Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Riding the once a week X6!

Living in a large urban area, I'm used to having good bus service frequencies. If the route is badged as "every 8 minutes", I'm reaching for my wrist if 10 minutes goes by without said service approaching.
But I'm fascinated by rural bus services.
It's easy to place to one side in your mind the sheer importance of some rural services. Yes, like never before, many of these are coming under scrutiny because many ain't cheap! And we all know the plaintive cry from some corners about value for money, etc.
It's only right to examine what rural services we're spending our council tax on, but it's much harder to quantify the social worth of some of these. And one things for certain - when they're gone, it's not gonna be easy to bring them back!
North Wales is a particular favourite lurking place of mine. From my home in the Black Country, I'm soon into Shropshire, across the border into Denbighshire and the first hint of the Principality at Llangollen.
Usually, I drive beyond, through Corwen (where the old tiny Crosville garage is now an equally tiny car dealership) towards Betwys-y-Coed, through Llanrwst into Llandudno. Many a happy holiday was spent here as a child, and I love to come here as often as possible.
Perusing the Conwy timetable booklet one evening (as you do!), I came across a Saturday only service that runs from Llangollen, right through to Llandudno. The scenery along this route is often quite beautiful, but as a motorist you don't appreciate this readily.
Only one thing for it - I had to give it a go!
Most of Llangollen's bus services use Parade Street - it's become a kind of "mini-hub" for the town's bus services. I was even impressed to see that the town has an almost high-frequency service - the 5 to Wrexham every 15 minutes! There is an equally busy parking attendent, who had watched closely as I paid my £3.50 to park up earlier, and was now taking pictures of awkwardly parked cars and watching vehicles who had stopped in and around the bus area. He politely moved on 2 cars whilst I was there!
Across the road from Parade Street, Arriva's X94 Trawscambria leaves roughly 2-hourly for Bala, Dolgellau and Barmouth, and a small collection of intending passengers were awaiting its arrival on Llangollen Bridge as I awaited my X6.
The Tourist Information Centre has lots of information on local bus services, including the helpful (and free) timetable books published by Denbighshire and Conwy County Councils - a rarity in England these days for entirely understandable reasons - they would often be out of date as soon as the ink dried. Much of North Wales's rural network is obviously subsidised though, so there is possibly a larger degree of certainty in publishing. The Internet may be a wonderful thing, but a timetable book is a great addition to have for the intrepid bus traveller!
Padarn Bus X6 is subsidised by Conwy Council. It's inward journey from Bangor arrives a good 35 minutes ahead of it's Llandudno departure - a turnaround time some drivers in the West Midlands would kill for! It is whilst I am examining the ice-cream prices that Padarn's X6 arrives into Parade Street. A smart looking Optare Solo in red / silver colours. It is obviously used on Snowdon Sherpa network routes as it displays a message on its sides that a trip on each Snowdon service costs only £1. Bargain!
The driver has already changed his display to Llandudno, but the bus is parked up, engine off and driver off to find a sandwich (he returns later with a small bag of something that is swiftly depositied into his sandwich box).
I check the departure time on the bus stop pole. The layout of the timetable isn't all that easy to understand for the uninitiated - it takes me a few moments to identify the X6.
But then, the cardinal sin - it's wrong! At least it appears to be wrong. X6 shows as leaving at 1048, which is the time for the next village along, Corwen. The timetable validity matches that of the booklet, so I hover around semi-nervously to see what happens next.
Encouragingly, there are around 8 people who appear to want to catch the bus, and the driver appears at around 1020 (with aforementioned package for sandwich box) and begins to load up. There are a couple of hikers with rather large back-packs who intend to go roaming beyond Betwys-y-Coed. A couple of tourists. And a lady who seems to be a regular and offers to close the window "if it gets draughty" - such manners I rarely come across in deepest Birmingham.....
The hikers are asking a number of questions, and the bus finally departs 6 minutes late at 1036, but its obviously supposedc to go at 1030, so a quick email to Denbighshire County Council to inform them o the timetable inaccuaracy is noted for action.
The ride encompasses some of North Wales's most rugged scenery , and at £4.60 for a return ticket that takes just under 2 hours end to end is a real bargain!
Some of the joining passengers are regulars who greet the driver and many o them are using concessionary passes - the now familiar bleep of the pass reader is becoming one of those noises you simply hear everywhere on buses these days....
We're slightly late into Betws-y-Coed. The glorious weather has brought many people out and the traffic in this small yet bustling tourist town is very busy. The hikers disembark, timetable book in hand. Express Motors bright yellow X1 to Blaneau Ffestiniog is also touting for passengers in the small bus turnaround near the station.
We eventually make our way into Llandudno - "The Queen Of The North Wales Coast" as the tourist brochures describe it - and I'm feeling rather smug to be arriving in this way as the town is beginning to struggle under the weight of cars trying to find a car park space in the town.
The regulars get off, shopping bags in hand. It's almost a bit like a coach trip as the less-regulars (me included) double check the return time, as if you miss it, that's it! (although I can think of worse places to be stranded!)
"Ten Past Three?" I ask tentitively. "Yes Please" replies the impeccible driver.
So I have just under 3 hours to ride the Great Orme Tram, devour a 99 (with a flake in, since you asked) and watch the comings and goings of Arriva's local network, which includes at least one vehicle repainted into traditional Crosville green complete with classic fleetname to celebrate this year's centenary of the erstwhile North Wales operator.
Everyone is back on at 15:10 an we're off again, along winding roads and beautiful scenery, back towards Llangollen.
What to make of such a service?
It's an obvious lifeline for some of the locals. For others, it's part of a wider adventure for tourists and hikers.
But it's largely a well-kept secret. The £4.60 fare is one of the best public transport bargains I've had in recent times. And I sat back and enjoyed some of Wales's most dramatic scenery whilst being chauffered in a very clean and attractive vehicle.
It's surely a service that deserves to be more widely advertised so that more people could enjoy. But I guess such a budget will sit firmly on the backburner in the coming few years.
In the meantime, I hope the X6 survives the ever-present and active axe of the accountants. It's a service that is well-operated and seemingly well-appreciated.


  1. I live in Corwen and will have a over 60's travel pass soon which I'm planning to use extensively. Your article was very enjoyable to read and very informative. Well done, keep it up

    Mr Kevin Duffy
    Corwen, Denbighshire

  2. Hi Kevin, thanks for your kind comments!
    You may wish to check the bus information locally as the X6 no longer exists in the form I wrote about last year! Try www.conwy.gov.uk for up to date information on the "new" version of the X6!
    You live in a lovely part of the world, and I'm looking forward to riding on the Llangollen railway as far as Corwen again soon!

  3. The X6 is now twice a day Mon-Sat. But only runs Bala (Tuesdays Only)-Corwen-Llanwrst

    Daniel King