Better late than never, here’s the annual 5th January post on the TrawsCymru T5 service, only one more to go to complete the series. But before we begin this instalment I should apologise: this post is not just about the T5. It reports, at some length, on related issues across the TrawsCymru network and concludes with comments on trains.
In 2010, the Welsh Government held a consultation on their long-distance bus network, known at the time as TrawsCambria. The results suggested that extra leg room, luggage space and access to toilet facilities should be priorities for improvement. Within a year, it was announced that the network would be renamed as TrawsCymru with 12 new buses ordered for the two intended TrawsCymru launch routes; the TC1 (Aberystwyth-Carmarthen) and TC4 (Newtown-Cardiff).
Following the results of the consultation, passengers would presumably have expected enhanced leg room and luggage space and, perhaps, on-board toilets. The latter is presumably impossible on a low-floor bus but TrawsCambria had shown the way regarding legroom. YJ55BKE and YJ55BKF, the two Optare Tempo buses ordered for the X50 service (Aberystwyth – Cardigan) were the 12.6 metre model, but had the same seating layout as the 12 metre version.
Sadly the vast majority of TrawsCambria buses had the same number of seats per metre of vehicle length as a normal short-distance bus and the 12 new Optare Tempos for the TrawsCymru launch routes were much the same. The first six, intended for the TC4, were the X1200 (12 metre) model, with 35 seats (32 + 3 tip-up). The remaining six vehicles, intended for the TC1, were the X1260 (12.6 metre) model, providing an extra row of 4 seats (total 39, including the 3 tip-ups). Although this is less seats than Optare’s standard for each length, the 12 new TrawsCymru vehicles use the space to install two tables rather than to increase the legroom. As a result, only a few seats are actually more comfortable than on the old fleet and even these have less legroom than YJ55BKE and YJ55BKF.
Apparently, the 35 seat T4 vehicles caused some overcrowding south of Merthyr Tydfil when, as part of the introduction of TrawsCymru, the previous Newtown-Brecon/Merthyr TrawsCambria service was extended into Cardiff. Fortunately for passengers on the T4 and the Welsh Government (but not for passengers between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen), Arriva introduced CymruExpress which scuppered the TC1 and the six longer buses were temporarily stored. This allowed three of the 35-seaters to be put into store in exchange for three of the longer ones which added capacity on the T4. The six stored TrawsCymru buses were eventually put to use on the T9 ‘Cardiff Airport Express’ service.
Which brings us, at last, to the T5. At a bus user’s surgery in Cardigan, the TrawsCymru network manager David Hall asked if smaller vehicles, such as Optare Versas, would be suitable for the service as an alternative to the Optare Tempos. A woman (I think from Ceredigion council) told him no. Some time later, Optare MetroCity buses were ordered for the TrawsCymru T5. The longest MetroCity model is 11.5 metres; actually shorter than the longest Versa (11.7m). Obviously the Welsh Government had not learnt from their mistake with the T4 and they (or the network manager) did not listen to the feedback from the bus users surgery.
When I wrote my post, ‘Blunder Bus’, on the T5 launch the new MetroCities had yet to arrive. I was expecting them to have fewer seats and the same minimal legroom as most buses. However, despite being a whole metre shorter than the Optare Tempo X1260s the seating capacity is 40 or 41; similar to the TrawsCambria 12m Tempos. Thus there is, at least, no significant reduction in capacity. In terms of legroom, the result is similar to the initial TrawsCymru Tempos for the TC4 and the aborted TC1; there are a handful of good seats but nothing like as good as the two X50 Tempos. Perhaps worse are the Wright Pulsars left over from the 412, which became part of the T5. Only the Tempos, and an Optare Excel, being the oldest vehicles in use on the X50/412 were (largely) retired when the MetroCities arrived. Although newer than the Tempos, the Pulsars have a cheaper ‘look & feel’ to them.
The T1 too, with the originally-intended Tempos long-diverted elsewhere, has to put up with fairly standard buses; in that case Enviro 300s (and, initially, even Enviro 200s). These I believe were formerly used for Swansea park & ride duties and, apart from some (fake?) leather on the seats I doubt the interiors have been changed at all. So don’t expect much legroom. If TrawsCymru has a quality bar, it is set very low.
But that word ‘quality’ opens a ‘can of worms’. The UK government has recently started to include a ‘quality’ score in its evaluation of bids for passenger rail franchises. As a result, recently awarded contracts have included plans for new trains. Perhaps most notably, Greater Anglia has committed to replacing their entire fleet, which includes the 30 class 379 Electrostars as young as eight years old. South Western Railway’s intention to replace their class 707s, which entered service only days before their new franchise commenced, within two years is similarly startling. While the Welsh Government are perhaps in a position to argue that the Optare Tempos’ reliability may start to fall off after around 10 years intensive use during the TrawsCambria era, is there really any passenger benefit to replacing nearly new trains? In the case of the 707s, perhaps there is as the new fleet will have toilets (I believe the 707s do not). However, on the Anglia franchise class 379s, class 317s, class 156s and class 153s with unit-end gangways (corridor connections on the vehicle ends to allow passengers to move between units running in multiple) will be replaced by units which do not.
Perhaps the worst offender of all however is Northern. Following a ministerial edict to get rid of the much-derided Pacers, proposals for a ‘Northern Connect’ brand for regional express services and promises of a seat roadshow I had high hopes for the new Northern franchise. However, the new class 195 diesel multiple units for ‘Northern Connect’ are an almighty let down. Far from being a high-quality regional express train, these are outer suburban units with wide doors opening directly into the passenger saloons to cut dwell times and maximise standing room. Despite the seat roadshow, I am informed that the cheapest available seat, widely condemned as ‘ironing boards’ after they were chosen for the new Thameslink fleet, will be fitted to Northern’s new trains. And it doesn’t stop there, the 3-car units (and even the class 331/1, the 4-car electric version) will have just one toilet. Just like a Pacer, which is a much smaller train with (consequentially) lower capacity. Most of Northern’s true regional express trains, the 2-car class 158s built for British Rail, have two toilets. If that wasn’t enough; like the new Anglia units, the new trains for Northern don’t have unit-end gangways.
Finally, we get to the really scary part. The new rail operator in Wales has plans to order new trains, similar to Northern’s class 195, for long distance services. Thankfully the Welsh ones will have unit-end gangways, but I fear the good news ends there. I don’t know how many toilets are planned (but given all the windows on the artist’s impressions I’m guessing just the one) or whether they are serious about not using the ‘ironing board’ seats shown in their artist’s impressions. But I do know that they intend to double the door width. That increases standing room and makes them outer-suburban trains at best, which would be ok if they were to be used on outer suburban services (such as Cardiff-Cheltenham). But they are intended to replace the ‘regional express’ 158s and 175s. All of them. That would be a big drop in quality, it mustn’t happen.
All this goes to show that newer isn’t always better. This is the “Appeal to Novelty” fallacy. It’s high time government specified real quality for public transport vehicles, rather than just asking for “new and shiny”.