Gloomy Sunday

In which The Author is halfway into the dark

There’s a potentially fascinating event taking place in Cardiff tonight. Some former members of the Black Panthers are giving a talk at Butetown Community Centre, about the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. Tom F. sent me an invitation a couple of weeks ago, and I was very tempted to go.
I shouldn’t be at all surprised if my friend Leon C. was involved with organizing it. I haven’t seen him for ages, but he’s passionate about history and politics, and as a Black Cardiffian he’s almost certainly had a hand in putting this occasion together.
I’d love to have gone to the talk. It’s an aspect of modern history which has interested me since I read an interview with Jalal Nuriddin, the founder member of The Last Poets, when I was about eighteen. Martin H. fancied the idea too; he used to send money to the Black Panthers when he was a radical young Oz-reading hippy. It would probably have appealed to Lew M. as well, and I can think of a few more friends who might have been interested. Tom F. sent me a reminder this week, and immediately I threw the idea out of the window. The problem is that it’s on a Sunday evening. Since we don’t have a driver or a car between us, we’d be at the mercy of what little public transport there is.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. There are no buses southwards from Aberdare, unless you count the hourly service to and from Glynhafod. That would get you as far down the road to Cardiff as the General Picton (now the Sümbül Turkish Restaurant). You can walk there from the town centre in ten minutes if you put your mind to it.
As for the trains: to be honest, the situation I outlined in Nice Work if You Can Get There hasn’t really improved in fifteen years. Not on a Sunday.
When the passenger service to Aberdare was reinstated, twenty-five years ago this month, it wasn’t much to shout about. The trains ran every two hours, started later in the morning, finished a lot earlier in the night, and didn’t run on Sundays at all. It was a bit of a feeble effort to begin with.
As I explained in that earlier entry, the line was reopened under the so-called ‘Speller Act’, which allowed services to be introduced on a trial basis. Initially I thought the experiment was doomed to fail. The service seemed woefully inadequate – a pathetic attempt to silence the people who’d been campaigning for a train service ever since Dr Richard Beeching wielded his axe across the British Rail network.
I’m pleased to say that my prediction was wrong; the new service really took off. Then again, my younger friends won’t remember a time when people would sit on a bus for anything up to two hours on a good day just to get to the capital city of their homeland. When a piss-poor bus ‘service’ was the only alternative, passengers naturally drifted onto the trains.
Since then, the rail service has become something worthy of the name, even taking into account its periodic fuck-ups. Over the past decade, the rail companies have invested large sums of money on remodelling busy junctions, constructing passing loops, and leasing new rolling stock. I’m not denying that there have been considerable improvements as a result. Trains run half-hourly (mostly) six days a week, start bright and early, and run until a reasonably civilized hour of the night. The service is nowhere near as good as that in big cities, but it’s a hell of an improvement on the situation two decades ago.
Not on Sundays, though.
The prevailing wisdom seems to hold that nobody in the Cynon Valley does anything on a Sunday except walk to and from chapel, and maybe call for a pint in their local pub after lunch. Let me explain.
If you live in the Cynon Valley and work in the centre of Cardiff, you’ll just about make it there in time for 11.00 a.m. That’s always assuming that the line isn’t subject to engineering work, with their associated delays, diversions, and/or replacement bus service. (Please note: those three words make most people’s blood run cold, along with ‘party political broadcast’ and ‘last orders, please.’)
When Waterstone’s wanted their Sunday staff to start work at 9.00 a.m (and we’d have been expected to work Sundays, regardless of the public transport situation), it was the final push towards the exit that I needed (see Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 4.)) It would have been physically impossible to get there.
Having said that, you’re still better off than if you’re travelling down from the Rhondda Valley, just over the top of the mountain from us. The first train from Treherbert leaves at 0817 and arrives in Cardiff just under an hour later. Most shops don’t open until 11 a.m. You’ve got nearly two hours to kill, courtesy of Arriva Trains Wales and their bizarre timetabling policy. The first train from Merthyr, on the other side of the Cynon Valley, leaves at 0938, and also takes about an hour. The first one from Rhymney, a bit further east again, leaves at 0910 and arrives just after 10 a.m.
For people who just want to shop in the capital or visit the tourist spots, this nonsensical situation doesn’t make a lot of difference. Nobody shops according to a strict schedule, after all. If, on the other hand, you’re one of the unlucky people who has to work in the city centre, it fucks up your working day entirely. Let’s face it: who the hell wants to walk around a city centre for nearly two hours on a Sunday morning, when there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go, except M&S at the station? Trust me on this – I’ve done it, as I recalled in The Truth Is Out There.
Let’s turn our attention to the other end of the working day. After 7.30 p.m., Cardiff and the Cynon Valley might as well be on opposite sides of the world. It’s hard to believe, but a full quarter of a century after the service was reinstated, the last train to Aberdare still leaves Cardiff Central at 1941. The actors at the New Theatre, the singers at the Millennium Centre, and the remnants of 60s and 70s rock groups in St David’s Hall have just taken the stage. The city’s wealth of live performers are still doing their fucking soundchecks. Meanwhile, the good people of the Cynon Valley are already on their way home.
And tonight, of course, the former Black Panthers will be in the middle of the Q&A session after the talk. We’d have had to leave the venue a lot earlier, as we’d be walking back to Central Station. The last train from Cardiff Bay left a long time ago.
There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind the different levels of service in the Valleys on a Sunday night. The last train up the Rhondda Valley to Treherbert leaves Cardiff Central at 2206 – nearly two and half hours after our last train. By that time, the city centre is winding down anyway, so you wouldn’t be missing much.
On the other hand, the last train to Merthyr leaves at 2026; they’re slightly better off than we are – but not much! Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the Rhymney Valley have until 2115 to party in the capital, while the last train to Bridgend via the Vale of Glamorgan leaves at 2041.
It’s this inconsistency of service provision that really pisses me off. After all, why should people living in the Rhondda Valley, who pay the same train fares as we do, and who pay the same council tax as we do (we’re all part of the great Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC family, remember), have all those extra trains on a Sunday?
The answer can’t be as simple as ‘well, the trains have always been like that’ – because, on that basis alone, the Cynon Valley shouldn’t have a Sunday service at all! I wonder what would happen if Arriva Trains Wales experimented with a later train, maybe running for the duration of the summer timetable next year. It might surprise us all. Don’t forget, the train service to Aberdare started life as an experiment. Now, it’s solid proof of the old Field of Dreams slogan, ‘If you build it, they will come.’
The problem is that we don’t have a single transport authority in Wales. The idea of a unified body to integrate bus and train services in a meaningful fashion, has reared its head a few times, but it’s never come to anything. For that reason, we don’t have anything like the joined-up thinking of the likes of TfL or TfGM. Instead, the transport departments of the ten local authorities work together (after a fashion) in the South East Wales Transport Alliance (SEWTA). To judge from my contacts with SEWTA over the years, they’re more of a talking shop than a policy-making body.
In reality, the various local bus companies, and Arriva Trains Wales (who operate the entire franchise throughout our country and across the border into England), seem to do their own thing. If SEWTA really had any control over the services, it’s unlikely that this imbalance in the train timetable would continue unchallenged.
There might be some light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel, though. In August, the Western Mail announced that a major review of rail services was under way (Henry, 2013). Initial reports suggested that many new stations would be added to the Welsh rail network in the next few years (including one in Trecynon, which will be ideal for me). I hope that this review will address the subject of Sunday transport provision. It’s high time the Welsh Valleys were dragging screaming and kicking into the Twentieth Century, after all.
(Before you say anything – yes, I know it’s 2013 in the rest of the world. Baby steps…)