Transport and economic development
There has always been a close synchrony between transport and economic development. The largest cities of Wales are clustered around its periphery, precisely because seas and rivers were the dominant means of access.
To some extent the turnpike and later the railroad would fight these natural pathways, especially the latter blasting hillsides apart, and yet even so, the dominant flow of wheel and steel would often follow the natural water-cut flows of the land. While dynamite and drill can tunnel through mountains, or under rivers, it is far easier to build along the edge of a river or ocean. In the Lake District, the modern roads and railways, follow routes along natural passes that have been used for millennia. Where the natural topography is ignored or overruled, such as the Settle Line over the Pennines or the Khyber Pass, it has often been at high cost both in money and lives.
Geologists talk about superimposed drainage patterns. These occur when the ground shifts under an existing pattern of rivers and streams. The rivers cut through the slowly rising land, so that over time there is a pattern of drainage that seems entirely at odds with the underlying land. This happened in the South Wales coalfields, where a syncline millions of years ago raised the land, but the rivers continued to run south towards the sea cutting deep valleys, and in the process giving access to the coal measures below.
Likewise an old OS map of the land north of Cardiff shows a web of black train lines, which match almost exactly the tree-like pattern of rivers. In some places, for example, Parys Mountain in Anglesey, there is development purely because of natural resources, but even then, the copper was quickly shipped to South Wales. It was in the south where natural resources (iron and coal) and transport (river and sea port) came together, where the industrial explosion of the 18th and 19th century was forged, with the largest ports in the world fuelling, for good or ill, global industrialisation.
This confluence of drainage and modern transport is a key feature of the borderlands. Towards the extreme south and north the rivers (Severn/Wye and Dee) flow along the border (or to be more precise the borders follow the rivers). However, along the middle of the border, the massive drainage basin of the Severn, stretching to a watershed just miles from the west coast, flows east west, and the roads, bus routes and railways, such that there are, follow suit. As a walker along Offa’s Dyke, it was nearly impossible to find transport linking point-to-point, north-south.
A lovely example of the critical economic role of transport is evident when comparing Kington and Knighton, less than 20 miles apart, half way up the Welsh-English border (in fact Knighton claims to be the half way point, of Offa’s Dyke although strictly it is some miles further north).
Kington appears to be stuck in a 1950s time warp. Many of the buildings are Mediaeval and Tudor, but the character in terms of shops and the appearance of the high street is very much mid 20th century.
In contrast, coming into Knighton off the hills to the south, it looks like the suburban edge of any town or city. In fact, the town is small, and the heart equally steeped in history with half timbered houses, and tiny alleyways, but bordered by semi-detached estates.
Questioning a local historian at the Offa’s Dyke centre, there appeared to be no particular industry or natural resource that explained the difference. However, whilst Knighton is on the mid-Wales train line running from Shrewsbury to Swansea and cross-country roads leading to Newtown, in contrast Kington was always at the ‘end of the line’, a railway built to serve the quarries, and which was closed
Of course economic development can also involve ecological or social despoliation, so there is no simple formulae, for transport, economic development and well-being. However, when considering the sustainability of communities, transport is often key.
As noted the largest cities of Wales, and many countries, are clustered along the ocean edge, dating form the days when ships were the dominant transport. The switch to land-domination was quite late in many places, with a succession of North Anglesey pubs called the “Liverpool Arms” due to the steam packets that pled the North Wales coast. Even today turbine blades made in Chester are transported down river by barge to Mostyn Docks ready for transfer to special ships.
Today, many of the major roads and railways (where they exist) run along the coats, which is perfect for the Coast Path walker. I was able to walk all of the North Wales coast by camping at Llanfairfechan and catching the train, and occasional bus.
However, while good for the walker and good for the coastal communities, these routes can be precarious. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation1 looking at the impact of climate change on coastal communities highlighted not just the homes at risk, but also the way the transport systems are often low-lying. This was emphasised recently during the succession of storm surges, that destroyed the Aberystwyth sea front, blocked roads at Newgale under vast quantities of pebbles, and also led to a long-term bus replacement service for the train line north of Macynlleth.
Tourist and local
There are very different transport issues for tourist and local resident. For the tourist or visitor, time is often less critical and it is possible to plan ones tie around bus services. Any problems due to infrequent or inconveniently timed services are minor compared with those who have to live with these services daily to get to work or for essential services and supplies.
However, some things are more difficult for the visitor, finding out where and whether there are services at all, where the bus stops are located. For example, while staying at Aberaeron, I had walked one day as far as Aberporth and taken the bus back. However, the next day the first bus to Aberporth did not run until late in the day. Happily, the tourist office had suggested that I took a bus to Gogerddan Arms, which was just a mile walk (and a downhill walk!) from Aberporth.
Although local knowledge is crucial for transport planning, the traveller, passing through, can sometimes see more than those on the ground. In Llantwit Major, while waiting for a regular bus, one of the other passengers complained at the infrequency of the service. The bus ran hourly, which compared with rural services in West Wales was a luxury. In the majority of the country, services, where they existed, would often run two or three times a day. However, the passenger was comparing the rural routes near Cardiff with those in the city.
Given a privatised public transport system, it is inevitable that areas of low population will receive minimal services. However, those living in or near major population centres have no idea of the level of difference. Those in the margins have no such illusions and for them juggling transport and dealing with the consequent delays and costs are part of the viscosity of rural life.
The presence of tourists can often be a mixed blessing, bringing in much needed cash into marginal economies, but also competing for services. However, there are also symbioses as well as conflicts. In Pembrokeshire, due to the longstanding and popular Pembrokeshire Coast Path, there are a number of walkers’ buses that ply the coastal villages. In late June, not main season, but certainly not out of season, the number of locals on these buses usually outnumber the tourists. The services run less often in the winter, but are a lifeline for locals, especially the elderly who are less likely to have personal transport.
Disruption and timetables
One of the ‘concerns’ that I was looking out for while walking was local transport disruption. In fact I had few problems except for those due to locations of bus stops and footpath navigation or blockages (see also ‘Path’ report section)
One such problem occurred near Mostyn. Having got to the bus stop near the Duke of Lancaster half an hour before the bus was due on a wet day, I went into the pub next to t for 20 minutes, making sure I got back out in good time. However, the bus did not arrive. After a while I then double checked the timetable on the bus stop and saw that its time for the bus was just over 5 minutes earlier than the time I had fund on the internet timetable. I originally blamed this on poor data, but later realised that the discrepancy was that this bus stop was called Llannerch-y-mor, the Mostyn bus stop was over a mile further up the road. Although the entire village is called ‘Mostyn’ on the map, the ‘Mostyn’ of the bus timetable is a particular point. This is precisely a ‘visitor problem’ as a local would know this.
I had a related problem in Freshwater East. There is a bus stop in the village itself, but it is at the top of a steep hill, with the only car park three quarters of a mile down the road at the sea. Having parked I could see no sign of a bus stop by the car park, and ran back up the hill, only to find, when I got on the bus, that it did drive down the road and there was a bus stop at the bottom.
Where bus timetables include route maps, these are usually at a scale where a village or town is a single dot, whereas this may include multiple roads spread over a mile or so on the ground.
Logistics and connections
The logistics of planning journeys was a major task and worry. While there are often ways to work out when one can travel from A to B, it is often hard to get the general picture, whether it is possible or reasonable to get from A to B at all. For the walker this is particularly critical. Can you book accommodation or camp at a points and get public transport back at the end of the day, or do you have to walk further or stay overnight.
Even when you find where the lines of transport lie, there are usually ‘bus sheds’ and ‘train sheds’. By this I do not mean the sheds where the buses and trains stay overnight, but ‘shed’ as in ‘watershed. Although in many places the lines of transport skirt the sea, there are places along the way where the lines of transport suddenly cut inland heading towards termini at major towns. One example of a ‘train shed’ is at Macynlleth where the train lines from south and north cut inland to cross mid-Wales towards Shropshire. A ‘bus shed’ occurs at Fishguard, where
Crossing these ‘sheds’ can be a major problem, as even where there is a point of contact (e.g. Macynlleth Station) the routes rarely have good connections. In practice I often found myself making these end points so that it was only necessary to travel to or from them in one direction. Sometimes this was impossible. For example, the Cleddau Bridge between Milford Haven and Pembroke, a busy road bridge across the Cleddau Ddu, has few buses that cross it, and those that do are travelling from Tenby across the southern Pembroke peninsular, not back along the coast. In the end I was walking this on Sunday when there are no buses anyway (yes, in a major tourist area), so parked as close as possible, walked the couple of miles over the bridge and to Pembroke where the walkers buses stop, and then got a taxi back.
When is a connection a connection?
In general, connections are far from clear. Buses may arrive and leave at close times, but that is no guarantee that they form a reliable connection, especially given the nature of the British bus system with multiple operators. In one case, the walkers buses appeared to connect at Dale, in that they coincidentally were there at exactly the same time. However, there was nothing in the timetable to say so. The tourist board had to ring u the operators, and indeed this was a scheduled connection where the drivers waited for one another to exchange passengers. Locals of course knew this, but it was impossible to verify from the published data.
Tourism is a major part of the economy in Pembrokeshire, with the coast path alone bringing in many millions each year. However, the tourist board I St Davids heard about the end of all Sunday bus services, only a week before the cut was brought into operation. For visitors arriving expecting to use public transport to get to B&Bs or self-catering accommodation this was a major problem as the main train station is 15-20 miles away. Taxi fares for this distance can be of the order of 30-40 pounds.
Similar problems arise in the outer Isles of Scotland, where Calmac does not produce winter timetables until August. For a major urban areas, with many trains or buses this kind of timescale is, arguably, acceptable given you know there will be a train, just not exactly when. Those attending are perhaps not likely to book so far in advance. However, on Tiree the ferries only run on alternate days, so it is crucial for planning events to know which days it is going to be. Trying to set the dates for the Autumn Tiree Tech wave is deeply problematic, and have to be billed as ‘tentative’, hardly helpful when attempting to bring additional conference business to the island out of main season.
The complexity of transport along the Welsh Coast (and equally elsewhere) is emphasised by the Wales Coast Path web site, where one might expect comprehensive maps of routes and timetables, but instead the 2012/2013 website said that the WCP “is well served by public transport” followed by links to several bus companies’ own websites which varied considerably in terms of usability and information. Now it says “Public transport opens up the Coast Path in surprising ways” and includes links to Travel-Line Cymru (see below), but still with no detail on area web pages or leaflets.
Although the companies are separate they have to return digital information in a standard format down to individual bus stops and times. This is combined in Travel Line Cymru, which must be the single most useful transport resource in Wales. This combines the information form the multiple providers to be able to offer routes using rail and multiple bus companies.
However, like many airline sites, it assumes you are asking the question “how do I get from A to B”. If you are walking and trying to work out “what might be a good place to break for the night with good transport links”, it is far less useful, requiring you to make individual queries for each possible place place. Furthermore, it requires you to know the names of bus stops, some of which are obvious, but not all (as noted in the Mostyn experience above).
This is not to say it is a bad service, quite the reverse. In particular the app is one of the best I encountered in terms of behaviour with weak signal. It is just that it suffers similar problems to most transport websites. Indeed Blandford et al., highlight an identical issue on airline websites which, they say, “work in terms of flights between airports; users work in terms of journeys between places”; they call this difference between what is offered and what users want to do as a ‘conceptual misfit’2. On the whole it will be probably work fine for the local person who knows where they are going and just wants to know what time to go to the stop.
However, the differences between visitor and local need has to be recognised in both digital and paper systems. Maybe this means different version of apps or extra parts to web sites to help you explore in a less structured way the potential routes, before the more directed “A to B” search.
As well as web and mobile delivery, all train stations and some bus stops now have digital signage.
The former is very useful, especially for infrequent services. If you have arrived slightly late for a train it is invaluable to be able to see whether you have missed it or whether it is worth waiting. In North West Wales, the bus stop signs look similar, but unlike the train signs are not connected to live service information. The signs show the ’next bus’, but this simply means ‘according to the timetable’. If you arrive after the official time of the bus, but it is running a few minutes late, it still shows as having left.
Again this is probably an issue for a local person once one understands the meaning. However, for the newcomer to an area apparently similar signage with very different meaning can be extremely confusing.
Disruption diary – marking the moment
During the walk I used an experimental disruption diary app, supplied by dot.rural, installed on my mobile phones. As already noted there were actually few disruptions apart from navigational difficulties on the path. However, I also found myself using it less frequently then I wished.
The app had two modes. One for use at the point of disruption, and one for use later.
When the disruption was in public transport (notably my Mostyn mistake), the former was easy to use, allowing you to record the disruption at the current location. Unlike many apps (such as Twitter, see Technology section), the Disruption Diary did use store and forward so it did not matter if there was signal at the place where you experienced the disruption.
Unfortunately this worked less well while actually walking to report problems with the path (poor navigation, closed sections, etc.). This was not due to any internal problems wit the app, but the context of use. A public transport problem usually means either that one is left waiting at a bus stop or train station, or that one is on a bus or train that is delayed. Either way there is plenty of time to fill out a report. In contrast a walking disruption means one is actively trying to find the way or find an alternative path; either way filling in even a short form is the last thing on one’s mind.
The second mode would be ideal for this, recording the details later on. In this mode the user has to select the location on a map, but the download of map tiles (in any application), was usually unusably slow due to limited or non-existent network connections at campsites, cafes and B&Bs. Unfortunately an unresolved problem wit the software meant that it did not work over W.Fi, which would have opened up more opportunities to record, but given limited WiFi access, this would have only been a marginal improvement.
In retrospect, the best option would have been to have in in-between mode, whereby one recorded at the moment of disruption that there was disruption, but put off filling out details until later. This would have then both acted as a reminder / to-do item, and also obviated the need to select the position on a map.
In fact, this would have been a very useful general feature to have whilst walking, something to record simply that something has just happened (maybe with a drop down of ‘tags’ to help remind you later). Specific app could then be designed to be ‘pluggable’, that is some sort of means to feed in a time and location. This is rather like the way data detectors or my Snip!t system work, first detecting something of interest in text (say a postal code) and then separately offering things to do with it (display a map, show directions, find local shops). In this case rather than a text pattern, it is a particular moment and place.
- Impacts of climate change on disadvantaged UK coastal communities, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, March 2011.[back]
- Blandford, A., Green, T. R. G., Furniss, D. & Makri, S. (2008) Evaluating system utility and conceptual fit using CASSM. International Journal of Human–Computer Studies. 66. 393-409. DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2007.11.005 [back]