In March 2013 the Department for Transport announced plans ‘to reduce barriers to use of sustainable local transport’. In other words, a seamless travel experience by public transport would be encouraged by means of accurate and accessible information; convenient and regular connections between modes; and one ticket for an entire journey involving different operators. The Door to Door Strategy is intended to make using public transport an attractive alternative to jumping into a car.

County councils and unitary authorities already have a statutory duty to promote public transport, although some would appear to be falling well short of meeting the spirit of the Door to Door Strategy. I experienced at first hand the difficulties of making a combined rail and bus journey in Somerset when I represented Railfuture at a Sedgemoor district council scrutiny meeting at Bridgwater rugby club in September 2013.

My journey on First Great Western from Gloucester to Bridgwater, changing trains at Bristol Temple Meads, was faultless but I was shocked to find absolutely no information at Bridgwater station about onward bus travel. First Bus had recently re-routed its town buses away from the station and there was no indication as to where the nearest bus stops might be. I walked into the town centre and found the bus station, where a supervisor told me which bus would take me near to the venue. Unfortunately the driver didn’t know the stop for the rugby club but a passenger who did helpfully pointed out that the return stop was about 200 yards ahead. I took the precaution of visiting the latter stop for return bus times but it had no timetables.

I hammered these deficiencies at the meeting, where the scrutiny committee passed a motion calling for accurate bus timetables to be displayed at all bus stops and at both railway stations in the Sedgemoor District. (Sedgemoor’s other rail station, Highbridge & Burnham, was displaying out-of-date bus information on the same day.) The chairman of SDC was very sympathetic but pointed out that the responsibility for transport coordination and display of timetables lay with the county council.

An opportunity to pursue these issues soon came at the Somerset county council’s public transport forum at Taunton in November. A very useful group session on railways, led by SCC’s sustainable transport officer, reached a consensus that the county needed to define its rail priorities and discuss them with neighbouring authorities if its train services were not to be squeezed between the ambitious plans of Devon Metro (based on lines radiating from Exeter) and Metro West (based on the rail network of Greater Bristol). It is pleasing to report that several local authorities are now involved with a feasibility study into reopening the stations at Wellington (Somerset) and Cullompton (Devon). Somerset is of course a signatory of the Peninsula Spine rail report aimed at improving the network in the far South West.

I was less encouraged at the public transport forum by the answers I received in another group discussion focusing mainly on buses. When I contrasted the scarcity of information at Bridgwater with the excellent area public transport timetables produced by Devon county council, I was told that SCC did not consider it necessary to produce timetable information in print. Not everybody, particularly older people, has internet access or a mobile ‘phone app.

One very contentious aspect of SCC’s transport policies has been the withdrawal of many evening and Sunday bus services to achieve budgetary cuts. This has also reduced the effectiveness of the county’s rail network for people without cars because in most cases there is no onward bus connection after early evening. This social and economic deprivation is unlikely to be reversed without intervention to develop and promote public transport. Railfuture Severnside chairman John Hassall recently commented, ‘Somerset county council seems content to just let public transport run itself. This ‘hands off’ attitude can’t deliver the decent public transport we need, which is why we are pushing for an integrated transport authority.’

A meeting with government

Interest in an ITA motivated a delegation from Railfuture to meet Baroness Kramer, Minister of State for Transport and two of her staff at the DfT in mid-February. By then we were also very concerned about the long-term resilience of the rail network in the South West following the damage caused by extreme weather, particularly on the Great Western main line at Dawlish and Fordgate (between Bridgwater and Taunton).

We raised the question of transport integration in Somerset but learned that there is no statutory obligation on county or unitary authorities to display timetables. We then asked whether the DfT was prepared to issue guidance with a view to provision of basic information and access by public transport to health and education.

We also voiced our concern about SCC’s sale of the freehold of the West Somerset railway to its voluntary support group, the West Somerset Railway Association. WSR is a very successful heritage railway and major tourist attraction but does not operate all year and only very intermittently into the national rail system at Taunton. In January Railfuture responded to WSR’s Ten Year Plan consultation and made the case for daily commuter services to give access to jobs in Taunton, Exeter and beyond, as well as helping to keep younger people in West Somerset. We seriously wondered whether a voluntary body such as WSRA would have the resources to accommodate regular through trains or maintain the line’s infrastructure in severe weather.

Responding to these concerns, Baroness Kramer said that the Coalition was moving away from central direction and in favour of devolution for transport, even though it might not like the decisions that some councils might make. She suggested we worked with the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP’s), who were developing transport strategies. When we pointed out that Taunton was on the boundary of two LEP’s, she told us that Stephen Williams, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government, was co-ordinating the strategies of neighbouring LEP’s. She added that ‘the underlying problem with a council that isn’t very interested in public transport is essentially political.’

The minister appeared to welcome the idea of an ITA for Somerset or the wider South West, although she believed that bus/ rail integration projects could be funded by the Local Growth Fund if a business case could be made. She said she had reminded LEP’s that small schemes often delivered large benefits.

Kramer accepted our view that the legacy of rail closures such as the Okehampton route to Plymouth had undermined the resilience of the network during severe weather. The DfT was looking at possible additional routes and had been in discussion with local authorities on the timing of electrification to Exeter. She also agreed to raise our concerns that the cost of essential repairs and weatherproofing might set back pre-planned enhancements such as Metro West