Shine A Light

Barnsley Freedom Riders: pensioner people power

In South Yorkshire rail passengers resist the removal of free travel for retired and disabled people.

John Grayson
9 May 2014
  • BarnsleyStation.jpg
    Freedom Riders, Barnsley Station, April 2014 (Sadie Robinson)
  • We shall not, we shall not be stopped.
  • We shall not, we shall not be stopped
  • We are protestors riding on the Freedom Train,
  • We shall not be stopped!
  • We will ride that train,
  • We will ride that train,
  • We will ride that train, for free
  • Oh deep in our hearts we do believe
  • We will ride that train, today.

One hundred and fifty Barnsley citizens gather in one of the small entrances to Barnsley’s Interchange railway station one sunny Monday morning. There are women and men, veterans of strikes and political campaigns over the years, men wearing their war medals, disabled campaigners, some in wheelchairs. They are singing and chanting “We want to get on to the train”, their song sheets are full of campaign versions of standards like “We shall not be moved” and “We shall overcome”.

This is the 29 April, and the fifth Monday Freedom Ride of pensioners and disabled people protesting at the decision of the South Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority (SYITA) to end free rail travel concessions. Barnsley people have had travel concessions on rail and bus services throughout South and West Yorkshire since the 1985 Transport Act. Labour introduced a national scheme for bus passes in 2000. The cuts threaten to reduce rights down to the national scheme which is also at risk after the 2015 election.

Barnsley's retired and disabled people have been able to travel during the day to Sheffield or Leeds for shopping, leisure and work. Family contacts and caring responsibilities have been retained by trips to the towns and villages along the lines – Elsecar, Wombwell, and Chapeltown one way: Penistone and Huddersfield another: and to Royston, Wakefield and Leeds.  

Rail trips to the Meadowhall shopping centre between Barnsley and Sheffield were especially popular among retired Barnsley women, and often essential. One elderly Barnsley woman told campaigners that she travelled most days in winter to spend time in the heated Meadowhall centre to save money on heating so that she could spend a little more on food. Meadowhall has become the meeting point for the Freedom Riders over the past weeks. The travel concessions cost the four South Yorkshire authorities £234,000 in a budget of £78.6 million. Researchers told the Freedom Riders that for every £1 spent on concessionary travel £1.50 was generated in the local economy in consumer and leisure spending.

The twelve councillors (all men) on the Authority decided to axe the scheme at their meeting in their Regent Street premises in Barnsley on 6 March. This was despite the fact that at the meeting Alan Thorpe, representing the county’s visually impaired public transport service users, said that the proposed service cuts to free travel before 9.30 would affect the dignity of the visually impaired and cause embarrassment, creating issues with having to take tickets and dealing with loose change. He pointed out that most stations were unstaffed, making the purchase of tickets for pre 9.30 travel very difficult. It was noted that the Mayor of Doncaster did not support the proposed subsidy cuts which unfairly targeted the young, elderly and disabled.

Back on 1 March, when there was a rumour that free rail travel was to be ended, a meeting was called at Barnsley’s Central Library – three hundred people turned up and an overspill room had to be found. On 6 March a hundred and fifty people turned out to lobby the South Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority meeting in Barnsley but thanks to the seven votes of Barnsley and Sheffield councillors a majority carried the decision to end free travel.

Outside the Barnsley Interchange, Fran Postlethwaite, a retired English teacher and former National Union of Teachers secretary, leads the Meadowhall shoppers, carers, volunteers and disabled workers in chanting the names of the two Barnsley councillors who voted for the cuts

“Leech and Miller hear us say: Free train travel here to stay”

Banner, Barnsley Democracy DayTosh McDonald, the national vice president of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, congratulates the Freedom Riders for fighting for rights which will preserve rail services. In the crowd is the ninety one year old former ASLEF train driver Bill Ronksley, until recently secretary of the Sheffield Trades Council.

A speaker from the Yorkshire Region of the National Pensioners Convention brings greetings and unanimous support from their AGM in Bradford. The (young) UNITE Community union organiser speaks and gives solidarity and support. A message is read from former Home Secretary and Sheffield MP David Blunkett:

"I am deeply concerned. I am sure there is a way forward that would provide a compromise and I will continue to pursue this both with my fellow MPs and with the council."

Blunkett, who is blind and has a guide dog, led Sheffield’s Labour council when cheap fares dominated local politics in the 1980’s. Before then, he had worked as a college lecturer in Barnsley.

The entrance to the station platform is blocked by a wedge of British Transport (BT) police and rather embarrassed looking Network Rail personnel. Freedom Riders at the front loudly protest at being shoved around. George Arthur, a retired primary school teacher and union activist, on the megaphone, challenges the police and asks why they are getting so aggressive and violent with a peaceful demonstration. George, one of the organisers of the Freedom Ride, had earlier read out declarations from the UN and Council of Europe on the rights of free assembly.

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 BT 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.

As the train leaves two very respectable looking Barnsley women shout to the police across the tracks using a chanted insult from the Miners Strike in softened Barnsley accents “Who are you? Who are you?” (They omit the response — about coppers and bastards). A young regular Barnsley policeman stood nearby, familiar with the chant, replies – "I am a mother’s son." One of the women says gently to him.

“Yes and my son’s disabled that’s why I am here – he won’t be able to get free travel to his work – that’s why we’re all here.”

A year of people power in Barnsley

Last Saturday (3 May) was Stand Up for Democracy Day in Barnsley town centre, with stalls and activists from the Freedom Rides and other recent campaigns. This past year has been a year of people power in Barnsley and the former mining villages around the town. Barnsley has developed one of the strongest and liveliest local campaigns against the Bedroom Tax with groups forming in the town and the nearby villages and estates of Hoyland, Athersley, Worsborough, Cudworth and Royston. The campaign held regular demonstrations outside the town hall and the local magistrates’ court and has forced the local council to use funds to pay off the arrears of many of the 3000 tenants affected.

Standing up for democracy, Barnsley (John Grayson)Users of Barnsley Central Library - retired teachers and lawyers, students, disabled people, researchers, mothers and children from reading groups, asylum seekers and refugees — were faced with a council decision to demolish the Library in late 2013, and a campaign began. The Library had been refurbished by the Council at the cost of £2m only a few years ago. The campaign regularly attracted more than 50 campaigners to its organising meetings, and lobbies of the council, and presented the largest petition ever received by councillors with 13,000 signatures.

The local Barnsley Trades Council has been rejuvenated with active support for local strikes and walkouts by civil service staffs, fire-fighters, teachers, bus drivers, ambulance crews, and care workers. The UNITE union’s Community branch has opened a support and welfare advice centre in the Miners Union offices – a useful counterpoint to the two food banks nearby in the town centre.

There are more Freedom Rides planned – pensioner people power still rules and may well restore the right to free travel and some dignity for South Yorkshire people.

As this piece goes online, local newspaper The Star is reporting that Councillor Sir Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, says 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. Houghton added: “I do want to stress this is not a result of people who have been breaking the law.”

All right, Steve.

Thanks to George Arthur and the Freedom Riders for material for this article. Thanks to Sadie Robinson for her picture, first published here on Socialist Worker.

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