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How broken is the UK’s public transport? I spent all day on buses to find out

The Big Issue got a bus from England’s worst-connected town to its best-connected town to see how levelling up is going

Sitting on the floor of a coach hurtling along the motorway, I’m wondering exactly why I’m doing this. I haven’t got a seatbelt, and if things go wrong I don’t imagine it’ll go well.At least I got to pay with contactless.

I’m trying to get from Ilminster to Nailsea, entirely on buses. It’s a convoluted journey through rural Somerset, and one I’m not entirely sure will work.

Why? They’ve been rated among the best and worst in England for public transport, according to a report by the Campaign for Better Transport looking at towns across England’s North East and South West.  

The report dubbed areas with lots of connections “transport oases”, of which Nailsea was the best.  Those with few were transport “deserts” and Ilminster was the worst. A bus journey between the two is just about doable in a day. So why not?

Buses travel around a billion miles every year in England, providing a lifeline for people getting to work, school, hospital, or the pub. But outside London, things are patchy. Services are unreliable, don’t run late, and might not leave you with much change from a £10 note. There is huge inequality, and things are on a downward trend. It goes to the heart of the government’s rhetoric around levelling up.

Efforts to change things are afoot, with much fanfare over a “National Bus Strategy”, and supposedly funding to match. In the meantime, services are being cut and entire towns are staring isolation in the face.

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I went to discover how that’s going, and what life is like in England’s public transport desert.

Leg 1: Ilminster – Taunton

All the way back in the 11th century, Ilminster was in the Domesday book. Nowadays about 6,000 people live there, sandwiched between Taunton, 12 miles to the north west, and Yeovil, 15 miles to the east. Life in the town is quiet, and only intermittently disturbed by buses, which are the only form of public transport since the railway station closed in the 1960s. The “minster” in Ilminster comes from the church of St Mary, a 15th century church with a 16th century tower, which stands tall and whose bells reliably toll.

St Mary’s, Ilminster’s 15th century church. Image: Greg Barradale/The Big Issue

Next to that church, sat outside the Dolphin pub enjoying a lunchtime half pint and cigarette, is where I find Daphne Staples. She doesn’t use the buses, and hasn’t done for some years. “There are worse places to be stuck. It’s a lovely town but it could do with some buses,” she says.

Neil Harrison, enjoying a pint of Old Rosie in his mobility scooter, tells me he hasn’t used the bus since he started using the scooter, as he can’t get on. He used to go to Taunton for a pint in Wetherspoons, and to put a bet on after the betting shop in Ilminster closed. With no buses in the evenings, going to the cricket is out of the question too. “It is what it is,” he says.

Inside the Ferne Animal Sanctuary charity shop, it’s the same story for Rachel Knight. She used to catch the bus – but hasn’t for a couple of years. She got her driving licence, “because you don’t want to hang around for three and a half hours”.

Rachel Knight, in the Ferne Animal Sanctuary shop. Image: Greg Barradale/The Big Issue

It wasn’t always like this. Nippy Bus served the town until 2017, when Sydney Hardy, the company’s managing director, shut the company down and sacked staff with a memo. He told them: “There comes a time in any relationship when you just have to say ‘Fuck It’, say goodbye and move on. This is my time! I am quitting to pursue my dream of not having to work here.”

He was later banned from running buses for a decade.

Knight remembers the incident well and recalls the impact it had on the town. “One day everyone turned up and there was no sign of life,” Knight says. “It was dreadful. Everybody went to go to work and it was completely shut”.

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Since then, Ilminster has had no transport to Yeovil. There are some shuttle buses to the nearby villages, and the 30 bus, which is my route to Taunton. There are eight departures a day, and none run past half seven, or on Sundays.

Ilminster may be the worst, but it’s not necessarily an outlier. Just one in every 100 commuter journeys in Somerset are made by bus. The county has the fourth lowest bus use per population in England, and the lowest in the South West. And use of buses is declining, falling 40 per cent in the decade to 2019.

Long before Covid, bus use nationally has been in a state of decline. This matters, and not just for transport nerds. There are cliches about buses being a “rural lifeline” but, for those who live in the towns and villages that make up so much of England, it’s true. It has a profound impact on individual lives, but also on the wider community.

West Somerset has the lowest social mobility in the UK. Around 40 per cent of carbon emissions in the county come from transport – a great deal higher than the national average. Poor services mean people simply don’t think about getting the bus.

There are, however, attempts to fix this. Bus Back Better, or the National Bus Strategy, was published in March. Nevermind that it begins with Boris Johnson writing about how much he loves buses (“A couple of years ago, I unintentionally broke the internet with the widely-mocked, but true, statement that one of my hobbies is making models of buses”), it committed to £7bn in funding to do to buses what the government promised to do to the country: level up.

Counties produced a “Bus Service Improvement Plan” and applied for a chunk of the pot. Somerset — wanting to cut bus emissions to zero, run buses from 7am to 7pm, and have buses every hour — outlined its plans in a 93-page document. In the end, it asked the government for £163 million.

It’s hard to figure out whether the roof has been taken, or was never there. Image: Greg Barradale/The Big Issue

Most bus shelters have a roof. The stop for the 30 to Taunton doesn’t, and it’s not clear whether it ever did. It was donated to the village in 2020 by a couple from Zimbabwe, Geoff and Mary “for the comfort of future travellers on this route.” Unfortunately, even a light drizzle renders the shelter completely useless.

A good 90 minutes after the previous departure, the bright orange double-decker arrives – the 14:27 service to Taunton. A single for the 30-minute journey costs £6.20 but I can pay with contactless so it feels slightly less. Sue, one of the two other people with me on the bottom deck, tells me it’s her first bus journey in a while.

“It’s dreadful, you have to wait two hours. If they were back every hour it’d be something. If you miss one it’s a long time,” she says. “Six twenty for a single, that has gone up as well. It used to be just under five pound.”

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with the buses. Are they infrequent because nobody gets them, or does nobody get them because they’re infrequent? “If they ran them every hour I am sure people would fill them up,” Sue reckons. “Especially in school holidays.”

The bus, with its grey fake-leather seats, rattles a bit as it shoots down the A358. About half an hour later it deposits me at a BP garage opposite a business park on the outskirts of Taunton. I’ve got a 45-minute wait for the Falcon, which will take me to Bristol Airport.

Leg 2: Taunton – Bristol Airport

The Falcon bus from Taunton to Bristol Airport
The Falcon bus from Taunton to Bristol Airport Photo: The Big Issue / Greg Barradale

While I wait, I send a Taunton-born-and-bred friend a picture of the petrol station to see if he recognises it. He does, and after I explain why I’m here – and that it’s not a weird joke – he tells me: “I’ve taken three buses in Taunton in my life. The bus schedule operates according to moon cycles.”

Promising.

At 15:35, when the bus is due to arrive, it doesn’t. A German family at the bus stop – really just a lamppost with a timetable stuck to it – tell me the last one didn’t either.

The nearest thing to a seat I can find is the concrete plinth under the fuel price board. It’s 174.9 for petrol and 184.9 for diesel. In Ilminster, the car was the only option for most. You’d like to think that, as filling up a tank gets more expensive, buses might become attractive, but they’re simply not there. So what of Somerset’s radical transformation I’ve read so much about?

In April, the county council heard how much of the requested £163 million it would be getting. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, in the spirit of levelling up, said how “for too long people outside of London have had a raw deal.”

The county got £11.9 million, or around seven per cent of what it asked for. A disappointed council said this fell “well short of our aspiration to transform bus services in the county”.

Not just this, but in October £2 billion of central government funding designed to prop up rural bus services nationally during Covid will disappear. This has brought warnings that services will be cut and networks could shrink by a third.

Anyway, after a period of staring expectantly at any large vehicle coming around the corner, the Falcon eventually arrives, 20 minutes late. It’s a coach service that runs from Plymouth to Bristol every hour. This too, you can tap on to.

I let everyone else on first, ask the driver for a single to Bristol Airport, pay my £8 and walk up the aisle in search of a seat. Every seat that seems to be empty has, on closer inspection, either a small child or a bag on it, and I soon realise the bus is full. This is probably because the last bus didn’t turn up. I’ve got places to be and buses to catch, so getting off isn’t an option.

Sitting myself on the floor, in a little corner by the handrail, I try to wedge myself in a way that will give me a fighting chance if the bus does something unexpected. There’s an hour, and a lot of motorway, between me and my next connection at Bristol Airport.

I’ve not bungee jumped or swam with sharks, but it can’t be as exciting as this. Image: Greg Barradale/The Big Issue

I chat to Lukas, who is valiantly trying to give up his seat. He works as a machine operator in Taunton and is on his way to catch a flight home to Gdansk. The bus is often like this, he says.

While on the floor, I first make contact with Peter Travis.

Protesters in Rode showed that people power does work
Protesters in Rode showed that people power does sometimes work when they successfully campaigned to get their bus back Photo: Peter Travis

Protesters gather in the middle of the road, banners and placards in hand. “Save the 267”. The bus service through Rode, a small village on the other side of Somerset to Ilminster, has been cut. Residents, unable to get to work or hospital appointments, want it back. There’s a coffin with a special-made plaque reading “RIP 267”. Within six months, the 267 was back.

One of these protesters, all the way back in 2015, was Peter Travis.

A former ad man who decided to use his powers for good, he’s still at it seven years later. When the Bus Back Better scheme was announced, Travis and his co-conspirators saw an opportunity, and formed the Somerset Bus Partnership.

It now numbers 200 local representatives across the county, with Travis chairing Zoom calls to find out how people’s lives will change. He spends weekdays, weekends and evenings, working on the campaign, much to the chagrin of his wife. It’s a battle on two fronts – firstly fighting against routes being cut, and then trying to actually improve things

“People who live on the bus routes which are being affected are going to lose their jobs, and they won’t easily be able to get to other jobs,” he says. “These people are the most hard hit by the cost of living crisis. There are going to be tales of people really suffering – it may sound dramatic but that is the reality.”

As we speak, Travis tells me about a host of cuts just announced – thanks to the ending of the Covid funding in October, operators are looking for savings. There’s also disappointment about the £164m which turned out to be £11.9m.

“We thought it must be a realistic ask,” he says. Most of it, he tells me, will be spent in Taunton. Reluctantly, the bus partnership is on board with this – hopefully the powers that be can convince the government they can spend it wisely, and get a bit more.

Beside that, Travis and co are trying to get people on the buses to show there’s demand. September will bring “Catch the Bus Month”. But Travis is realistic that even local government, with limited budgets, won’t be able to reverse the trend. For all the people power in the world, it’ll take more action from Westminster.

Leg 3: Bristol Airport – Nailsea

A little numb from the floor, I arrive at Bristol Airport at 5pm, 20 minutes behind schedule. Luckily the delay hasn’t hampered me too much – the next bus to catch isn’t for another 25 minutes. It’s a uni service. It strikes me that if the people of Ilminster really wanted frequent buses, they would have built an airport or a university.

A roof, at this point, feels like a luxury. Image: Greg Barradale/The Big Issue

The bus stop has a few old cans of Strongbow Dark Fruits in it, but it’s the first one of my journey with a roof. The 17:23 U2 arrives on time, and I ask for a single, but am simply told to tap when I get off. Going from the slightly glazed faces of the students, and the fact it’s the start of August, I guess they’re postgrads, all with headphones in and eyes down in books.

I get off in Long Ashton, after a slight delay for a road accident, on the outskirts of Bristol. Nailsea awaits. This leg of the journey has felt safer – there are buses every 15 minutes or so and the prospect of missing one doesn’t fill me with dread. Thrillingly, there are two buses to choose from: the X9 or the X7. The X9 turns up first and I hop on. Again, I tap and will have no idea of the cost until later.

I’m due to arrive in Nailsea at half past six, four hours after I set off. You can see why people drive. It would have taken 90 minutes in a car. But the X9 to Nailsea is busy and the people look like commuters. Some look like they’re going for a night out. I doubt they’ve had to wait for two hours or plan their day around a ropey bus timetable.

The X9 to Nailsea, as the journey nears its end. Image: Greg Barradale/The Big Issue

It’s a stark difference with how I started the journey. What sign is there of things getting better? And fairer? Sure, Nailsea is bigger and closer to Bristol than Ilminster, but live in one  and you’re cut off, live in the other and you’re whizzing about the place. Despite warm words, the people living in these towns and the people representing them face an uphill battle for things to get better, relying on the good graces of central government.

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But still, at least Somerset got something. Like Ilminster, the town of Market Drayton, in Shropshire, has no public transport of any kind on Sundays. Unlike Somerset, Shropshire got none of the Bus Back Better funding. North Shropshire MP Helen Morgan thinks the process has been opaque.

“The government doesn’t explain its reasons or even the decision-making process so it’s no surprise it has been accused of directing cash towards areas where it benefits them politically,” Morgan says.

Morgan, a Lib Dem, is putting a bill through parliament that would force the government to ensure small towns have bus services every day of the week. The Bus Services Bill would also ensure hospitals and GPs are served by buses, so that residents can get to appointments.

“Bus services have got significantly worse in rural areas up and down the country,” she says.

“There are huge areas where if you don’t have access to a car you are cut off from society. The cost of running a car is extortionate, the climate crisis is at a critical point and yet more than ever in rural areas we are forced to rely on cars to get around.

“We have a crisis with recruitment in healthcare in Shropshire and one of the reasons it is difficult to hire is because it’s a difficult place to get to and a difficult place to get around.”

Morgan’s bill is due for a second reading in October and could bring improvement. Politicians at least recognise the importance of buses. Liz Truss has pledged to “ensure transport links are better integrated across buses, road, and rail” if she becomes prime minister.

The final bus stop, in Nailsea

Nailsea. A good four hours after I left Ilminster, I’m in what’s supposed to be the best-connected place around. As far as a non-descript bus stop can be exciting, this is it.

Delirious, with no more bus routes to conquer, I talk to a couple enjoying an early evening pint outside Wetherspoon’s. They seem surprised to hear Nailsea is such a transport nirvana, but not overly so. Having lived in Bristol, they recently moved to Nailsea. Too many students now. But Bristol is barely half an hour away, on any bus you like.

Expecting to hear a monologue on the socio-economic possibilities of life in a town with good transport, I’m brought down to earth and reminded that even the “best” is still, ultimately, a British bus.

“They do just cancel it,” says Jane.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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