Back in the 1950s, comedy duo Flanders and Swann wrote a song called Transport of Delight, a cynical but affectionate tribute to the London bus. In those days people took public transport for granted. A lot of people didn’t have cars – my family didn’t, though we weren’t too badly off – and if you wanted to go anywhere you thought about taking the train or the bus. Before Dr Beeching came along in the 1960s there were trains practically everywhere, and even small villages had some sort of bus service. The railways were nationalised, and in the 1960s buses were too. Public was a public service: fares weren’t so exorbitant that you had to think seriously about them and buses were frequent. The lack of a car didn’t restrict people’s lives to the extent it may do now.
In London and big cities, of course, there isn’t a shortage of public transport. Passengers (I refuse to say customers) are plentiful enough to make the service economic (or economical, as we used to say when economic meant something else). In London at least there are enough people around late at night and early in the morning to make all-night buses a common sight. But what if you live in a small town or village, in an area that’s predominantly rural? Well, the answer is probably hard luck.
On Sunday I wanted to get from Ashburton, where I live, to Dartington Hall – a distance of some seven miles which would have taken about twenty minutes by car, had I been able to use the car. I was going to the Ways with Words literary festival and planned on staying till the evening. I knew I’d have to ask someone for a lift home as even on a weekday there are no buses after about 6pm, but I thought that at least I’d be able to get there independently. I did, but because there are no buses on a Sunday from Ashburton to Totnes (the nearest town to Dartington) and no local buses from Totnes up to the Hall, I had to catch one of the few buses going in the opposite direction to Newton Abbot, then a train from Newton Abbot to Totnes, and then walk up from Totnes to Dartington Hall. The bus journey took about a quarter of an hour. There was then a ten-minute walk from the bus station to the railway station, where fortunately I caught a train almost straight away, followed by a ten-minute train ride. The walk up to Dartington was very pleasant and not that long, but by the time I got there I felt I’d been on quite a journey. When I lived in London all that changing about would have been nothing out of the ordinary, but at least I would have been able to rely on there being a service – all things being equal, which of course they often aren’t.
The point I’m making is not that journeys on public transport tend to be more complicated than journeys by car, but that because of the scarcity of public transport getting from A to B can be enormously difficult. There are plenty of villages round here where there is no bus service at all, or the buses are so few and far between that to get to your destination, do what you have to do and be ready to catch the last bus back is well-nigh impossible. I know quite a few people who don’t have cars, and they are dependent on the willingness of friends to take them where they need to go. In these hard times not everyone can afford to run a car – and, let’s face it, by no means everyone can afford bus fares – so once again people who are poor or elderly or disabled are the ones who are penalised. Running buses on rural routes may not be ‘commercial,’ but unless you believe that profit is the sole good in life surely you must take people’s needs into account.
I notice that a lot of the people round here who use the buses are, like me, entitled to a free bus pass. The fact that fares are expensive, plus the relative inconvenience, means that by and large people prefer to travel by car if they can, covering long distances in ones and twos, burning fossil fuel and polluting the countryside. I know I do. However, if buses were more frequent and fares were cheaper, more people would travel by bus and the service could well become more ‘economic’. But that, of course, would take government support, which we certainly aren’t going to get from this government. So it goes on, with the divide between those who can participate fully in society and the disenfranchised becoming ever wider.
Which brings us back to the dear old London bus. How I used to hate waiting for them when I lived in London, how I loathed the noise and the dirt and the overcrowding, and how I long for them now, and sometimes even crave the convenience of the Tube. At least London has a transport system. Rural areas can count their blessings if they have transport at all.