As the Welsh Government’s consultation on the next Wales & Borders rail franchise draws to a close (ends 23rd May 2017), so to must my series of posts regarding issues that I hope the new franchise will address. In this instalment, I discuss some of the problems with station facilities and bus-rail integration, using examples from Fishguard. The consultation on improving bus services in Wales, due to end on 31st May, might also be relevant to this discussion.
Welcome to 2016, let’s hope this will be a happy new year.
Windows PCs have, for some time, featured a number of fairly basic games, such as ‘Minesweeper’ and ‘Solitaire’. The latter is a card game which appears to be the same as one my parents referred to as ‘Patience’. The object of this game is to organise the whole pack of cards into four piles, one for each of the four suits. The cards in each pile also have to be in the correct order (Ace at the bottom, then 2, 3 etc. through to King). There are rules about how to set up the cards and where they can be moved, which means that depending on how the deck is shuffled it may not be possible to complete the game. You can also make a poor move which ‘snookers yourself’, the game in the screenshot looked like it was going well but I eventually got stuck. Unlike real-life though, in the computer version there is an undo feature, and I was able to complete the game after undoing a good number of moves and trying a different approach. If you find you can’t complete the game, you give-up, re-shuffle the cards and start all over again (hence the name Patience, I suspect).
What has this to do with public transport in Wales, you ask? Well, I have been trying to produce a timetable to illustrate my aspirations for rail services from Carmarthen and it is trying my patience. Unlike the game Patience though, I am not sure whether it is possible to deal the cards in such a way that everything will work the way I want it to. There may have to be compromises, but how can I prove whether that is the case?
My problem, or one of them at least, is the single-line sections on Pembrokeshire’s three branches. The ‘main line’ from Swansea to Carmarthen, and from Carmarthen to Clarbeston Road, is double track apart from short stretches in and out of Carmarthen station. It therefore isn’t too difficult to plot an hourly train between Swansea and Clarbeston Road, with extras between Swansea and Carmarthen to boost that section to a broadly half-hourly service. However, the Pembroke & Tenby branch (from Whitland to Pembroke Dock) is single track with just one passing loop (at Tenby) and the Milford Haven branch (from Clarbeston Road) is similar; just the one loop (at Haverfordwest). The Fishguard branch is perhaps the easiest since, despite the sole double-track section (at the Trecwn RNAD junction, where there is no station) being impractical for passing passenger trains, it is relatively short and I’m only trying to path a 2-hourly service (Milford I’m trying to make roughly hourly). The challenge with Fishguard is making connections with TrawsCymru bus services to/from Aberystwyth at Fishguard Harbour. These currently don’t exist, but I’ve worked them out independently and they need to arrive at xx:32 (32 minutes past the hour) and depart at xx:41. This means the trains must arrive between xx:21 and xx:26, and depart between xx:42 and xx:52. This makes the ‘Fishguard Flyer’ boat train, which needs to be about 10 minutes earlier (westbound) and 10 minutes later (eastbound) than the regular pattern (due to signalling headways on the double-track sections), rather difficult.
It is not possible for the bus services between Aberystwyth and Aberaeron (the 40 and X50 services, at the time of writing) to connect with the trains at Aberystwyth. At least, not if you want to a regular interval timetable that is useful to other potential passengers.
Trains normally arrive in Aberystwyth at 20 minutes past the odd hours and depart 10 minutes later. If we assume that Aberystwyth station has a waiting room (it doesn’t, not yet anyway) then 15-20 minutes seems to be a reasonable time to allow for connections. If we use 15 minutes, the bus would need to arrive at quarter past (xx:15) and depart at xx:35. For 20-minute connections, the bus would arrive at xx:10 and depart at xx:40. With an every-half-hour service between Aberaeron and Aberystwyth, this means departures from Aberystwyth would be xx:05 and xx:35 or xx:10 and xx:40. The latter is actually the case at present.
The problem is that these times are not great for passengers wanting the X50 service (the one which departs at xx:10). Most university lectures finish on the hour, and getting down the hill to the station in 10 minutes is a tall order. It can be done, but you have to be fit and hope your lecture does not over-run. If the rail connecting buses were at xx:35, the result would be an even more useless timing of xx:05 for the other service. I imagine, many workers in the town also finish on the hour.
There’s another problem, too. Even supposing you don’t care about the university, the 40 route (to Carmarthen) takes 2hrs 15mins. Out and back would therefore take the bus 4hrs 30mins, so if you want to run an hourly service with five buses you only have half an hour to play with between trips. Arriving at Aberystwyth at xx:10 and departing at xx:40 would use all of that half hour, meaning the bus would have no waiting time at the Carmarthen end. This wouldn’t be good for delay recovery on the buses.
And retiming the trains probably isn’t possible, as they run through to Birmingham and have to slot in on the busy line between Wolverhampton and Birmingham. Plus, there’s little reason other than bus connection to want to retime the trains at Aberystwyth.