Originally published in the Daily Mirror, by Ros Wynne-Jones.
Ros Wynne-Jones meets a growing movement of hundreds of pensioners and disabled people in South and West Yorkshire, the two men have refused to accept cuts to their free services and have been refusing to pay their fares.
Arriving at the former offices of the National Union of Mineworkers in Barnsley, 30 years after the Miners’ Strike, I’m seeking an Arthur who has clashed with police and is seen as a political agitator.
But instead of finding Scargill, the former miners’ leader, I’m met by George Arthur, a retired primary school teacher of 64, from the Barnsley Retirees Action Group. He arrives with Tony Nuttal, a 66-year-old grandfather and former health service manager. Both are wearing white badges saying “Freedom Riders”.
Part of a growing movement of hundreds of pensioners and disabled people in South and West Yorkshire, the two men have refused to accept cuts to their free services and have been refusing to pay their fares.
On June 23, they were in a group of elderly and disabled people who were “kettled” by police on a train platform.
Shocking footage showed a frail Tony being heavily restrained by British Transport Police. As the video circulated around social media – with almost 5,000 shares on the Mirror site alone – George and Tony became heroes.
George and Tony shake their heads. “We’re just the ones the authorities decided were the ringleaders,” George says. “But we don’t have leaders, we’re a democratic movement.” When Labour introduced a national scheme for free bus passes in 2000, South and West Yorkshire councils added on free train travel for pensioners and disabled people from 9am.
“They recognised that rural bus services were slow and often infrequent,” Tony says. “And it was thought the health and social benefits of getting older and disabled people out and about easily outweighed the cost.”
But on February 6, South Yorkshire Transport Authority voted to scrap free train travel and restrict bus times, affecting more than 268,000 travel pass holders. They said this would make savings of £600,000.
When the 300 Yorkshire Freedom Riders arrived at Barnsley train station, they found lines of police waiting for them. “They told us they were there for our safety,” George says. “Then Paul Brown, the rail company manager, told us we were free to travel – we could have a discretionary day.”
The Freedom Rides became weekly, and would usually end at Meadowhall Shopping Centre with a rally with other Freedom Riders from Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield – and the chance of a bit of shopping before heading for home.
On more than one occasion, the riders managed to outwit the police. Several times, police were left standing on the wrong platform.
The protesters have not only won huge public support but the backing of trade unions including ASLEF, RMT, BFAWU and Unite, which are paying George and Tony’s legal costs.
“A lot of the Freedom Riders have really grown in confidence during the last few weeks,” Tony says. “There are so many lonely elderly and disabled people out there and there has been a real sense of community around the protests.
“Some people wonder what they’re going to do once it’s all over.”
By week five, the train station was “swarming” with police who prevented the Riders getting on. Then, in May, helped by a legal challenge brought by the Sheffield Citizens Advice Bureau, the Riders won a massive victory – free travel on local trains would be restored for disabled people and their carers from June 8, along with half-price train travel in South Yorkshire for OAPs.
But the disabled riders said they wouldn’t leave their elderly comrades behind, and have continued to join in their protests.
“We will support the pensioners until they get the same as us,” said Carol Green, 64, who is blind and attends the protests in a wheelchair with her disabled daughter, Rebecca, 40.
The South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive says changes were made following “customer feedback”.
But the SYPTE deputy interim director general David Young added: “Budget pressures remain and funding does not exist to further enhance the concessionary scheme.
“I would remind protesters that travelling on a train without a valid ticket is in breach of rail bylaws and can result in a fine.”
The protests turned serious on June 23, when transport police and Freedom Riders clashed at Meadowhall station.
Tony was charged with obstructing police and both he and George were charged with failure to pay a train fare. For legal reasons, I am limited as to what I can write about what happened that day until after the court hearing.
A trial date for both men has been set for December. But in the meantime, regular protests and rallies are continuing.
Thirty years after the miners’ strike, Barnsley’s Retiree Action Group is not for turning. Having won concessions, campaigners scent victory in the air.