On the Buses; for Many Rural Welsh Motorists Worried about Rising Fuel Costs, the Only Alternative Is the TrawsCambria Long-Distance Bus. Rhodri Clark Takes a Ride on One Such Bus to See Howit Compares with European Coaches - and Whether It Would Meet the Expectations of People Accustomed to Car and Train Travel

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Byline: Rhodri Clark

THERE'S an area of western Europe where the coast, rivers and lush green mountains are barriers to overland transport. Internal trains offer scenic but slow rides. Mainline trains are a poor alternative because they're focused on travel to the distant state capital. Fortunately there are coaches connecting main towns and cities.

This could be a description of Wales, but for that last sentence.

The area in question is north-west Spain. The coaches are far from perfect - they do not connect with each other or with trains, for example - but services are fast and the vehicles are comfortable, air-conditioned coaches with bags of space under the floor for luggage.

And, as a measure of the coach's distinctly broad appeal over there, that space is rarely needed, because so many of the passengers are professionals carrying briefcases or small bags.

Wales used to have its own long-distance coach, called TrawsCambria. Five years ago the Welsh Assembly Government decided to improve it, increasing it from one a day to two-hourly.

Other routes were brought under the same umbrella, connecting with other public transport in key locations.

It was a big improvement. But funding constraints meant Traws- Cambria had to cater for local and long-distance journeys at the same time. The WAG specified lowfloor buses - as opposed to state-of-the art coaches - with no toilets or luggage racks, for journeys of up to four hours at a stretch.

Having used Spanish coaches earlier this month, I wanted to see how TrawsCambria compared and made my way to Brecon for the 10.25amservice to Newtown.

I had a Wales Flexi Pass (rail and bus) and the other four passengers were pensioners with free passes.

The bus was unbearably stuffy and the heaters were working although it was a sunny June day - making conditions inside less like the air-conditioned comfort of a Spanish coach and more like a blistering August day on the arid Spanish plains. Needless to say, I opened a window before sitting down.

Most seats were in the low part of the bus, where big windows gave good views of nothing more than the hedgerows. I chose to sit in raised rear part, where the windows were smaller but at least I could see the countryside. None of the seats had armrests, and several were sideways to the direction of travel.

The draw back of sitting near the back was the constant noise and vibration from the engine. Every bump on the road made itself known - and there were many. On smooth roads, the bus shuddered every few hundred yards, as if the front and rear wheels were in conflict.

We left the A470 to take a slow detour through Beeches Park, a quiet residential road in Boughrood. A car parked on the road forced the bus onto the pavement and back down with a heavy jolt. Eventually we rejoined the A470 at the junction where we turned off three minutes earlier.

Nobody had joined or alighted, and I wondered why this long-distance bus couldn't save time and discomfort by calling at a stop on the A470 when required.

Builth Wells, with its temporary traffic lights, swallowed another 10minutes. There's no bus stop on the A470 by the river bridge. We crawled through the town centre and doubled back to a stop about 200 yards from the bridge.

Without the breeze through the open window, I was starting to sweat as we picked up more passengers, including the first fare-paying ones of the journey.

Some pensioners were happy in their cardigans or jackets. It dawned on me that the driver had judged the temperature correctly, given that this was primarily a pensioners' service. …