|There is no alternative say bankers and politicians; these activists disagree!|
“So after being told there was no alternative to the travel cuts….. Great news on the climbdown by local councils! We’ve won so much, we can fight for the complete reinstatement of concessionary travel! Congratulations to everyone who’s taken part and helped bring this victory!” – Statement on the ‘Fight travel cuts in south Yorkshire’ Facebook group
A group of pensioner and disabled bus and train users have overturned a cut to fare concessions by the South Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority. By using direct action tactics on their self-proclaimed ‘freedom rides’, they have embarrassed the powers that be into backtracking, and struck a small but significant blow against the ‘there is no alternative’ austerity mantra.
Disabled and pension age Barnsley people have had rail and bus concessions throughout South and West Yorkshire since 1985. This costs the four South Yorkshire local authorities £234,000 per year, but previously all had chipped in, no doubt largely because it was believed that for every £1 spent on concessionary travel £1.50 was generated in the local economy in consumer and leisure spending.
However, the local authority decided at the beginning of March that even this stimulus was not affordable in this age of austerity. That meeting was lobbied by 150 demonstrators, after a campaign group had been established by a meeting of three hundred at Barnsley Central Library. Legal protest methods had failed.
Then came the weekly ‘freedom rides’. Starting in April, they saw Barnsley activists simply catching the train to the Meadowhall shopping centre to rally with their Sheffield comrades. Of course, they did not pay to do so.
On 28th April, the direct action was disrupted by the police. In the words of Open Democracy‘s reporter:
“The Barnsley Freedom Riders had planned to board a train to the Meadowhall shopping centre for the now regular Monday rally with Sheffield Freedom Riders. The police hold their ground and the train comes and goes. Dave Gibson, retired college lecturer and chair of the Barnsley Trades Council, calls for a vote and a decision is taken to stay and demand to get on the next train. News comes through that the Sheffield Freedom Riders had gathered at Meadowhall and twenty five protestors are coming to join Barnsley. A second train comes and the police stand firm.
“We all begin to realise that the Sheffield supporters will arrive on the opposite platform. The [British Transport] police had not been told to block the other platform entrance so we all headed over the station bridge and simply walked on and waited for the train, the police and rail officials looking on from the other side of the tracks. The Sheffield train arrives and the Barnsley Freedom Riders board, with their placards and chants, to join the Sheffield group on the train. We cheer and applaud them. The freedom ride is a bit shorter than usual – just up the line to Penistone, but we are all on the train and refusing to pay.”
The following week’s scene was described by the Sheffield Star:
“Elderly and disabled campaigners fighting travel cuts in South Yorkshire had their latest ‘freedom ride’ protest blocked today. Defiant residents were stopped from getting on trains and riding without paying to Meadowhall by British Transport Police and rail staff at Barnsley station. But they rallied outside the entrance, which was blocked by staff, to chant, wave placards and sing in the lively protest demonstration.”
But just days later, the Star reported that:
“Coun Sir Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, confirmed that plans to reinstate all free travel for disabled people and offer half price train travel to pensioners from 9.30am would be put to a transport chiefs’ meeting on May 19.”
He went on to farcically state that: “I do want to stress this is not a result of people who have been breaking the law.”
The activists are planning a demonstration in Barnsley tomorrow, and a lobby of the Monday meeting.