TRANSPORT COLUMN: Prepare for the changes

A Travelsure bus
A Travelsure bus

Several county-council contracts for supported bus services are due for renewal (or not) during the coming year.

Whether they are renewed will depend very much on what use is being made of them. Some people will complain if they are not renewed, but how much do those people use them?

Local authorities are under such pressure to balance their budgets that the continuance of some bus services will be very much under scrutiny. Here is a tip – when you are about to make any sort of a local journey, just stop to think whether you could just as easily do it by bus instead of taking your car.

One of the results of the privatisation of buses in 1986 was that the services which were not self-supporting, and had to be supported by the local authorities, were put out to competitive tender.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have the resources available to check the quality of the services provided.

There are some things that the big companies generally do better than the small ones, such as the provision of information.

The word ‘generally’ is important here, and there are glaring examples of bad practice in some of the large groups, and some shining examples of good practice by small operators.

In the case of information, this is very often supplied by the county council for its contracted services, and Northumberland County Council does it very well. Examples include a very poor quality timetable display for a commercial service by a large operator, and a slapdash approach to information display on the front of a small operator’s vehicle, pictured above.

On the trains, it is interesting to see that the opponents of HS2 are busy trying to persuade people in Northumberland that the new high-speed railway being planned will result in worse services for us. I think it extremely unlikely that actual service planning is anything other than sketchy yet.

Before the effect of HS2 is felt in this area there are other matter likely to affect us, and the re-franchising of the East Coast services is not really one of them. The new operators will not be altering the timetables much, if at all, but putting their stamp on the services in such ways as the quality of the on-board catering, the adequacy and cost of car parking at the stations, and how they market their unregulated fares such as advance-purchase tickets.

All train operators are desperate to persuade us to buy our tickets online so that they can reduce the opening hours of booking offices, as a step towards closing them altogether.

Just be aware of this if you value the help of a friendly and knowledgeable booking clerk. By all means research what is available on your computer, but check the information at the station, and buy your tickets there.

The next major change to affect the actual train services is not re-franchising, but the new trains due to come into service towards the end of this decade.

One of the service pattern options that has been reported does make it look as though Alnmouth and Berwick may suffer some reduction in service, but our MP is aware of the threat and has a good track record (no pun intended) of looking after our interests in this respect.

It will be the next major timetable revision after that, in the mid-2020s, when the effect of HS2 will be felt, and it is far too soon as yet to be making any speculation as to what that might be.

Nevertheless, it will do no harm to make sure that the next MP for this constituency is kept aware of our wishes.

We have been fortunate that with each successive timetable revision, services at Alnmouth and Berwick have generally improved.

The word ‘generally’ is again important here, because there have been individual examples of changes which have not been acceptable to everybody, and examples of very desirable changes which still do not happen, such as later services from Edinburgh.

The reason always given for the latter is what is usually described as a ‘flimsy excuse’ and we very much look forward to this highly-overdue improvement occurring.