Stuck On The Slow Train

SWWITCH’s rail study acknowledges that rail west of Swansea is slow, but offers no solution. I can go one better.

In November 2013, the South West Wales Integrated Transport Consortium (SWWITCH) published a ‘Rail Strategy Executive Summary’. This was the work of AECOM, who had been appointed “to prepare an updated rail strategy” following the completion of some projects from the previous strategy (including the redoubled line through Gowerton). It was intended to feed into both Network Rail’s infrastructure planning and specifications for the Wales & Borders and Greater Western rail franchises. Weaknesses identified with the current rail offering included “low frequencies from several stations” and “slow rail journey times versus car”.

A pair of class 158 trains at Carmarthen station
Sluggish Services: trains to and from Carmarthen station are unable to complete with the speed of car journeys.
A table on page 8 of the study shows that trains between Carmarthen and Swansea take 7-11 minutes longer than driving, and Carmarthen to Cardiff is 30 minutes slower. Pembroke Dock is a no-hoper, rail being 45 minutes slower to Swansea than driving and 97 minutes slower to Cardiff. This, it is concluded, contributes to a low mode-share for rail of 1-8% in south-west Wales compared to a potential 20% if trains were faster or more frequent, or if the roads were slowed by congestion. Trains between Swansea and Cardiff were also found to be slightly slower than driving.

The report proposed several frequency improvements across the SWWITCH area, including a semi-fast Llandovery to Swansea service which would also reduce journey times on the southern end of the Heart Of Wales line. However, despite the very ambitious suggestion of a ‘freight landbridge’ linking Pembrokeshire to Ireland making the strategy’s list of ‘Long Term Proposals’, the significant difference in road and rail journey times, to Cardiff in particular, went unaddressed. The report even implied that through services between Carmarthen and Cardiff would be withdrawn completely, which would increase the journey time still further owing to the need to change in Swansea.

Llandeilo Junction, Llanelli. Tracks diverging left for the Heart Of Wales and Swansea District lines
Two routes, too few trains: straight on for Swansea, left for Cardiff (via the Swansea District Line). Unfortunately, there currently aren’t enough trains to run both routes, so Cardiff trains normally run via Swansea.
That 30 minutes between Carmarthen and Cardiff is a huge disadvantage, which will not be easily cured, but it may be possible to address the issue. As early as February 2006 Arriva Trains Wales included a partial solution in a list of aspirations for the future if the constraints on their franchise were removed. This is split into regions, with South West Wales improvements starting with double track through Gowerton. The second item in this section is track upgrades on the Swansea District Line “to allow direct services from W Wales to Cardiff”.

Even in its current state, used mainly only for freight and not kept in tip-top condition for fast passenger services, the Swansea District Line theoretically allows trains to run between Carmarthen and Cardiff in around 1hr 25mins*. That is 20 minutes quicker than the 2hrs 45mins assumed for current services in the SWWITCH study, and 15mins faster than the current fastest journeys via Swansea (1hr 40mins). To beat the car though, the goal has to be a rail journey time for 70 minutes between Carmarthen and Cardiff, so just using the Swansea District Line isn’t the whole answer.

Arriva Trains Wales’ no-growth franchise of course precludes the introduction of additional services, so south-west Wales has been stuck on the slow train. Fast-forward to September 2016, and evidence to the UK parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee from Professor Stuart Cole included some interesting points. Regarding the possible electrification of the north Wales coast line, he said line speed increases are the first stage to go for, advocating an increase to a uniform 100mph from the current limits which he said vary from 75 to 90mph. Prof. Cole then went on to say that We need to do the same thing on the South Wales main line.

First Great Western Intercity 125 train at Port Talbot Parkway
Losing time: west of Cardiff, cars on the M4 start to catch up with the Intercity 125 service from London. This IC125 is at Port Talbot Parkway.
There is certainly a need to improve the south Wales main line, as the SWWITCH study shows that Cardiff to Swansea is also slower than driving. First Great Western’s Intercity 125 trains reach Cardiff from London Paddington in just over two hours, about 45mins faster than Google’s estimate for driving, but by the time the train reaches Swansea rail’s advantage falls to 20 minutes.

Currently, the linespeed between Cardiff and Llanharan is only 75mph, and faster linespeeds here would aid both trains to Swansea and expresses over the Swansea District Line to south-west Wales. There is also an issue with signal spacing between Carmarthen and Ferryside. To provide good connections between Cardiff and Swansea services these ideally want to be within a few minutes of each other at Carmarthen, so speeding up that section (which includes a short 20mph restriction) to reduce the time taken to traverse that signal section would have double benefits. Finally, upgrading the Swansea District Line itself would buy a few minutes, since it is 50mph maximum with some slower sections. Unfortunately, I cannot say whether or not these savings would add up enough to achieve the desired 70 minute Carmarthen-Cardiff journey time. My attempt at simulating the journey (with current linespeeds) with a computer program does not produce the current running time, so the results of my tests with possible upgrades cannot be trusted.

* I have worked this out using the fastest current station-to-station journey times. Carmarthen to Llanelli is 22mins non-stop, the 22:54 off Port Talbot Parkway (one of the handful of services that avoid Swansea) is timed to reach Llanelli 28 minutes later and the 06:30 Manchester to Milford Haven on Saturdays is timed to do Cardiff to Port Talbot in 30 minutes, despite the fact there is a 100mph section there and the service is booked for a 90mph class 158. Add dwell time at Llanelli and Port Talbot and you get 1hr 22mins.

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