On this page we tell the stories of travellers who have had difficulties with the public transport system as it currently exists in north Devon.
These two tales relate to journeys made to and from Barnstaple on the 21 Bideford–Barnstaple bus route.
The first involves the bus stop near Hopperstyle, just beyond the Cedars roundabout in the Bideford direction. Note, in the picture, the sparse provision offered to passengers: just a sign, a time table and a raised pavement, plus a pull-in space for buses. Nothing else. I travel on this bus route almost every day and have noticed that, in spite of the facilities it offers, this stop is surprisingly busy.
An elderly couple was waiting for the bus I was on. The lady, who carried a walking stick and was clearly frail, was half-sitting on, half leaning against the corner piece of the stone wall behind the bus stop. With no space for anyone else, the gentleman, who appeared to be as frail as his partner, had propped himself against the wall. It was hot. There was nothing to protect either of them from the sun that beat on their backs. Had it been raining, there would have been no shelter for them.
When the bus pulled in, it took the couple some time to reach the bus. Fumbling for her bus pass, the lady dropped her stick. Neither she nor her partner was able to pick it up. It took another passenger to help her out. Meanwhile the bus, already behind time, became later still.
The other involves another bus stop in the same area, this one near Bickington Stores. This stop, at least, has a shelter. It once had a seat that ran the length of the shelter, or rather, a narrow perch: far from comfortable, but better than nothing. Damaged by vandals some years ago, it was ripped out altogether. It has not been replaced.
Again, an elderly couple was involved. In their case, both walked with sticks, very slowly. They had just missed one bus. There was no option but to stand and wait, leaning on their sticks, for the next one. I asked them whether they would like to have a seat. “It would make a lot of difference”, one replied.
So, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we provide for the elderly in our community in northern Devon.
Having arrived at Exeter St Davids on the 09.00 GWR through service from Cardiff Central to Plymouth, we were told by the platform staff that the 12.27 service to Barnstaple would be the very first train that day to travel all the way to Barnstaple. The train departed at 12.27 and around 10 minutes later arrived at Crediton where we were informed by the conductor that this train would terminate here and were politely asked to disembark.
Eventually we were told that this train would leave and return to Exeter which after some time it did and that the next train to arrive at Crediton would be the 13.27 from Exeter St Davids. I cannot remember the exact time it arrived at Crediton but I do know that instead of arriving at Barnstaple at 14.37 as per the timetable we actually arrived at 14.55, with quite a few very disgruntled passengers.
This event was all due to track maintenance between Eggesford and Barnstaple which Network Rail hadn’t completed on time by Monday 9 November, therefore the line speed between Portsmouth Arms and Umberleigh seemed like 1 mph. All this and a class 142 as well!
I had the pleasure of being on an unsurprisingly overcrowded train last week with one of your members and agreed to get in contact to share my experiences. As a mature student with existing family commitments, relocating to the campus of Exeter University would have been impractical and so I commute down and back each day, at varying times at least four days each week.
Over the last fortnight more than 50% of my journeys have been subject to some degree of delay. Reasons have included late train coming from the opposing direction hence waiting at the only available passing point on the single line (at least four incidents), fatalities further up the line causing knock-on effects (unavoidable/understandable and tragic), points/signalling issues, and overcrowding resulting in passengers being moved to alternative coach services.
The main problems as I see it are the limitations of having a single track and the lack of carriage provision causing considerable delays and overcrowding. I also feel that the Tarka line would be benefited by an extra 10pm departure from Exeter. I was forced to give up my position on a student society due to the lack of transport home in the evenings. The bus service is equally appalling in this respect, the last bus from Exeter departing at 20.02 and the last train at 21.00.
It would seem that both transport providers Stagecoach and GWR are happy to neglect the North Devon region whilst happily profiting from and exploiting our dependence on the mediocre services they do provide.
The neglect for North Devon by the transport companies, as mentioned by Kelly, 4 November 2015, is a reflection of the neglect from Local Government. Nobody makes the case for northern Devon.
There have been calls for a late train for at least 20 years. Only by growing the rail traffic significantly will it be justified. That traffic is currently constrained by overcrowding and the single line. There are no plans to increase line capacity — not in any investment plan for the next 10 years.
Making better use of existing capacity and rolling stock could accommodate many more passengers and give faster journey times. This could happen within months, not take decades, if there was a will. It appears only NDPTU is making the case for this, while addressing the needs of all public transport users.
Today my wife and I have seen public transport in the south west at its worst. A brief history follows.
Caught the 08.43 from Barnstaple to Exeter St Davids. Two coaches. Every seat taken and about a dozen standing from Barnstaple. More got on all the way (Umberleigh 2; Kings Nympton 1; Eggesford 8; Lapford 1; Morchard Road 2; Copplestone 1; Yeoford 3; Crediton 10). Imagine what it was like by the time we got to Exeter.
Connected with the 09.58 to Taunton. Guess we found the last two vacant seats on the train (and one of those because whoever had reserved it either hadn't turned up or had fallen out).
Fortified by good lunch with a friend, caught the 14.15 (07.07 from Edinburgh) back from Taunton, running 10 minutes late. One of those awful 4-coach Cross Country things. Stuffed full with people. People standing in the aisles. People sitting on the floor in the vestibules. People sitting or leaning on luggage in the racks at the coach ends. Toilet stinking in front coach where we were. Got talking to someone at St Davids who'd been on the same train. He complained about the toilet smell. Assumed he was referring to the one in our coach. Turned out he meant the one in the rear carriage. That's at least two down on a four-coach train. We stood at the end of our coach, buffeted by automatic doors whenever anyone tried to pass through to and from the toilet, which was in continuous demand.
Connected with the 15.27 from St Davids to Barnstaple. Two coaches. Drew in about 2 minutes after departure time, absolutely packed. Lots got off, but train still packed even before St Davids boarders tried to get on. 'Tried' the appropriate word. Many couldn't. Station staff tried to persuade people who had not boarded to take overflow bus to Crediton, Eggesford and Barnstaple. Some obliged, others didn't. Conductor tried to persuade some already on train to get off and take the bus. About 15 did, including one family travelling just to Crediton, saying (nobly) it was only reasonable since others had to get all the way to Barnstaple. Still about 35 standing, including my wife and me. Start delayed by about 10 minutes while order of sorts established. Young mother offered my wife her seat from about Kings Nympton, which, being very tired, she gladly accepted. 10 got off at Umberleigh. I managed to bag one of the seats for the rest of the journey to Barnstaple, reached about 10 minutes late.
Waited for number 21 bus back to Bickington. Helped to calm youngster trying to catch last bus back to Holsworthy. Her internet information showed it should have departed at 16.40. Youngster thought she had missed it and believed she would have to get a taxi (for about £35–40). My wife showed her on the timetable that, it not being a college day, bus was rescheduled for 16.50. Her bus turned up at about 16.53, to her huge relief. Clearly Internet knows nothing about college holidays. Utterly confusing for those lacking such arcane knowledge. Our bus arrived soon afterwards, only about 5 minutes late.
Needless to say, we are in no hurry to repeat this experience.
We have only lived in Bideford for 7 months, but are now quite depressed by the sad history and current state of public transport here. People do need to travel, not just to Exeter but beyond.
Last night, coming from London, we waited for 45 minutes at St Davids for a train to Barnstaple. The journey from Exeter to Bideford (including waits) took as long as the journey from London to Exeter. Madness.
You can't leave London after 18.03 to get home. You can't do anything in Exeter in the evenings; the last train is at 20.55. Why none later? There's no fast bus link from Bideford to Barnstaple — why not one express bus an hour using the main road? Better still a tram!
But, this is not just to have a moan, but to congratulate you on looking for improvements!
See comment by an NDPTU member.
IM from Barnstaple writes:
As the local bus from my village to Barnstaple runs only once per week and I recently needed to return home without a car, my alternative was to wait in Gratton Way near Sainsbury's for the 71 bus towards Torrington, followed by a walk of over two miles.
There is much wrong with the Gratton Way bus stop. There is only one sign to serve both directions. There is a single timetable; can this serve 10 different routes both ways comprehensibly? There is no lay-by to pull off the road while passengers alight and board, despite this being a busy road serving the industrial estate. Above all, it has no shelter. As for real-time status information such as can be found in other towns … of course not, this is only the 21st century.
So apart from the sign on the pole, facilities are minimal. I couldn't help comparing this piece of transport infrastructure with the very robust shelter and other facilities at Portsmouth Arms railway station. On another passing visit some days later I noticed about a dozen people waiting for buses on either side of the road, including some sitting on the grassy bank for want of a decent shelter. This snapshot far exceeded the daily footfall (less than 3; see Table 2) at Portsmouth Arms. There must be many more similar bus stops.
Here, in Exeter High Street, is a model example of a bus shelter. It has weather protection yet with well-planned rear access, large timetable and map, very decent seating (a huge improvement on the Barnstaple “parrot perches”) and a real-time information display.
Increasing local bus usage is about not just better frequency and price, important though they are, but also better facilities to stop bus passengers feeling like second class citizens.
Next, an extended tale of problems with the 301 Barnstaple – Ilfracombe – Combe Martin bus service.
An Ilfracombe resident writes:
“I live in Ilfracombe but frequently have to travel to and from Basingstoke via Exeter. I have no problem with the connections with the 21 bus from Barnstaple Station to Ilfracombe (in theory it’s no more than 20 minutes). It’s the connection with the bus from Ilfracombe that bugs me — all too often I see the train leave the station as the bus arrives. That’s another wasted hour “sightseeing” Barnstaple Station.
“It’s too easy to say I should get an earlier bus, but with the sometimes horrendous traffic jams on the road between Ilfracombe and Barnstaple (26 July in particular when half the road was stationary in both directions) one just has to accept that long waits at Barnstaple are inevitable — there’s nothing that can be done about it other than banning private cars. [That’s not a serious suggestion though there are some who would support the idea].”
A Torrington resident writes:
“In 2011 I worked at a hotel in Barnstaple housekeeping. I had to travel from Torrington to Barnstaple daily so I got a weekly Stagecoach ticket for the 315 service, which used to run on Sunday evenings. As there was no Sunday morning service I either stayed with a friend on Saturday evenings or relied on a lift Sunday mornings.
“The 315 then stopped running on Sundays so I had to use the Beacon bus, which cost me an extra £2.50 a week as I could not use my Stagecoach weekly ticket on that service. I wrote to the Stagecoach company about the withdrawal of the Sunday service. They advised me to speak to the Council, as Stagecoach was not responsible for the running of the service.
“The difficulties and cost of this caused me to give up my job. The poor bus service is the main reason why I have found it hard to find work in north Devon.”
NDPTU comment: Here is an example of someone whose life is badly affected by the lack of public transport in northern Devon. Torrington is a sizeable town which has in recent years lost much employment and many residents must now commute to neighbouring towns. Unemployment is high, and local businesses are suffering — better public transport would go a long way to improving life and business prospects here.
We have come across some very sad tales recently: depression, family break-up, housing stress are all involved. A common theme is often, “I cannot get/keep/take the job as transport is hell/impossible/ alternative is a moped on a dangerous road”. This is where ‘transport poverty’ is every bit as significant as the heat-or-eat dilemma faced by many, but it is usually only a factor in rural areas. Few want to talk about it on a public forum though. The striking thing throughout is that our Councillors and MPs seem oblivious.
A Barnstaple–Exeter commuter writes:
“I have a new colleague where I work in Exeter. She’s come down from London. When she heard that I live in Barnstaple, she asked, ‘Isn’t that where the Tarka Line is? Is it a real railway or just one of those tourist things?’ Enough said, I think.”
“After staying for Easter with our family in Eastbourne, my wife and I returned on 2 April by train to Barnstaple. We left at 9am to get the train from Brighton. The train was full but after a long trek we found seats in different parts of the train. Many were standing and when we had to get off at Clapham Junction we struggled to unload our heavy luggage from the mass stacked on top of it out to the platform. After a half an hour wait we got on the train to Exeter. We found seats but many late comers had to stand.
“But the worst part of the journey was the last leg from Exeter to Barnstaple. The train was already full with no room for luggage or cycles. Like many others we had to stand but eventually two people gave up their seats to us which was very kind because one of us is well over 80 and we were both very tired. Even then the journey was awful. The carriage bumped and swayed more like the upper deck of a cattle truck than a train and the frequent stops made the journey seem endless. The train manager was noticeably absent, doubtless aware of the seething angry mass on board or perhaps just unable to get through the train.
“Compare all this with trains in Europe where buying a ticket gives you a number for a comfortable seat. Questions of health and safety must be raised about such overcrowding over here. What if someone is taken seriously ill? Would they still be vertical when the undertaker arrived?
“Just before Christmas I had the pleasure to use the Park and Ride in Barnstaple. My journey was from Landkey to the NDDH. So I decided to park at the Newport P&R. The bus took me straight through the centre of town where, if required, I could have got off. I continued to the hospital where there were no problems with car parking and saved myself the parking charges. I was on time for my appointment and afterwards caught the next bus back to town 15 minutes later. Perfect! Except it took longer to get through Boutport Street than it did to come down from the hospital. This was due to the single carriageway provided through parts of the street because of parking on both sides. Two buses cannot pass each other between Vicarage Street and Bear Street and Butchers Row. How can this be when you could fire a gun on the Strand and North Walk and not hit a vehicle; it’s empty.
We have the best opportunities here to provide proper bus lanes. Another underused thoroughfare is Taw Vale and the Square. May I suggest an anticlockwise, one-way bus route system in the centre of Barnstaple. This is the 21st century. We have just spent over £40 million on the western by-pass to clear the choked town centre only to make it a glorified car park. Who is responsible for all this, DCC?”
A Bickington resident [name and address supplied] writes:
“I had to go to a funeral in Egloshayle, near Wadebridge earlier this week. That’s about 45 miles away from where I live on the Bideford side of Barnstaple. At one time I would have gone by car, but those days are long past. Public transport it had to be. What an eye-opener!
“The service was to begin at 2.30 pm. My journey to Egloshayle involved bus to Barnstaple station, train to Exeter St Davids, another train from St Davids to Plymouth, then yet another from there to Bodmin Parkway. From Bodmin Parkway to Egloshayle was another bus. On the way back it was just the same, only in reverse: two bus rides with three train journeys in between.
“When I used to drive, I could have done the journey each way in an hour and a half or perhaps a bit less. This time, using public transport, it was different. Starting at 9 am, getting to Egloshayle from my house took five hours. Getting back took five and a half. Even then, I had had to leave the funeral service before it finished.
“Why such a difference? I appreciate that there is no direct public transport link between Barnstaple and Wadebridge, let alone Egloshayle. I had to take a circuitous route, back to Barnstaple, down to Exeter, along to Plymouth and Bodmin, and finally up to Egloshayle. I’d guess about 120 miles in all. Then the same all the way back. Much further to do the journey by bus and train, of course, but four hours further? In each direction? Why?
“One reason was that there were so many changes I had to make. Changes between bus and train, and between one train and another, five changes in all in each direction. We have to accept these. By why did they have to take so long? On the way down to Egloshayle, changes accounted for well over an hour of my journey. On the way back, they took up nearly two and a half hours. That’s three and a half hours or more, getting nowhere at all. A complete drag.
“As for the trains themselves, the one between Barnstaple and Exeter, and the ones in each direction between Plymouth and Bodmin Parkway, were heavily overcrowded. The notice board at Bodmin Parkway said “full and standing”. This was an understatement, to say the least.
“It was not a journey that I would want to do again by public transport if I could help it.”
NDPTU comment: We imagine that journeys between northern Devon and the Bodmin/Wadebridge area in Cornwall are quite common. Given the difficulties ‘Bickington resident’ describes, we suspect that few would opt to make them by public transport by choice. Other than by the introduction of a bus service between Barnstaple and Wadebridge or Bodmin, there is no way of making this lengthy journey shorter in terms of mileage. However, we can ask what stands in the way of making it quicker in terms of time.
Three things are involved. One is the speed of each part of the journey. A second is how long it takes to make the connections between the different parts. NDPTU takes both very seriously. In ‘Connections between Trains and Buses at Barnstaple’, we have already begun to look at the second. We shall look into this much further and extend our examination to look at connections between trains at Exeter St Davids. As for the speed of each part of the journey, this will always be central to our concerns.
A third involves how public transport relates to people where they live. ‘Bickington resident’, who lives near a well-served bus route, is one of the lucky ones. Others, who live far from bus or train routes, are not so fortunate. A better developed public transport network would give access to far more people. Here is yet another matter we have to take up.
“I am on a course at Bicton College and travel between Torrington and my college digs in Exmouth nearly every weekend, on Monday and Friday evenings.
“I have been given a sponsored seat bus card, which gives me free travel from Exmouth to the College, as well as a discount on Stagecoach Devon bus services – single tickets anywhere after 6 and at weekends for £1 – so I can get between Exmouth and Torrington for £2 each way.
“This, however, comes with some problems, such as Bank Holiday Mondays, and the long wait at Exeter on Friday evenings travelling home. I get the 57 bus at 6.27pm, which arrives at Exeter around 7.00 – then I have to wait for the last 315 service to Torrington – departs 7.55, arriving Torrington at 9.22 – a 3 hour journey.
“When I first started college, I used the train, but an open return from Exmouth to Barnstaple is £16 and I just couldn’t afford that every week, plus the bus from Barnstaple to Torrington.
“I used the train recently on a Bank Holiday Monday (no buses) and it cost £9.40 for a single. Then a friend, who had done the same journey, told me about the ‘Night Rider’ or ‘Rail Ranger’ £5 ticket for a single anywhere by train after 6pm. There is very little publicity for this discount, and I have many a time paid full price on a train after 6pm – this needs to change!!!”
“I travelled from Liverpool to Devon on the 12th of August  on the 18.04 departure from Liverpool Lime Street. I found it very hard to find a cheaper ticket; the cheapest ticket I found was £53.50 to Umberleigh which meant me staying in Exeter St Davids overnight. I proceeded to buy the cheaper ticket and got family to pick me up from Tiverton Parkway at 10.30pm. Otherwise I would have had to pay £120.00 for the day service.
“My opinion is that I think there should be more late night cheaper services to Umberleigh and other stations in Devon.”
Here is a story about the difficulty in travelling from Torrington to Exeter Magistrates’ Court to arrive by 10.00am.
If you have a story to tell about difficulties with the north Devon public transport system, please contact us.
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