All posts by Rhydgaled

A Taste Of Freedom

Surprising news that came to my attention on Thursday (6th July) has cut through my backlog of partly-written blog posts and given me something I can cover quickly.

TrawsCymru T1 bus service at Aberystwyth bus station
Fountain Of Freedom: Aberystwyth bus station (pictured, with a T1 service present) is a hub for TrawsCymru services, being served by 5 of the 8.
This week (3rd – 9th of July) happens to be ‘Catch The Bus Week’ 2017 and the Welsh Government have come up with a surprising scheme to encourage people to do just that; catch the bus. Today (Saturday 8th July) is the first day covered by the new initiative, which is to make travelling on TrawsCymru network free of charge all weekend.

Wright Pulsar bus in TrawsCymru T5 livery at Haverfordwest railway station
Ready To Give Free Rides: Wright Pulsar at Haverfordwest waiting to form a TrawsCymru T5 service to Cardigan.
That’s right, free weekend travel on all 8 TrawsCymru services, including the Cardiff Airport Express and the occasional long haul from Aberystwyth to Cardiff. It isn’t just this weekend either; free weekend travel on TrawsCymru is being offered on a trial basis ‘until further notice’ although according to the poster I spotted on Thursday the offer excludes bank holidays (not sure if Easter Sunday counts as a bank holiday). The Welsh Government Website states that the pilot will run until at least May 2018.

TrawsCymru T9 (Cardiff Airport Express) at the airport
In On The Action: The Cardiff Airport Express is officially part of the TrawsCymru network and therefore included in the free travel pilot.
Perhaps even more surprising than the introduction of free travel at weekends is that the Carmarthen-Cardiff section of the T1C Aberystwyth-Cardiff service is included (in the last phase of TrawsCambria, the X40 service did not except the Concessionary Travel Pass, which gives free travel on all bus services in Wales for the elderly and disabled). While I welcome this initiative in the main, the waiving of fares on the Cardiff Airport Express is a bit of a disappointment, but not because I think making the service free (even if only at weekends) is necessarily a bad idea. Rather, I’m disappointed because it suggests that the Welsh Government are still treating it as a normal TrawsCymru service, when I would much rather it be its own thing (because it has very little in common with the rest of the network; isn’t long-distance for example).

262 Not Out

May was Theresa’s month, but the unexpected General Election of 2017 was in June; and produced an almost entirely unexpected result. For most of the campaign, almost all the predictions suggested that the Tories would win the increased majority they craved. Some also suggested that the election could be “ a fight for the very survival of Labour“. With the First Past The Post electoral system making it almost impossible for the other parties to win many seats, destruction of the Labour party could have left the so-called ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ with no opposition.

This means the election was really two contests rolled into one; a straight fight for which party gets to form a government (like any other general election) and also Jeremy Corbyn’s battle to prove that his leadership and the Labour party have a future.

The houses of parliament / palace of Westminster, seen from the London Eye
Fortress On The Thames? Perhaps not, now that the Tories’ attempt to fortify their position has failed.
Victory for Theresa May’s party was seemingly never in doubt and indeed, unfortunately, they have of course won the election. However, given their objective of a decisive majority it almost looks like a defeat for the Tories. Labour have lost, as expected, but made gains and finished up with 262 seats. They may still be down, but they’re not out. That, for me, is a glimmer of hope; it now appears that there is a possibility that the next election will see the Tories removed from Government.

We are still a way off a positive outlook for the future, at the start of the election campaign I hoped the Labour party would pledge to introduce proportional representation for future elections. They did not, and for that reason (among others) I didn’t vote for either of the two main parties. The outcome I would really have liked to see would have been a Labour victory short of a majority. That could have enabled, through agreement with other parties, the introduction of a proportional electoral system and accelerated action on preventing climate change. Sadly the result we got fell short of that, but it was about the best outcome I thought possible given the opinion polling in the run up to the election. With the Tories’ position significantly weakened, I can now think to myself ‘maybe next time’.

Hope has not emerged victorious, but it has not been crushed either.

Soccer Saturday Shame

A rather damp 27th May 2017 (this past Saturday) saw the return of the through services between London Paddington and Pembroke Dock which form part of the summer Saturday timetable. Out filming the westbound service at Neath, I was caught in a shower and returned to the station rather soggy. Fortunately, the weather had improved by the time I reached Cardiff Central, where I filmed the first of the two eastbound services (which is formed by the stock off a Swansea to Pembroke Dock service, the westbound London to Pembroke train forming an afternoon/evening return working).

Pembroke Coast Express (Intercity 125) crossing river in Neath
Wet In Neath: The Pembroke Coast Express heads west in the rain

Since they are First Great Western Railway long-distance services out of Paddington, these trains are formed using 8-carriage Intercity 125 trains. They prove valuable in some weeks as the crowds of tourists travelling to and from Tenby simply would not fit on the 2-car class 150s which operate the Monday to Friday and winter services on the Pembroke & Tenby line.

I hope for the railway’s sake that next Saturday (3rd June 2017) will be a quiet one in Tenby, because otherwise it is likely that there will be a lot of unhappy passengers. This is because, as station announcements were warning this week, the UEFA Champions League final is coming to Cardiff. What the announcements did not say, but the Great Western Railway journey planner website does, is that both Intercity 125 services on the Pembroke Dock branch are cancelled for that day. The services will be truncated to run between Swansea and London only, as they do in the winter timetable. I presume this has been done in order to free up IC125 sets to provide additional services through Cardiff which will be extremely busy due to the soccer game. According to the journey planner though, while the GWR service reverts to the winter timetable, Arriva Trains Wales is expected to run their summer Saturday service on the Pembroke Dock branch. This leaves a gap of over four hours, and another of over three hours, for the GWR services that will not be running, compared to the every-two-hours winter service. The ‘Weymouth Wizard’ summer Saturday special between Bristol and Weymouth also seems to have been removed from the schedule next weekend.

Update: the Weymouth Wizard ran, slightly retimed, using hired mark 2 coaches rather than an IC125 set; as far as I’m aware the Pembroke & Tenby was left with nothing.

An Intercity 125 on the Pembroke Coast Express, and a class 158, at Cardiff Central
Chaos Is Coming: Cardiff Central (pictured) will next week be extremely busy with football fans heading to the stadium nearby
While pulling the IC125s to provide extra capacity in Cardiff is probably a sensible move, passengers on the Pembroke Dock branch will get a raw deal. There is no mention of the change in the paper timetable booklet as far as I’m aware, so anyone who doesn’t look online might turn up for a train that doesn’t exist. The most disgraceful part of the whole affair is that, apparently, GWR are not even arranging replacement road transport to cover for their missing trains in Pembrokeshire, meaning anyone who does turn up for them will be stuck for hours waiting for the next Arriva Trains Wales unit (and, if the weather brings out the crowds, they will have to play sardines on it).

Stena Shocker

A view of the harbour at Goodwick, Fishguard
Harbouring change: a view of the harbour at Goodwick, Fishguard. Stena Line’s ferry terminal is out of shot to the right.
Stena Line have today introduced a new ferry timetable which has played a part in the start of a new chapter for the Great Western Railway. Apparently, the ferry timetable between Fishguard and Rosslare has remained largely unchanged for decades. Today however all four departures have been shifted by at least an hour, some almost as many as three.

Train and ferry at Fishguard Harbour
Changes all round: the ‘Stena Europe’ and the trains connecting with it will both run at different times from today
Arriva Trains Wales (ATW) have, for their part, reworked the Fishguard rail timetable to ensure rail connections are available. However, they have been forced to breach the terms of their original 2003 franchise agreement. That contract required only two trains per 24 hours, and specified that these must run between Fishguard and Swansea (or Cardiff), connecting with ferries and either running through to/from London or connecting with London services.

Obviously, so far ATW have opted to connect with First Great Western services to and from London Paddington rather than run through services themselves. In light of Stena Line’s changes however, the London connections required by the 2003 franchise agreement are no longer provided. One of the ferries now arrives at Fishguard Harbour fairly late in the evening; by the time the connecting train reaches Swansea or Cardiff the last train to London would be long gone with the first morning train to London not due for nearly four hours, thus breaching the terms of the 2003 contract.

Intercity 125 train in London Paddington station on arrival from Swansea
Link Lost: London Paddington (pictured) is no longer be reachable from one of the two ferries from Rosslare to Fishguard.
In fairness to ATW, the London service no longer appears to be a reasonable requirement given Stena’s new ferry timing, unless I have misinterpreted the franchise agreement the only way ATW could possibly comply would be to either run through to London themselves (and their staff probably don’t have the required route knowledge) or somehow make First Great Western provide an additional service in the middle of the night. The departure time from Cardiff would be about 1am and arrival in Paddington about 4am (or slightly earlier if First Great Western, using a 125mph train, ran the service). Meeting that requirement would therefore cost a lot of money for very little gain (is anyone likely to find a service at such unsociable hours useful?).

ATW cannot be let off the hook completely however, since another aspect of their changes also appears to breach the franchise agreement. The new rail timetable shows that the problematic evening train, which couldn’t connect into a London service, terminates at Carmarthen, without even a connection to Swansea. That, according to the 2003 franchise agreement, is clearly a breach of contract; through services to at least Swansea are mandatory. Since publishing their timetable, it seems ATW have realised this and the Real Time Trains website is now showing that the new evening boat train, the 22:14 from Fishguard Harbour, will run through to Swansea after all. It will terminate there at 00:04. The 21:58 arrival at Fishguard Harbour however, which would connect into the overnight ferry, is now shown online as starting from Carmarthen at 21:03, thus involving a change for passengers from Swansea and Cardiff and breaching the 2003 agreement. That is also a change from ATW’s PDF timetable leaflet, which suggests the service would start from Manchester Piccadilly at 15:30 (with a suspicious instantaneous reversal in Carmarthen station).

Arriva Trains Wales class 150 at Cardiff Central on a Fishguard service
Lost train: the Fishguard boat train about to leave Cardiff at 10:57, a service which did not call at Swansea. From today this working is replaced by a service from Swansea to Fishguard, so not only will passengers have a slower route they will also have to change at Swansea.
It isn’t only the timetable that isn’t clear, ATW’s current contractual commitments are also shrouded in mystery. Although the 2003 franchise agreement is available online, the contract for the additional Fishguard services introduced in 2011 is not. For this post, I attempted to gain a clear picture by submitting a freedom of information request for the 2011 contract. My request was refused on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. We therefore cannot be sure if the Arriva are allowed to use the local services that do not connect with ferries to meet requirement for services to run through to/from Cardiff or Swansea, and we don’t know if reducing Fishguard’s train service from 7 trains each way (per 24 hours) to 6 (the 01:50 overnight service is withdrawn now that the sailing it existed to connect with is no more).

GWR class 387 electric multiple unit at London Paddington
The future now arriving: class 387 electric unit at London Paddington.
Stena’s unprecedented changes are not today’s only shock to the established Great Western status quo. You will also get a shock, a potentially lethal one, if you touch the overhead wires on several sections of the Great Western main line, including between Paddington and Maidenhead. There, class 387 Electrostar electric multiple units have become the first electric trains to carry fare-paying passengers on a section of line electrified under the current Great Western electrification project. Sections further west have been live for testing purposes for some time, but cannot be used for passenger services yet due to gaps in the overhead line between them and Maidenhead.

Returning to the Fishguard ferries, a definate plus is that there is now an extra train connection on the Irish side. Before, the only night ferry had rail connections in Rosslare. Now, it appears the new earlier timing of the Fishguard to Rosslare daytime sailing will allow it to connect with a train to Dublin which previously left Rosslare just before the lunch time boat from Fishguard arrived. As far as I can make out, given the differenced between Real Time Trains and the ATW timetable booklet, the connections shape up as follows:

Monday – Friday services – Old Timetable

Dublin Connolly 16:37
Rosslare Europort arr. 19:25
Rosslare Harbour dep. 09:00 21:15
Fishguard Harbour arr. 12:30 00:30
Fishguard Harbour dep. 13:29 01:50
Swansea arr. 03:47
Swansea dep. 03:52
Cardiff Central arr. 16:00 05:01
Cardiff Central dep. 16:25 05:12
London Paddington 18:32 07:30
London Paddington 08:45 20:15
Cardiff Central arr. 10:46 22:30
Cardiff Central dep. 10:58 22:32
Swansea arr. 23:28
Swansea dep. 23:45
Fishguard Harbour arr. 13:27 01:33
Fishguard Harbour dep. 14:30 02:30
Rosslare Harbour arr. 18:00 06:30
Rosslare Europort dep. 07:20
Dublin Connolly 10:15

Monday – Friday services – New Timetable

Dublin Connolly 13:36
Rosslare Europort arr. 16:26
Rosslare Harbour dep. 08:00 18:10
Fishguard Harbour arr. 11:15 21:25
Fishguard Harbour dep. 12:50 22:14
Swansea arr. 00:04
Swansea dep.
Cardiff Central arr. 15:19
Cardiff Central dep. 15:26
London Paddington 17:30
London Paddington 07:45 16:45
Cardiff Central arr. 09:49 18:48
Cardiff Central dep. 09:49 18:50
Swansea arr. 10:45 19:45
Swansea dep. 11:00 20:11
Fishguard Harbour arr. 12:30 21:58
Fishguard Harbour dep. 13:10 23:45
Rosslare Harbour arr. 16:25 04:00
Rosslare Europortdep. 17:55 05:35
Dublin Connolly 20:44 08:46

Fishguard Facilities…

…And ‘Connections’

As the Welsh Government’s consultation on the next Wales & Borders rail franchise draws to a close (ends 23rd May 2017), so to must my series of posts regarding issues that I hope the new franchise will address. In this instalment, I discuss some of the problems with station facilities and bus-rail integration, using examples from Fishguard. The consultation on improving bus services in Wales, due to end on 31st May, might also be relevant to this discussion.

Continue reading Fishguard Facilities…

May-Day, May Day, Mayday

View from a class 158 train on the Cambrian Coast Line
Snowdonia Scenery: A backdrop like this apparently prompted Prime Minster May’s change of plan regarding when the next general election would be held
Following a trip to Snowdonia, Prime Minister Theresa May took many by surprise, including myself. Perhaps even more surprising however were some of the comments in her speech announcing the snap election. “At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division.”
That, it seemed to me, was a veiled admission that the views of the ‘opposition’ are generally close to those of the government on most important issues. I have probably pointed out before that there is little difference between Labour’s policies and those of the Conservative party, and the first past the post electoral system means other parties are largely excluded. Therefore, the electorate isn’t really given a meaningful choice at general elections; certainly on some issues. The Labour party have, at least in the past, supported expansion of Heathrow airport, and Theresa May’s government has indicated they intend to approve expansion. No choice there then; voting for either of the main parties is, or has been, a vote for a blank cheque for the aviation industry to continue to increase its greenhouse gas emissions.

But on the issue of the UK’s relationship European Union, there are actually differences of opinion in the house of commons. The Conservatives have an opposition for a change and they don’t like it, so they are holding an election in the hope they can silence it. There should only be unity in Westminster if the views of vast majority of the population are the same, otherwise the people who hold different views are not being represented in Parliament. Ours is, after all, supposed to be a representative democracy. If the public are divided in their opinions and the house of commons isn’t, then parliament does not represent the people and the system isn’t working. In 2015, the Conservatives took 50.8% of the seats in the commons with only 36.8% of the vote. That tells you all you need to know; the system is broken; and given that turnout was less than 70% the actual proportion of the population that actually ‘asked’ for a Conservative government will be lower still.

Harlech castle from a Cambrian Coast Line train
True Inspiration? Could the fortresses of Snowdonia have been Mrs May’s motivation to attempt fortification of her party’s position in power?
Apparently, Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to overturn the rigged system. I might believe that if Labour’s manifesto includes a commitment to scrap First Past The Post, which is rigged against the smaller parties. That could still be a possibility, since Labour has not yet published its manifesto. Campaign group Make Votes Matter have pointed out that Labour are running a consultation on their 2017 manifesto. That doesn’t seem to have closed yet, so if the link still works when you read this please respond to the consultation and make sure to include a call for proportional representation in your response. There may be more opportunities to influence Labour’s policies on there policy forum site (I’ve yet to investigate it). If Labour can be persuaded to adopt proportional representation, the next challenge will be getting the Tories out of government so that proportional representation can be introduced. That isn’t such a tall order as the initial media coverage would suggest, if the other parties see the opportunity to make things right and work together. There are signs is could be happening in some areas, with the Liberal Democrats apparently not contesting the seat held by Caroline Lucas. Add that to the fact that the Tories have very slim majorities in some seats and there is hope.

Returning to Theresa May’s speech when announcing the election, her statement “The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.” is not my impression. The general election held under First Past The Post in 2015, and the EU referendum that followed, were extremely divisive. The SNP are threatening to tear Britain apart, and the Tory majorities first past the post returns to Westminster are a huge contrast to Scottish voting patterns (only 14.9% of Scots voted Conservative in 2015). It has been argued that the election on the 8th of June is ‘a fight for the very survival of Labour’, but we face an “existential crisis” for Great Britain itself as well. Mayday indeed, but “If you fight you won’t always win. But if you don’t fight you will always lose” (from somebody’s signature on the RailUK Forums, attributed to Bob Crow). Theresa May may think on this May Day that she is going to win the election, but it isn’t over yet.

View from class 158 train on the Cambrian Coast Line
Bright prospects? Maybe if June’s election is the last held under First Past The Post.
P.S. As well as Make Votes Matter, linked to above, there are a number of other groups campaigning for proportional representation. One of these, the Electoral Reform Society, has a petition here and there are probably more out there.

Tracks And Trams

As noted previously, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) is proposing a Cardiff & Newport metro and are running a franchise competition to select an ‘Operator and Development Partner’ (ODP) for the Wales & Borders franchise. The first part of this post pointed out that the late and over-budget partial redouble of the Wrexham-Chester line has led WAG to adopt a risky strategy; taking ownership of the ValleyLines infrastructure north from Cardiff Queen Street, plus the Cardiff Bay branch and maybe the Cardiff Central to Cardiff Queen Street section, off Network Rail.

Class 150 at platform 0 in Cardiff Central
Not threatened: This class 150, standing at Cardiff Central’s platform 0, is probably working a service to Ebbw Vale. This route uses the Great Western Main Line so is not at risk of tramification.
One of the risks is the very fact that it is an untried approach; to my knowledge a significant portion of the national network has never been split off since the big four were merged to create British Railways. Sections have of course been sold off to create heritage railways, but they are their own self-contained operations and the Cardiff Metro will have to maintain interfaces with Network Rail, if only for freight services. Admittedly some heritage railways have ambitions to extend their services onto Network Rail infrastructure, but so far I believe only the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has achieved this. So, the second risk is that Network Rail isn’t completely removed from the picture. That in turn gives rise to a third risk; that WAG and/or their ODP may try to minimise the interfaces with Network Rail by segregating what WAG are already calling ‘the core ValleyLines’ to a very great extent.

At present of course, many services from north of Cardiff (Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) run through to Penarth, Barry Island and the Vale Of Glamorgan Line to Bridgend. That is very sensible, since a frequent service runs Cardiff Central on these routes; and this is unlikely to decrease. A potential Metro frequency of 4tph (trains per hour) from each of Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney, Penarth and Barry Island, plus 2tph from Bridgend via the Vale Of Glamorgan is a total of 26tph before considering Coryton and Radyr services. Even with four platforms (4, 6, 7 and 8) now nominally designated as ‘ValleyLines’ platforms, 26tph terminating at Cardiff Central would give less than nine and a half minutes for turn-around time. Add Coryton, Radyr and possible new lines and recovering the timetable following delays would be well-nigh impossible. Trying to split core ValleyLines services from the rest of the Cardiff Metro would therefore be a serious risk to punctuality.

Manchester Metrolink tram at Deansgate Castlefield tram stop, with the long-closed Manchester Central station behind
Less seats than a Pacer: Manchester Metrolink tram
Splitting the service also presents a risk of a different kind; a risk to passenger comfort. While the current fleet of class 150s and Pacers is not-exactly comfortable, there’s worse out there. The one thing less comfortable than a seat on a Pacer is having to stand; and one option the Welsh Government may be considering could reduce the availability of seats. That option is light-rail, probably in the form of trams. The Bombardier M5000 trams on Manchester’s Metrolink are about the same length as a Pacer but have 46 fewer seats (almost halving the 106 seats on a Pacer) and room for perhaps 100 more standing passengers. Any other passenger train will be longer than a Pacer, and hence have even more room for seats. Even if you have longer trams than Manchester’s, each coach still needs to be shorter than most train carriages because trams need to handle tighter curves. Shorter carriages mean more corridor connections between cars and probably more doors, leaving less room for seats. Light-rail would probably make the project cheaper, and perhaps enable earlier delivery, but with a journey from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil taking an hour (perhaps slightly less with electrification) I don’t think it is the right choice.

A further risk is that budget overruns and project delays aren’t unique to Network Rail projects anyway. WAG and their ODP will probably need to choose from the same pool of electrification contractors as Network Rail, and so they may yet suffer similar high costs and late delivery.

Incomplete rear entrance to Cardiff Central station
Changing Times: Could trams stop here (outside Cardiff Central) in future?
Returning to the idea of trams; despite the reduced seating capacity which I deem unacceptable for the longer journeys, there are clear benefits. Perhaps the most important is that trains cannot mix with road traffic on street-running sections. That means a direct rail service between Cardiff Central and Cardiff Bay, which seems to be a key Welsh Government objective, is probably only possible with trams (which I suppose would stop at street-level outside Cardiff Central’s new southern entrance). The reduced cost of lower-voltage light-rail electrification, as already mentioned, is also plus so maybe a mix of tram and train could be the optimum outcome for the Cardiff Metro.

Limiting light-rail to the shorter routes however poses a number of problems. The Cardiff Bay line is the only obvious candidate for light-rail conversion, with short on-street links at both ends (to Cardiff Central at the north end and closer to the millennium centre etc. at the other end). That alone seems unlikely to provide either the volume necessary to justify the overheads of a tram system (such as a depot) or access to an area of open land for a depot. Ordinary trams might be permitted to share streets with cars, but they are not allowed to share tracks with heavily-built national rail trains, so the rumoured Metro depot location at Taff’s Well is out of reach. Tram-trains could run everywhere, but are more expensive than straight trams and the UK’s tram-train pilot scheme in Sheffield is behind schedule. With the possible removal of funding if the project isn’t complete by 2023, the tram-train option might also be a big gamble.

A damp and overcast day in Treorchy
Too far for trams: trains through Treorchy should remain heavy-rail
Let us assume therefore that it is a choice between having some trams that cannot run on heavy-rail tracks and not being able to deliver the Cardiff Central – Cardiff Bay link. How do you grow the tram network enough to reach a suitable depot location, without either blowing the budget or screwing up the heavy-rail part of the Metro by converting more of the existing network? Taff’s Well is 20 minutes from Cardiff Central, right on the limit of being too far to subject passengers to the loss of seats that trams would bring. However, it is over 5 miles as the crow flies; I doubt finding and constructing an all-new route from Cardiff is feasible, so existing rail alignments would need to be used. That either means quadrupling (providing two light-rail tracks and two-heavy rail ones) or conversion to light-rail. As far as I can tell from Google Earth, there is no room for more tracks on some sections that would need quadrupling. That means a conversion would be necessary, but since any services north of Taff’s Well and Llanishen ought to remain heavy-rail the Cardiff Queen Street to Heath cannot be converted and heavy-rail services and the same applies to at least one of the two routes to Radyr (via Fairwater and via Cathays).

Therefore, there are two final questions.

  1. whether a single double-track route for services from north of Taff’s Well to Cardiff is sufficient and, if not
  2. whether it is possible to build a street-running tram route of almost 4 miles from Cardiff Central to Heath, plus 2.5 and a bit miles of new line from Coryton into Taff’s Well

Making the metro is not going to be easy.

Twin-Track Troubles

Class 158 train on Chirk Viaduct
Wrong side of Wrexham: I don’t have any pictures of the section between Wrexham and Chester, so here’s a 158 on Chirk Viaduct, between Wrexham and Shrewsbury.
I should report, slightly belatedly, that Network Rail finally opened the new second track between Saltney junction and Rossett junction on the line between Wrexham and Chester on the April 1st, 2017. The redoubling project has roughly halved the length of single track between Wrexham and Chester; the southern half remains single due to issues which make redoubling that section more-challenging.

Aside from the eventual outcome; a shorter single-track section and over five miles of additional track is certainly a big plus, it is hard to draw positives from this scheme. As I posted a few weeks ago, the Welsh Government’s objective of an hourly Holyhead-Cardiff service was a poor reason for the project, but Network Rail must also be questioned. The May 2017 issue of Modern Railways magazine informs me that the Wrexham redoubling project was originally due for completion in early 2015. Two years late: that is a serious delay beaten only by certain elements of Network Rail’s electrification programme (and even then, the wires are due to reach Cardiff only one year behind schedule).

Train of Arriva Trains Wales mark 3 coaches at Chester station
About to brave the bottleneck: taken before the re-doubling, the ‘Y Gerallt Gymro’ service prepares to depart Chester and would shortly enter the single-line section to Wrexham.
Costs have increased too, the Wrexham redouble came in at £49m but in May 2013 the slightly shorter single-track section between Swansea (Cockett West) and Llanelli (Duffryn West) was redoubled at a cost of £40.3m including a second platform at Gowerton station and a brand-new bridge over the river Loughor. That scheme was delivered on-time and on-budget, but past successes can be forgotten when things go wrong, as they have on the Wrexham-Chester line. It is therefore understandable that the Welsh Government (who were paying) is displeased with Network Rail, and the problems north of Wrexham have contributed to a risky gambit further south.

The Welsh Government’s new gamble concerns the ‘south Wales Metro’ project. Personally, I would call what the Welsh Government is proposing a Cardiff & Newport metro, but I digress. The idea is that ownership of the core ValleyLines (Cardiff Central to the heads of the valleys via Cardiff Queen Street) would be taken away from Network Rail. The new ‘Operator and Development Partner’ (ODP) of the Wales & Borders franchise would then be responsible for ensuring the ValleyLines are modernised within the available budget and presumably before part of the funding expires in 2023. This novel idea seems to have one big plus, which is that track and train would be controlled by the same management, but is risky for several reasons.

Those reasons are detailed in part 2 of this post.

Suburban Express? It’s An Oxymoron – Sort It

The ‘Fishguard Flyer’ has a problem…

Optare Solo bus, class 158 train and Stena Line ferry 'Stena Europe' at Fishguard Harbour
International Connections: Boat, Bus and Train meet at Fishguard Harbour (ATW actually managed to provide the booked class 158 on this occasion)
It may be the only express service into and out of south-west Wales, but in the fairly recent past the daytime Fishguard ‘boat train’ was, for some years, deliberately worked by class 150 DMUs. At the time, the service was the 10:57 Cardiff to Fishguard and 13:30 return, at one point continuing to Cheltenham Spa. At the time of writing (March/April 2017), the eastbound service now terminates at Cardiff Central, while the westbound train has been extended to start back from Newport. I believe Arriva Trains Wales now diagram a class 158 on the working, but that may have changed again. Even if a 158 is diagrammed, it seems that class 150s still appear regularly as stand-ins (presumably because the 158s are required in mid and north Wales).

Whether by design or out of necessity this is, in my opinion, a serious problem. The class 150 is, essentially, an inner-suburban design; although the ones in ATW’s fleet have 2+2 seating rather than the even higher-density 2+3 arrangement some other operators have on class 150s. The wide doors are of the recessed, ‘metro-sliding’ type; faster to open/close than plug doors but requiring a large section of windowless wall for the door to slide into. This means that not only is floor space lost to wide standing areas just inside the doors but the seats adjacent to the doors have no window.

Class 150 between Fishguard & Goodwick and Fishguard Harbour stations
Distant Disaster: class 150 on the ‘Fishguard Flyer’
Even passengers who do get a window don’t have a great journey; there are very few tables (and on ATW’s units these are not ideally aligned with the windows either) and the rest of the seats lack legroom. While the same could be said for the class 153s, the single-car ‘Super Sprinters’ do at least have smaller doors at the ends of the carriage, rather than the large ones interrupting the passenger saloon on a class 150 ‘Sprinter’.

As well as being wide and of the recessed type, the passenger doors on a class 150 are located towards the middle of each car (nominally one third and two thirds along). This suburban layout aids the flow of passengers on and of trains, keeping station dwell times to a minimum, but interrupts the passenger saloon area. This cannot be helpful for designing a comfortable seating layout that aligns with the windows etc.

Class 150 to Fishguard Harbour at Cardiff Central station
Suburban Substitute: a class 150 waits at Cardiff Central on the express ‘boat train’ service to Fishguard Harbour
The class 150 design then is optimised for busy short-distance stopping trains, with quite a bit of space for standees and short dwell times. But, as I wrote at the beginning, the Fishguard daytime boat train, unofficially known as the ‘Fishguard Flyer’, is an express service. Westbound, it calls only at Cardiff, Bridgend, Llanelli, Whitland and Fishguard & Goodwick (the eastbound working also serves Carmarthen). Even if using a class 158, which has one of the slowest power-door systems in use, instead of a 150 adds a minute at each station the limited calling pattern that’s only five or six minutes on the whole journey. On a service that takes 2 and a half hours between Fishguard & Cardiff that’s a small price to pay for a comfortable journey (150s are so uncomfortable that I have generally had enough after an hour). A 158 probably would make up some of the time anyway by running above the 150’s max speed of 75mph on parts of the line between Bridgend and Briton Ferry, and I doubt the difference in dwell time would be as much as a minute per station in most cases. That’s because the narrow doors on a 158 don’t seem to be too much of an impediment when passenger numbers are within the capacity of the unit; I expect it is when passengers have to stand that the aisle gets clogged and dwell times go through the roof if the train has the passenger doors at the vehicle ends. If the railway was run in the interests of passengers, long-distance and fast services would always be formed of trains of sufficient length to seat all passengers; so stop wasting saloon space with wide doors and give us some legroom instead.

Suburban Express? It’s an oxymoron; sort it.

Contrast In Comfort: a class 158 and a class 150, both in the latest Arriva Trains Wales livery, at Carmarthen station
There’s a general point here for the next Wales & Borders rail franchise here too, as well as the specific one about the Fishguard service. Suburban trains (those with ‘doors at thirds’) cannot provide maximum comfort and are therefore only acceptable on short-distance services with frequent stops and large volumes of passengers, because it is in those cases that units suitable for longer journeys (ie. with doors at the vehicle ends) suffer from extended dwell times (and more stops means those dwell times have a bigger overall impact).

Reconstruction

As can be seen by the comment below, this site is hosted by 000webhost. The plus side is that it is free of charge; and that’s a big plus in my book. The negative side is that the service is not particularly great, there is little or no support and they recently decided to move servers (I think) without providing an automated facility to move our websites. Their instructions were to backup our existing websites, delete them and recreate the site on the new system. I did this last Thursday (6th April).

Unfortunately, the backup procedure they suggested wasn’t the easiest to restore a WordPress site (which this is), so I’ve been struggling to bring the site back online. I think I have managed to import all the posts and comments, but some of the settings are missing. The dynamic Ordnance Survey Open Space maps I have on the site are not working either, and the new theme hasn’t been customised (and makes a mess of the image margins). I will have to fix all this at some point but I don’t have the time right now; I’m just happy that I’ve managed to get the site working at all.

Clear Direction

First Cymru bus in Haverfordwest
Time Of Change: A photo from autumn last year of a bus working one of the services affected by today’s new regime
Today, 3rd April 2017, a number of bus service changes are taking place in Pembrokeshire. Actually, First Cymru’s new timetable booklet is dated as running from 2nd April (yesterday), but since the Sunday bus network is a woeful ‘nothing at all’ the effective date is today. When this post is published however, I will not be in Wales. Today, I’m returning from Norwich on one of my railway exploration holidays, so I planned ahead. On Friday 24th March, it happened that my father wasn’t coming into work so I went by bus. With the new timetable coming up, I decided to take a camera to get pictures for this post; and a story developed.

The first leg of my journey was uneventful. I reached Haverfordwest as planned and waited for my next bus, which I photographed; the 349 service to Monkton, calling at Picton Place, County Library, Dew Street, Horsefair (Tesco), Merlin’s Bridge, Johnston, Honeyborough Roundabout, Cleddau Bridge, Pembroke Dock, Pembroke and Monkton. To me, this was the ‘349b’ service, although First referred to it simply as ‘349’. The first five places listed were reached without mishap, but by the time we reached Johnston an alarm had sounded on the bus. The driver pulled over and cut the engine; after a short wait he restarted it and we continued. Not for long though; the alarm soon returned and we were parked in a lay-by-type bus stop in Johnston.

Failed First Cymru bus in Johnston
Broken Down: the failed 349(b) in Johnston
The driver phoned ‘the engineer’, stating that the alarm had been accompanied by loss-of-power. We waited until the engineer turned up; I was hoping they would send a replacement bus (as Richards Bros have done once or twice when I’ve been on one of their services that suffers a breakdown) but it was just a van. Although an annoying delay to my journey, which made me even later for work (as I pointed out to a fellow passenger who asked, I’m ‘late’ for work anyway whenever I go by bus), the failure gave me the opportunity to collect additional photographs which I would have otherwise been unable to obtain, and are preferable to the rather dull picture I took back at Haverfordwest bus station.

First Cymru bus in Johnston
The real 349: the Tenby bus approaches our failed Monkton one
With no replacement bus provided, we were instead forced to wait for the next service, due to leave Haverfordwest half-an-hour behind our failed bus. We had already spent almost that long stationary, so it wasn’t long before the second bus arrived; the ‘349’ to Tenby. To me, this was the ‘349a’. The driver from the failed bus told the other driver that nobody was trying to get to Monkton, which the ‘349a’ does not serve; and off we went leaving the engineer, the stricken bus and its driver behind. It wouldn’t be the last we saw of them.

Milford Haven from the bus at Neyland
Unexpected View: the Cleddau estuary seen from the bus at Neyland during the detour
The reason I have my own ‘349a’ and ‘349b’ designations for these services will now become clear (although, if you’ve read my 3-part 2016 series on bus route numbers, you might guess where I’m going with this). It is also why I had hoped a spare bus would be found. At the Honeyborough roundabout, our ‘349a’ turned right, rather than heading straight-on to the bus stop as the ‘349b’ would have done. These are clearly different routes, which is not what First (by calling both ‘349’) would have had you believe. The right turn takes the 349(a) into Neyland, which is not served by the Haverfordwest-Monkton service. After looping round Neyland, we came to the Honeyborough roundabout again; this time heading out to the bus stop. Lo-and-behold, sitting there was our errant ‘349b’, with engineer’s van. By not going via Neyland, it had overtaken us but had obviously failed again so I was no later into work than if I had stayed with it.

Pembrokeshire County Council bus service change of operator notice
Reassurance: Pembrokeshire County Council notice on our failed bus, stating that the 381 service will continue
With the story (almost) complete, I finally get to the news. Haverfordwest bus station is to see a reduction in services, with outward services to Milford Haven (302), Johnston (the Tenby and Monkton services discussed above) running direct from Withybush Hospital to Picton Place (Iceland), missing out the bus station. The bus station is still served in the other direction, heading towards Withybush Hospital, with the Monkton services extended there rather than terminating at the bus station. First’s information might lead some to believe that Pembrokeshire is suffering a major bus cut, since they describe the 381 service (Haverfordwest-Tenby via Narberth and Kilgetty) as being ‘cancelled’, with the last day of operation being Friday 31st March. In reality, that service has been taken over by Taf Valley Coaches, as the Pembrokeshire County Council notice on the First buses I took in the story states.

First Cymru bus poster
Service changes: First’s poster on our failed bus
The headline however is that, from today, I will no longer have to call the two ‘349’ routes ‘a’ and ‘b’, because the direct Monkton service will now be known as the 348, while the original 349 (via Neyland to Tenby) remains the 349. A little victory for me (I probably can’t claim any credit for it, but it feels good anyway); now how about bringing back the 550, 50 and 412 designations and sorting out that colossal amalgamation which is the TrawsCymru T5?

Going back to the story, given the huge delay to the ‘349b’ service I was concerned that the service might not recover punctuality all day, jeopardising my ‘connection’ on the return journey. Somehow (perhaps by cancelling a trip?) it seems First did get the ‘349b’ running on-time again (or reasonably close to it), because my journey home went smoothly.

Tectonic Activity

Part 4 of my railway modelling series brought the story up to the end of 2016, concluding with a note that I had mixed up the left-over Polyfiller I had been given. Unfortunately, I added too much water and thus it didn’t work particularly well. Over several more days, I layered on quite a bit of the additional filler I had bought. A week after I had applied it, the runny Polyfiller mix still hadn’t set (the new stuff was setting hard in under 24 hours). Since it was the leftovers of an old packet, I thought it may have got damp before I made it up and thus decided to scrape most of it off and redo it with my new plaster.

Photograph of my model railway baseboard looking towards the hills
Looking Tasty: while plastering, I had irrational thoughts that it might be nice to eat some of the plaster, perhaps because it looked similar to butter icing for cakes.
With the new year and the end of the holidays it was back the day job, reducing the time available for modelling. Weekend landscaping works continued (the evenings are too dark) on the layout, for a while. The chicken wire mentioned in the previous post has gone missing; so I won’t be needing the wallpaper paste I bought. In hindsight there wasn’t room for much landscaping anyway, so once I had finished off the top of the main hill by shaping the filler into a few ‘rocky crags’ there was no need for much more. I wasn’t sure about the crags, but one of my brothers took a look and thought they were ok. His feedback wasn’t so positive on other aspects though; one side of my cutting was too step and he felt the hills were too ‘plonk’ at one end of the board, rather than spreading out more. I had originally planned to make the larger hill extend further onto the board, but my grandmother pointed out that would eat into space for the station; hence the design that was built.

Bit-by-bit, I then started adding a rock-face effect to the cliff using foil (mostly Toblerone wrappings), scrunched up and then partly straightened, as a mould. I hadn’t got far with that before I discussed the steep side of the cutting with my grandmother. She agreed that it was too steep, so we took a chisel to it and reshaped it to a more-realistic profile, before I carried on with the rock-face effect.

Model railway baseboard with hills in the foreground and cork trackbed beyond
All Iced Up: the plaster/filler has turned the hills into a winter wonderland, looking like they are covered with snow (or, alternatively, like a cake covered in icing)
As the hills took shape, I started gluing down the rest of the cork tiles, cut to shape so that certain areas where there will not be track can be at a slightly lower level. I had only stuck three sections of cork when the PVA wood glue I had bought (and used on the chipboard) ran out. There may have been a little left that I couldn’t get out of the bottle, but even so that is almost 250ml of glue on my model already! Fortunately I had been given a large bottle of PVA labelled as being for sticking paper/card; I had intended to use that for ballasting in case PVA for paper isn’t the same as PVA for wood, but I figured it would stick the cork down alright too.

Cracked plaster (interior filler) on model railway hill
Disaster Area: close-up of the section suffering from cracks caused by ‘artificial earthquakes’.
It was rather thick, gloopy glue, way past it’s use-by date I suppose, but I went ahead with it and just hoped it would stick. Perhaps because of the thickness of the glue, the last few sections of cork needed a lot of extra weight to press them down, and I even had to resort to hammering the cork flat with a wooden mallet at some of the joins where the cork was jutting up above adjacent pieces. This hammering caused ‘seismic activity’ in the baseboard which broke off part of the plaster on the small hill side of the cutting. I fixed that, by re-attaching the broken plaster with more of the stuff, but there are still a number of cracks in that part of the hill, perhaps caused by further hammering (which may have been the chiselling of the cutting mentioned above).

Close-up of damage to model railway hill
Cracking Model: Another view of the depressing results on that corner of the model (the chiselled cutting side is also visible)
Once the Toblerone-wrapping work on the cliffs was almost completed, I started thinking a bit more about the design of the station area. I still haven’t decided whether I have space to expand the hill as my brother suggested, because I don’t know how big the car park will be, so I left a bit of the cliffs unfinished in case they get extended later. I did take a tape measure to our cars, to get an idea of how much space is needed, but never got round to scaling these down and making a parking-space-sized template to experiment with on the model. A combination of consultations to work on (principally the ones for the new Wales & Borders rail franchise) and general despondency given the cracked hill then put a halt to the project.

Photograph of model railway hill (work in progress)
Snow On The Hills: a closer view of the larger hill section following the application of plaster/filler