Return Journey to Swansea

A few weeks ago an old friend of mine invited to me to a one-day programme of talks at Swansea University’s Singleton Park campus, at which she was delivering the keynote address. I provisionally agreed to go along, depending on public transport and other factors. I did some research online first, of course, before committing myself to what was going to be a lengthy and expensive day out.
As it was going to be a fairly late finish, the bus wasn’t an option. There hasn’t been a direct service from Aberdare to Swansea for about ten years; I can’t tell you when it ceased to operate, because it just vanished without any warning one day. (Even though it’s still advertised on the stops in Trecynon, good luck to anyone expecting to catch it.) It is still possible to get to Swansea by bus, but – as you’ll see – it involves a great deal of fucking around en route.
Because they rarely, if ever, venture over the county boundaries, buses in what used to be the eastern part of Mid Glamorgan (the Rhondda, Cynon, Merthyr and Rhymney valleys) are mostly operated by Stagecoach, while Bridgend County Borough and the former West Glamorgan are primarily served by First Bus. (There are a number of smaller operators as well, but for the purposes of getting from Aberdare to Swansea, I’ll consider the Big Two initially.)
As my regular readers already know, there’s nothing in South Wales comparable to Transport for London’s Oyster Card. Instead, we’re stuck with a paper-based system that doesn’t go any way towards making travelling easier. The South East Wales Network Rider, priced at £8.00 per day, is valid on pretty much every bus in the area on the map below.

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In addition there’s also a ticket which you can buy on Arriva Trains Wales, which is valid on Stagecoach services within the Valley Lines area.  It’s not valid until 0915 (according to Arriva’s website) or 0930 (according to the booking clerk at Aberdare station). You pays your money and you takes your choice. Either way, it’s no use to get to work in the mornings. Furthermore, it’s a fat lot of use if you’re travelling within the Vale of Glamorgan or Bridgend, where most of the buses are operated by First.
In fact, anyone crossing the county line has to buy a second – and possibly a third – ticket for First Bus in that area. This is where the cost starts to go up. First Bus don’t seem to offer a Day Rider ticket for the whole of their network, unlike Stagecoach’s Day Rider ticket, which gets you right across south-east Wales for £7.50.
Actually, when I say they ‘don’t seem to offer’ one, it could just be that I can’t find it on their website. Instead, they have a confusing range of tickets in overlapping areas within their operating region. Here are two of the dozen or so you can buy in South and West Wales.

neathptarea

sbayarea

There’s also a bus operated by a company called First Call, based in Merthyr Tydfil. This X75 service runs four times a day in either direction between Merthyr and Swansea. It travels through Hirwaun, then follows the old road through Glynneath to Resolven – at which point the plot thickens.
According to the timetable, at Resolven you have to change onto the X5A. I haven’t decided whether this is just a change of service number, or whether you need to board a different vehicle. When the weather improves and I can spend a whole day doing nothing, I’ll go exploring and report back.
So, as you can see, anyone wanting to travel to Swansea from Aberdare by bus has two alternatives. First of all, I’ll look at doing it step by step, using the two big operators. Then I’ll consider the alternative journey using the smaller company.
  1. OUTWARD The first two Stagecoach buses north from Aberdare – which leave at 0540 and 0640) terminate at the top end of the Glynneath Bank ( at 0606 and 0706 respectively). They’re no use for onward connections. It’s a mile and three-quarters downhill to Pontwalby, and another half a mile or so to Glynneath itself. Even assuming it was a nice morning, and light enough to walk to the village without being run over by fast-moving traffic, you’d be hard-pressed to make it in time for the 0630 First Bus X55 departure to Swansea, never mind the next one at 0715.
    The first practical connection (and I’m using the word ‘practical’ in its loosest sense) is the one between the 0655 bus from Aberdare, which terminates at Morfa Glas (the western end of Glynneath) at 0734, and the 0759 X55 from Glynneath, which arrives at Swansea Bus Station at 0909. I don’t know what there is to do for nearly half an hour in Glynneath at that time of the morning. I dare say the Co-op will be open so you can at least shelter from the rain.
    It’s an expensive and time-consuming way to have a day in the shopping centre, or a breath of sea air. It’s no use whatsoever if you work in Wales’s second city, barely twenty-five miles away – much less if you’re studying at the university, a further bus ride away, or working outside the city centre.

    RETURN The 1720 X55 from Swansea Bus Station is timetabled to arrive at the Pioneer supermarket in Glynneath at 1833. By a strange coincidence, the last Stagecoach 8 service to Aberdare leaves Morfa Glas at … 1833. Since we’re dealing with two competing companies the arrangement prior to October 1986, whereby a connecting service would wait for up to ten minutes for the feeder bus to arrive, no longer applies. As you can imagine, it would only need a tiny delay on the journey from Swansea to fuck that Rizla-thin ‘connection’ up entirely. Would you risk it? No, neither would I.
    That puts you on the previous X55, leaving Swansea at 1645 and arriving in Glynneath at 1802. At least at this time of the day the pubs are open, so you can kill half an hour before the last 8 runs from Morfa Glas. Either way, you’re on course to arrive back in Aberdare at 1915. As with the outward journey, it’s no possible use to anyone working in the city centre, never mind studying at the university campuses a further bus ride away.TOTAL TRAVELLING TIME: 2h 14m out, 2h, 30m return = 4h 44m

    Let’s break down the cost, just to complete the exercise. I’ve based this on the price of adult tickets, using information from the companies’ websites.

    Aberdare – Glynneath: £4.80 (Aberdare Day Rider ticket); Glynneath – Neath: £4.20 (Neath Port Talbot Day ticket); Neath – Swansea: £5.00 (Swansea Bay Day ticket) TOTAL COST = £14.00

    If you’re planning on reliving this nightmare for a whole week (and why wouldn’t you?), the total goes up to £53.70 – that’s £11.70 for your Aberdare Megarider, plus £20.00 for the Neath Port Talbot Weekly ticket, and £22.00 for the Swansea Bay Weekly ticket. Compare this with Arriva Trains Wales’s weekly ticket from Aberdare to Cardiff, which suddenly seems pretty reasonable at a mere £26.70 for an hour’s journey over a comparable distance.

  2. OUTWARD If you live in Aberdare or further up the valley, you can catch the 0655 Stagecoach service to Hirwaun. You hang around for half an hour, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, until the X75 comes along at 0742. Then you may or may not have to change at Resolven, arriving in Swansea at 0840.
    It’s better than Option 1, but still no use to anyone working outside the city centre, or travelling on to the university campus at Singleton Park. It’s hardly surprising that it seems to be used almost exclusively by senior citizens armed with their concessionary passes.

    DRETURN The fourth and final X5A of the day leaves Swansea at 1740. Even after fucking about in Resolven, the X75 arrives in Hirwaun at 1835. You might – if you’re very, very lucky – be in time to jump on the 1835 7 service. If not, don’t worry – the last 8 from Glynneath is only twenty minutes behind. In the latter case, you’ll arrive back in Aberdare at 1915.(I can’t give you a cost breakdown for this one, because the fares information on the Traveline Cymru website is ‘coming soon’ – and has been for at least a year and a half.)TOTAL TRAVELLING TIME: 1h 45 m out, 1h 35m return = 3h 20m

Please bear in mind that the information here only applies from Monday to Saturday. There’s no possibility of getting from Aberdare to Swansea by bus on a Sunday or on a bank holiday. None at all. Zero. Zilch. Not a sausage.
So, that all led me to Plan B: let the train cause the strain. Remember, I needed to be at the Singleton Park campus by 0930; it’s half an hour’s bus ride from the railway station. I did some digging on their website, and found that the latest I could leave Aberdare to arrive in Swansea for 0900 was 0622.
Yes, that’s right – the first train of the day got me to Cardiff Central at 0726, in time to miss the 0714 to Swansea. (I’d already walked from my house into Aberdare, so in practical terms I’d been travelling since 0600.) That latest example of differentiated public transport put me on the 0750 – the Boat Train, running from London Paddington to Fishguard Harbour in time for the lunchtime crossing to Ireland.
Don’t do it. It stops at virtually every station on the South Wales main line – except, bizarrely, the stations between Cardiff and Bridgend – and takes an hour and two minutes to get to Swansea. I could have waited for a quarter of an hour, caught a ‘faster’ train, and arrived at 0900, but what would have been the point of that?
I used my handy Plus Bus ticket (which I’d bought a few days before) to catch the First Bus 4 service from the station to the university campus. By the time I finally arrived at the lecture theatre, it was approaching 0945.
The return journey was just as long. I left the campus on the 1745 bus, arrived back in the city centre at just before 1830, and had an hour or so to kill until my booked journey back to Cardiff. Even on the ‘fast’ train it takes about 45 minutes, so I eventually arrived back in Aberdare at 2145.

TOTAL TRAVELLING TIME: 7h 15m; TOTAL COST: £23.50.
Please compare this experience with that of my friend and neighbour, who works in Swansea and drives down every day. He’s very kindly offered me a lift next time I head that way – leaving at 0815 or so.
Is it any wonder that a non-driving teenage friend of mine turned down a university place in Swansea to study in Guildford instead? It only takes her half that time to get there, for a comparable price, and she can travel at weekends. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Mind the Gap

I was in Cardiff the weekend before last, and while I was walking through St David’s Centre I saw a large group of students studying a large mural. I wondered what was causing so much excitement, so I decided to check it out for myself.
This is what I found. (I know the photo isn’t great, because I took it with my phone, but there’s a reason for that.)

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It’s a clever idea, isn’t it? Grafting Cardiff and the suburbs onto the Tube map – that iconic piece of design which evolves as the network grows and changes – proves that someone at the South Wales Echo (where it originally appeared) has a sense of humour.
Unfortunately, it had totally confused the youngsters. A couple of Chinese students were having a very animated discussion about it; a few West African girls were equally enthralled by the idea of the Barry John Line, the John Charles Line, and the Cardiff Arms Dart. I looked at it with them for a few minutes, took a couple of photos, and then turned to them and shook my head.
‘You do know it isn’t real, don’t you?’ I said, and some of them looked quite surprised. I added, ‘Some of you might live long enough to see it for real. I won’t, though, unless I live to be a hundred.’
I sat down a few yards away, logged into the free WiFi, and uploaded this photo to Instagram, using both my own channel and the Plaid Cymru Cwm Cynon account.
I added the caption Mind the gap between fantasy and reality.
The Instagram feeds are linked to the respective Twitter and Facebook accounts, so I knew it wouldn’t be long before my photo was uploaded to everything.
A couple of days later, I had a message on the Plaid Cymru Twitter page. It was from Neil McEvoy, one of the Plaid Cymru AMs for South Wales Central, who lives in Cardiff. He wanted to know why he hadn’t come up with that slogan himself. I suggested that maybe he hadn’t spent enough time in London.
We both agreed, however, that it was the perfect way to take the piss out of the South Wales Metro proposals, which take one step forward and two back every couple of months.
I should have been in marketing, shouldn’t I?

In My Opinion

I received an email this morning from the Office of Rail and Road. They were following up my ‘recent'(-ish) complaint against Arriva Trains Wales (see I Don’t Like Thursdays and We Apologise For the Late Running of This Refund). The eight-week time lag between action and reaction seems to be the new industry benchmark, judging from today’s date.
Anyway, the ORR sent me a little market research survey to fill in, rating my experience of dealing with Arriva following the Replacement Bus Service fuck-up in early  October. You won’t be surprised to learn that I rated them pretty poorly overall.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
On 3 January, I went to Aberdare station at the crack of dawn on a bitterly cold morning to single-handedly promote Action for Rail Day. (Two of the lads I’d invited to join me were working that day; the other was laid up with gastric flu.) It was part of an ongoing campaign organised by the TUC, and supported by a couple of dozen trades unions, smaller political parties, charities, environmental bodies, pressure groups, and so forth. The latest wildcat attack was timed to coincide with the fare increases, which came to effect that day. A day return from Aberdare to Cardiff now costs £8.00.
I was armed with 200 pre-paid postcards for people to fill in and send to their MP. I walked the length of the 0652 train – two coaches – putting cards on empty seats and handing them to the few unfortunate souls who were working the early shift. Most people seemed quite enthusiastic, in fairness.
My friend Clive, who’s stood as a Communist candidate in the council elections a couple of times, had seen the event listed on Aberdare Online, so he’d made his way to town early. He took about a dozen cards from me to hand out.
I walked around town for a little while, trying to find somewhere warm to kill twenty minutes until the next train came in. I sent a Tweet saying that the first wave of cards were in place, but didn’t take any photos for the Instagram feed – it was much too dark by the station entrance.
After buying a paper, I made my way back just as the 0722 departure pulled in. I did the same thing, starting at one end and making my way through, explaining at intervals to the passengers what the whole day was about. Unfortunately, I had to dive off the train before it left, so I gave the rest of the cards (twenty or so) to an anarchist pal of mine who works in Cardiff. He promised to hand them out further along the journey.
The cafe near the station was open, so I had a cup of hot chocolate, and then made my way to Wetherspoon for breakfast. I logged onto Facebook, and a couple of my friends had already picked up their cards further down the valley. If I’d asked for double the number of cards, and had a couple more bodies on the day, I think we could have hit the next two commuter trains as well and really made an impact. Maybe next time.
But 3 January wasn’t plain sailing for everyone else, either. Overrunning engineering work, replacement bus services, frozen points, numerous mechanical failures and various other factors meant that the South Wales railway network was in utter chaos for people’s first week back in work.
A friend of mine works in Llwynypia, just a few miles from Aberdare as the crow flies but the best part of an hour’s journey on two trains on a good day. Arriva Trains Wales doesn’t have many good days. He was telling me of the nightmare he’d experienced in the first week of January. On the Thursday morning, stuck in Pontypridd between non-running services, he decided to ask the booking clerk for a compensation form.
‘I’d take a few if I were you,’ the guy replied.
Hardly the best advertisement for their service, is it?
I wonder how long it’ll take them to deal with everyone’s complaints and compensation claims, if it takes two months to process one individual claim.
People often ask me how I managed to survive nearly two decades of commuting to Cardiff – first, on the late unlamented Shambles Shamrock buses, and later on the trains – without going postal at least once, or losing my sanity entirely. I usually refer them to this blog, and then ask them to decide whether I haven’t already gone down the latter route. Sometimes, taking the piss is the only sensible course of action.

Introducing the New Footlong

Arriva Trains Wales conductors have recently been supplied with new handheld ticket machines, as the contract with the previous manufacturers had ended. The old devices used to produce credit card-sized tickets on fairly stiff card. They were the same size as those issued by the platform machines and ticket offices. This size:

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They fitted the plastic wallet you got from the ticket office when you first obtained your photocard. They went into the slot in the barriers and popped back out again, even if they were slightly creased. They easily lasted the whole month, and when they expired you could either put them in the recycling bag, use them as convenient bookmarks, or stash them in your wallet/purse for months (or years) on end, until your mates took the piss so much you ended up clearing it out.
Then came the great leap forward.
Sort of …
We had to go to Merthyr on Tuesday afternoon. As it’s much cheaper to travel by train than by bus (£3.90 vs £7.50), we decided the time difference was less important than the cost. The ticket office doesn’t open in the afternoon, so we bought our tickets from the conductor. Even he was laughing as the machine generated this monster.

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And that’s just the half of it. I’ve had to fold it in two in order to fit it on the scanner – the return portion is equally big.
On Sunday afternoon, a friend of mine took great delight in showing off his previous season ticket from Aberdare to Maesteg (top) and comparing it with the weekly ticket he bought after the Xmas break.

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In fact, it’s so long that it hung off the end of the scanner earlier on. I know I’ve called it the ‘new footlong’, but it’s more like fourteen inches.
The increased amount of paper in my mate’s ticket wallet had actually forced the clear window away from the backing, so he’d had to pick up a new one last week. After a bit of experimentation, he’d been able to arrange for the three clear windows to display his photocard, the origin and destination details, and the QR code.
Having said that, he’s not entirely sure what the QR code is for. He travels to and from stations without fixed barriers, so there’s nothing to scan that portion with anyway. He told me that on one occasion when he’d been stuck between trains, he’d tried to break his journey and wasn’t allowed through the automatic barriers at Cardiff Central.
Incidentally, when I said the new style tickets were printed on paper, I was being a little economical with the verité. They’re actually printed on some sort of thermal paper, which might or not be recyclable, depending on whom you listen to. I expect we’ll find out for sure when householders start getting £75 fines from their local councils for putting out ‘contaminated materials’ for collection.
In civilised countries – like England – public transport operators are rolling out smartcards, based on Transport for London’s Oyster card and similar systems.
The Oyster card is undoubtedly the gold standard of smartcards in the UK. You can buy it from ticket machines, from tourist information centres, or order one online and it comes  by return of post. It’s valid on London buses, trains within the TfL area, the Tube, the Croydon/Wimbledon tram network, the waterbuses and the Boris bikes. You top up before you set off (either online, at the station, or in a corner shop), swipe it whenever you get on and off the services, and the correct fare is deducted from your balance. TfL even cap the daily amount you pay, making the Oyster card a quick, convenient and economical way of travelling around London. I wish I’d bought one years ago, in fact.
Cardiff Bus has the iff card (Card-iff – geddit? No? Neither did I until just now), a similar idea with one major flaw: you can’t top it up online (yet). I’ve had my iff card since it was introduced, nearly a decade ago, and you still have to go to the corner shop to pay your fiver beforehand. I think you still have to get your first iff card by post, too, as Cardiff Bus don’t seem to have a physical presence at the moment. It’s a half-hearted attempt to imitate the Oyster card, but for buses only. It doesn’t even help the environment. You still get a paper ticket, even if you’ve preloaded your iff card with enough credit to buy a Day Rider.
Stagecoach in South Wales now issue their weekly (and longer) tickets as a smartcard, which you can buy from the driver the first time you need one and top up subsequently. I think you can top it up online, too. But it’s only valid on Stagecoach buses in South Wales. Since there’s a gap between Stagecoach’s operations in South Wales and their sister company in Gloucestershire, you have to carry two smartcards if you travel from Abergavenny into the Forest of Dean. I don’t know whether the smartcard is valid on Phil Anslow services, which bridge the gap between the two.  It’s getting closer to the ideal of the smartcard, but it still doesn’t merit the cigar.
About a year ago, I read a report in the Western Mail which said the Welsh Government was ‘discussing’ proposals for an Oyster-style card (Silk, 2016). I can’t remember the exact details, but I think the plan was for it to be valid on both buses and trains.
It sounds lovely, but bear in mind that you can’t travel from the middle part of Mid Glamorgan into the western part, let along into West Glamorgan, without crossing the boundary between Stagecoach and First Bus territory. You can’t get from Hirwaun to Cardiff without having to buy a bus ticket (in Hirwaun) and a train ticket (in Aberdare). You’ve spent over ten quid before you get to your destination.
Can you really imagine a Welsh smartcard (the Dragon? the Daffodil? the Laverbread and Cockles?) which was valid throughout the country, across county boundaries, accepted by rival operators, and interchangeable between modes of transport? No, neither can I?
And what possible use would it be in mid-Wales, where you’re lucky to see a bus more than once a week in some places, and there hasn’t been a train since Harold Wilson’s first term as prime minister?
I think it’s one of those ideas – like most of the investment in public transport currently going on – which will benefit people in and around Cardiff and the suburbs, but will be absolutely bugger all use to everyone else.
Arriva’s new thickticket surely takes the first prize for Rückwärtsbewegung durch Technik, though. It’s not a smartcard, nor a half-hearted attempt to move in that direction.
According to the conductor, it’s just a stopgap until the ‘real’ new ticket machines are rolled out across the network. As I told him, I don’t hold my breath for anything where Arriva Trains Wales are concerned – not even the trains.

We Apologise For the Late Running of This Refund

A couple of months ago I told you about the late-night shenanigans I experienced while travelling home from Cardiff (see I Don’t Like Thursdays). Well, you can imagine my surprise when, on 5 December, an email from Arriva Trains Wales pinged into my inbox:

Case Reference: ATW-161007-BFD

Dear Mr O’Gorman,

Thank you for contacting us about your journey on 06 October between Cardiff and Aberdare. I am sorry to learn that your journey was disrupted, and that you were caused a delay as a result.

In order for me to fully investigate and resolve your compensation claim I do need some more information from you. Could you therefore please confirm the following?

• As you have requested to be paid by bank transfer please confirm the account name, sort code and account number we should pay your compensation to.

I look forward to hearing from you in due course.
Yours sincerely

Neil Curness
Customer Relations Advisor
Arriva Trains Wales

I emailed them back with my details, and congratulated them on their prompt handling of my complaint – with my tongue firmly in my cheek. Then I made a comment on Facebook, saying that it was reassuring to find that the administrative part of ATW proceeds at the same breathtaking pace as the trains themselves.
The problem isn’t going to go away any time soon, judging from an article in today’s Western Mail. I won’t transcribe the whole thing, but this is the gist of it: Rail bosses have warned it will take 28 years to bring the Welsh rail standard up to standard.
Twenty-eight years? I hear you cry.
Oh yeah – and that’s based on current financial projections. Wait until the EU Objective 1 and 2 money dries up, and austerity bites even further into the precarious non-metropolitan Welsh economy.
It’s time for me to start bodyhacking, I think. I’ll be 51 next birthday. Even though both my parents come from relatively long-lived stock, I don’t lead a particularly healthy lifestyle. I need to start fasting, exercising, watching my diet, quit the beer, start on the smart drugs and nutrients, and generally do everything I can to extend my lifespan to the maximum possible. If I can live to be 150, there’s a decent chance I can ride on an electric train on the Valley Lines at least once in my life.
A decent chance – nothing more than that, though.

Thirty Years On … (or, Moving Forwards, Going Backwards)

It only occurred to me a few days ago that October 2016 marks thirty years of bus ‘deregulation’ (i.e. privatisation) across most of the UK.
You won’t have heard anything about this momentous occasion on the TV or radio news, of course. Nor will you have read anti-nostalgic articles about ‘the bad old days’ in the national press. That’s because bus service were only deregulated outside Greater London – and, of course, as far as the Westminster Bubble of politicians, journalists, newspaper columnists and business lobbyists are concerned, that’s pretty much the extent of the Observable Universe.
As for the rest of us, as I’ve pointed out on several occasions, deregulation panned out exactly as the prophets of doom (myself included) said it would. The results included wonderful spin-offs of the capitalist system: cheaper fares initially, which quickly shot back up after cut-throat competition forced smaller operators off the road; fewer services running on fewer routes; an increased focus on town centres and population centres at the extent of outlying areas; vast fleets of small buses saturating the arterial roads throughout the day, and then vanishing as soon as people needed to travel home from work again; entire communities being isolated except for rates-supported services which run a couple of times a week at best.
I remember when it was possible to get a direct bus from Cardiff via Aberdare to Penderyn, at the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. On most journeys it would continue to Brecon. Thirty years later you have to change buses twice – in Pontypridd and Aberdare – to get from Cardiff to Penderyn. And if you aren’t in Aberdare by 1730, when the last Penderyn bus pulls out, you’re screwed! You can still get to Hirwaun, but you’ll need to walk the last couple of miles. It’s a lovely bit of exercise when the sun is out and the weather is mild. You wouldn’t want to do it in the middle of a Welsh winter, or even in the middle of the average Welsh summer, for that matter.
As for Brecon: well, as long as you can be in Merthyr Tydfil by 0730, you can catch the T4 service, which runs direct from Cardiff to Newtown. But if you finish work in Brecon after 1725, you can forget all about getting home the same day. You can (in theory) stay on the return T4 as far as Pontypridd and catch a bus or train back to Aberdare from there, of course. You’re getting back into town at 2000 or so. Ten hours or so later, the whole cycle starts again.
As I’ve pointed out on several occasion, you used to be able to get a ‘direct’ bus from Aberdare to Swansea. It took all bloody day, weaving its way through tiny villages like Blaengwrach and Tonna before it even arrived at Neath about an hour and a half later; but you eventually reached Swansea. It was absolutely no use to anyone who was living in Aberdare and working or studying in Wales’s second city, but at least people could go shopping.
Now you have to change at Hirwaun and (possibly) in Neath as well, simply to do a twenty-mile journey. It’s still no use to anyone working or studying there, but senior citizens can still go shopping. They’ve got their concessionary passes, so they don’t have to worry about the money. Everyone else has to fork out the best part of fifteen quid for two non-interchangeable tickets. I haven’t been to Swansea for years. If I do go down before Xmas, it will work out about as expensive to catch the train – and it’ll be a whole lot quicker, even after changing trains at Cardiff Central.
You could catch long distance services from Aberdare, as well. I used to take the coach direct to London when I was a student, and for a couple of years after that. It picked up at Merthyr Tydfil, Caerphilly, Newport, and dropped off at Heathrow on the way to town. Over time the route was trimmed back, so that you had to travel from Pontypridd (adding another forty minutes by train each way).
Now, some thirty years after I first made that epic journey alone and without a leader, you have to travel from Cardiff – so that’s at least an extra hour on top of the coach journey time each way. And it doesn’t even leave from the centre of Cardiff. The redevelopment of Central Square has forced National Express services out to Sophia Gardens, at least a quarter of an hour’s walk from the main rail terminus.
So, boys and girls, next time you hear old people like me reminiscing about the bygone century when you could travel directly to Monmouth from Aberdare, or from Cardiff to Gloucester on the same ticket and without changing buses once, I don’t blame you for not believing us.

Suggestion Box

I was reading the Wales on Sunday when I came across an item about the Plaid Cymru conference in Llangollen. The party’s leader, Leanne Wood, had given her keynote speech, and among the topics she covered the South Wales Metro got a mention.
Leanne and I discussed this briefly at a public meeting in Mountain Ash, back in the early spring. She’d come up to talk about the party and outline its vision for the future shape of Wales. During the Q&A session afterwards, I put my hand up . Cerith Griffiths, our former Westminster candidate and (at the time) Assembly candidate, spotted me and invited me to speak.
I started off by saying, ‘I’m sure there’d be a lot more people here tonight if every bus in the Cynon Valley didn’t disappear at six o’clock.’
That got a laugh from everyone, so it was a good start.
I went on to outline the plight of people working outside the Cynon Valley, arriving back in Aberdare or Mountain Ash in the Twilight Zone, and then having to either walk several miles to get home, or try to arrange for family members to meet them every night, or fork out huge amounts of money for a taxi – which also tend to vanish once the daytime peak is over.
(Just last night, in fact, I watched the pool team from one of my local pubs fail spectacularly to get a cab for an away game. The guv’nor ended phoning a pal of his to take them to Miskin, at the lower end of Mountain Ash, and arranging for him to pick them back up afterwards. During the day, you can’t move in town for taxis. It’s another example of the crazy inversion of supply and demand we see throughout the Valleys.)
Anyway, I went on to talk about the Metro proposals. I gave the meeting my take (which I’ve written about at length), that focusing on Cardiff initially is putting the cart before the horse. Cardiff already has an adequate public transport feeding into the city centre. Some of the suburbs could do with more provision, and certainly we need more capacity throughout the network as a whole, but that isn’t the point. The real shortfall is in the Valleys, as I’ve said on several occasions.
It’s impossible to travel from Aberdare to Merthyr Tydfil (the nearest large town and the home of one of the area’s largest employers, Prince Charles Hospital) by public transport before 7.00 a.m., after 6.30 p.m., or in any meaningful fashion on a Sunday. When the other large employers are moving out of town as well (such as the supermarkets, all the big retailers at Cyfartha Retail Park, the new Dunelm store at Upper Boat, to name a few outstanding examples), people have no alternative but to take the car. And when you’re on a zero hours contract and/or on the minimum (sorry ‘living’) wage, how the hell can you afford to run a car?
Which brings me back to the public meeting, and my discussion with Leanne. I sketched out in words my vision of the network: a fast link using the old tunnel between Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil, which would be reasonably weatherproof (as the Heads of the Valleys Road always gets hit hard in the winter); a new light rail route between the Taff Vale branch line at Treforest and the Great Western main line at Pontyclun, with connections to Church Village, the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Beddau and Old Llantrisant; a LR to tie the Taff Vale and Rhymney Valley branches together via Abercynon, Nelson and Ystrad Mynach; a continuation through Pontllanfraith to Blackwood, which is already a hub for the Eastern Valleys; from there it’s a short hop to the main line at Cwmbran.
Further north, a whole new line would connect the towns at the Heads of the Valleys (Hirwaun, Merthyr, Tredegar, Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr) to the Vale of Neath and thereafter to Swansea.
So far, that’s pretty much what the Metro scheme has proposed. But, as I said in Mountain Ash, we need to start at this end – allowing the discrete Valleys communities to have dependable, all-day physical connections which wouldn’t be at the mercy of the weather, or vulnerable to a single car accident at a key roundabout. Afterwards, when all those connections are in place, we can worry about tying the whole thing into Cardiff.
Yes, certainly, many thousands of people travel into Cardiff every day, to work or study, or just for leisure; but many thousands of people also don’t. Instead, they work, study, shop, visit hospitals or visit family and friends across the Valleys. This gives rise to huge numbers of private cars and crowded fleets of little buses, tackling steep hills and narrow roads which were never designed for this volume of traffic.
Leanne agreed with much of what I’d said. She lives in Penygraig, near Tonypandy in the Rhondda Fawr Valley, and told us that when she was first elected to the Assembly, she used to drive to Cardiff Bay. After a few years of huge tailbacks on the A470, she got fed up and switched to the train. It’s now taking her longer to get to the Bay than it had in the first place. I think everyone could see the absurdity of the situation once we’d discussed it in detail.
Anyway, I was heartened to read the coverage of Leanne’s speech, in which she made exactly the same point I had:
[W]e have said planned infrastructure projects should begin in the areas needing the investment the most. Metro and City Deal projects planned for the south and the north should not start at the cities, they should start at the points furthest away from the big towns and cities.
Maybe I should have been a politician or a transport engineer after all …