Buses are back in the news - and very much on people's minds: Wiltshire Council's consultation on the future of the county's bus services has already attracted over 8,000 submissions.
In addition the Salisbury Journal is mounting a STOP BUS CUTS campaign calling on the unitary council to end its plans to axe dozens of bus services. Inspired by this a change.org petition has begun its internet rounds.
This is not a live link to the petition - for link see textThe current consultation, which ends on April 4, puts forward six different options to reduce the £5million bus subsidy budget - including the option to end bus subsidies completely. These plans would - if agreed - not take effect until 2017-2018. The Wiltshire Council elections are in May 2017.
At present, however, the local news about buses is not all bad. In fact one development shows how communities can work together and with Wiltshire Council establish and perfect routes - with savings intact.
Eighteen months ago Wiltshire Council were looking for £70,000 of savings on the Connect2Wiltshire (C2W) bus services in Pewsey Vale and between Pewsey and Devizes. Following the initial consultation, a working group of volunteers from the Pewsey and the Devizes Community Area Partnerships (CAP) was formed to challenge the options presented.
Wiltshire agreed to the new arrangements. The group's idea was to hold a better consultation and find a better way to serve the Pewsey and Devizes areas - while still making the required savings.
As Dawn Wilson, Chair of Pewsey CAP, told Marlborough News Online: "It was vital that the two areas worked together through their Community Area Partnerships and with Wiltshire Council officers."
[NOTE: Marlborough no longer has a CAP - it got lost in the early days of the Marlborough Area Board. CAPs are no longer funded by Wiltshire Council.]
The volunteers on these two CAPs spent hundreds of hours surveying times, routes and passengers' use of the services. Wiltshire Council officers invested equal amounts of time and commitment.
The easy answer was to reduce the number of buses from four vehicles to three - an immediate saving of £70,000. In addition there were significant potential savings from scaling back the booking system.
But fitting the needs of elderly shoppers, the young going to and from school and college, and commuters travelling to and from Pewsey station, eluded them.
So the two CAPs called in Alan James, a well-known expert in rural transport with international experience. For a start he lives in ultra-rural Dumfries and Galloway, but he also knew the Wiltshire area from his work evaluating the Wigglybus service since 2001. Wiltshire Council agreed to fund his costs.
As he told Marlborough News Online, Alan James knew what the local transport problems involved: "We have to move away from the default assumption that has governed thinking for many years that people living in rural areas have to have cars because it is so difficult to provide alternatives in areas with dispersed and relatively small populations."
"This may be a widely held view, but the minority of rural households without a car is more significant than is often thought, and the numbers of members of rural households without independent use of a car is more significant still."
"Even in an affluent rural area like Pewsey Vale, one in twelve households has no car, and 45 per cent of households have one car which is likely to be unavailable to members of the household for periods of time."
The new timetablesBy August last year Alan James had produced a new C2W timetable proposal that the CAPs were generally happy with. But at Wiltshire Council's behest several compromises were made which gave rise to some unfortunate issues in the new timetable.
Everybody, says Dawn Wilson, recognised its problems: "We agreed to go back to the drawing board." Dawn was coordinating all the volunteers and liaising with Wiltshire Council. They were looking for ways to make it work to everyone's benefit.
By Christmas they had rectified most of the issues that had crept in. Soon afterwards the timetables were printed and for the first time they included details of the fare structure and onward connections.
Connect2Wiltshire driver Simon with Claire Perry MP - and new timetableIt provided a mix of 'hail and ride' and bookable services. Also for the first time it included a service taking Devizes people by express route to Pewsey Station and back with a Wednesday-Saturday night bus service.
This joint community and council solution has been welcomed by Devizes MP Claire Perry. And it has the support of Great Western Railway with links to the timetables via their website.
The new services had a soft launch in February and they are proving popular.
They will not be celebrating with a champagne launch party, but there are plans to buy some umbrellas sporting the Connect2 logo for local regulars as a thank you. These would be paid for out of community transport funding secured for marketing the new timetables.
The umbrellas will be for people to use when caught in a rain storm as they leave a bus for the short walk home - and surely no one would dare not to bring them back to the buses and instead use them on personal shopping trips.
See Marlborough News Online's second article on the county's buses here.
Peter Ridal retired in 2011 after 45 years as a chartered civil engineer specialising in highway planning in various parts of the United Kingdom and, for fourteen years, in the Caribbean, Middle East and Malaysia. Among his recent projects were the Stonehenge Tunnel and highway works for the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre. He lives in Marlborough.
On 10 February 2016, Wiltshire Council's Strategic Planning Committee approved an outline planning application for up to 175 houses and a hotel on land to the west of Salisbury Road. The existing problems of traffic congestion and air quality on the Salisbury Road were downplayed or ignored by Wiltshire’s planning and transport officers.
But representations from Marlborough Town Council and residents left the committee in no doubt about the town's traffic problems. However this and other objections relating to the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty were overwhelmed by the Council’s perceived responsibility to deliver its housing allocation.
In making its objection, Marlborough Town Council suggested that a relief road south of the town should be provided to deal with the additional traffic. This suggestion was dismissed by the Wiltshire Council transport officer. So, what can be done?
The central area of Marlborough is defined by a rectangle of roads comprising the High Street, London Road, George Lane and Pewsey Road. Roundabouts at the corners of the rectangle combine and control the incoming flows of traffic from the A4, A346 and the A345.
These roundabouts act like turnstiles, releasing traffic into the town at a rate and speed that it can deal with without causing gridlock or excessive danger to pedestrians. Pedestrian crossings also help to break up the flow of traffic allowing the roundabouts to operate as efficiently as possible.
So, queuing on the approaches to the town should be recognised as a function of too much traffic rather than insufficient road capacity.
A traditional ‘predict and provide’ traffic solution would suggest a north-south bypass to the east of the town. Typically such a bypass could follow the line of the disused railway line from the business park to Ogborne Maizey. This has been explored in the past and rejected because of its cost and the significant environmental impacts.
It has been suggested - as mentioned above - that a relief road linking the A346 Salisbury Road to the A345 Pewsey Road would provide an effective solution to the Salisbury Road problem. However, since most traffic on Salisbury Road is travelling to the north or east the potential relief would be modest.
Any traffic that diverted onto the relief road would now approach the town via Granham Hill so increasing traffic at this location. This implies more congestion to the west side of town, and with the possibility of rat-running, there could be even more traffic on George Lane and High Street.
So this proposition could cause an overall increase in congestion.
At present, there is no proposed route for this relief road, so costs and environmental impacts are not known, but environmental impacts and objections are likely to be significant.
There are other ways of tackling congestion. Some will occur naturally. 'Peak-spreading', for example, occurs when drivers choose to travel earlier or later to avoid congestion. This tends to reduce the longest delays, but extends the busy periods.
Also, congestion deters non-essential trips and encourages alternative ways of travelling other than by car.
Eventually, if housing development continues and car use continues to be the primary method of travel, the time may come when congestion in the town becomes unbearable and air quality becomes an even greater threat to public health than it is at present.
Then the only remaining choice would be to restrict the use of cars for short journeys in favour of alternative ways of travelling such as buses, cycling or walking. This allows for the development of a compelling vision for a cleaner, less congested town with trees and wide pavements. But such a vision depends on a fundamental change of travelling habits.
Currently, Marlborough Town Council is preparing a Neighbourhood Plan. There will be public consultations that allow members of the public to express their ideas, and this is an ideal opportunity for residents to be involved in the future development of the town.
Post card of Box Tunnel - to buy a copy see belowThe progress of the government's electrification of the Great Western railway and other lines to the south-west is of great importance to people in the Marlborough area who may also want to know if you can see right through Box Tunnel - or they may not.
Not only do Marlborough people have to look out for bridge works as they drive north and west of the town, but they will also be watching for important changes to the rail service from Bedwyn to London when electrification reaches Newbury - and stops there.
So Marlborough News Online kept an eye on the Parliamentary reports last week when Kevin Foster (Conservative MP for Torbay) won a debate (February 8) calling "on the government to ensure that plans for further electrification and improved resilience of the Great Western railway routes are progressed urgently".
Perhaps what he and the assembled cohort of West of England's Conservative MPs really wanted to know was when the government and/or Network Rail would announce a new timetable for completion of the works - that was the elephant in the House of Commons' chamber.
There was the familiar promise of less crowded trains from Reading to Paddington - especially welcome and important for those travelling from Bedwyn who have to change at Reading.
It already looks as though electrification to Newbury, which may well further diminish services from Bedwyn, will not be finished until 2018 - three years late.
Network Rail's chief executive Mark Carne told Parliament last October the estimate for the Great Western electrification had been £874m in January 2013 and £1.5bn in September 2014 - since then they had risen again.
Little appears to have happened about costings and funding since Parliament's Public Accounts Committee called the next increase to £2.8billion "staggering and unacceptable."
During this debate, the Railways Minister, Claire Perry MP, was not able to make any announcement about the timetable. But it did provide a little amusement in the form of a brief spat between two Wiltshire MPs over a bizarre claim about the Box Tunnel.
When Kevin Foster mentioned that Box Tunnel was 'now one of the most well-used tunnels', James Gray (MP for North Wiltshire) could not resist intervening: "Box Tunnel is, of course, in my constituency. He will know that the only time one can see from one end of the tunnel to the other is once a year on Brunel's birthday."
Claire Perry apparently interrupted him to say that was untrue. To which Gray retorted: "The minister says that is not true, but we believe it is true - I have seen it myself."
In her summing up at the end of the three hour debate, Mrs Perry found a way to score a point against Mr Gray. She mentioned that Box Tunnel was part of the track being 'improved' and added that she had "been through [it] on a people carrier."
We believe that this 'people carrier' was not the sort that goes on the school run, but one of those open-air, hand-powered buggies that take railway workmen along the tracks.
This flourish must have interrupted her concentration as she then referred to the Welsh MP Huw Irrana-Davies as the Member for Ogden - to which MPs shouted out the correction: "[Hon Members: "Ogmore"]." She tried again: "The hon. Member for Ogbourne..." To which a Labour member interjected: "Do you know Wales very well?"
Her part in the debate went to true form with lots of attacks on Labour's record and on the only Labour member in the South West - Ben Bradshaw MP (Exeter.) She got told off from the Speaker's chair when she tried to interrupt Bradshaw's speech.
She was reminded that the Labour Government had committed to electrification of the Great Western line back in 2009 - so the government's progress has been slow to say the very least.
And she got into trouble again when she went off on a riff about Labour's failure to upgrade the A358 and their failure to support Conservative plans to 'dual' more of the A303.
The Deputy Speaker (Lindsay Hoyle MP): "I am not quite sure how the A303 fits in with a rail debate on the Great Western Line." Mrs Perry began to respond: "Far be it for me to criticise you, Mr Deputy Speaker..." She got no further - the Deputy Speaker cut her off: "We both know that that is not an option."
Mrs Perry tried again: "But the roads and rail investment is vital to this region." Deputy Speaker: "It looks like I need to be even more helpful. If the Minister looks at the title of the debate, she should realise what it is about, and members have tried to stick to that subject..."
Mrs Perry surrendered politely - as MPs must - to the Chair: "I will follow your excellent advice, Mr Deputy Speaker."
The picture of Box Tunnel at the head of this report can be bought through Wiltshire Council's e-shop.