The Campaign to save free travel for the disabled and pensioners in South Yorkshire now known as the Freedom Rides has been inspirational and it has already won a partial victory! Something to be celebrated for sure! But how did the campaign win this amazing concession?
On 31st March, elderly and disabled travel pass holders lost the extra concessions that had applied in South Yorkshire since travel passes had been brought in nationally. South Yorkshire agreed, like a number of other authorities, to give extra concessions because of the poverty that many elderly and disabled suffer in this region. That meant that disabled pass holders could travel free on buses and South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire buses free at any time of the day; elderly were able to travel free on buses and trains from 9am through to the end of the day.
On 6th February South Yorkshire Transport Authority voted to scrap free train travel for all disabled people and pensioners. The savings were £329,000 for ending train travel and £300,000 for restricting bus travel times. There are over 268,000 travel pass holders in South Yorkshire. The body making the decision, South Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority, was made up of 12 councillors from across the region. The five councillors from Sheffield and the two from Barnsley, all voted for the cut while three from Doncaster and two from Rotherham voted to keep the concessions.
What caused great anger among those affected was that there was no publicity or consultation. It was the complete lack of debate and democracy that was too much for people to stomach.
But the Barnsley Retirees Action Group had other ideas and spear headed an amazing campaign of direct action that has inspired campaigners everywhere. They printed a few thousand leaflets calling a public meeting in the central library. 300 people turned up and the caretaker turned away another 50. The meeting grilled the two Barnsley councillors who voted for cuts and the Director of SYITA. It was agreed to start weekly Freedom Rides which saw people boarding trains and refusing to pay for travel then holding rallies where they would meet other “freedom riders” from Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield.
The numbers involved in the freedom ride were inspiring, with over one hundred people taking part each week and the protest seemed to be growing as time went on, winning support from the Trade Union Movement including ASLEF, RMT,BFAWU and Unite, who’s officers took part in the protests and spoke at rallies.
The first three weeks of the freedom ride went off without incident even though there was a large police and security guard presence at Barnsley train station in the first week. Protesters thought they were going to be stopped but were told by the police, “We are here to look after your safety,” and were almost escorted onto the train. On weeks two and three there were no police around and the numbers travelling swelled. On week four police blocked entry to the Sheffield bound platform. After a long period of argument the police and Northern Rail management said that everyone could get on the train, “But this is the last time, next week you have to pay.” Week five found Barnsley station swarming with police and everyone forcibly barred from getting on to the platform. Protestors sang songs based on US Civil Rights songs updated. The singing and chanting rocked the station but did not move the police.
The protestors began to cross the railway bridge to go over to the north bound platform where a train arrived carrying protestors from Sheffield. Everyone boarded that train while the police were still blockading the other platform. As the train set off everyone waved at the police who looked very confused! The TV and other media had been contacted to say that it was likely that there would be a confrontation at the station. They turned up and gave great coverage to the day’s events.
Week six found even more turning up to ride but a massive police operation. It was impossible to get to the ticket office without a ticket. The bus interchange bridge was blocked by police. The media had been warned by protestors that there was likely to be an escalation on both sides and they came along hoping for good footage. The large numbers of protestors provided that. A lively rally was held during which the national chair of ASLEF retired members section presented BRAG with a cheque for £50.
Like all other meetings the rally was extremely democratic. Everyone who wanted to was able to speak. Ideas and proposals were voted on. This rally decided to set off on a march around Barnsley. As the demonstration set off protestors from Sheffield arrived on a train and were able to pass through the police and join the march. The massive crowd went up to Barnsley Town Hall, where for some time there were chants against the cuts and calling for the councillors who made the cuts to come out – they didn’t!
The demonstration went into the town centre for a public rally and sing song and chanting then back to the interchange, through the bus station and over the interchange bridge until stopped by a wall of police. After more chanting everyone dispersed.
A huge letter writing campaign also was underway with people complaining to local councillors and MP’s who at first were reluctant to become involved but the large protests and accompanying media coverage helped force the hand of the local politicians, who I am sure were concerned about what effect this would have on the up-coming elections.
Members of the public and Unite’s Community Branch were becoming more involved, not just with the protests but also behind the scenes applying pressure on local councillors and asking difficult questions at Labour party meetings. That combined with the Sheffield Citizens Advice Bureau’s legal Challenge helped create a massive amount of pressure which has resulted in a partial victory, meaning free travel on local trains for disabled people and their carers is to be re-instated on June 8th, along with half price train travel in South Yorkshire for OAP’s.
On the Monday of the seventh week even more people turned up, pleased that a partial victory had been won but angry that the original concessions were not restored in full. Disabled campaigners who had been central in the protests turned up to say they were willing to support any future protest for elderly travellers to win back the original concessions.
The Freedom Riders are planning a victory parade through town on Saturday the 17th of May and will be holding a vote (show of hands), on whether or not to continue with the protest in light of this announcement. Whatever the protesters decide to do on the 17th, their action has been inspirational and shows that a combination of direct action, political pressure and legal challenge can win! How many times are we told that “nothing changes” “you can’t win”? We now can prove that is wrong, “if you fight you may lose, if you don’t fight you have lost already” (Bob Crow).
We Are Barnsley