. I don’t think I’d hurry to watch it again, to be honest. It did shed quite a bit of light on The Rutles’ disturbing video for Piggy in the Middle, though. I think it’s better than the original source material, personally.
ROLL UP FOR THE MYSTERY TOUR
My very own Magical Mystery Tour happened about twenty years ago, at this time of year. (I moved into my house in August 1998, and it definitely pre-dated that.) Laurie had somehow roped me in to work in Dillons on a Sunday before Xmas. Either he’d been extremely persuasive, or he’d offered me double time, or he’d caught me in a moment of weakness over a lunchtime pint. I can’t remember which. The only trains from Aberdare to Cardiff ran on a Sunday afternoon, so I told him I’d have to get back to him. I wasn’t sure whether there were regular buses, but I checked the timetable in Aberdare Bus Station and found an 0955 departure listed. The shop opened at 11 a.m. I told Laurie I might be a few minutes late getting in, depending on the traffic, but I agreed to work all the same.
As I told you in Modern Physics Vol 2: Time, buses in Wales don’t do timetables very well. I’d been commuting regularly for a couple of years by that stage. I’d also submitted numerous pieces of copy to the Cynon Valley Leader over the preceding years. Just because the information was printed in black and white didn’t mean it was The Truth.
A few days before, I decided to err on the side of caution and phoned Shamrock Travel to double-check the departure time. I spoke to someone in the office (I doubt if it was Clayton Jones himself) and he assured me that the bus left Aberdare at 1000.
‘Really? Are you sure it’s not 0955?’ I pressed him on this point, bearing in mind that it was the only information readily available to travellers.
‘No, it’s definitely ten o’clock,’ he repeated.
I thanked him, hung up, and made a mental note to get to Aberdare by 0950 at the latest.
On the Sunday morning, I did the twenty-five minute walk from Llwydcoed to the bus station without much difficulty. It was a bright clear morning – ideal dog-walking weather on any other weekend. When I arrived at the stand, the bus was already there. I showed my weekly ticket and got on board. The driver volunteered no extra information about the service. I didn’t question it. Why should I have? It was my regularly daily commute, albeit slightly later in the day.
We were out of Aberdare Bus Station just before 0955, leaving behind everyone who’d believed the writing on the wall (see, I told you so!) We made our usual ponderous way through the villages on the Old Road until we reached Pontypridd Bus Station. In the next departure bay there was a Stagecoach bus, waiting to head straight down the A470 into Cardiff city centre. The idea crossed my mind to jump off my bus, get on the other one, and pay the extra fare to make sure I got to work in time. Unfortunately the idea didn’t stick around long enough for me to act on it. The Stagecoach bus left, and a couple of minutes later so did we. We headed through the town centre, picked up some more passengers outside Marks & Spencer, and proceeded along the Broadway. So far, so good…
I first suspected something was wrong when we reached Treforest. Ordinarily, the bus would go through the junction by St Dyfrig’s Church. After that it would either pick up the Old Road and go through Rhydyfelin, or join the A470 straight to Cardiff. My bus swung around the church, shot past the Otley Arms and the Polytechnic of Wales, and headed towards Church Village. By that time, the Stagecoach bus was probably passing Treforest Industrial Estate. It was far too late to rethink my decision to stay put. I was a prisoner on a bus going into unknown territory.
I’m sadly vague on the details of the next hour or so. Once we left Church Village we travelled through an area I’m not familiar with. This isn’t out of general ignorance. I know my way around the western valleys by public transport. I used to be able to find my way around the eastern valleys, although it’s been a good while since I explored them in detail.
The only reason I’d never visited the villages I passed through on that Sunday morning was because they lay to the south of the A473 – the main road between Pontypridd and Bridgend. It’s a cut-off point as far as public transport is concerned. They’re primarily accessible from Cardiff, by means of infrequent subsidised buses roaming around B-roads and country lanes. (In fact, I’m not really sure whether the places we went through even count as The Valleys, as I discussed in Where Do We Draw the Line. I’ve always thought they have much more in common with the Vale of Glamorgan.) I’d only ever heard of them on the Welsh news and read about them in the South Wales Echo – Efail Isaf, Gwaelod-y-Garth, Creigiau, Pentyrch. I’m not necessarily listing them in the correct order…
We travelled through numerous identical ‘exciting starter home developments’, picking up a small number of unlucky youngsters who’d also agreed to work on a Sunday. After what seemed like the whole day, we emerged onto the A4119, which (eventually) becomes Cathedral Road in Cardiff. My cousin Denis had had his hip replacement operation at Rhydlafar Hospital. Dad and I had spent a whole Saturday travelling to see him while he was recovering. We passed the hospital, which gave me some inkling of my whereabouts, but I was still none the wiser. When we got to the BBC studios in Llandaff, I finally knew exactly where the fuck I was!
Needless to say, the pre-Xmas shopping traffic was tailed back to the city limits. In retrospect, I wished I’d acted on the next idea I had, jumped off the bus, and walked into town from Cathedral Road. It took nearly twenty minutes for the bus to plough its way through the tailback as far as Cardiff Castle. I got off when it stopped at the traffic lights and hurried to the shop.
It was approaching midday when I finally walked in. Laurie was at the counter when I arrived at the top of the stairs, and he gave me one of his funny looks as I acknowledged him.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ he asked, more in bafflement than anger.
‘Mate, I’ve got no idea!’ I replied. ‘I’m going to look at the big map in Glenn’s office to see if I can figure it out!’
That was the first and only Sunday on which I agreed to work. My nerves would never have withstood another Tragical Mystery Tour. When they were in their A Level year, Julie, Kerry, Carrie-Ann and Lauren worked a couple of stocktake Sundays with me, but I always made sure that we got a taxi down to the shop (paid for by the company) and a train home. Even in the week, faced with the joy of Shamrock Travel, bus commuting was becoming too much too like hard work. (See A Letter to the Editor 11.)
My old school chum Paul J. (aka Wolfie) had been one of the Carpenters Arms set before getting his PCV licence and becoming our regular morning driver. Wolfie was like a quartz clock, and that was part of his appeal. His route used to start at Bwllfa Dare (opposite the valley floor from where I lived), but because he knew my friend Emma and I from the pub days, he’d pick us up at the end of the street before he even clocked on officially. Everyone knew him by name, he knew all of us by name, and we always arrived in Cardiff feeling as though we’d had though we’d had a little day trip disguised as a commute. We actually looked forward to catching his bus!
Whenever he booked a holiday, Wolfie would give his regular passengers as much notice as possible, so that we could either book some time off ourselves or try and make alternative arrangements. That speaks volumes for the general calibre of the rest of the drivers (one or two excepted) and the management as a whole. As far as we were concerned, No Wolfie meant No Bus – No Ifs and No Buts.
Once Wolfie moved on to work as a train conductor, many of us decided that it seemed like a decent idea to follow in his slipstream. After an extensive catalogue of mechanical breakdowns, service ‘cancellations’, service ‘alterations’, dropped buses, early buses, late buses, and a smash on North Road in Cardiff, when we were rear-ended by a car with the right of way after our driver had pulled out, it wasn’t a hard decision. Like the driver in that last incident, I simply didn’t look back!
Anyway, that was the best part of twenty years ago. Let’s crank the clock back another decade and embark on a Tragical History Tour of our own.
TAKE THE NATIONAL EXPRESS, WHEN YOUR LIFE’S IN A MESS
I had an interview at Aston University in Birmingham to study Pharmacy in 1983. It’s a long way from Aberdare, but it wasn’t always like that. There was a time in the early- to mid-80s when, if I got bored with small town life, I could jump on the coach and spend most of the day in Birmingham. The return trip would cost about a tenner – maybe fifteen quid, tops. I honestly can’t remember. The coach went through Merthyr, Tredegar, Brynmawr, Ebbw Vale, and Abergavenny before shooting straight up the M50 and M5 to England’s second city. I was there before lunch and didn’t have to leave until dinner time. (Midlanders, please note: Dinner is the evening meal, not the midday repast!) Meanwhile, on my return to Aberdare, I’d still have time to get a couple of pints or five in the Carpenters Arms before heading home.
At that time, National Express had an office in Victoria Square (in the premises where some pals of mine now have a photographic studio) and you could call in for all sorts of information. It wasn’t just a booking office; it was a Information Centre in the true sense. You could pick up leaflets and timetables for National Bus Company routes covering the whole of South Wales and beyond – the Eastern Valleys, Swansea, Brecon, Hereford, Gloucester, Monmouth, Cardiff, and even Bristol.
Aberdare also had a bus depot where vehicles could park overnight and refuel before setting off across the country the following morning. If it wasn’t exactly a ‘hub’ it was at least a stabling point. You could catch long-distance coaches to London (the Rapide coach) and Birmingham from just outside the company offices. Aberdare was an outpost on the network. It was better than being in the middle of nowhere.
I passed Aston University for the first time in nearly thirty years on the way home from Manchester a month ago, as I told you in It’s Grand Oop North. Nowadays, an interview there would probably involve a very early start, a very late finish, or an overnight stay. Potential students would be better off going by train, or getting one of their parents to drive. After leaving Abergavenny the coach takes a strange route through Hereford, Ledbury, Great Malvern, Worcester and Droitwich before it even gets to Birmingham. A few years ago, I planned a day out in Birmingham, just for a change of scene. I met Gaz at the bus station in Aberdare. He was heading up north for a stag weekend, and advised me to abandon my plan. He was right. By the time the coach arrived in Birmingham, I’d probably have missed the one coming back home. Instead, I had a pleasant few hours looking around Worcester.
In 1983, Mother drove me to Bradford for another university interview. I couldn’t possibly have done Bradford and back on the same day by public transport. In the event we stayed over and came back the following day after driving up into the Dales in the morning. I liked Bradford. I missed it by two A Level points. It was a good thing, in hindsight. Mother wouldn’t have been keen on doing the journey twice a term. It’s a bitter irony that the National Express 321 service goes all the way to Bradford – via Birmingham, of course!
London was much easier, or course. The coach left Aberdare at about 0700, picked up in Merthyr Tydfil, Pontypridd, Caerphilly, Newport, and then rocketed down the M4 to Victoria Coach Station. Once I knew what I was doing and was travelling light, I’d jump off at Earl’s Court, catch the tube, and be in the West End while the coach itself was still backed up in traffic. I could go from Victoria Square to Victoria Station in a single bound, with a little bounce to finish off. The return journey left at about 1800, and still got me home in time for Last Orders. Nice…
During the Motorcycle Races weekend the summer before last, I was in the beer garden of the Glandover in Aberdare. I ended up chatting to a woman a couple of years older than me. She remembered me from my frequent trips to London. I remembered her too – she used to be the jolly hostess on the National Express. She worked on the Rapide service when I used to treat myself to the odd away day in the Great Wen. I used to fancy her until I gave up blondes. She told me that she’d really enjoyed the lifestyle, going the length and breadth of the country, occasionally serving drinks and snacks to people who were enduring the in-zoom film. (When I was eighteen, I didn’t know it was possible to travel the country free of charge and stay the night on the company between journeys. If I had, I’d definitely have gone transgender three decades ago and applied for the job myself!)
My friend Neil R. (see Another One Bites the Dust) and I once decided to spend a day away. We didn’t have a target in mind. We just fancied getting out of Aberdare. We met up by Aberdare Park and bought a National Welsh Day Rover each, which were even cheaper than they were in this ad from 1987.
By the time we got to Hirwaun, Neil had somehow lost his ticket, so he had to pay again. Even so, we journeyed far and wide together that day – over the mountain to Merthyr, down through the eastern Valleys to Newport, on to Cardiff, up to Pontypridd, and back to Neil’s father’s pub. Shortly afterwards, I took my last ever coach trip to Birmingham, directly from Aberdare. It’s simply not do-able these days.
Interestingly, I’ve just a quick look at the National Express website. According to this 21st Century Information Centre, you can still get the 509 coach from Aberdare to London (you can’t!), while the 321 Aberdare-Bradford service isn’t listed at all. Do they actually want passengers (sorry, customers) to travel out of Aberdare?
ALL CHANGE, PLEASE!
In October 1986 it all went supine. Outside London, buses were deregulated. That word won’t mean anything to Westminster politicians, the media, or the rest of the metropolitan Chattering Classes. Why would it? If you’re in London, there’s proper public transport. Across the rest of the country, the marketplace was thrown open to Margaret Thatcher’s favourite concept – Competition.
On October 25, 1986, the National Bus Company ceased to exist. It dissolved into a myriad of ‘private’ companies, although many of them wouldn’t have existed for very long without substantial public subsidies. Along with it vanished all those fantastic innovations like interchangeable tickets, connecting services, and timetables. I was coming back from a trip to Hereford one day, and we were running late into Ross-on-Wye. You probably won’t believe me if I tell you that the other bus actually waited for our service to arrive (about ten minutes or so.) Post-1986, it’s very unlikely that the buses would be operated by the same company, never mind wait around for the connecting passengers.
I can’t speak for the rest of the UK, but it didn’t take long for Thatcher’s monetarist dream to come crashing down in flames here in the Cynon Valley. I found these letters in the Aberdare Leader archives, dating from barely three weeks after deregulation:
It’s a matter of public record that Clayton Jones and his cowboy outfit were responsible for many of the woes afflicting passengers. I’ve already told you about one of Shamrock’s appearances before the Traffic Commissioner (in Modern Physics Vol 2: Time.)
At the same time, Stagecoach, who’d taken over from National Welsh in operating the majority of buses in and around Aberdare, weren’t entirely squeaky clean. When I lived in Llwydcoed, the first service was scheduled to leave the terminus (about a kilometre or so further along the route) at 0710. I left home every morning at the same time (0709) and made my way to the bus stop, less than a minute’s walk away. Some mornings I’d stand there for five minutes or so to see the outward service passing on the other side of the road. Other mornings, I’d get to the corner of the street just in time to see it vanish over the brow of the hill on its way back. Either way, I missed the connection to the Cardiff bus and arrived for work late.
After several weeks of this, I decided it was time to take decisive action. I saved a month’s worth of tickets (each of which showed the exact time of issue) and sent them to Stagecoach’s area manager with a strongly-worded letter of complaint. A few days later I received an apologetic letter from him. He included a letter addressed to the driver of any Stagecoach bus in South Wales, instructing them to let me board the service free of charge, without question, for a seven-day period starting in a few week’s time. I booked the week off work and went exploring. It was almost as good as the old days.
HEAR MY TRAIN A-COMIN’
Britain had its first Labour government under Clement Attlee, who won the 1945 General Election in a landslide. In 1948 Attlee’s government nationalised the ‘Big Four’ railway companies – Great Western Railways (GWR), London Midland & Scottish (LMS), London & North-Eastern Railways (LNER), and Southern Railways (SR) – and British Rail was born. But the times they were a-changing. The Conservatives returned to power in 1951 and remained there until 1964.
The 1960s saw the wholesale slaughter of much of Britain’s passenger rail network. I was born in 1966, so I’ve extracted the following information from a 1985 book called Losing Track by Kerry Hamilton and Stephen Potter. Ms Hamilton was a part-time member of the Board of London Transport in 1983-4, and in 1984 was Chair of the Transport Technology Network of the Greater London Enterprise Board. Dr Potter was a lecturer and researcher at the Open University before becoming a research consultant on transportation issues. Their book is both a comprehensive history of the public transport systems in the UK, and a critique of the transport policies which were current at the time.
This particular part of our story begins five decades ago. In 1960, the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the Commons:
The railway system must be remodelled to meet current needs and the modernisation plan must be adapted to this new shape. This will involve certain sacrifices of convenience, for example, in the reduction of uneconomic services (Hamilton & Potter 1983: p. 56).
Macmillan’s announcement presaged the 1962 Transport Act and, in the following year, the publication of Dr Richard Beeching’s report The Reshaping of British Railways. Beeching had been appointed to conduct a review into the rail industry by the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples. Even today, the mention of Beeching’s name is enough to make clouds of steam (generated with heat from the finest Welsh anthracite) pour from my older friends’ ears. That of Marples is much less well-known. But every arch-villain has an accomplice. Let’s allow Ms Hamilton and Dr Potter to explain their respective backgrounds:
Marples was the greatest self-publicist ever to hold this post and his background was entirely in the road building industry. He was a civil engineer and owned a road construction company, Marples Ridgeway, which included among its projects the building of the Hammersmith Flyover, the first major section of elevated road in London. Marples presided over the opening of the first motorway, and although its construction had begun some time before under a different minister (and was not built by his company), he sought to be associated with the motorways programme, coming to be widely credited (or blamed) for it. Given this road construction background, it is not surprising that Marples supported the expansion of the road programme and rail cutbacks. Marples’ speech in opening the £22.5 million, 75-mile stretch of the M1 epitomises the philosophical and economic strength of the road lobby upon (and within) the Conservative government of that time: ‘This motorway starts a new era in road travel. It is in keeping with the bold exciting and scientific age in which we live.’
Being the Minister of Transport, Marples was not permitted to retain the ownership of his road construction company, Such a personal interest in the outcome of his policy decisions could not be allowed. He passed his shareholdings to his wife, which apparently he viewed as eliminating any personal interest or gain in his being responsible for Britain’s roadbuilding programme! (op cit: pp. 51-2.)
Marples did not have to look far for the first Chairman of the British Railways Board. He chose a friend of his who had been a member of the Stedeford Advisory Group [which had examined the organisation of the British Transport Commission] and a severe critic of the existing management of the railways. At this time, Dr Richard Beeching was not well known to the public. His appointment to the BR Chair was an abrupt change of course, for he had pursued a highly successful career in ICI, becoming Technical Director. Save for his involvement with the Stedeford Advisory Group he had no real experience of the railways. The only aspect of his appointment to arouse press comment seemed to be concentrated more on his salary than his likely approach to running Britain’s railways. (op cit: p. 53.)
I’d better explain what the authors meant by this last remark. Beeching only agreed to take the position if the government matched his £24,000 p.a. salary from ICI. Consequently, he was earning £10k more than the last chairman of the British Transport Commission, and £14k more than the Prime Minister himself (equivalent to some £367,000 today!)
His lack of in-depth knowledge of the rail industry didn’t raise many eyebrows. Hamilton and Potter have a entire chapter devoted to the execution of Beeching’s impartial and unbiased report (yeah, right!) What remains without doubt is that it had enormous repercussions for transportation right across the country, as these maps (from Hamilton & Potter, 1985) show:
One third of the network and over 2,000 stations were closed when Beeching’s axe fell. He also recommended raising fares on commuter services so as ‘to reduce congestion.’ Ms Hamilton and Dr Potter give a summary of local campaigns to oppose the closures. Some of them were successful, giving us the North London Line, the Settle-Carlisle line, and the St Erth to St Ives service in Cornwall. However,
for each one of the successful oppositions to line closures there were many lines and stations shut. One such line was the Afan Valley line in South Wales. There is a railway line today that runs from Cardiff up high into the Rhondda Valley, terminating at Treherbert. But prior to 1968 the line carried on past Treherbert to climb over 1,500 feet above sea level and pass through a tunnel to the Afan Valley and continue from there to the coast at Bridgend. The hardship arguments for not closing this line were as strong, if not stronger than in the case of the Kyle and Mallaig lines in Scotland. There was only one road link between the valleys, involving a zig-zagging climb up to 1,800 feet before descending down the other side. The rail link was extremely important to the economic, cultural and social life of the two valleys. Thirteen thousand people signed a petition against the closure, but events took on a new complexion when the two-mile tunnel was closed in 1968 when it was declared unsafe for use. The cost of repairs were [sic] put at £20-30,000, but nothing was done as a closure notice had been issued for the line as a whole. An emergency bus service ran over the mountains, taking an hour for what was normally a ten-minute rail journey. In 1969 the public inquiry into the line was held. The objectors’ case of hardship was a strong one, but the cost of repairs to the tunnel (which technically should not have been a consideration) were clearly influential. The verdict of the inquiry was to close the line from Treherbert to Bridgend.
The change in government following Harold Wilson leading Labour to power in 1964 made no difference to the rate of rail closures, although once Barbara Castle was appointed as Minister of Transport in 1965 proposals for closure were subject to greater scrutiny. By 1969 nearly 4,000 route miles and hundreds of stations had been axed. Passenger journeys on British Rail had dropped from 1,025 million in 1961 to 805 million in 1969 and freight carried had dropped by 13 per cent. Beeching’s plan wasn’t working. (op. cit., pp. 61-2.)
The impact of the cuts was particularly dramatic in the South Wales Valleys, as these pictures will demonstrate. In less than a decade, the passenger rail network shrank from this:
Note the line connecting Aberdare to Abercynon. According to the accepted wisdom of the time, that shouldn’t be there. The last passenger train had left Aberdare in 1964, with the exception of very occasional mystery trips (see A Pressing Problem.) Subsequently there were only four ways to get out of the Cynon Valley: by driving a private vehicle, cycling, walking, or taking the bus.
We’ve already seen what happened to the buses after deregulation in 1986, so what happened next shouldn’t surprise you either. It came as a surprise to the people of the valley when it happened, mind. There’d been rumours for years that passenger trains might come back to the valley, but nobody ever took them seriously – for a good reason:
Once a railway was closed, even if circumstances changed dramatically so as to make a reopening viable, it rarely happened. The costs were (and still are) simply prohibitive even if the land were still in railway ownership, as much of it continued to be. This did not only apply to lines which had been completely closed and the track removed, but lines where only passenger services had been withdrawn and trains continued to carry freight. Only one line has ever had passenger services restored (Barnsley to Penistone in South Yorkshire in 1983) (Hamilton & Potter, 1985: p. 63).
However, the situation was about to change, thanks to an intervention from a most unexpected quarter. Brace yourselves, boys and girls, you’re about to read something which has never before appeared in my blog. (It could come as a total shock, so I thought I’d warn you first.)
In April 1980 a back-bench Conservative MP had a good idea.
(See, I told you it was going to come as a shock!)
Mr. Speller asked the Minister of Transport if he will take steps to waive sections 54 and 56 of the Transport Act 1962 so that British Railways could reopen closed lines on an experimental and temporary basis without having to go through the costly and time-consuming procedure if the experiment fails. (Hansard, HC Deb 03 April 1980 vol 982 c336W)
Tony Speller was the MP for North Devon, and was renowned for his support of the rail industry in general. His idea soon came to fruition in the form of the Transport Act 1962 (Amendment) Act 1981, commonly known as the Speller Act. It is Mr Speller’s initiative and vision that I wish to acknowledge here. By the mid-1980s there’d been very occasional special services for a couple of years – mostly on Saturdays in the run-up to Xmas, and Five Nations matches in Cardiff, like this one:
In 1988, a brief story appeared in the Aberdare Leader, appearing to offer hope to anyone who was stuck as a passenger on a bus:
Anyone who has ever caught a train from Aberdare within the last two-and-a-half decades should thank Tony Speller, and his equally far-seeing parliamentary colleagues who backed his idea, for allowing them that privilege. You see, Mr Speller’s change to the law enabled British Rail to spend £1.3m on upgrading the existing freight-only line from Aberdare to Abercynon, and introduce an experimental passenger service.The first train arrived at Aberdare on September 27, 1988.
Initially, the service wasn’t much to write home about. The train left every two hours from Aberdare, starting at about 7 a.m. and running until late evening. Saturday trains were hourly, still within the same window. Even given these limitations, the journey time to Cardiff Queen Street was just 52 minutes – a great improvement on the bus. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t think the experiment would succeed. It seemed that the ‘service’ wasn’t really of much practical use for getting to work, especially with such huge intervals between trains.
I wasn’t optimistic; I knew the mechanisms of the Speller Act. If passenger numbers didn’t reach their anticipated levels, we’d lose the service again. To my amazement, the new trains seemed to catch on quite quickly. Given a choice between Shamrock’s shambles and the trains, many people started voting with their feet. By the time I started working at the Polytechnic of Wales bookshop, the daytime service had been doubled in frequency to accommodate the extra numbers. The last train still left Cardiff crazily early, and there was no Sunday service, but the experiment seemed to be bearing fruit.
The success of the reopened line seems to have coincided nicely with increased public concern regarding environmental issues. For the first time in three decades, public transport was on the political agenda again. In spite of Hamilton and Potter’s caveat, railways were on the return. Look at the difference two decades have made:
In the wake of the Aberdare line’s reopening, further passenger services were introduced, first to Maesteg and then to Ebbw Vale, by upgrading existing freight-only lines. New stations were constructed on the main London-Swansea route, connecting the burgeoning towns around Llantrisant to Cardiff. Finally, the Vale of Glamorgan Line was upgraded, allowing passengers to catch the train to Cardiff International Airport. Someone seems to have missed an obvious trick by not building a little station at St Fagans, where the main line runs within half a mile of the Museum of Welsh Life. There have been recent proposals to bring passenger trains back to Bedlinog, running to Ystrad Mynach via the existing freight line. The people of Maerdy weren’t so lucky, however. The line was torn up virtually before the last of the NUM branch members had made it home from the club after the final shift.
In the Cynon Valley itself, nearly twenty-five years on, we’ve now got a rail service which is worthy of the name. The first train out leaves at 0622 and the last one back leaves Cardiff at 2241. They run hourly (mostly) throughout the day, hourly in the evenings, and there’s a two-hourly service on Sundays.
The long-rumoured extension of the service to Hirwaun may be taking shape. I was out with Stella one day last summer and we weren’t able to take our usual walk. There was an Engineering Possession on the railway bridge near the Robertstown Level Crossing. It looked as though Network Rail were carrying out some tests on the structure. Maybe it was a first stage towards an upgrade. That would be great, especially if they build an intermediate stop in Trecynon, within an easy few minutes’ stroll of my house. (I like to dream about it from time to time.) Plans have even been announced to electrify the whole of the Valley Lines network, shaving ten minutes off the journey time to Cardiff. In theory, that could mean getting from Aberdare to Queen Street in a little over fifty minutes. (Hey, hang on a minute…)
A DESIRE NAMED STREETCAR
We’re still a long way from the ideal situation, though. When I was in Manchester, I found myself enjoying a phenomenon which governments and planners always discuss, but rarely deliver: integrated public transport. It works in big cities and metropolitan areas, because it’s vital that people can travel long distances in reasonable time. People need to get to work, and cities would quickly gridlock if everyone jumped into their cars at the same time of the day.
Rapid cross-modal transfers are key in this sort of model, facilitated by single-ticket availability on trains, buses and trams. London Transport had the Travelcard when I was there in 1984-5, which got you across town without needed to juggle a bunch of tickets. Smart technology has transformed this little card rectangle into the Transport for London Oyster Card, allowing Londoners to sail through the network unhindered.
Greater Manchester has a similar scheme covering the trams and buses across the county and slightly beyond. Both these cities work because buses, trains and trams are operated in conjunction with a Passenger Transport Executive. It’s the only sensible way to coordinate services over a large geographical area, where a number of neighbouring local authorities would otherwise struggle to hold things together.
There is one large geographical area, where a number of neighbouring local authorities struggle to hold things together, not too far from me. In fact, Aberdare is at the northern edge of the area I’ve got in mind. Look at the figures for a second:
2011 POPULATION (000s)
Neath Port Talbot
Rhondda Cynon Taff
Just on the basis of these figures – nearly a million people spread over nearly 2,000 km² – the South Wales Valleys should be a PTE waiting to happen!
About a month ago, Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University gave a lecture in Aberdare. There was a write-up of his talk in the Cynon Valley Leader shortly afterwards. Professor Morgan had emphasised the key role played by transport provision in the whole economic regeneration strategy of Greater Manchester. He had referred to an exciting and innovative scheme centred around Stuttgart in Southern Germany. He’d even advocated a Valleys Metro Plan, using existing infrastructure and some new-build to construct a Light Rail Transit system linking the southern areas of the valleys to Cardiff. It sounded as though it had been a fascinating and thought-provoking talk. (Naturally, I didn’t receive an invitation. After my track record of criticising the local powers-that-be, I’d have had no chance of crashing that particular Party.) I tried finding the text online, but without any luck. A few days before the end of term, I decided to send him a random email:
Dear Professor Morgan,
I hope you don’t mind an unsolicited email like this, especially at the end of term! I am currently working on a blog entry relating to public transport provision (or the lack thereof) in the South Wales Valleys. I noticed in the Cynon Valley Leader a few weeks ago that you had recently delivered the annual Keir Hardie Lecture in Aberdare. Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of the event beforehand, as I would have liked to attend. I know from previous articles of yours that you are a keen advocate of public transport, and I’d like to mention your lecture in my forthcoming blog. I was wondering if the text was available online anywhere, so that my readers could gain more insights into your ideas. If it is, could you please send me the link and I’ll add it to the blog before I publish it.
Yours faithfully, Steve O’Gorman
Within an hour I had the following reply:
My KH lecture was an oral event sorry, so no text to send you. Public transport loomed large in it though and I was basically extolling the virtues of the South Wales Metro idea that more than anything else would help to make a reality of the city-region concept. All successful city-regions have a fast, efficient, affordable light rail system, the best example I know being the S-Bahn in Stuttgart. I can send you a paper on it if you need it.
Good luck with your blog.
Professor of Governance and Development
School of Planning and Geography
How cool is that?
True to his word, Prof Morgan sent me a copy of the paper, and I looked at it over the weekend. Stuttgart is twinned with Cardiff, and it seems that, in terms of the ‘city-region’ idea, Cardiff and the Valleys would make a perfect model for this sort of approach. Take this description of the broader area centred on the city:
The Stuttgart region has a highly polycentric urban structure, consisting of 179 municipalities. The central city of the region, Stuttgart, is relatively small with a population of just under 600 000, while the surrounding area has over 2 million inhabitants. Nine of the communities in the immediate surroundings hold city status, predate in their history the capital and have a substantial size of between 40.000 and 92.000 residents (Statistisches Landesamt BW, 2009). This peculiar regional settlement structure has been attributed to history and the hilly terrain with narrow river valleys (Plathua and Halder, 2006: 32, cited in Frank & Morgan, 2012: 8)
(Sound familiar? Maybe South Wales should twin itself with the entire region…)
The Leader article touched briefly on the South Wales Metro idea, and the sum of £30 million or so which would be needed to bring it into being. It sounds like a lot of money, but our own local authority has spent nearly a third of that in laying new pavements in Aberdare town centre and ‘enhancing’ the area around the Library. That’s all very laudable on paper, but let’s consider the town as a whole. It’s got a couple of dozen chainstores, a smaller number of independent retailers (not including the market), the usual banks and estate agents, half a dozen pubs, loads of cafés and takeaways, and a plethora of tanning salons, hairdressers, and travel agencies. People certainly aren’t going to flock here for the shopping experience. So what was all that money for? Surely putting some of that money towards a cross-council development of Prof Morgan’s scheme would have been a better use of resources.
Personally, I don’t think Prof Morgan’s scheme goes far enough: there’s also the potential to link the Rhymney and Cynon/Taff Valleys by adding a stretch of new build between Ystrad Mynach and Nelson before tying it into the existing rail network at Abercynon. Beyond Ystrad Mynach, a link through Blackwood would enable us to reach the Ebbw Valley and travel down to Newport. Manchester’s Metrolink system is growing all the time, threading itself slowly through the suburbs and deep into metropolitan Lancashire. Our Metro system should also have the potential to grow and expand as the need arises.
During one of my fortnightly visits to the Circumlocution Office JobCentre back in the summer, my adviser showed me an A4 sheet which a colleague in Pontypridd had prepared. It was a nice idea – to show jobseekers at a glance the Travel to Work area which they could consider when looking for work. Since jobseekers are expected to travel for up to 90 minutes each way, the Pontypridd Travel to Work area is quite large.
In fact, if the South Wales Valleys can be considered to have a central point, Pontypridd is arguably it. From its monumental Victorian red-brick station, trains run northwards to Treherbert, Merthyr Tydfil, and Aberdare. The services are (mostly) half-hourly during the day, and hourly in the evenings. The bus routes radiate up and across the Valleys: the main destinations include Aberdare, Blackwood, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Maerdy, Merthyr, and Treherbert. Buses and trains run to the south all day, feeding the communites of Treforest, Taffs Well, and Nantgarw before reaching the outskirts of Cardiff.
In terms of public transport alone, if Pontypridd is the heart of the Valleys, then Aberdare must be the arsehole. I spent about an hour online in the Library trawling through the Arriva Trains Wales website and compiling a table of train information for journeys from Aberdare.
[A digression: I did have a vague stab at compiling a similar chart for bus travel. I gave up after a while, having come up against the Traveline Cymru website again. The first time I had the misfortune to use this was when Yasmine and I were planning our trip to Avebury (see ‘What Do You Want?’ – ‘Information!’.)The second time was when I was arranging my first visit to Llandough Hospital. Whoever thought the site’s design would be user-friendly must have been on some serious hallucinogens at the time. When you come to enter your departure point and destination, it presents you with a couple of dozen options. At the Cardiff end, I was totally lost! I didn’t know which of the twenty-odd departure bays at the bus station, or the dozens of city centre stops radiating outwards, I’d be catching the bus from. Even so, somehow I was expected to guess the correct one before I even got to look at the timetable.
Closer to home, there are loads of options for Aberdare alone. I’ve lived here most of my life, and I know where the bus stops are, but for somebody new to the area (or, Heaven forbid, coming here for the first time) it must be a nightmare. All they need is to list ABERDARE as a possible departure point and then you can refine your search once you’re in the timetable part. (In the event I thought ‘fuck it!’, caught the train straight through to Cogan, and walked to the hospital from there!)]
Anyway, I think my little bit of research amply demonstrates that, if you don’t have access to your own vehicle, a 90-minute Travel to Work area from Aberdare isn’t very large.
I haven’t mentioned the cost yet. Remarkably, the price of a weekly train ticket to Cardiff hasn’t gone up by as much I’d expected since I finished work. I think Arriva Trains Wales, (possibly in conjunction with the Welsh Government) realised that if they applied the same inflation-busting policy as other rail companies, we’d have all been priced off the trains long ago. It probably has something to do with the way the Valley Lines are divided into Zones, the way London Transport has been ever since I first used it back in 1983.
£25.50 isn’t bad for a seven-day ticket anywhere across the Valleys network, from Barry Island to the very tips of the Valleys themselves, and across to Bridgend. It works out at £5.10 a day for a five-day week, and you can use it for shopping, visiting friends and rugby trips over the weekend as well. That’s pretty good value when you compare it to other season tickets for a comparable distance.
But how many people actually travel from centre to centre? Most commuters I know live outside the town centre, and either drive or take the bus into town before catching the train. There’s free parking at the station, so that’s not a problem for most of them.
For a non-driver, though, the cost quickly escalates. If, like me, you need to catch a bus to the station, you need to open your wallet again first. A 7-Day ‘Rider’ ticket on Stagecoach buses is £11.50, so that’s taken the price of the commute to nearly £40 a week. If you don’t work in central Cardiff, but travel on to the suburbs, you can add an extra £3.40 at the other end. Every day. You’re looking at finding not far off sixty quid a week, just to get to and from work. And apparently work is meant to pay.
Rhian and some other friends have been lucky to work temporarily in Amazon’s Swansea warehouse over the past couple of months. But to call it ‘Swansea’ is misleading at best. It’s actually several miles from the city centre, with excellent road links to the M4, but impossible to get to by any other means. Theoretically the buses from Swansea to Neath serve it, but in reality there’s no hope of reaching the place. The morning shift starts at 0600, and the afternoon shift ends at 2200 – long before the buses start running and long after they finish. Not that it matters anyway – there hasn’t been a direct bus from Aberdare to Swansea for a year or so. A few companies have tried it and failed.
People often tell me that they’d like to catch a train to Swansea, through the Vale of Neath, they way they could pre-Beeching. Have a close look at Map 4, following the line north from Aberdare, to where it finishes at Tower Colliery. Now look to the west and find the railhead at Cwmgwrach. Do you see that gap between Tower and Cwmgwrach? There was a line there until Beeching came along. Now, it’s the A465 road instead. The train journey’s not going to happen, unless the Railway Fairy Godmother comes along and produces in excess of £50m to build the infrastructure.
The employment agency laid on a minibus to get people from Aberdare to Amazon once enough people had signed up. Amazon’s temporary staff pay £54 a week to travel on it. The company know they’ve got a captive audience, so nobody’s in a position to argue over the cost of the minibus. At least twice a week it fails to show up, leaving people unable to get to work and substantially out of pocket. Haven’t we heard that somewhere before…?
To my mind it makes a great deal of sense to explore Prof Morgan’s proposals in detail. Investment in South Wales Metro would not only create jobs while the work was being carried out, but give rise to a flexible and adaptable solution to our future transport needs. The system could be the centre of a whole new focus on cross-modal integration, not just North-South, but (more importantly) across the Valleys as well.
There are a number of disused railway tunnels connecting neighbouring valleys (such as the one between Treherbert and the Afan Valley.) Here’s one of them, between Cwmbach (outside Aberdare) and a point to the south of Merthyr Tydfil. My friend Dr Dafydd Trystan Davies has already advocated their conversion into cycle links. I think cycle and Metro links would be even more effective, personally.
For South Wales Metro to become a reality, we would need a great deal of commitment from politicians on all sides, of course. It isn’t something the valleys have excelled at historically. We’d also need to shake ourselves out of the historic mindset whereby the people ‘over the mountain’ aren’t like us. The days where people would walk to work in the colliery in the next village are long gone. The new employers are out of town, or operate unusual shift patterns, or there’s Sunday working. Commuting by public transport, at least at the start of 2013, simply isn’t an option for at least half of the jobs I see advertised.
If the Welsh Government is serious about regenerating the valleys, then the provision of a modern, high-tech, fully-integrated public transport system needs to be near the top of the agenda. Otherwise, this time in 2022 I’m still going to be sitting here looking at interesting job vacancies and wondering how the fuck I’d get to any of them.
BAKER, S.K. (1988) Rail Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland. (6th ed.) (Sparkford: OPC.)
BAKER, S.K. (2010) Rail Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland. (12th ed.) (Hersham: Ian Allan.)
FRANK, A., MORGAN, K. (2012) Re-inventing the City: The art of metro-governance in the Stuttgart region. (Cardiff: Cardiff School of City and Regional Planning.)
HAMILTON, K., POTTER, S. (1985) Losing Track. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.)