Why Merthyr jobseekers can't just get on the bus

What’s causing the current unemployment problems? According to Iain Duncan Smith, it’s a failure to look beyond your home town for work. He gives the example of Merthyr Tydfil, whose inhabitants “didn’t know that if they got on a bus, an hour’s journey, they’d be in Cardiff and they could look for the job there”.

Sunny Hundal sums up IDS’s argument with the unions and subsequent backtracking, while the PCS union gives figures: in brief, there are 15,000 people in Cardiff chasing just 1,700 job vacancies, so the issue isn’t jobseekers’ refusal to travel.

But I’m more interested in IDS’s other assumption: the idea that getting a bus from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff is unproblematic.

The PCS points out that the last bus from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil leaves at 11:06pm, which rules out bar work. But I have other issues with that breezy assurance that it’s a simple hour’s bus journey from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re a jobseeker, living in Merthyr, who watched the Newsnight programme. You’re excited to hear this very important man tell tales of a magical town called Cardiff, just one hour away, where the streets are paved with gold and you’ll get a job easily.

You decide that you must reach this magical place right away. Let’s assume you’re a jobseeker with good computer skills, a computer and a working internet connection. So your first step is to look up directions from Merthyr to Cardiff on Google Maps, then select the By public transit option.

Google Maps tells you that it’s 1hr 11mins from central Merthyr Tydfil to central Cardiff and gives you a link to Traveline for route information. Traveline gives you helpful timetable information but won’t let you buy a ticket and won’t give you ticket prices. (I tried ringing them and got as far as “Could you tell me the price of a return ticket from -” before the nice lady cut me off.)

So you go back to Google Maps and spot that although they’re linking to Traveline for the info, the service is actually run by National Express. It’s the 509 coach from Swansea to London. So it’s not actually a bus at all; it’s a coach. Which means you can’t just get on one. You have to book in advance.

But, unlike many other jobseekers, you have computer + internet + skills. So you work out that you have to do a websearch for the National Express website, then use the site to book a ticket on the coach. You’re smart enough to work out that the site doesn’t understand “cardiff” as a destination and you choose CARDIFF (Coach Station) from the dropdown.

There’s a coach leaving Merthyr at 7:20am, which will get you into central Cardiff for 8:20am. That’s great for a 9am start somewhere near the centre. And it’s nice and cheap, too; around £2.60 for an economy day return. Of course, if you miss it, there will be a two-hour wait for the next coach. And because coaches aren’t buses, missing your chosen coach means losing the money you’ve already paid and risking the chance that you won’t be able to get on the next one at all.

But that’s OK. You’ll be awake all night thinking about the magical city, so there’s no way you’ll sleep through the alarm.

So you book. (This is possible for you because you have either a credit card or a debit card.) You then have to choose how you would prefer to receive your ticket.

  • You can have it sent to your email address as an e-ticket, but you must be able to print it off yourself. Sadly, although you are very privileged compared to many other jobseekers, you don’t have a printer.
  • Or there’s the “m-ticket” option. This lets you receive your ticket as a text message sent to your mobile for 50p extra.
  • Finally, there’s the “pick up from collection point” option. But Merthyr Tydfil isn’t listed as one of the possible collection points.

So you go for the “m-ticket” option and hope it actually works. It bumps the fare up to £3.10. (The National Express website tries to add an extra £1 for travel insurance, which would take your total up to £4.10, but you’re observant enough to untick the box.)

Then you realise that if you get a job and choose to commute by coach, you will have to go through this booking rigmarole every time you have a day’s work, because the National Express site doesn’t give you the option to purchase multiple tickets in the same transaction.

Anybody who’s done shift work like waitressing will know that you don’t always get much notice about your shifts. Typically, the rota for one week will be posted up in your workplace the previous week. Fine, unless you’re getting to work on a coach that has to be pre-booked. There’s always the risk that other people will book up the seats on the Swansea-London route before you get the chance. (If Bonnie Tyler plays Wembley, you know you’re in trouble.)

There is another option, of course: you could commute by train. As Slugger O’Toole points out,

Merthyr to Cardiff is an hour on the train, with 13 intermediate stops. The Tories are on the verge of cancelling the electrification of the Great Western Railway. That would be the precursor to the electrification of the Valleys network – where the benefits of rapid acceleration and decelerating would really effect [sic] journey times. I reckon electrification could knock a quarter of an hour off the Merthyr Cardiff journey.

An Anytime Day Return is £6.30. Minimum wage has just gone up to £5.93/hour for workers aged over 21, so you’ll spend at least an hour’s wages on the train fare. But the trains are more frequent than the coaches and you can buy your ticket with cash on the day, so it’s the more convenient option.

I realise I’ve gone into a lot of detail here. But I wanted to go step-by-step through the process that a Merthyr-based jobseeker would have to go through if they found work in Cardiff. And I’ve made some assumptions along the way. For things to work out as easily as I’ve described, this hypothetical jobseeker would have to have:

  • A computer
  • A working internet connection
  • Money to pay return fares for the four weeks before their first pay packet: £3.10 or £6.30 x 20 is £62 or £126.
  • Good computer/web skills
  • A credit or debit card
  • No mobility problems

Without those advantages – advantages not available to all jobseekers – arranging daily travel into Cardiff would be much, much harder.

But even with all those advantages, my hypothetical jobseeker would still be limited to central Cardiff, to workplaces within walking distance of the coach or train station. A job in another part of Cardiff would add another leg to the journey, pushing the total journey time towards the two-hour mark and adding to the cost. So the number of vacancies available at the end of an hour’s journey is even less than the 1,700 quoted by the PCS.

Iain Duncan Smith isn’t pretending to have actually been to Merthyr Tydfil. He admits to basing his statement on “a very good [television] programme” he watched “the other day”. But he is using an imaginary bus service to support his argument about the causes of unemployment - and then has the nerve to describe the unions as "out of touch with reality".

Other people have called him out on the availability of jobs. My task here has been to call him out on the availability of public transport to get to those jobs, and – I hope – demonstrate the massive weight of unexamined privilege behind his words.