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Public Transport

Cornwall’s bus services are broken

After the 2020 lockdown easing began, I decided to start using Cornwall’s bus services to get around and visit some places I hadn’t been to in a while. The experience has opened my eyes to just how broken things have become. Read on to see why this is.

In 2019 I used the FirstBus app to buy a bundle of 20 day rider tickets for £100 you. Rather than pay £12, I pay £5, which is excellent value. I have friends and family in the area, and it makes things much cheaper. Or it did.

FirstBus – or their division First Kernow is now called “Kernow”. They trade as “Cornwall by Kernow“. Keeping up? It gets better. In March 2020 Cornwall Council launched a new bus company called “Transport for Cornwall“. Services are provided by Go Cornwall Bus, a subsidiary of Go-Ahead Group-owned Plymouth Citybus. Plymouth Citybus also operate buses in the east of Cornwall.

I’d heard of the Transport for Cornwall initiative and thought that it was a great idea. Some of the villages who have lost their bus services in recent years will get them back. A vital lifeline for many, and a good way to encourage less use of cars. Good for people, good for the environment.

When not all A17 buses (and tickets bought on them) are equal…

There are some new routes here in West Penwith, with their own numbers. But then there’s the existing routes served by Cornwall by Kernow. Like the A17 St Ives – Pendeen via Penzance and St Just.

In the daytime, the A17 is run by Cornwall by Kernow. In the evening the A17 is taken over by Transport for Cornwall. Return tickets are transferrable – sort of. If you have a Cornwall by Kernow return ticket you can use if on a Transport for Cornwall bus to get home. But not the other way around. Day tickets are not transferrable at all.

Transport for Cornwall services will accept the return ticket purchased on First Kernow buses.

Currently, there are no arrangements for First Kernow to accept return tickets purchased on Transport for Cornwall services.

Extract from a leaflet. White text on a red background reading:

Transport for Cornwall services will accept the return ticket purchased on First Kernow buses. 

Currently, there are no arrangements for First Kernow to accept return tickets purchased on Transport for Cornwall services.
Screenshot from the Transport for Cornwall leaflet published in March 2020. I haven’t been able to find this information on the Transport for Cornwall website, having to resort to some fairly specific Google search terms.

That’s right. If you follow the advice on the posters inside the buses and buy a day ticket, you have to use it just for the bus company you bought it from. But, at the time or writing (August 2020) there are no warnings from either company that day tickets are not usable. So if I use a day ticket to travel from Penzance to St Just in the daytime on a Cornwall by Kernow A17 bus, I can’t use it to get home in the evening on a Transport for Cornwall A17 bus.

It gets worse. When looking at the timetables – the most basic of functions – there is no integration between the services from the different companies.

Continuing with the Penzance to St Just example, I initially thought that the A17 service was no longer running in the evenings. According to the A17 timetable on the Cornwall by Kernow website, the last bus back to Penzance is at 18:12. I mistakenly thought that there had been a reduction in services due to Covid-19 – but it turns out that (thankfully) I was wrong. FirstBus – Cornwall by Kernow – just don’t list services by other operators, even if they carry on the same route with the same route number.

Extract from the CornwallbyKernow timetable showing their last service for their A17. Not *the* last service.

The evening services – post 18:12 are run by Transport for Cornwall. Still with me?

Extract from the Transport for Cornwall bus timetable showing their interpretation of the A17 service.

Since I live in the area, I stand half a chance of figuring this out – eventually. But if I was visiting here, none of this is obvious.

The timetables from each company don’t mention the other. Day tickets from each company aren’t compatible.

It’s a broken system.

Broken Timetables and Apps

At the time of writing, 17:10, if I wanted to visit St Just, I know that the A17 will take me from the stop at The Greenmarket to St Just bus station.

Let’s have a look at the Transport for Cornwall app and plug in St Just as my destination and see what the options are.

Transport for Cornwall app (left) vs Transport for Cornwall timetable (right). Note the lack of the A17 service in the app as an option to get from Penzance to St Just.

The app reports back that I can get the number 8 service at 17:42. Or I could wait until tomorrow… But if I were to look at the A17 timetable on the Transport for Cornwall website, I can see that there is an A17 leaving for St Just at 19:23.

This is why people drive everywhere. It’s broken.

Ride Cornwall – the not-so-combined rail and bus pass

Services where a Ride Cornwall day pass can be used. Screenshot from the Cornwall Council website on 4th August 2020. Note the absence of “Transport for Cornwall” – Cornwall Council’s own bus company.

It gets better (or worse) depending upon your opinion. It is possible to buy a day pass that works across trains and buses in Cornwall, called the Ride Cornwall ticket.

A Ride Cornwall ticket can be used on both of the train operators that service Cornwall but not all of the bus operators.

In the east of Cornwall, Plymouth Citybus run services. Day Rider tickets work on these buses and those by Cornwall by Kernow. Despite Go Cornwall (Plymouth Citybus) providing the services for Transport for Cornwall, assuming that the information on Cornwall Council’s own website is correct, a Day Rider isn’t valid on Transport for Cornwall buses despite this being Cornwall Council’s own company.

It’s a complete and utter mess.

One Public Transport System for Cornwall (OPTSfC)

Cornwall Council announced back in 2017 (possibly?) their One Public Transport System for Cornwall (OPTSfC) scheme. Their aim was (is?) to have a single ticketing and timetable system for the whole of Cornwall. And a single, identifiable brand.

We are launching one identifiable brand for Cornwall’s public transport, timetabling and ticketing. There will be a single point where information can be accessed digitally with tools for:

Route and journey planning

Live traffic information

Ticket Prices

Extract from Cornwall Council’s “One Brand” page.

Presumably “Transport for Cornwall” is that brand. But the only thing that it is unified with is itself.

The “One Timetable” dream is currently, for travellers, a nightmare. The “One Ticket” initiative hasn’t made it – just look at day tickets. The Transport for Cornwall app doesn’t show you ticket prices. Only prices for day tickets. Day tickets that are only valid on their own services, not Cornwall by Kernow services; even if they have the same route number.

Broken, broken, broken.

£Millions of investment

According to Coach and Bus Week magazine:

“In 2015 the Council signed a Devolution Deal with Government to gain greater powers of governance over public transport. It was also successful in securing £9.5m Local Growth Funding from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership to match against its own £2.9m and deliver improvements for passengers in recent years such as upgraded waiting facilities, new vehicles and real-time information displays in bus stops across the county. This work was carried out in partnership with local transport operators under the title ‘One Public Transport System for Cornwall.’ This has recently been retitled ‘Transport for Cornwall’ and will be formally launched in May 2020.

“From 2017, successful partnership working has encouraged significant investment of over £34m from bus operators First Kernow and Go Cornwall Bus in the provision of brand-new, low-emission buses to operate the network, many with WiFi and USB charging. Ahead of the launch of Transport for Cornwall, Go Cornwall Bus has committed further investment into driver recruitment and training, depot facilities and the improvement of information for passengers to deliver the Transport for Cornwall vision.

Extract from Transport for Cornwall prepares to begin operations in Coach and Bus Week magazine

That’s Quite A Lot of Money mentioned in this quote. And yet, timetables and day tickets are broken. I’m pretty sure real time bus passenger information is too. The last time I used it via the FirstBus app, it was listing times for services that weren’t timetabled, and didn’t show up those that I was expecting, leaving me doubt whether I’d be able to get to my destination at all.

Confusing, frustrating, and considering the huge investment, inexcusable.

Navigating the mess

There is a unified bus timetable available via Traveline South West, who also have an app. But it takes a lot of finding, and it’s competing with the non-unified apps from the individual companies.

Why Cornwall Council isn’t working with Traveline, I don’t know. Maybe they are, but I’ve lost the will to find out.

Even not all bus stops that I’ve used in the past few weeks have any timetable at all fixed to them, which given West Cornwall’s spotty mobile coverage, is just bad.

Does this situation encourage a switch to sustainable transport?

If you’ve got this far, then I think that you’ll know my answer to that. I don’t drive, and am a seasoned public transport user. I will always try to get to the bottom of tricky timetables, and I’ve had to do that in some 15 countries around the world.

But if I wasn’t so hardy and determined, and was thinking about using public transport more to help reduce my carbon footprint by leaving the car at home, I’d probably switch back to the car pretty quickly after trying to figure out this mess.

After so much investment, and several years, how can Cornwall’s bus services be so broken? I can only think that the people designing this around a table (or Zoom meeting) don’t use buses. That’s the only explanation.

How can this be fixed? I wish I knew. I will be sending a link to this post to various Cornwall Councillors in the hope that by highlighting these issues – a plea from a passenger – that something can be done urgently.

If Cornwall Council is really committed to solving the Climate Emergency that it declared in early 2019, then fixing public transport needs to be one of its top priorities.

I’m sure that the current bus situation, with its smart liveries, snazzy branding, on-board Wi-Fi, USB charging and a slick-looking app tick a lot of boxes on paper. But the reality from a passenger perspective is the complete opposite.

People just won’t switch from their cars. Yet. Buses are infrequent, stop early (or huge gaps from late evening to past midnight – I’m looking at you A17 from St Just to Penzance – 22:14 or 00:14), certain tickets aren’t transferrable, timetables and apps give different information, bus stops missing timetables, and you need an esoteric knowledge of which company runs which particular timed service.

The sheer amount of traffic on our little roads is proof enough. Despite huge investment, Cornwall’s bus services are still broken and they need fixing.