Connections between Trains and Buses at Barnstaple

Many factors shape people’s decisions to use public transport. One is convenience. A bus stop or even a station close to their front door is more likely to attract their custom than one a mile away. So, too, is a service which takes them close to where they want to get to. Many of the places people want to reach, however, involve not just a bus or a train, but both. This brings another factor into play: how convenient are the connections between them?

In this brief article, we look at connections between trains and buses at Barnstaple station. We focus on just one aspect of convenience: time. Connections which are too tight cause stress. Where they are too lengthy, they waste people’s time. Where they appear to be left to chance, they undermine confidence in the link. If timetable compilers get any of these wrong, they make things difficult for the public. They may even put them off using public transport altogether.

Several bus routes serve Barnstaple railway station. We are not attempting to look at them all. Instead, we concentrate on a small range which includes the two main types of service: those which serve the urban areas of north Devon; and those which serve the smaller towns and villages. We will consider here only the ‘outward’ parts of the services involved — those which could be used by passengers arriving at the railway station by train who might continue their journeys by bus if the timings were suitable.

What follows relates to the 2014 rail and bus timetables. Our observations apply to Monday to Saturday services. We intend to consider Sunday services as soon as possible.

Click any of the service numbers below to see the corresponding details.


Show all services

Urban routes westward from Barnstaple railway station to Bideford, Appledore and Westward Ho!

British Rail westward picture

North Devon’s busiest bus corridor runs from Barnstaple itself to Bideford. The principal service on this route is operated by Stagecoach buses 21 and 21A. Service 21 buses continue to Westward Ho! Service 21A buses continue to Appledore.

Show services 21 and 21A


Urban routes northward from Barnstaple railway station

British Rail northward picture

Show services 21 and 21A


Routes from Barnstaple railway station to the smaller towns and rural areas

British Rail southwestward picture

In general, rural bus services, including those which operate to and from hub towns like Barnstaple, tend to have three primary characteristics. They are sparse. Many involve no more than four or five buses per day in each direction. The intervals between them tend to be long. Two hours or more is not unusual. They rarely operate for more than a fraction of the day. If the few that do run are to offer convenient connections with rail services, their timing is crucial.

In what follows, we look at four services which call at Barnstaple railway station with this in mind. All run in a westerly direction. Other rural services run northwards and eastwards from Barnstaple. None calls at the railway station. They are not included in this survey.

Show services 71 and 72

Show service 85

Show service 315

Show service 319


Summary observations

Equals query sign

Since Stagecoach has consolidated the previously-run First services 1, 2 and 3 into services 21 and 21A, bus/train connection times along the Bideford–Barnstaple–Braunton corridor have improved a little, although passengers still have to wait 21 to 23 minutes for buses to Appledore and 14 to 16 minutes for Ilfracombe. The rural services in general have considerably longer waiting times. Most are 28 minutes or more, many are of the order of an hour or more. There are still buses departing as trains arrive or even a minute or two before them. Evening connections are especially long, if they exist at all. Such variations, so many connections involving lengthy waits, do little to attract travellers who might combine rail and bus for their journeys, nor do they make life easier for those who have no choice. It is even possible that they put many people off using public transport altogether.

On the face of it, they do little to suggest that timetable planners work with ease of connectivity between train and bus in mind. Yet, for reasons that need not be rehearsed here, we should consider how things might be better ordered. Three questions need to be addressed:

  1. What is a ‘good’ connection time?
  2. How might better connection times be achieved?
  3. What agencies exist which could bring them about?

What is a ‘good’ connection time?

Good connections are long enough to be stress-free, but not so lengthy that they waste travellers’ time or subject people to excessive waits in uncomfortable facilities. We have already said that two-minute connections between train and bus are too short and implied that waits of 13 minutes or more are too long. Connection times of about five or six minutes would be about right.

How might better connection times be achieved?

In principle, the more closely rail and bus services approximate to regular interval, clock face patterns, the easier it is to arrange consistent and favourable connections between them. The difficulties involved, however, must be acknowledged. Few bus services operate entirely separately. The daily programme for any vehicle may incorporate switches between one route and another. The same goes for railway rolling stock. No train sets, as far as we know, operate throughout the day solely on the Exeter to Barnstaple line. In both cases, changing the timings for one operation may have repercussions for others.

Furthermore, each of these public transport modes has distinct expectations placed upon it. Bus timetable planners are expected to take into account the needs of large numbers of students to travel at particular times of each day in school term time. Their counterparts on the railway have to take note of local expectations in peak periods. Even the briefest examination of the timetables for the services considered above is enough to show how such factors disrupt efforts to shape consistent service patterns.

We also have to recognise that matching bus times more favourably to train times is not the only thing planners must take into account. Services 21 and 21A, for example, do more than link Barnstaple to Westward Ho! and Appledore respectively. They also form a regular interval operation along north Devon’s busiest corridor between Barnstaple and Bideford.

The other routes noted above all operate much less frequently. Nonetheless, the same principle should obtain: a basic connection time at Barnstaple station which is neither stressfully short nor discouragingly long. Any congestion that might be caused by requiring several services to leave the station at about the same time could be avoiding by staggering departures over a short period, with none departing more than 10 minutes after the train’s arrival.

It is not just the bus services, however, that require adjustment. The rail service does as well. At the moment, the near hourly arrival pattern which obtains from mid morning until late afternoon needs to be amended to an entirely regular one and extended back into each morning and forward from late afternoon into each evening. Given that the rail service has to be fitted into other services at Exeter, this will be no easy matter. Once done, however, it would give the bus service planners a better template to work to than the inconsistent one provided by rail today.

What agencies exist which could bring them about?

While there have been advances of late, there is little evidence that the kind of overall integration between rail and bus outlined above will come into being spontaneously. Bus services are minimally regulated. Rail services are laid down only in outline by the Department for Transport, and with no explicit expectation for them to be integrated with other modes.

The involvement of some other agency is thus essential. That agency is Devon County Council. There is already much in its favour. It has a history of intervention in public transport, evidenced in its financial support for the rail service and for a number of bus services, including the rural routes examined above. In Stagecoach, it has a major bus operator already demonstrably committed to serving the rail station. Using its powers of persuasion and the financial leverage offered by its ability to dispense subsidies (however modest), it should make the proper integration of rail and bus services at Barnstaple a priority. To this, timetable design will be the key.

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