How reduced rate travel connects people with places, and does so very well
This week saw mixed messages for passengers on the national concessionary travel scheme. To start with, a 36 year old disabled man won £5,500 damages after it was stated his local bus operator breached the 2010 Equality Act. He was denied access to a Leeds bound bus as a woman with a pushchair refused to budge.
The second news item concerns a Derbyshire County Council consultation on the future of its subsidised bus services. This prompted a letter in the Derbyshire Times where the author of the piece blamed the concessionary fares scheme. In one paragraph, it is claimed that:
“[Pensioners] can, subject to a few very minor restrictions, ride on any bus at any time, whenever and wherever they like, and pay absolutely nothing.”
Has the author heard of peak time restrictions? Since April 2011, Transport for Greater Manchester has upheld peak hour restrictions for ENCTS pass holders. With the exception of Concessionary Plus pass holders, passengers before 0930 on weekdays either pay half fare (standard Concessionary pass) or full fare (especially true with the Senior Citizens’ passes).
The bare minimum part of the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme is free bus travel after 0930 on weekdays, and all day weekends and public holidays. Throughout England. Likewise with Welsh and Scottish schemes. Local authorities can add further options such as free off-peak tram or train travel in their boundaries. Using my area as example, this applies to off-peak Metrolink and all scheduled rail services within Greater Manchester. In other words, s/he could user their pass on Virgin’s London Euston train up to Stockport; Transpennine Express’ services to the same place, plus Stalybridge and Wigan North Western.
Near the end of the letter, the writer likens all concessionary pass holders to “benefit scroungers”. Furthermore, the letter claims people are abusing the scheme, whom in the author’s words are:
“…simply riding around on buses all day just because they can, has meant that now there will be fewer and fewer buses but more and more passholders.”
Our fellow obviously doesn’t know the social value of a nationwide concessionary travel scheme. Nor does the author recognise the fact that funding is via central government. To say they ride around all day is ridiculous. Some pass holders may have friends inside and outside their locality. If our fellow passenger lives in Dukinfield and has friends in Glossop, s/he could go via Hyde (341/202) or Ashton (236/237). Does coming in to Glossop on a 237 and returning on a 202 count as ‘riding around on buses all day’?
I think not. Some may be, in our author’s words, forced to do the above because it is the first bus from High Street West. S/he could continue home on the 41, 330 or 346. Given the choice of a 236 in 20 minutes or a 202 in 5 minutes on a Friday evening, the one with the shortest wait any time. For reasons of personal safety of course. As for a taxi to Dukinfield, no way Pedro: that’ll leave you with little change out of £30.
For pensioners and disabled persons, reduced rate travel is a lifeline. It enables them to get out of the house instead of being isolated. Not only for the odd trip to Bury, but more frequent jollies to Ashton-under-Lyne and Hyde or other parts of their home town to access public services.
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For both people with disabilities and of a pensionable age, concessionary passes enable them to leave the house and participate in social functions, as well as trips to the shops. Or they could access leisure centres, country parks, go somewhere new. Given the reduced incomes that the above groups have, it is a cheaper alternative to taxis and demand responsive transport services.
It is also good for mental health. There is nothing worse than being unable to afford the smallest of bus fares for mundane yet important trips. Being able to travel somewhere different at little expense, more so with the passenger enjoying a change of scenery.
Who benefits? Not only the passengers but also retail establishments, art galleries, museums, theatres, markets and cafés. What would have been spent on bus fares would go towards a new shirt for a job interview, a posh coffee, or art materials. S/he is likely to use the bus to attend college courses; footfall in town centres rise. (It is claimed that 80% of journeys to Ashton-under-Lyne town centre are on public transport).
Bus operators, too, benefit from the footfall. Given that 80% of the UK’s bus services are operated on a commercial basis, it is a fillup for the likes of FirstGroup as well as independent operators. Each concern is recompensed to the equivalent adult fare of each concessionary pass holding passenger.
Another joy of the nationwide scheme is its usage in holiday resorts. If you fancied going to Torquay for your holidays, in the pre-ENCTS era, this meant paying their concessionary fare or the full fare on its local buses. Supposing s/he stayed in Torquay this summer and went to Brixham for a day trip, cue the pass. Our pass holder scan their pass on the 12 service after 0930 on a weekday. Free of charge.
Needless to say, English holiday resorts benefit. The extra footfall is good for the English Riviera’s shops. Any money otherwise spent on bus fares would be spent on a cup of coffee in Torre Abbey, or towards fish and chips from Macari’s place.
Given the vulnerability of people with disabilities and those of a pensionable age, ability to pay shouldn’t be a deciding factor in how one gets back from work or from social activities. Firstly, flexibility. Unless you purchase an all-systems season ticket, a ‘penalty’ (single fare in this context) is incurred on a passenger holding a single operator season ticket, if s/he catches a different operator’s buses. A concessionary pass (like the all-systems ticket) solves this problem.
Secondly, the issue of personal security in relation to flexibility. If our passenger from Dukinfield is waiting to get home from Mossley and opts for the 343 service, s/he may know of its changeover from Stott’s or (Saturdays only) Stagecoach Manchester’s daytime journeys to First Greater Manchester’s. S/he may only have a FirstWeek and is stood at Mossley Market Place at ten past six. He or she could:
- Risk their personal security by waiting for the first FirstGroup 343 in the shelter;
- Pay the extra single fare to Stott’s, if travelling on a weekday;
- Wait in The Fleece Inn opposite till the first FirstGroup 343 arrives, though making sure they leave the pub 10 minutes before their desired bus appears;
- Catch a 350 to Ashton then change for a 346 or 41 (though this may require a 30+ minute wait as less frequent evening services commence).
This is where all-systems season tickets and concessionary passes win hands down. With both, there’s always the option of catching alternative buses. With the latter, a walk or short bus down to the railway station allows for a rail option.
Thirdly, harassment. Owing to their disability, some people have been ridiculed due to their appearance, mannerisms, or ancillary devices. Sometimes, fellow passengers can be cruel and misunderstand people who are ‘different’ to them. Obviously, s/he could complain to the operator if aboard a commercially run service, or their local authority on tendered services.
Supposing s/he wishes to alight en route, this would incur an extra fare if s/he paid single fares. With a season ticket or day rover, it doesn’t matter. Likewise with a concessionary pass.
Fourthly, sensory overload. If the pass holder has an autism spectrum condition, s/he may be distracted by various factors on their journey. The amount of chatter on a busy faster route may mean s/he favouring the less frequent quieter route. If our passenger doesn’t have the above luxury, s/he may need to use the more frequent route and break their journey at certain points due to sensory overload. S/he isn’t penalised for this if they possess a Concession Plus card. They could pause their journey and board the next bus, which is hopefully a bit quieter.
A progressive measure
On its launch in 2007, it initially divided people. Today, no self-respecting pensioner is seen without. Unlike some commentators’ opinions, they’re not using the passes to travel to seaside resorts from their home town. From my observations often to the local shopping centres, public baths or favoured non-league sides.
If I was to go to Southport by bus, you’re looking at two hours from Wigan alone on the 375 service. Then another two hours from there to the Chez Vall (allowing for traffic, delayed public transport or poor connections). In some areas, it isn’t always possible to circumnavigate the whole boundary, let alone continue to Southport, Preston or Halifax. (Derbyshire is impossible: no regular buses between Glossop and Crowden or Glossop and Sheffield for Hathersage or Grindleford).
It is great that a national scheme exists, and that local authorities are able to offer additional benefits such as train and tram travel in their areas. And of course, it connects people with their place of work, their relatives, local services and shopping centres. Before ENCTS was introduced, there was a number of disparate and arcane concessionary schemes. Though good for their locality, they penalised Glossopian passengers who had the temerity to visit their grandson in Ashton-under-Lyne. Or access services in areas across the boundary that are closer to those provided by their county.
Not only that, it is a universal scheme. Not universal in the Iain Duncan-Smith sense, but universal in the sense it is a non-means-tested benefit. Some have suggested withdrawing passes from rich pensioners. We mustn’t forget that rich pensioners may need to catch a bus if their Lexus has broken down. Divide and rule tactics would only serve to convey the message that it is a poor pensioners’ benefit. When they’ve worked hard and paid their National Insurance contributions, they deserve something in return.
The strengths of a national scheme, and free off-peak fares for all disabled persons throughout England is a positive boost. Some disabled people have extra costs to meet. Such as specialist equipment; expensive food for restricted diets; digital devices and sensory rooms to avert sensory overload. Free or reduced rate travel also gives them independence. It enables them to access local facilities, support groups, fulfil appointments and meet friends.
The English National Concessionary Travel Scheme, and their equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in a nutshell fulfils two purposes. One is to foster independence. Another is to quell isolation. In all, it enables pensioners and disabled people to live full and engaging lives.
Long may that continue.
- BBC website: ‘First Bus appeals against wheelchair court ruling’ (11 November 2014);
- The Derbyshire Times: ‘Bus pass holders are like “benefit scroungers”, and they are at fault for budget cuts across Derbyshire’.
S.V., 14 November 2014.