In my own little way, I’m involved in the political battle being fought around the country. A month ago, I acted as a ‘Teller’ for my Party, standing at the door to the Memorial Hall off Station Road in Royal Wootton Bassett which acts as our polling station for the local elections. All was quiet, but this was the calm before the storm.
Since our arrival in Wiltshire, we’ve had an hourly bus service from Malmesbury to Swindon, passing down the oddly-named New Road and then along the south end of Station Road. Barely 5 minutes’ walk from home, it was very convenient for us: less than 20 minutes to Swindon Station. If it was on time the 09:36 would get me to the Canal Trust Information Centre by 10 o’clock.
The 31 is operated by Coachstyle with just about the right size bus for rural routes; it’s a Council-supported service that had been threatened with cuts that might have reduced the frequency below the current hourly Monday-Saturday pattern that stops early in the evening.
In February, Swindon’s arms-length municipal bus operator Thamesdown had sold out to one of the big national combines. The Go-Ahead group already operates buses from Salisbury to Swindon, so it had a foot-hold in the bus station there, whereas Thamesdown didn’t use any of the bus bays. Its services stop on Fleming Way, sandwiched between the bus station and the town centre. Things were about to change, with rumours of a new service from Swindon to ‘Bassett, starting in mid-May.
Thamesdown buses with L-Plates started appearing in Royal Wootton Bassett, with drivers learning the new route.
Closer to the big day, brand-new buses in a new livery came along to practise left turns from the high street down Station Road. There is a very tight turn here; the old Town Hall sits on pillars and looks quite precarious as long vehicles attempt such turns. One false move…
The service duly started to Swindon Bus Station: every 15 minutes during the day, dropping to hourly in the evening. There was even to be a half-hourly service on Sundays. The route follows the existing Coachstyle and Stagecoach services out to the eastern edge of ‘Bassett, reaching down to the employment zone at Interface Business Park and then taking the line of Stagecoach’s 55 route through the 1960s residential area to the High Street.
The 55 goes on to Lyneham, Calne and Chippenham, usually every hour.
The new ‘R1’ pauses at the High Street before continuing down Station Road and New Road in a loop to bring it back to the High Street facing north-east.
Thus, we went from one an hour in our neck of the woods to 5 an hour, except that we have to catch the R1 from the southbound side of Station Road, and it takes nearly 30 minutes to reach Swindon. Here’s the new stop, looking down to the railway and the location of the former station, lost in the 1960s to the Beeching cuts.
The new design only advertises one route, the R1. There’s no mention of any other services such as the 31. In a way, this didn’t matter because Coachstyle announced in late May that it would cut the corner and would no longer go down the lower Station Road and New Road. I now have to walk another 5 minutes to pick up the 31. On the other hand, the residents either side of Station Road down the hill now had 5 buses an hour to Swindon, having had none before.
I mentioned ‘Bus Wars’. Let me explain the reference.
Stagecoach was never going to let another operator muscle-in on its territory without retaliation. It hastily covered a fleet of spare single-deckers with ’55’ stickers and started a ‘spoiler’ service in addition to its existing Chippenham double-deckers. The mainly 12-year-old single-deckers follow the same route as the R1. Once in Royal Wootton Bassett, the single-deckers follow (or lead) the R1s looping down Station Road and New Road. We now see two rather different ’55’ buses passing each other in the High Street, as seen below.
Meanwhile, a political battle is taking place. On General Election day, this morning I was again at the Memorial Hall to act as ‘Teller’. This time I saw a procession of buses going down the hill where a month ago there were none. Both battles are being fought with leaflets and rapidly-changing timetables. The political battle-buses have been criss-crossing the country as the campaigns progressed, while the bus company vans have been put to work updating the timetables.
Even this morning, a Thamesdown van pulled up at the bus-stop alongside the Memorial Hall to put the latest timetable-tweak in place.
Meanwhile, a near-empty Stagecoach 55 headed down the hill and had to skip the stop, not that it really mattered.
The able-bodied can stroll up the hill and catch the same bus in the High Street a few minutes later.
Down Station Road hill, the Coachstyle buses now turn left into Noremarsh Road to regain their original track.
At least the 31s travel in both directions along here, and those for Malmesbury ascend Station Road hill and turn right with agility into the High Street by the old Town Hall.
Down at the bottom of Station Road, the old 31 Swindon-bound bus stop has now been removed, but still passengers wait in vain for their little bus to come. I’ve had to explain what’s happening because there’s precious little real information out there, and I’ve made sure that at least one person caught the bus they’d otherwise have missed.
On the old southbound 31 stop seen earlier, Stagecoach does have its own timetable and map, even though the passer-by might not notice such small print.
When the dust settles and one or both operators have withdrawn from the fray, what bus services will be left? My fear is that the existing routes to Malmesbury, Calne and Chippenham will have suffered, and that we’ll have have a thinner bus network than before.
My own long term solution? Re-open the railway station, not necessarily where it was in the 1960s, but hopefully the Trans-Wilts Community Rail Partnership can deliver it.