Following a period of ‘competitive dialogue’ with four possible partners, the Welsh Government (or their relatively new ‘Transport For Wales’ body) finally issued the Invitation To Tender (ITT) for the next Wales & Borders rail franchise in the past week. This time next year, the current Arriva Trains Wales franchise should be just a few weeks away from coming to an end.
The pre-qualified four are Abellio Rail Cymru, Arriva Rail Wales, KeolisAmey and MTR Corporation. The winner will be an ‘Operator and Development Partner’ (ODP), required to play a bigger role in the development of infrastructure than train operating companies in the UK have done since privatisation. Therefore, at least some of the bidders for the new contract are joint-ventures involving an infrastructure firm along with one of the ‘usual subjects’ in UK franchise contests.
Not all the ‘usual subjects’ are represented though, First Group and Stagecoach are conspicuous by their absence from the line-up. That leaves subsidiaries of foreign railway companies leading the four hopeful groups. Arriva belongs to DB, the state-owned railway of Germany, Abellio to NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch state-owned railway), Keolis to SNCF (owned by the French state) and MTR (in part) to the Hong Kong Government.
The short listed bidders now have a little while to work up a final tender to submit to the Welsh Government / Transport For Wales. Most sources are reporting that all four bidders are still in the game, but there have been suggestions that only Arriva and Abellio remain in the contest. With any luck, the claims that the franchise will still be awarded by the end of February 2018 (despite a delay to the devolution of the powers for awarding the franchise to the Welsh Government) will prove true, allowing the new regime to begin in October 2018.
It is also to be hoped that the new contract will offer widespread improvements. However, unlike in DfT-led franchise competitions, the Welsh Government have not made many of the requirements in the ITT public for the new Welsh contract. At this point then, it is all a mystery. Fingers crossed everyone.
Stena Line have today introduced a new ferry timetable which has played a part in the start of a new chapter for the Great Western Railway. Apparently, the ferry timetable between Fishguard and Rosslare has remained largely unchanged for decades. Today however all four departures have been shifted by at least an hour, some almost as many as three.
Arriva Trains Wales (ATW) have, for their part, reworked the Fishguard rail timetable to ensure rail connections are available. However, they have been forced to breach the terms of their original 2003 franchise agreement. That contract required only two trains per 24 hours, and specified that these must run between Fishguard and Swansea (or Cardiff), connecting with ferries and either running through to/from London or connecting with London services.
Obviously, so far ATW have opted to connect with First Great Western services to and from London Paddington rather than run through services themselves. In light of Stena Line’s changes however, the London connections required by the 2003 franchise agreement are no longer provided. One of the ferries now arrives at Fishguard Harbour fairly late in the evening; by the time the connecting train reaches Swansea or Cardiff the last train to London would be long gone with the first morning train to London not due for nearly four hours, thus breaching the terms of the 2003 contract.
In fairness to ATW, the London service no longer appears to be a reasonable requirement given Stena’s new ferry timing, unless I have misinterpreted the franchise agreement the only way ATW could possibly comply would be to either run through to London themselves (and their staff probably don’t have the required route knowledge) or somehow make First Great Western provide an additional service in the middle of the night. The departure time from Cardiff would be about 1am and arrival in Paddington about 4am (or slightly earlier if First Great Western, using a 125mph train, ran the service). Meeting that requirement would therefore cost a lot of money for very little gain (is anyone likely to find a service at such unsociable hours useful?).
ATW cannot be let off the hook completely however, since another aspect of their changes also appears to breach the franchise agreement. The new rail timetable shows that the problematic evening train, which couldn’t connect into a London service, terminates at Carmarthen, without even a connection to Swansea. That, according to the 2003 franchise agreement, is clearly a breach of contract; through services to at least Swansea are mandatory. Since publishing their timetable, it seems ATW have realised this and the Real Time Trains website is now showing that the new evening boat train, the 22:14 from Fishguard Harbour, will run through to Swansea after all. It will terminate there at 00:04. The 21:58 arrival at Fishguard Harbour however, which would connect into the overnight ferry, is now shown online as starting from Carmarthen at 21:03, thus involving a change for passengers from Swansea and Cardiff and breaching the 2003 agreement. That is also a change from ATW’s PDF timetable leaflet, which suggests the service would start from Manchester Piccadilly at 15:30 (with a suspicious instantaneous reversal in Carmarthen station).
It isn’t only the timetable that isn’t clear, ATW’s current contractual commitments are also shrouded in mystery. Although the 2003 franchise agreement is available online, the contract for the additional Fishguard services introduced in 2011 is not. For this post, I attempted to gain a clear picture by submitting a freedom of information request for the 2011 contract. My request was refused on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. We therefore cannot be sure if the Arriva are allowed to use the local services that do not connect with ferries to meet requirement for services to run through to/from Cardiff or Swansea, and we don’t know if reducing Fishguard’s train service from 7 trains each way (per 24 hours) to 6 (the 01:50 overnight service is withdrawn now that the sailing it existed to connect with is no more).
Stena’s unprecedented changes are not today’s only shock to the established Great Western status quo. You will also get a shock, a potentially lethal one, if you touch the overhead wires on several sections of the Great Western main line, including between Paddington and Maidenhead. There, class 387 Electrostar electric multiple units have become the first electric trains to carry fare-paying passengers on a section of line electrified under the current Great Western electrification project. Sections further west have been live for testing purposes for some time, but cannot be used for passenger services yet due to gaps in the overhead line between them and Maidenhead.
Returning to the Fishguard ferries, a definate plus is that there is now an extra train connection on the Irish side. Before, the only night ferry had rail connections in Rosslare. Now, it appears the new earlier timing of the Fishguard to Rosslare daytime sailing will allow it to connect with a train to Dublin which previously left Rosslare just before the lunch time boat from Fishguard arrived. As far as I can make out, given the differenced between Real Time Trains and the ATW timetable booklet, the connections shape up as follows:
It may be the only express service into and out of south-west Wales, but in the fairly recent past the daytime Fishguard ‘boat train’ was, for some years, deliberately worked by class 150 DMUs. At the time, the service was the 10:57 Cardiff to Fishguard and 13:30 return, at one point continuing to Cheltenham Spa. At the time of writing (March/April 2017), the eastbound service now terminates at Cardiff Central, while the westbound train has been extended to start back from Newport. I believe Arriva Trains Wales now diagram a class 158 on the working, but that may have changed again. Even if a 158 is diagrammed, it seems that class 150s still appear regularly as stand-ins (presumably because the 158s are required in mid and north Wales).
Whether by design or out of necessity this is, in my opinion, a serious problem. The class 150 is, essentially, an inner-suburban design; although the ones in ATW’s fleet have 2+2 seating rather than the even higher-density 2+3 arrangement some other operators have on class 150s. The wide doors are of the recessed, ‘metro-sliding’ type; faster to open/close than plug doors but requiring a large section of windowless wall for the door to slide into. This means that not only is floor space lost to wide standing areas just inside the doors but the seats adjacent to the doors have no window.
Even passengers who do get a window don’t have a great journey; there are very few tables (and on ATW’s units these are not ideally aligned with the windows either) and the rest of the seats lack legroom. While the same could be said for the class 153s, the single-car ‘Super Sprinters’ do at least have smaller doors at the ends of the carriage, rather than the large ones interrupting the passenger saloon on a class 150 ‘Sprinter’.
As well as being wide and of the recessed type, the passenger doors on a class 150 are located towards the middle of each car (nominally one third and two thirds along). This suburban layout aids the flow of passengers on and of trains, keeping station dwell times to a minimum, but interrupts the passenger saloon area. This cannot be helpful for designing a comfortable seating layout that aligns with the windows etc.
The class 150 design then is optimised for busy short-distance stopping trains, with quite a bit of space for standees and short dwell times. But, as I wrote at the beginning, the Fishguard daytime boat train, unofficially known as the ‘Fishguard Flyer’, is an express service. Westbound, it calls only at Cardiff, Bridgend, Llanelli, Whitland and Fishguard & Goodwick (the eastbound working also serves Carmarthen). Even if using a class 158, which has one of the slowest power-door systems in use, instead of a 150 adds a minute at each station the limited calling pattern that’s only five or six minutes on the whole journey. On a service that takes 2 and a half hours between Fishguard & Cardiff that’s a small price to pay for a comfortable journey (150s are so uncomfortable that I have generally had enough after an hour). A 158 probably would make up some of the time anyway by running above the 150’s max speed of 75mph on parts of the line between Bridgend and Briton Ferry, and I doubt the difference in dwell time would be as much as a minute per station in most cases. That’s because the narrow doors on a 158 don’t seem to be too much of an impediment when passenger numbers are within the capacity of the unit; I expect it is when passengers have to stand that the aisle gets clogged and dwell times go through the roof if the train has the passenger doors at the vehicle ends. If the railway was run in the interests of passengers, long-distance and fast services would always be formed of trains of sufficient length to seat all passengers; so stop wasting saloon space with wide doors and give us some legroom instead.
Suburban Express? It’s an oxymoron; sort it.
There’s a general point here for the next Wales & Borders rail franchise here too, as well as the specific one about the Fishguard service. Suburban trains (those with ‘doors at thirds’) cannot provide maximum comfort and are therefore only acceptable on short-distance services with frequent stops and large volumes of passengers, because it is in those cases that units suitable for longer journeys (ie. with doors at the vehicle ends) suffer from extended dwell times (and more stops means those dwell times have a bigger overall impact).
As promised, here is the post focusing on several challenges related to the timing of rolling stock requirements in the “Wales & Borders franchise” (W&B) area.
Arriva Trains Wales’ (ATW’s) current fleet is spread thin. In December 2012, over 80% of the 125 Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) in the fleet were in use on weekdays and Saturdays*. ATW introduced a 4-carriage set of mark 3 coaches to relieve overcrowding on services between north Wales and Manchester, but crowding continues to be a problem across their network. The fleet is so stretched that ATW were forced to reduce maintenance time for a class 158 DMU, which now works a morning service before heading into Machynlleth depot, to enable additional Aberystwyth services.
Looking to the future, the challenges for the new W&B franchise start almost at once. It was announced in 2016 that infrastructure works would be carried out to allow a new hourly service linking Chester to the Liverpool via a largely disused stretch of track known as the Halton Curve. The new service is due to start in December 2018. Although Northern operate the current meagre service, there are longer-term ambitions to extend the new service into Wales, and thus it is expected that the W&B franchise will take responsibility for this. Therefore, within months of the new contract, Wales’ rolling stock fleet will need to be increased in size, lest it be stretched even further, perhaps to breaking point. This is on top of crowding issues.
It is of course possible that the Halton Curve service could be delayed, deferring the need to find rolling stock. The second major challenge facing the new franchise cannot be deferred. Six months later, in May 2019, the summer timetable will begin. During ATW’s current franchise, Great Western Intercity 125 trains have operated on the Pembroke Dock branch on summer Saturdays. These trains provide valuable additional capacity, given that ATW’s services on the line are only 2 coaches and large numbers of tourists head to and from Tenby on summer Saturdays. The problem facing ATW’s successor is that the latest Great Western franchise agreement will see the Intercity 125 seasonal Pembroke Dock service withdrawn with effect from December 2018. The Intercity 125s are perhaps overkill but, on a busy day, trains at least 92 metres long (four 23 metre carriages) are needed to accommodate the Tenby crowds. 4-car class 150s at 80m are unlikely to be sufficient. I cannot see ATW’s current fleet stretching to that, given that north Wales is busier on summer Saturdays too.
If the challenges stopped there, it could be a relatively simple matter of leasing additional rolling stock (if any diesel stock becomes available in the necessary timeframe). A big complication is introduced on 1st January 2020, just over six months later. From that day onwards, passenger trains must comply with regulations concerning accessibility for disabled persons. With those regulations a rapidly looming prospect, some options for increasing the fleet to resource the Halton Curve and Pembroke Dock requirements might be ruled out. Any investment to make rolling stock suitable for W&B is unlikely to be seen as good value for money unless it produces trains that the franchise can use into 2020 and beyond. This probably rules out additional loco-hauled coaches (the only non-electric stock available right now), leaving W&B dependant on other operators releasing stock.
Only 51 of ATW’s 125 DMUs are even close to being 2020-compliant at present. Of the rest, 38 probably will need scrapping (Pacers and class 153s); as would the mrk3 coaches unless complicated door modifications are carried out. A large number of trains will thus need to join the fleet by 2020, even before we consider the 36 class 150 units. These could be made compliant, those with Northern and Great Western will be, but there’s a further issue specific to W&B. Again, there is a time factor involved. The exact timing of this fourth challenge is uncertain, unlike accessibility regulations, the Halton curve and summer tourist traffic. ValleyLines electrification (or, if passengers are unlucky, conversion to tram operation) could change everything. ATW’s Pacers are largely confined to the ValleyLines network, along with at least half of the 150s. If the owners spend millions on the 150s to make them 2020-compliant, they will want them running for as long as possible in order to generate a return on investment. There is therefore a dilemma, since most of the 150s (and whatever replaces the Pacers) will be surplus to requirements when replaced by electric trains (or trams). They shouldn’t be seen as a potential cascade to other areas of the franchise, since the ValleyLines need rolling stock able to cope with frequent stations stops on a busy metro network. That sort of train cannot provide the comfortable interior, with ample leg-room etc., that is needed on the longer-distance rural routes which would be the only other use for trains with a top speed of 75mph (such as the 150s).
* source: “Today’s Railways UK” magazine, December 2012 issue
Welcome, rather belatedly, to 2017. This year is potentially the last full year of the Arriva Trains Wales franchise. The end-date for Arriva’s current reign is generally given as October 2018, but the UK government’s re-franchising schedule shows a short extension is available at the discretion of the Secretary Of State for transport. That raises the question of whether this power will transfer to the Welsh government when rail franchising powers are devolved, as they are expected to be shortly.
Regardless of the exact end date, the process for selecting the next operator to run the ‘Wales & Borders franchise’ has begun, with four firms (including the incumbent Arriva) having been shortlisted to bid for the contract. As the Welsh Government prepare to let the new franchise, a committee of the National Assembly For Wales is conducting an inquiry into the matter, as part of which they are running a public consultation which is open until 23rd February 2017. As part of this, they have an online survey, and following this a stakeholder meeting is planned in Shrewsbury in early March.
The Invitation To Tender is likely to be issued later this year, with franchise award in early 2018 ready for the new franchise to begin in October 2018, assuming the option to extend the franchise is not taken up. The challenge now is to ensure the specification of the new contract brings improvements and provides what is needed to resolve the issues currently faced with Arriva Trains Wales (ATW), such as shortage of rolling stock.
Some aspects of the current Arriva Trains Wales franchise agreement, particularly the omission of any provision for growth in passenger numbers, are widely regarded as a colossal failure. Because of this, we are enduring the pain of overcrowded, and in some cases unsuitable, trains. Perhaps now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as the 15 year ‘no growth’ franchise draws to a close.
This post is the introduction to what I hope will become a series on issues related to the new franchise. I did intend to include a look at several challenges related to the timing of rolling stock requirements in the “Wales & Borders franchise” (W&B) area in this post; however it got so long I have decided to split this introductory section off. The rolling stock challenges post will follow in the next few days.