A Dangerous Distraction

As one consultation on the next Wales & Borders rail franchise draws to a close, I have been informed that another is coming up. As part of this Transport for Wales / Welsh Government, the authority who will award the franchise, will be holding a series of consultation meetings from 20th March to 3rd April. Continuing my series on issues for the new franchise, this post will focus on a problem with service patterns in north Wales.

Distant view of a class 158 DMU on the North Wales Coast Line
Along The Coast: a class 158 on the North Wales Coast Line
The present operational rail infrastructure of north Wales comprises the North Wales Coast Line (let’s call it the NWCL for this post) from Holyhead to Chester, with the short branch to Llandudno joining roughly half way along. A separate line diverges from the NWCL just west of Chester and heads south to Wrexham, before leaving north Wales and heading south to Shrewsbury. The Conwy Valley Line and part of the Wrexham to Bidston ‘Borderlands Line’ also lie in north Wales, but are largely self-contained operations that will not be discussed further in this post.

Virign trains Super Voyager in north Wales
London Link: Virgin Super Voyager on the NWCL
A glance at a map will show you that the NWCL runs broadly west-east, and thus trains from Llandudno and Holyhead to Crewe and Manchester would be reasonably direct and stand a good chance of being time-competitive with road travel. Unfortunately, at present one train every hour from north Wales (normally Holyhead) reverses at Chester, joining the line to Wrexham. Roughly half these continue to Birmingham and the others to Cardiff, both rather roundabout routes. The fastest rail route from Chester to Birmingham is via Crewe, but currently few north Wales services (other than Virgin’s Euston trains) run through to Crewe. There is of course no direct rail route between Cardiff and Holyhead/Bangor, which cannot help attract through passengers.

Fortunately for the railway, the A470 is a slow road. Even so, only the loco-worked ‘Premier Service’ manages Cardiff-Bangor in less than four hours, the other through services take around 4hr 14mins; close to the AA route planner estimates for driving. I feel the indirect Birmingham and Cardiff trains are a waste of train paths on the NWCL. In this regard I am supported, anecdotally, by several users of internet forums who suggest that the pattern of travel demand in north Wales is largely focused on the big cities of north-west England; Liverpool, Manchester and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Birmingham. As far as linking north and south Wales is concerned I believe the appropriate level of service is three express trains (like the original ‘premier service’) each way, 7-days a week, rather than frequent stopping/semi-fast services.

Arriva Trains Wales 'premier service' mark 3 coaches at Cardiff Central
WAG Express: complete with Welsh Government branding, the ‘premier service’ train (funded by the Welsh Assembly Government) departs Cardiff Central for the depot.
To my dismay however, the Welsh Government’s reason for funding the partial redoubling project between Chester and Wrexham (currently underway but experiencing difficulties) is to provide further Holyhead-Cardiff services (bringing the frequency up to hourly). The redoubling is otherwise welcome (though it is a shame that a single line section will remain), but again Holyhead-Cardiff services aren’t the best way to use the resources available.

In preparation for the franchise consultations, I carried out some research into other’s aspirations. A key source was a report on the re-franchising by the House Of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee. Some of the evidence they received supported the forum comments, for example this from Paul Maynard MP. “Clearly, there are two major rail markets in Wales, one through South Wales and one through North Wales, and what you have to do with any franchise that you design is ensure that it is as economically viable as possible”. The Institution Of Civil Engineers also stated in their response that the key links are with England and not Cardiff. They did support through trains from the NWCL to Wrexham, which is understandable but unfortunately does not address the problem of NWCL paths being taken up with trains that don’t link effectively to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. Bangor university aren’t worried, they support the Welsh Government’s plan for hourly Cardiff trains AND ask for increased frequency of direct services to Liverpool, Manchester, London and Birmingham and Manchester airports. That would be five different routes, so potentially five trains per hour. Even if the NWCL has enough paths, would demand be sufficient for five trains per hour?

Virgin trains Pendolinos at Manchester Piccadilly railway station
Magnet: Manchester Piccadilly is an important destination for north Wales passengers.
If you ask the Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth Rail Passengers Association (or some of its members, at least), the Cardiff trains, at least, would be rather under subscribed. I hope they submit the comments in their newsletter 71 to all the consultations, because I found a fair amount of good stuff in there. Almost echoing the quote from Paul Maynard MP above, they stress the importance of “expanding the revenue flows with the most potential”, this being “the best way to achieve extra income.” Cardiff-Holyhead isn’t one of those flows, it is a dangerous distraction, apparently described as “a barrier to bidders, unless the Welsh Government would adequately compensate them for lost revenue elsewhere”.

The Welsh Government’s plans for frequent through trains between Cardiff and Holyhead fly in the face of logic for another reason, too. Of equal importance, in my opinion, to the pattern of demand is an issue other parties seem to have overlooked. By taking away paths that could otherwise be used for electric trains to Birmingham (via Crewe) and Manchester, having NWCL trains reverse at Chester damages the case for electrification in north Wales. Electrification is a key aspiration for the GrowthTrack360 campaign. Ironically, their report suggests retaining the current NWCL-Wrexham through services that continue alternately to Cardiff and Birmingham. At least they are not suggesting the Cardiff trains should be hourly, I suppose.

Class 158 train on the Cambrian Coast Line
No Chance Of Electrification Here: class 158 on the Cambrian Coast Line. These trains interwork with the Wrexham-Birmingham route.
For Holyhead-Cardiff trains to be electric, Network Rail would need to electrify not only the NWCL but also the Chester-Wrexham-Shrewsbury-Newport route. I don’t think even the Welsh Government would go beyond hourly Holyhead-Cardiff services, and that wouldn’t justify electrification of such a distance by itself. The other services sharing the route include the Swansea/Cardiff-Manchester trains (which to become electric would also need the Shrewsbury-Crewe line wired) and the Holyhead/Chester/Wrexham-Birmingham service. The latter has to use the same rolling stock as the Cambrian lines (Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and Pwllheli) because they interwork in Birmingham. I don’t see Pwllheli being electrified in the foreseeable future, and Aberystwyth’s chances of wires aren’t all that much better. That seems to lock the whole Chester/Crewe-Shrewsbury-Newport route into diesel operation.

Therefore, in order to make a strong case for electrification of the NWCL, the trains on it need to go to places that can actually support electric trains without having to string up much more than the NWCL itself. Chester-Crewe (for Birmingham) and Chester-Warrington (for Manchester) are relatively short stretches to electrify along with the NWCL. Keep the diesels to Cardiff down to three per day in order to make the most of the electrification or there’s no chance of wires in north Wales. A good starting point for a debate on future NCWL services might be:

  • Hourly fast Holyhead-Manchester service, with a few hours missing (with the path taken by one of the three Cardiff services or a Euston service)
  • Every 2hrs stopping service between Holyhead and Llandudno
  • Hourly semi-fast Bangor-Birmingham service (via Crewe)
  • Hourly stopping service between Llandudno and Liverpool, via the Halton Curve

Even that is pushing it a bit, since the Halton curve would only have an hourly service (if it had a second train each hour, that would probably run to Wrexham and hence would be a diesel).

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