A year ago today, I was heading out of Wales for a holiday in Scotland. The day before, Saturday, I had marked the end of Arriva Trains Wales with a short ride from Fishguard & Goodwick to Fishguard Harbour. The day’s stormy weather meant that I gave up on the idea of heading to Carmarthen.
Sunday’s journey to Scotland would therefore be my first journey on KeolisAmey’s new ‘Transport for Wales Rail Services’ franchise. Unfortunately the weather had resulted in a line closure between Machynlleth and Shrewsbury, meaning my experience of the operator’s first day was a lengthy rail replacement bus ride. My train onwards from Shrewsbury was a Virgin Trains Super Voyager to Euston, where I joined the Caledonian sleeper to the highlands.
Long years ago, or so it now seems, the government came up with the Intercity Express Programme (IEP). This was primarily in response to the Intercity 125 (IC125) fleet approaching life expiry. The result of this, it transpired, was the award of a contract to build new ‘intercity’ trains to Hitachi; these were known by Hitachi as the ‘Super Express’.
Each carriage of the Hitachi Super Express trains was to be 26 metres long, three metres longer than had been common on British trains up to that time. Speculation that this extra length would cause them to foul line-side infrastructure was fairly widespread, with a former British Rail Western Region chief civil engineer expressing doubt regarding whether they would be able to pass through Narberth tunnel. As this is a significantly curved tunnel such an issue appeared plausible, and would have prevented the new trains from working the seasonal through trains between London and Tenby, which have been operated using IC125s for many years.
Documents released by the government revealed that IEP would also include gauge clearance works, to ensure that the new trains would be able to operate on most of the Great Western and East Coast intercity networks. However, the route through Narberth to Tenby and Pembroke Dock was notable by its absence from these plans. Alongside this, the GWR franchise agreement stated that the London – Pembroke Dock trains would be withdrawn at the end of the 2018 season. Based on this information, myself and many other enthusiasts assumed that this meant that the former civil engineer was correct and that it had been decided that the infrequent service (summer Saturdays only, with just two trips each Saturday) was not worth a costly re-construction of Narberth tunnel.
Some time later however, as electrification of the Great Western Main Line inched its way towards Wales, a range of problems resulted in the cancellation of Cardiff-Swansea electrification. All of a sudden the government needed something to placate Welsh passengers and it was announced that the summer Saturday trains to Tenby and Pembroke Dock would continue with the new IEP train fleet after all. It now appears that the decision to withdraw these services was not due to any need for expensive modifications to Narberth tunnel; despite the longer carriages the class 800s (as we now know them) should fit through after all. The services have been resurrected, but given that the tunnel wasn’t the problem many expected it to be one has to ask why the franchise agreement initially specified its withdrawal.
Clearly the ‘Pembroke Coast Express’, and the other summer Saturday GWR service through Pembrokeshire, were deliberately ignored by the UK government. Before electrification was curtailed at Cardiff, the Pembroke Dock services were obviously not considered important enough to be worth sending somebody to check whether IEP trains could run into Pembrokeshire without significant expenditure. The route west of Carmarthen was simply deleted from the GWR franchise for no obvious reason. It took the death of electrification to rescue the service; it remains to be seen whether the ‘Pembroke Coast Express’ name will have survived when a class 800 makes its first public working out of Pembroke Dock at the end of May.
I’ve not much time for blogging at the moment unfortunately, so the promised comprehensive coverage of the new TrawsCymru T5 service will have to wait. Some other news has just reached me that I really thought should be covered though, so here goes.
Reading this week’s North Wales Rail web newsletter, I have discovered that the Stena HSS (Highspeed Sea Service) sailings between Holyhead and Dún Laoghaire have been withdrawn. I believe the high-speed vessel, ‘Stena Explorer’, once ran several services a day year-round. Over the years that has reduced to a seasonal services, but now the end has come. According to Wikipedia the ‘Stena Explorer’ had two sister ships. The ‘Stena Discovery’) was once used between England (Harwich) and the Netherlands (Hoek Van Holland) but was sold off by Stena some time ago. The other, the ‘Stena Voyager’, worked between Belfast and Stranraer, but both that service and the ship have now been scrapped. In all cases a conventional ferry service has and will continue (although Stranraer sailings have moved to a different port in the same region), but Stena’s fast ferry services are now gone from UK shores. The ‘Stena Lynx III’, a different design of fast ferry, once ran seasonally between Fishguard and Rosslare but that service ended some time ago, before the extra Fishguard rail services could provide connections into it. Speaking of Fishguard-Rosslare, the conventional ferry ‘Stena Europe’ is temporarily out of service. While in the past I have seen Stena temporarily provide an alternative ferry for the route, this time passengers are asked to use Pembroke port instead of Fishguard, which has no sailings until 17th February.
While Stena has now axed all three of its fast ferries between Wales/Scotland and Ireland, Irish Ferries are still advertising their “Jonathan Swift” fast ferry between Holyhead and Dublin. Stena’s reasoning for stopping the fast ferries (and in their last days running slower than before) apparently was high fuel costs. Surely Irish Ferries must have a similar problem with the “Jonathan Swift”, so perhaps that is under threat too. It is a shame that air travel does not appear to be suffering from high costs in the same way; aeroplanes cause higher greenhouse effect than most other modes of transport and as such a decline in air services would be most welcome.
Credit where it’s due for the photo (obtained from Wikipedia as I haven’t a good picture of a ferry to use).