Bus Users U.K. Surgery, Chester City Centre, November 2009

 I started writing this post last week  -aiming to look at climate change prevention – actions people could take on a day-to-day basis. I thought I wouldn’t make it to the  Climate Change Emergency Rally tomorrow. 

Now there’s a seat for me on the Chester coach to London (organised by Cafod ) – so I’ll be up at four a.m with camera batteries charged – setting off with the Chester crowd to cover the event. Stay tuned. Can’t say I’ll be blogging live (although I’d like to) – as logistics are tricky at this point – but I’ll do my best with reports and analysis tomorrow and over the course of next week.

When it’s all over we know we’re still going to need to speed up the shift to low carbon transport. There’s plenty to do at home to cut our carbon emissions. Like taking the bus instead of the car. I’d like to write more about what sort of things are standing in our way. 

Working hard in Chester recently were Bus Users U.K. with a Bus Users surgery.  In case you didn’t know – this organisation is charged with the important job of trying to make life for bus passengers easier and more enjoyable – some people think if you can make bus services more accessible, attractive and efficient you can go a long way towards tempting people out of their cars…

On their website Bus Users U.K. explain something of the politics of public transport: “Years ago bus services were run by local authorities and nationalised industry. Now bus companies run for profit. Very often the aims of making a profit and of giving you a good bus service are one and the same. Sometimes they’re not, and, except in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the law that brought in the changes didn’t do anything to help passengers get their views across. Bus Users U.K. stands in the gap to give you a means to have your say.”

So what was the surgery for exactly? Phil Tonks said: “We do this surgery to get a snapshot of one day’s services – to find out what bus passengers think – we’d like to understand what people are saying about their buses”. Phil mentioned “cheap effective ticketing systems” and “frequent, value for money buses” as good incentives for people to use them. “If people take their grandkids on the bus – that’s a positive step”, he said.

Four bus operators were represented at the surgery. Arriva, First, Helms and GHA. It’s a First Park and Ride Bus you can see in the picture. I slipped up in not getting any direct quotes from bus passengers but Phil Tonks said they had spoken to about 100 passengers that day and that all queries, comments and suggestions for improvement would be collated and responded to in writing. So that means Bus Users U.K. will have a jolly good stab at doing something useful about the issues at hand. Paul de Stantis (Commercial Director of  First ) told me amongst the complaints people had were ‘buses not running on time’.

As we know, congestion is a huge problem in Chester. I asked Paul de Stantis what he thought of Climate Change, how he could help citizens in Chester and the implications of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s  Free Parking after Three scheme. Standing together in the cold as we were the first issue seemed too big for us – but he homed in on the last two: “Monitoring” he said for one thing. On the subject of  Free parking after Three he took a deep breath and said “You’re going to quote me on this, aren’t you?”. “Yes, I said”.

“Unfair Competition to bus services” was the reply I got. Santis proceeded to describe the frequent and prolonged gridlocks on Northgate Street (particularly on Fridays and especially around the area of the bus station) endured by bus passengers and caused in the main by traffic congestion.  “Cars don’t need to drive down Northgate Street” he said.

Standing at a local bus stop earlier that day, talking to fellow bus passengers this was my understanding of the word on the street too. Policies such as Free parking after three may apparently benefit the large hotel and retail chains which in the main draw money out of the city but they often make life more difficult for local bus passengers (and local council-tax paying people).  Don’t these policies also make it more difficult for us to reduce our carbon count per head of our city’s population?

 Just outside the city we have much-feted  Ashton Hayes which is striving to be the U.K’s first carbon neutral village. But progress in Chester itself seems very slow to me. It’s fine for communities outside Chester to go carbon neutral, but it defeats the object if our council has a policy of encouraging everyone to use their cars to come into the city centre itself, doesn’t it?

At the bus surgery I also talked to  Julie Richard who was representing Cheshire West and Chester Council Customer Services and valiantly promoting Cheshire West and Chester  Council’s Concessionary Concessionary Fare Scheme. The information and forms Julie gave me were very useful.

Here’s a link to the Cheshire West and Chester site you need to visit find out more about concessionary fares, the English National Bus Pass, Senior Railcards, Disabled Persons Railcards and Taxi Vouchers. Click here and tell your friends. Thanks to  Julie, Phil, Paul and the Bus Users U.K. team – the bus surgery seemed like a really useful event.

The two questions I had brought with me are huge ones, so I gave Julie a copy of them and asked her to forward them to Cheshire West and Chester’s Press Office so that I could continue to document their responses. Climate Change is an ongoing concern. The two questions are:

1. Improvements in local services – what do people want? Will these improvements be enough to reduce our city’s carbon emissions? and

2. How do these developments impact on Cheshire West and Chester’s Climate Change Prevention targets?

I’ve emailed a copy of this blog post to Cheshire West and Chester’s Press Office today too. Let’s see what they decide to say…