Tag Archives: North Wales Coast Line

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).

Damp Sparks

Bridges on electrified railway near Deansgate station in Manchester
Northern Wires: electrified line in Manchester
Despite the good news I reported previously, that the planned electrification to Swansea is to go ahead, the delays experienced on the Great Western may have started to shed doubt on further projects.

This worrying development comes from comments by Rail minister Claire Perry that electrification is not the only means of improving rail services, which suggest the government may losing faith in electrification. Apparently, in response to calls for electrification of the north Wales coast line, she also said “electrification makes no difference to many passengers” and “Many people, including myself, won’t comprehend if we’re on a diesel or electric train.”

Direct Rail Services class 37 locomotive and mark 2 coaches
No underfloor engines here: DRS class 37 and mark 2 coaches
To this I must ask if she is deaf, or are the only diesel trains she uses locomotive-hauled, such as the INTERCITY 125 or the Cumbrian Coast relief trains operated by DRS? When I get off a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) and change onto an electric or loco-hauled train I almost always notice how much quieter the interior of the electric/loco-hauled train is. I say ‘almost always’ because passengers are sometimes even noisier than under-floor diesel engines. Outside the train, a diesel locomotive or DMU is generally louder than an electric train.

London NO2 emmsions map
The Great Western (with many diesel trains) shows up red, map of harmful emissions in the London area from the Aviation Environment Federation
The government becoming disinterested in electrification is worrying because noise reduction isn’t the only benefit of electric rolling stock, far from it. Perry is correct to say that improvements can be had without electrification, but there are some benefits only electrification can bring and others for which electrification is the best option. An example of the latter is journey time, you can speed up a diesel train by increasing the power available, but this will increase fuel consumption and hence both running costs and pollution. The UK’s electricity mix may not be particularly clean, but at least the gasses harmful to human health that are produced by burning diesel aren’t released in densely populated areas. Improvements to the electricity mix will only further strengthen the benefit of electrification. Furthermore, electric trains are generally lighter because they don’t have to carry their power source with them, meaning it takes less energy to move them. That’s something you cannot do with a diesel train.

One of the locomotives which set the world speed record for a diesel train
Record Breaker: 43159, which holds the world record for a diesel train (148mph). Photo by mike_j’s photos on Flickr
Other countries seem to have realised this years ago. In 1987, France already had its first ‘Ligne Grande Vitesse’ (LGV), a high-speed line (electrified of course) with services operated by TGVs capable of 162mph. In the same year, British Rail set a world record for the fastest diesel train when an Intercity 125 set did 148mph. While it is a fair argument that Britain is a smaller country and didn’t really need a high-speed line, that diesel speed record remains unbeaten to this day (a specialised TGV currently holds the record for the fastest wheel-on-rail train in the world). That suggests other countries have either electrified all their primary routes or have built high-speed lines to become their primary routes.

First Great Western Intercity 125 train on a section of overhead-electrified line
Under the wires: A Great Western IC125 on a section electrified for Heathrow Express. Photo by Martin Addison on Flickr.
In contrast, there has been very little progress in electrifying Britain’s rail network since privatisation; although a slow start was finally made when the Liverpool-Manchester project got underway just two years ago. Several key Intercity routes, the Midland Main Line, Great Western Main Line and the Plymouth-Bristol-Birmingham-Leeds-York ‘CrossCountry route’ remain diesel-worked. The branch of the West Coast Main Line from Crewe to Chester, which sees hourly Intercity services from Euston (some services continuing to Holyhead and Bangor), is also stuck with diesel trains. The Great Western and Midland main lines are of course finally earmarked for electrification, along with the key TransPennineExpress route between Manchester and Leeds/York, but CrossCountry remains diesel. Many parts of the Great Western, even some with hourly Intercity trains, including the very long distance from Newbury to Penzance are also excluded from the current projects. There is therefore a need to keep the electrification teams rolling across the network once the current projects are (at long last) delivered.

In the specific case of the north Wales coast line, which Parry was apparently discussing, the current London Euston-Bangor/Holyhead services are operated using the diesel Super Voyagers. These have high fuel consumption and are widely criticized for having noisy under-floor diesel engines, among many other flaws. Between London and Crewe, they are burning diesel under the wires; they’re not bi-modes like the class 800 trains currently under construction for the Great Western to compensate for the fact that the lines to Hereford and Cheltenham which aren’t included in the electrification scheme.