Tag Archives: Cardiff

Tracks And Trams

As noted previously, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) is proposing a Cardiff & Newport metro and are running a franchise competition to select an ‘Operator and Development Partner’ (ODP) for the Wales & Borders franchise. The first part of this post pointed out that the late and over-budget partial redouble of the Wrexham-Chester line has led WAG to adopt a risky strategy; taking ownership of the ValleyLines infrastructure north from Cardiff Queen Street, plus the Cardiff Bay branch and maybe the Cardiff Central to Cardiff Queen Street section, off Network Rail.

Class 150 at platform 0 in Cardiff Central
Not threatened: This class 150, standing at Cardiff Central’s platform 0, is probably working a service to Ebbw Vale. This route uses the Great Western Main Line so is not at risk of tramification.
One of the risks is the very fact that it is an untried approach; to my knowledge a significant portion of the national network has never been split off since the big four were merged to create British Railways. Sections have of course been sold off to create heritage railways, but they are their own self-contained operations and the Cardiff Metro will have to maintain interfaces with Network Rail, if only for freight services. Admittedly some heritage railways have ambitions to extend their services onto Network Rail infrastructure, but so far I believe only the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has achieved this. So, the second risk is that Network Rail isn’t completely removed from the picture. That in turn gives rise to a third risk; that WAG and/or their ODP may try to minimise the interfaces with Network Rail by segregating what WAG are already calling ‘the core ValleyLines’ to a very great extent.

At present of course, many services from north of Cardiff (Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) run through to Penarth, Barry Island and the Vale Of Glamorgan Line to Bridgend. That is very sensible, since a frequent service runs Cardiff Central on these routes; and this is unlikely to decrease. A potential Metro frequency of 4tph (trains per hour) from each of Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney, Penarth and Barry Island, plus 2tph from Bridgend via the Vale Of Glamorgan is a total of 26tph before considering Coryton and Radyr services. Even with four platforms (4, 6, 7 and 8) now nominally designated as ‘ValleyLines’ platforms, 26tph terminating at Cardiff Central would give less than nine and a half minutes for turn-around time. Add Coryton, Radyr and possible new lines and recovering the timetable following delays would be well-nigh impossible. Trying to split core ValleyLines services from the rest of the Cardiff Metro would therefore be a serious risk to punctuality.

Manchester Metrolink tram at Deansgate Castlefield tram stop, with the long-closed Manchester Central station behind
Less seats than a Pacer: Manchester Metrolink tram
Splitting the service also presents a risk of a different kind; a risk to passenger comfort. While the current fleet of class 150s and Pacers is not-exactly comfortable, there’s worse out there. The one thing less comfortable than a seat on a Pacer is having to stand; and one option the Welsh Government may be considering could reduce the availability of seats. That option is light-rail, probably in the form of trams. The Bombardier M5000 trams on Manchester’s Metrolink are about the same length as a Pacer but have 46 fewer seats (almost halving the 106 seats on a Pacer) and room for perhaps 100 more standing passengers. Any other passenger train will be longer than a Pacer, and hence have even more room for seats. Even if you have longer trams than Manchester’s, each coach still needs to be shorter than most train carriages because trams need to handle tighter curves. Shorter carriages mean more corridor connections between cars and probably more doors, leaving less room for seats. Light-rail would probably make the project cheaper, and perhaps enable earlier delivery, but with a journey from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil taking an hour (perhaps slightly less with electrification) I don’t think it is the right choice.

A further risk is that budget overruns and project delays aren’t unique to Network Rail projects anyway. WAG and their ODP will probably need to choose from the same pool of electrification contractors as Network Rail, and so they may yet suffer similar high costs and late delivery.

Incomplete rear entrance to Cardiff Central station
Changing Times: Could trams stop here (outside Cardiff Central) in future?
Returning to the idea of trams; despite the reduced seating capacity which I deem unacceptable for the longer journeys, there are clear benefits. Perhaps the most important is that trains cannot mix with road traffic on street-running sections. That means a direct rail service between Cardiff Central and Cardiff Bay, which seems to be a key Welsh Government objective, is probably only possible with trams (which I suppose would stop at street-level outside Cardiff Central’s new southern entrance). The reduced cost of lower-voltage light-rail electrification, as already mentioned, is also plus so maybe a mix of tram and train could be the optimum outcome for the Cardiff Metro.

Limiting light-rail to the shorter routes however poses a number of problems. The Cardiff Bay line is the only obvious candidate for light-rail conversion, with short on-street links at both ends (to Cardiff Central at the north end and closer to the millennium centre etc. at the other end). That alone seems unlikely to provide either the volume necessary to justify the overheads of a tram system (such as a depot) or access to an area of open land for a depot. Ordinary trams might be permitted to share streets with cars, but they are not allowed to share tracks with heavily-built national rail trains, so the rumoured Metro depot location at Taff’s Well is out of reach. Tram-trains could run everywhere, but are more expensive than straight trams and the UK’s tram-train pilot scheme in Sheffield is behind schedule. With the possible removal of funding if the project isn’t complete by 2023, the tram-train option might also be a big gamble.

A damp and overcast day in Treorchy
Too far for trams: trains through Treorchy should remain heavy-rail
Let us assume therefore that it is a choice between having some trams that cannot run on heavy-rail tracks and not being able to deliver the Cardiff Central – Cardiff Bay link. How do you grow the tram network enough to reach a suitable depot location, without either blowing the budget or screwing up the heavy-rail part of the Metro by converting more of the existing network? Taff’s Well is 20 minutes from Cardiff Central, right on the limit of being too far to subject passengers to the loss of seats that trams would bring. However, it is over 5 miles as the crow flies; I doubt finding and constructing an all-new route from Cardiff is feasible, so existing rail alignments would need to be used. That either means quadrupling (providing two light-rail tracks and two-heavy rail ones) or conversion to light-rail. As far as I can tell from Google Earth, there is no room for more tracks on some sections that would need quadrupling. That means a conversion would be necessary, but since any services north of Taff’s Well and Llanishen ought to remain heavy-rail the Cardiff Queen Street to Heath cannot be converted and heavy-rail services and the same applies to at least one of the two routes to Radyr (via Fairwater and via Cathays).

Therefore, there are two final questions.

  1. whether a single double-track route for services from north of Taff’s Well to Cardiff is sufficient and, if not
  2. whether it is possible to build a street-running tram route of almost 4 miles from Cardiff Central to Heath, plus 2.5 and a bit miles of new line from Coryton into Taff’s Well

Making the metro is not going to be easy.

Worthless Protection

Intercity 125 train running alongside the sea near Llanelli
Sorry, no dolphins: I don’t have any good Cardigan Bay / Wildlife photos, so here’s a train by the sea in Carmarthenshire instead.
It seems nothing is safe. Late last year (2016), the Welsh Government announced that they would be allowing scallop dredging across the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC). How are we to know what untouched, natural seabed looks like if it is periodically ‘dug up’ by scallop dredging equipment? We can’t do so now, because beam trawling also disturbs the seabed and this, apparently, has been permitted throughout the area for some time. What is the point of giving something ‘protected status’ if destructive practices are allowed regardless?

This matter is not, you may think, on-topic for this blog; but Cardigan Bay isn’t the only example of ‘protected status’ not meaning much. Four Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and the River Usk SAC, would be impacted by the second M4 motorway around Newport backed by the Welsh Government. It is not just the Welsh Government that is ignoring valuable wildlife habitats either, on the 3rd of February 2016 the Woodland Trust pointed out on the radio that HS2, as-planned, would destroy ancient woodland.

Class 47 locomotive in Manchester Liverpool Road station (museum of science and industry)
Now unrepeatable: 47500 at Manchester Liverpool Road station, having been brought here off the national network
Wildlife protections are not the only ones being overridden either. The Museum Of Science and Industry (formerly abbreviated as MOSI and now as MSI) in Manchester incorporates two grade 1 listed buildings. One of these is Manchester Liverpool Road station, the original terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester railway (the world’s first locomotive-hauled passenger line between two cities). While the old station is no longer used by service trains, until recently it was still connected to the national network allowing occasional visits by present day rolling stock, and the museum ran demonstration rides around their site hauled by a steam engine. However, as part of the Ordsall chord project the connection to the national network was cut off, which also restricts the available track for the museum’s internal trains. Admittedly, the project does not actually destroy the listed building and the impact on the museum’s services was probably unavoidable in order to deliver improved national rail services. However, I feel the Ordsall chord should have been designed with a flat crossing to allow trains from the national network to run into Liverpool Road station occasionally.

While my views on the Ordsall chord could be considered a ‘minor quibble’, since trains wouldn’t use the link into the museum very often, there are listed buildings elsewhere that appear to be treated as though they had no such protection. A case in point is Cardiff Central. The station was listed as the most complete major city GWR station of its time, and currently looks well looked after. However, the plans for its future suggest otherwise.

Comparison of Cardiff Central now and if Powell Dobson's plans were implemented
Clock Clobbered: Among other parts of the building (such as that currently home to M&S), the clock tower is gone in Powell Dobson’s horrendous plans for Cardiff Central.

Listed building consent has already been granted for electrification at Cardiff Central. While I am in favour of electrification, I do think the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) designs Network Rail are using on the Great Western scheme are far more visually obtrusive than necessary. On sections where speeds may reach 125mph the heavy-duty structures are perhaps justified, but surely structures of that scale aren’t necessary in and around Cardiff Central, where speeds are much lower. It appears from the listed building consent application that most of the OHLE structures Network Rail are planning to install are a standard XL TTC design with chunky masts of square cross-section. I think that means Extra Large Twin Track Cantilevers, but there are enormous portal structures spanning many tracks at the ends of the platforms too. It is all very square in modern-industrial style with I-beam sections etc. completely out of keeping with the existing cylindrical columns holding up the classic platform canopies. Elsewhere on the GW, Network Rail have come up with a more-subtle design of OHLE especially for Bath’s Sydney Gardens. It isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure they’ve finalised the design, but with elegantly-arching tube-section masts it is a least a good effort; whereas in Cardiff they’ve gone for the standard brutish monstrosities. So far, the only successful consideration of the listed building I’ve found in the plans for Cardiff is that a small degree of care has gone into choosing sites for the outrageous masts (avoiding placing one directly in front of the station name). Because of that, Network Rail’s ‘school report’ from me would be ‘should try harder, shame on Cardiff council for not pressing them to do so’.

Another illustration of the extensive demolition planned at Cardiff Central.
Deplorable Destruction: Another illustration of the extensive demolition planned at Cardiff Central.

Architects ‘Powell Dobson’ fare much worse. If the headmaster was strict, they would be expelled (or sent back to elementary school). Surely, the obvious thing with a listed building is that you do not demolish it, yet that is exactly what their plans for a major refurbishment of Cardiff Central seem to involve. Although it is obvious at first glance that the current northern frontage is retained, a closer inspection reveals that vast swathes of the current station would disappear. Even northern concourse building would have a large hole knocked through one side of it in the plans and the structure on the other side (currently home to M&S) is gone completely, along with the station clock it appears. The platform buildings, all of them, and canopies could also go; there would be little left. Again, although a planning application has not yet been submitted, the council seem to be complicit in this blatant disregard for the station’s listed status. Far from criticising the poor design, the powers-that-be appear to be busy pressing for the project to happen as soon as possible.

Former station building at Fishguard & Goodwick station
Bags Of Character: the beautiful station building at Fishguard & Goodwick station, now demolished.
You could say that the version of Cardiff Central which ‘Powell Dobson’ have designed is still on the drawing board and may never happen. Granted, there is (I hope) time to stop the destruction, but just look at Fishguard & Goodwick station. Although it is not listed, it is within a conservation area which apparently was deliberately designed to include the station. Despite this, the characterful station building there was demolished in its entirety. Yes; it was falling down anyway and yes a replacement building was constructed but this failed to capture any of the character of the original. The materials used in the new build are all wrong, the chimney stack is missing and the shape of the canopies isn’t quite right. The replacement building doesn’t do the original justice; not one little bit.

Close-up of the new building at Fishguard & Goodwick station, showing the wrong roof and wall materials and crazy angle of canopy supports.
Mad Materials: close-up of the new building at Fishguard & Goodwick, showing the wrong roof and wall materials and crazy angle of canopy supports.

If something is given special protection it should be protected, end of. This isn’t happening currently, something needs to be done or more treasures will be lost. This post is timed, almost by-chance, to coincide with WWF’s Earth Hour 2017 (25th March, 20:30), so I will end with the following: If we don’t protect the climate, one of those treasures might be life itself (at the very least, some species would go extinct as a result of climate change).