There was a good TV programme on BBC4 last week (so it will probably be repeated on BBC4 for the next month) about the Doctor Beeching cuts of 1962 – of the train service, when line after line was axed in the pursuit of efficiency. It was presented by Ian Hislop, who is actually very good at this kind of documentary. One hesitates to say it, but he should have been a teacher. Still, I expect being editor of Private Eye and co-host of Have I Got News For You? pays a bit more. I remember the furore, and it reminded me of ‘Bradshaw’, the huge volume of train times, which told you how to get from A to B via X and Y, and, I think, possibly even the price. The railway cuts were a disaster, but then so was British Rail, which was the default setting for every gag-merchant. ‘British Rail.’ Cue laughter. Steam engines weren’t cute then, just dirty, and the sandwiches you bought were almost certainly only any use if you wanted to catch botulism. But you could find a route on all sorts of branch lines.
I am rabbiting like this because the village in which I have now lived for 11 years, in the middle of Devonian nowhere, has a new transport problem: too many buses. The village is about the same size as it was 150 years ago, because the local Earl (of Portsmouth, not that Portsmouth is anywhere near here, that’s just the English way) decided he’d like a railway across his land, and paid for it. The main road, which used to go through our village (it was on the Barnstaple-Exeter-London route!), moved to nestle next to the railway. So the village is preserved, just a little, in aspic.
When I moved here, there were, I think, two buses a day, and very few people travelled on them. Now there are two companies vying for the village trade. Their buses come through the village six times (i.e twelve in total) each day – at the same time. One bus company has just lowered its fares to beat the other one. They want the route. The word is that the bigger company (‘Stagecoach’) is trying to undercut the other out of business. The village rumbles with buses all day.
And still almost nobody travels on them.