26 March 2006

Soap Box Sunday- Free Travel

"A soapbox is a raised, improvised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech, often about a political subject. Alternately, the word may be used to describe the box that soap comes in." Wikipedia

As the free travel scheme starts next Saturday it has been interesting watching the subject starting to appear in local news sites across the country as pensioners slowly begin to find out exactly what they are getting (or not getting) in the way of free travel.

Typical is this story:

An older bus user is angry about a new free travel scheme for over-60s which will leave him out of pocket because he has to travel in the rush hour.The Government scheme, which starts on Saturday, April 1, gives free bus travel after 8.30am, but takes no account of the increasing army of elderly workers who use public transport. The change also means the old concessionary pass system, which benefited many workers over 60, will be thrown out.From next month, Kingsley Canham, 61, who has to leave much earlier than 8.30am to get to work on time, will have to pay full fares - doubling his travel costs. Full story

Note that this is Norfolk where the council has agreed to pay a bit extra to fund an hour extension and start at 08:30 instead of 09:30 which is the governments suggested time. Plymouth of course has just gone for the minimum it can get away with. Many pensioners who work will be caught out having to pay full fare. Stories like this are appearing all over the country - although I have seen little down here where the local paper seems dis-interested.

Of course it cant have been missed that the recent budget has promised a national scheme from 2008. So why couldnt it have been a national scheme in the first place? Because once again its just a cynical ploy by Gordon Brown to make it look like he is thinking about pensioners when the rest of the budget is clearly unfriendly to this increasingly vocal group.

Bus operators too are expecting a difficult time of it. In Cumberland there is this report about the major operators difficulties.

BUS operators across Cumbria are gearing up for a huge increase in passengers when subsidised travel for pensioners is implemented across the country. Stagecoach North West, Cumbria’s biggest operator, faces a logistical nightmare as six different schemes are introduced in the county. The company anticipates an increase in demand of between 10 per cent and 40 per cent from April 1. It already has plans to double the frequency of some popular services and plans to take on extra staff to cope. The company is also training staff to deal with the complex system of fares caused by the differing schemes offered by the various district councils. Stagecoach North West boss Nigel Barrett said: “It’s not quite as simple as free fares for pensioners – it depends on where you live and what your local authority has decided to implement as a scheme. “It is extremely complicated. In Cumbria we have six different authorities and four different schemes, because each of the local authorities has done their own thing. “We are looking very carefully at all services to make sure there is sufficient space on them when it starts.”

Last year’s budget saw the Government announce free off-peak bus travel for over-60s. However, Cumbria’s six district councils went a step further and decided to offer add-on benefits. Mr Barrett added: “It is an absolutely massive headache – there are 27 different schemes we deal with in the North West. “There could be a pensioner boarding a bus from Carlisle going to Newcastle and there are seven different fares we could issue depending on where they come from. “It’s a complicated set-up compared to the Scottish scheme, it’s appalling. We are desperately trying to get our house in order to make sure that drivers understand on April 1.” FirstEdinburgh, who run the service from Carlisle to the Scottish capital, have already trained their drivers. Adding to the confusion, the new fares schemes across Cumbria will be introduced on the same day as Scotland introduces free travel for pensioners throughout the country.

A really good read which I think sums up the cynical nature of all this from Gordon Brown is in the Telegraph.

Brown robs pensioners blind, then offers free coach trips

In the old days, poorer pensioners used to go to a public library when they wanted to keep warm. But now that so many libraries are shutting down or restricting their opening hours, Gordon Brown has offered the elderly an alternative refuge from the cold.

In his Budget speech, Mr Brown failed to explain what national interest would be served by making all taxpayers (including the elderly) foot the bill for pensioners' coach tickets. All he said was: "From April 1, there will be free local bus travel for every pensioner and for disabled people. But I believe that there should also be free national bus travel."
Well, what a peculiar thing to believe - no less extraordinary than believing that the Government should give all pensioners a free rubber duck for their baths or a free cuckoo clock for the wall.

Well, I do hope that many pensioners will get some use out of the scheme and that it will prove useful. I hope that those who do find the restrictions to free travel restrict their use of the buses, will not take it out on the driver. Somehow this last 'hope' is probably the one which wont be realised!

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