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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 September, 2004, 00:09 GMT 01:09 UK
Rural transport: stuck in a jam

Tom Symonds
By Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

Display of London 'Routemaster' buses
Buses in the city: you wait for ages, then they all come at once

They may complain, but when it comes to getting around, city-dwellers really have it quite easy.

In London you've got a choice of trains, the tube, buses, trams, river-ferries, taxis, motorbike, cycling, rickshaws and of course, your car.

Other cities are similarly well catered for.

But Britain's country travellers have to make journeys that are on average 50% longer. And usually they rely on their cars.

So why is that a problem?

After all the government's Commission for Integrated Transport estimates 80% of traffic jams happen in towns.

Jam tomorrow

The problem is that if you live, and drive in the country, the jams are heading your way.

A busy road in front of Stonehenge
To live in the countryside, you really need a car.

Traffic in towns and cities levelled out in the 1990s. It simply got too congested to drive.

But in rural areas, the number of cars on the roads has been rising steadily for 30 years.

There are plenty of reasons why.

More of us want to live in the country, and we are working a lot further from where we live.

We are encouraged to drive because roads have improved over the years. And at the weekend, we are more likely to shop at an out-of-town mall.

A car in the country is getting to be essential.

Yet as many as a fifth of rural-dwellers don't have one. There has to be an alternative.

Slow coach

Graph comparing number of journeys taking more than 10 minutes in town and country

Buses are of course the country workhorses of public transport. Except that outside towns, they often don't run at night, or on Sundays.

Young people in particular without cars struggle to maintain their social lives when the last bus home leaves at 7pm.

They find it hard to get to work in the morning and it stops them applying for jobs further from home.

It is hardly surprising that outside London, bus use is stagnant.

Flexible thinking

The government wants to put more pressure on private bus companies to run better services.

There is a plan for new contracts with operators, under which local councils decide the timetable and fares.

It will probably cost tax-payers more.

Rural communities will never have the buses and trains their townie counterparts enjoy - it would simply cost too much

Improving buses in the country will take a long time. So some clever ideas are going to be needed.

One is the increasingly popular 'Wigglybus'.

In the Pewsey Vale area of Wiltshire these small buses start out at a set time, with a rough idea of their route. But passengers can call in and request to be picked up on the way.

So the service 'wiggles' through the countryside, depending on whoever needs a ride. It is much more flexible.

Going off the rails

Improving rural railways is a much harder challenge.

In fact, money and engineering effort is being focused deliberately on the big city commuter lines, and the major lines between cities.

Virgin's new 'tilting train'
Slick new trains for the big cities, but not for the countryside

There's little chance of much new track being laid in England's shires, Wales's valleys, or Scotland's Highlands.

One new idea - proposed by the Strategic Rail Authority - is for travellers themselves to play much more of a part in running their railway.

Stations that might be shut, could be run by small companies set up by local people.

The trouble is, the SRA's being scrapped. So who knows what will happen?

New direction

However there is a government initiative that really might provide a service country travellers can use.

The government is about to launch a 50m website, Transport Direct.
BBC transport correspondent Tom Symonds
Tom Symonds road-tests the government's new transport website

You type in the details of your location, and where you are trying to get to.

The system gives you a detailed plan, using buses, trains, and even Shanks' long-suffering Pony.

I recently tried it on a journey from central London to the farthest tip of east Kent, where the bus service is sporadic.

The journey wasn't easy, but the information in the government's giant database did come up with options I'd never have thought of.

When it comes down to it, rural communities will never have the buses and trains their townie counterparts enjoy - it would simply cost too much.

So schemes that make more effective use of what is already there, could be the best road to follow.


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