Tag Archives: franchises

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.

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).

Time Crisis

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 DVT and coaches at Holyhead station
Crowd Buster: DVT 82308 about to leave Holyhead on a Manchester service, unofficially dubbed ‘The Irish Mancunian’
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.

First Great Western's Pembroke Coast Express service leaving Tenby
On the way out: First Great Western’s Pembroke Coast Express leaving Tenby; this service is due to be withdrawn in 2018
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.

Arriva Trains Wales class 150 and class 153 in multiple at Carmarthen
Painful Problem: Much of the Welsh fleet is not compliant with the 2020 accessibility regulations, including the units pictured here (a 153 and a 150)
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

The Last Years Of Pain?

A red sunrise seen through a bus window
New Dawn? Will the new rail franchise offer a rosier future?
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.

Class 150 DMU at Port Talbot Parkway station
Unsuitable train: class 150 on the long-distance Gloucester to Fishguard Harbour working
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.

Consultation – Setting the Direction for Wales and Borders Rail

No full blog post this week, my apologies, although I’ve never promised to post regularly anyway.

One reason for today’s short post is that I have been busy writing a response to the Welsh Government’s consultation on the next Wales & Borders rail franchise and have not had time to write a proper blog post. Should you also wish to respond to the consultation, it is available here on the Welsh Government website.