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 Alongside this, the GWR franchise agreement stated that the London – Pembroke Dock trains would be withdrawn at the end of the 2018 season.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.