Tag Archives: rail

Fishguard Facilities…

…And ‘Connections’

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.

Continue reading Fishguard Facilities…

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.

Twin-Track Troubles

Class 158 train on Chirk Viaduct
Wrong side of Wrexham: I don’t have any pictures of the section between Wrexham and Chester, so here’s a 158 on Chirk Viaduct, between Wrexham and Shrewsbury.
I should report, slightly belatedly, that Network Rail finally opened the new second track between Saltney junction and Rossett junction on the line between Wrexham and Chester on the April 1st, 2017. The redoubling project has roughly halved the length of single track between Wrexham and Chester; the southern half remains single due to issues which make redoubling that section more-challenging.

Aside from the eventual outcome; a shorter single-track section and over five miles of additional track is certainly a big plus, it is hard to draw positives from this scheme. As I posted a few weeks ago, the Welsh Government’s objective of an hourly Holyhead-Cardiff service was a poor reason for the project, but Network Rail must also be questioned. The May 2017 issue of Modern Railways magazine informs me that the Wrexham redoubling project was originally due for completion in early 2015. Two years late: that is a serious delay beaten only by certain elements of Network Rail’s electrification programme (and even then, the wires are due to reach Cardiff only one year behind schedule).

Train of Arriva Trains Wales mark 3 coaches at Chester station
About to brave the bottleneck: taken before the re-doubling, the ‘Y Gerallt Gymro’ service prepares to depart Chester and would shortly enter the single-line section to Wrexham.
Costs have increased too, the Wrexham redouble came in at £49m but in May 2013 the slightly shorter single-track section between Swansea (Cockett West) and Llanelli (Duffryn West) was redoubled at a cost of £40.3m including a second platform at Gowerton station and a brand-new bridge over the river Loughor. That scheme was delivered on-time and on-budget, but past successes can be forgotten when things go wrong, as they have on the Wrexham-Chester line. It is therefore understandable that the Welsh Government (who were paying) is displeased with Network Rail, and the problems north of Wrexham have contributed to a risky gambit further south.

The Welsh Government’s new gamble concerns the ‘south Wales Metro’ project. Personally, I would call what the Welsh Government is proposing a Cardiff & Newport metro, but I digress. The idea is that ownership of the core ValleyLines (Cardiff Central to the heads of the valleys via Cardiff Queen Street) would be taken away from Network Rail. The new ‘Operator and Development Partner’ (ODP) of the Wales & Borders franchise would then be responsible for ensuring the ValleyLines are modernised within the available budget and presumably before part of the funding expires in 2023. This novel idea seems to have one big plus, which is that track and train would be controlled by the same management, but is risky for several reasons.

Those reasons are detailed in part 2 of this post.

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.

Varsity Ventures

The M4 motorway at Port Talbot
M4 Port Talbot (photograph by Kevin Corcoran)
After a pleasant afternoon watching, and riding on, trains, my ‘short holiday’ started to go downhill. I’m picking up the story where I left off, in a car on the M4, having been met by family members at Port Talbot. There’s no doubt about it, motorways are very dull ribbons of dreary tarmac (and/or concrete), apparently without exception. Actually, that’s a good question, can anyone think of an exception? We did of course leave the motorway eventually, but not until after stopping for dinner. Thus we were in darkness as we headed up the A420, negotiated the Oxford ring road and the A418 past Aylesbury and onto the A505. Unfortunately, if there’s any travel more boring than miles of motorway then it is probably night-time motoring. Of course family chat and, occasionally, the radio can partly relieve the monotony, and so can navigation, but these don’t really make up for not being able to see what you’re passing. I think we were all relieved when we finally arrived at our booked accommodation, after crossing the A5 and twice passing the M1. No, I didn’t get us lost, the written directions used for the last few miles to our destination were written as though we were coming up the M1 from London and I didn’t want to risk finding my own route with just a road atlas (I might have tried it if I had been equipped with an Ordnance Survey Landranger map).

While helping to keep me sane, navigating was perhaps also a little stressful; there’s often an argument between at least two occupants of the car over the best route. On this occasion though, there was at least general agreement that the motorway network didn’t really suit our journey, much like the rail network it radiates out from London and I don’t think any of us fancied the M25.

Second Severn Motorway Bridge
Into England (public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Anyway, so why are we here, in self-catering accommodation not far from the M1? Why would anyone want to come here? Although the accommodation was of a reasonable standard, the noise of the motorway could be heard if you stood outside and my mother wondered why somebody would come on holiday here. Our reason was that my brother had educational commitments in Milton Keynes, and the rest of us were just taking advantage of the trip to see a few things. I had a stab at answering Mum’s question by taking quick look at the map, the obvious tourist attractions were Woburn Abbey and its Safari Park. Apparently, none of us were interested in the latter, but the Abbey was one reason for my elder’s interest in the visit. Another of their reasons, and one I’d come along for too (though not the main reason) was Bletchley Park.

The next day, after dropping my brother off, we drove down towards Didcot to one of the other attractions which had drawn me, ‘Pendon Museum’. This ‘museum’ features three model railways, one a very early example of the craft. The other two are much more recent, at least one is still under construction, and very impressive with detail extending to the interior of buildings and a birdwatcher observing a bird of prey. These model various parts of the steam-era Great Western Railway, although they are intended to capture a snapshot of buildings and scenery typical of the areas concerned rather than being models of a particular location (the buildings in the model village don’t all belong to the same real-world village). We decided the Oxford ring road (with its many roundabouts) was no more appealing in daylight than it had been at night, so went back to Bicester via a different route (which involved the M40).

Bletchley Park introduction exhibit entrance
Bletchley Park introduction entrance. Image from ‘The Hub’ (fit-out contractor) website.
On the third day (Monday), we made the much shorter journey to Bletchley Park. We had thought we may move on to somewhere else afterwards, but our visit took us through until it was time to collect my brother again. We didn’t even visit the adjacent national museum of computing, which contains more of the code-breaking machines created on the site, although it wasn’t fully open that day anyway. Interestingly, the entrance to Bletchley Park’s introductory exhibit had a railway theme. The word ‘entrance’ was in white text on a midland-red background, while the doorways beneath it had imitation railway-carriage slam-doors. Also present was a four-way ‘fingerpost’ sign, also in midland-red, pointing to ‘platform 1 for Oxford, platform 2 for Cambridge, platform 3 for Glasgow and platform 4 for London. I doubt such a sign actually would have existed on a station, but railways from Bletchley to the four places in question certainly did exist.

Bletchley Park Cambridge-Oxford sign, photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Varsity fingerpost, Bletchley Park. Photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Sadly, you cannot currently make a reasonably direct journey from Milton Keynes to Oxford by rail today, because the central section of the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity Line’ has been closed since 1967; so when we headed off to visit Oxford on the fourth day we couldn’t leave the car in Milton Keynes with my brother. The line which would have taken you to Cambridge still exists as far as Bedford, but beyond that it is also gone.

Chiltern Railways service at Oxford Parkway station
Stopping short of Oxford: Chiltern Railways service waiting to London at Oxford Parkway
One of the many Milton Keynes roundabouts we traversed on our excursions in the Oxford direction was called, I kid you not, ‘Bottledump Roundabout’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was liberally scatted with discarded plastic bottles, presumably thrown out of passing cars. Whether the bottles were there first and this inspired the name or vice-versa I do not know. The railway between Bletchley and Oxford is now to be reinstated, but we were several years early. So, to avoid the Oxford traffic, we parked at ‘Bicester Village’ station, which until the recent complete rebuild was ‘Bicester Town’. Previously, ‘Bicester Town’ was served by a shuttle to Oxford, but now Chiltern Railways have had a new section of track built to allow services from London Marylebone to Oxford, running through ‘Bicester Village’ station. This project wasn’t complete either, enhancements work was still taking place near Oxford so we had to transfer to a bus for the final leg into Oxford from Oxford Parkway station.

Of course, it is not only Chiltern who have significant changes planned on their part of the network. The electrification work of parts of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) will see Intercity Express Programme (IEP) class 800 bi-mode trains introduced from next year (2017). Thus we get to my principle reason for coming on this trip; the five class 180s currently with the franchise will be moved to Grand Central, probably by the end of 2017, as the 800s arrive. Having never been on a 180, I was keen to get a ride on one to compare them with the related class 175 units we have in Wales while I had the chance.

Class 180 number 180108 at Oxford Railway Station
180108 arrives at Oxford to take me to Kingham
I left my elders and boarded my first 180, 180108 on a Cotswolds line service to Kingham. From there, I returned to Oxford on another class 180. I was pleased to discover that the interior of standard class did indeed have much in common with the class 175s, with ample legroom even in airline-style seating. Rather strangely however, especially on a line with short platforms like the Cotswolds line, the first-class carriage on the 180s (class 175s are standard-class only) was not one of the driving vehicles at the ends. Instead, one standard-class coach was isolated on its own at one end, with the adjacent coach being the first-class one. Given that I’ve read standard-class ticket-holders are not even allowed to stand in the vestibules of first class coaches on Intercity 125s, I wonder what happens if somebody in the isolated standard class coach wants to alight at a short platform where that carriage is off the end of the platform. One of the four standard class carriages on the 180, perhaps the isolated one, also seemed to have fewer bays of four around tables than the others. Another feature that the class 175s lack but can be found on a 180 is the mini-buffet/cafe. This is really quite small, with just one of the main external windows blanked out by it, though it didn’t appear to be open. I’m not sure if First Great Western bother with it anymore.

Old building in Oxford
One Of The Old Ones: building in Oxford
Back in Oxford, I rejoined my mother and grandmother for a walk around parts of the city; admiring the architecture of some of the old university buildings and other heritage structures. One of these was a church whose tower is of Saxon origin (it is close to the building in the photograph, click that to go to my Flickr where you should be able to find photos of the Saxon tower too). It was then back via bus, train and car to Milton Keynes, to collect my brother, and to our ‘holiday’ accommodation.

END OF PART 2

We return to Wales in the final instalment of this mini-series of blog posts, which I did eventually get round to writing.

Away Day

I have recently returned from a ‘short holiday’ to England. This blog post is an account of the first leg. On Saturday (19th March 2016), I set out alone by bus to Fishguard. From there, I walked to Fishguard & Goodwick station, where I found the new toilet had not yet been opened and, after photographing the incoming train, decided to make my way to the harbour station instead. I was pleased to see 158839 doing the honours on the daytime boat-train, rather than the unwelcome class 150 substitute unit which tends to appear whenever I observe this working.

Class 158 DMU at Fishguard & Goodwick station
Much Appreciated: class 158 on the ‘boat train’
After boarding at the harbour, a pleasant ride was had to Llandeilo Junction, where I was a little disappointed to see we took the route towards Swansea rather than the Swansea District Line. Of course the next scheduled stop was Bridgend, so the train instead avoided the ‘Swansea High Street’ terminus by running via the chord behind Landore depot. Despite running slowly from there we still passed Port Talbot around 30 minutes after leaving Llanelli. The slow running was due to following another class 158, presumably the 13:08 Milford Haven to Manchester which would have made more calls than our train. At Bridgend, I alighted to double back to Port Talbot Parkway, and didn’t have long to wait before a class 150 arrived to take me there.
Three First Great Western INTERCITY 125 class 43 power cars at Swansea Landore depot
Landore Line-up: INTERCITY 125s at the Swansea depot
In hindsight, I probably would have got to Port Talbot slightly earlier had I changed at Carmarthen or Llanelli onto a Swansea service and picked up a Swansea-Paddington train there, but I had a long wait in store at Port Talbot anyway so that was not a problem. While I was waiting, at least two (it may have been three) Intercity 125s ran through non-stop heading towards Cardiff. Since the Paddington services normally call at Port Talbot, I surmised these were empty stock moves to Cardiff to provide rugby extra services. Also, as if to prove that Arriva Trains Wales’ shortage of decent rolling stock is still present, the Gloucester to Fishguard service called as scheduled, but worked by a class 150.
Class 175 train passing Port Talbot signal box
Signalbox and Steelworks, a view from the new footbridge at Port Talbot Parkway, with a westbound class 175/1 in the foreground
I’ve gone all the way from Gloucester to Fishguard & Goodwick on that service before, it was a 150 then too and wasn’t my idea of fun. Sundays are different, but the unit which works the Gloucester to Fishguard service is normally supposed to be the class 158 which does the Fishguard boat train the next day, so a 150 on one service generally implies the other will have been or will be.

Eventually, rugby fans started alighting trains from Cardiff, including three other members of my family. Thus reunited, we were able to embark on the next leg of our journey; by car. We eventually found our way out of Port Talbot and onto the M4.

This story has now been continued in this blog post.

Railcards For All?

Class 150 train at Fishguard & Goodwick station, with passengers leaving
Who had to pay full fare? Passengers leave a train at Fishguard & Goodwick
What are railcards for? One school of thought is that they are a public-service obligation, designed to help the parts of the population who are likely to be financially less well-off. An alternative view is that Railcards, rather than existing only to help those less able to afford travel, are there to increase revenue.

The range of national railcard products inherited from British Rail lends some credence to the former. They are available only to certain sectors of the population:

  • young people (and mature students) (16-25 railcard)
  • disabled persons
  • senior citizens

There is also a railcard for members of the armed forces. I do not know if the armed forces are well paid, so the ‘financially less well-off’ idea may or may not apply there. There is however one ex-BR national railcard which people outside these groups can purchase, the ‘Family & Friends Railcard’. This requires a group including at least one child, whether this makes such groups any less ‘well-off’ than a family group including students who are too old to be classed as children is an interesting question.

If railcards increase revenue, then that is achieved by encouraging more rail journeys than would be the case without railcards. This perspective is supported by the fact that the only national railcard introduced since privatisation is available to all age groups, regardless of profession and without the need to travel with children. The ‘Two Together Railcard’ does exactly what it says on the card, namely that a pair of named users must travel together to get the discount. Of course, running one car costs much the same regardless of the number of travellers, but the cost rail travel increases dramatically if everyone has to pay full fare; so you can see why the Two Together Railcard could help the trains win business. Adults travelling alone however currently cannot benefit from a national railcard, how many more could be persuaded to travel if there was a railcard product for one person, like the 16-25 railcard but available to everyone?

There are a few arguments against a ‘universal railcard’. The first is that, while it would probably increase rail travel, it could result in an overall reduction in revenue. Another is that you might as well just have lower fares to begin with, not bothering with railcards, and of course there’s the ‘railcards are only there to help the less well-off afford to travel’ argument.

Class 442 trains at Gatwick Airport railway station
Born of NSE: the class 442 ‘Wessex Electrics’, like the ‘Network Railcard’, were introduced by Network South East
All of these are challenged by the confusingly named ‘Network Railcard’. These days, the term ‘Network Railcard’ may lead people to believe it is valid on the whole rail network, but in this case the word ‘Network’ refers to British Rail’s ‘Network SouthEast’ (NSE) area. Thus, the ‘Network Railcard’ railcard is restricted to a certain area, like the Pembrokeshire railcard and similar local railcards, but the ‘Network Railcard’ is more significant since NSE covered a large area. At £30, the ‘Network Railcard’ costs the same as most national railcards, but can be bought by anybody and your discount can extend to a small group you are travelling with. NSE, unlike Regional Railways, required little if any subsidy, and most of the privatised train operating companies running in the ‘Network Railcard’ area now pay a premium to the government. That suggests that, if allowing everyone to purchase a railcard reduces revenue, it doesn’t do so by much.

A ‘railcard for anyone’ might even increase revenue, indeed Railfuture have claimed that a 2003 study they commissioned shows that it would. Although anyone would be able to get 1/3 off fares, the railcard itself would not be free. Therefore, sales of the railcard are therefore producing revenue, which shows the argument that this is no different to cutting all fares by a third to be false. Having spent money on the railcard, passengers may also be inclined to travel more by rail to maximise the value-for-money they receive through the purchase of their railcard. It might even improve the perceived value-for-money of the train ticket itself, especially if the passenger is booking online where the non-discounted full fare would be shown to them.

And providing value-for-money is important. According to transport focus’ Autumn 2015 survey rail passenger satisfaction survey, less than half (48%) of passengers were satisfied with the value-for-money of their journey. Under ‘satisfaction on the train’, the only areas which performed worse were availability of staff (Department for Transport take note, stop trying to remove guards), dealing with delays and toilet facilities.

The current range of national railcard products (senior, 16-25, disabled, family-&-friends, two-together and HM Forces) all seem to have different restrictions, eg. for travel during peak times. I would suggest replacing them all (except the disabled persons card, which I would leave unchanged) with a smaller range of products, which would be available to all age groups but with more variations in pricing:

  • Anytime Railcard a railcard for one person with few, if any, peak restrictions (similar to the current senior railcard).
    Possible pricing:

    • Base price: £100
    • Concession price: £60
  • Leisure Railcard a railcard for one person subject to a minimum fare if used between 06:00 and 09:30 on weekdays (similar to the current 16-25 railcard)
    Possible pricing:

    • Base price: £80
    • Concession price: £30
  • Group RailcardSimilar to the Anytime railcard, but (like the ‘Family & Friends’ and ‘Network’ railcards) would allow passengers travelling with the holder to receive a discount too.
    Possible pricing:

    • Base price: £120
    • Concession price: £75

The suggested prices are just for illustration. Were this to be implemented, I would hope some careful consideration of the optimum price would be carried out. ‘Concessions’ would be persons who belong to the age groups covered by the 16-25 and senior railcards, as well as those who are eligible for the ‘Forces Railcard’ and the ‘Disabled Railcard’ although the latter is likely to be a better option for most eligible passengers than the new products proposed above. I’m not entirely sure the Group Railcard is really necessary, since there is a separate ‘Group Save’ scheme which provides similar discounts to groups of 3 or 4 people without them requiring a railcard, but there may be a case for both (or for replacing ‘Group Save’ with the new ‘Group Railcard’). As for the maximum size of the group, I would suggest one card would allow up to 6 people, of which up to 4 may be adults (1 adult and 5 children would also be permitted) to receive the railcard discount. The ‘Group Railcard’ would be valid regardless of whether any children are present in the group and would remain valid for the holder even if the he or she is travelling alone.

South west trains services in London Waterloo station
Britain’s Busiest Station: London Waterloo (caught at a quiet moment by the looks of it)
If Railfuture are correct that allowing anyone to buy a railcard would increase rail industry revenue, then I can see only one reason which might be preventing the introduction of such a scheme: capacity. Quite simply, if the railcard were available, would the trains be able to cope with the increase in rider ship? Then again, the busiest part of the network already has an area railcard available to all.

Transport Focus survey
Railfuture study

Crossing The Cleddau

Most weeks, I commute to work in Pembroke Dock. I haven’t mentioned this before because I don’t use public transport, I travel with my father who drives. Normally, the roads are relatively quiet most of the way, suggesting there is little or no justification for a public transport service on our route to work.

However, the other week the Cleddau Bridge, on the main road between Haverfordwest and Pembroke Dock, was closed to all traffic due to high winds. We don’t use this route, partly because the Cleddau Bridge has a toll and partly because it would involve going through Haverfordwest, which would slow us down. A lot of other people do though, apparently, since the Cleddau Bridge closure had forced the council to put men with stop-go boards to control traffic over the narrow bridge at Carew. This is on our route, and normally the traffic is light so we don’t have to wait long for oncoming traffic to finish crossing the bridge before it is our turn.

With the Cleddau Bridge closed however the stream of traffic over the Carew was constant, if the men with stop-go boards hadn’t been there nobody going in the other direction would have been going anywhere, perhaps for hours. This suggests that there is an awful lot of car commuting over the Cleddau Bridge between Pembroke / Pembroke Dock and Haverfordwest on a normal weekday, traffic which perhaps ought to be captured by public transport. This reminded me of one of my wild ideas, and made be think it might not be so wild after all.

Class 158 train on the Milford Haven branch in Pembrokeshire
Pembrokeshire Train: class 158 on the Milford Haven branch
The idea is this: create a railway bridge from Pembroke Dock across to Newland and rebuild the railway from there to Johnston, creating a circular Whitland – Tenby – Pembroke – Neyland – Haverfordwest – Whitland rail route around Pembrokeshire. This railway bridge would be lower down, so unlike the road bridge shouldn’t have to close when it gets windy, but you might need an opening section to allow ships to pass through. Yes, it would be hugely expensive, but if the traffic’s there it might actually be worth doing. The biggest problem I can see is getting the track through the town from Pembroke Dock station to the new bridge, I think the line used to continue into the dockyard but I’ve not noticed any evidence of where it ran.

What do you think, wild idea or not?

Hollow Victory

Class 150 approaching Whitland with a train to Fishguard
The daytime boat train comes into view, approaching Whitland
We probably will never know for sure, but I think today (6th September 2014) was the last day of the Fishguard’s trial enhanced rail service. This post went live at 21:00, as the last train of the day was scheduled to depart Fishguard Harbour. We can, however, be fairly sure that there will still be six trains per day (plus one at night) on Monday as the Welsh Government have annouced that the trial was a success and agreed to fund the service as a full component of the Arriva Trains Wales (ATW) franchise, which runs until 2018.

I wasn’t able to make any of the trial services today, but wanted to mark the occasion with a trip on the line so had to settle for the daytime boat train. In the event, I was dropped off at Whitland station at about 12:10, in time to see a class 150 unit arrive from Pembroke Dock on a Swansea-bound service. Once that had left, I moved to the westbound platform to await the Fishguard service, which was being shown on the passenger information system. I noticed that the remaining calls on the service were listed as “Fishguard Goodwick and Fishguard Harbour”. I have noticed that mistake before at Llanelli, but this suggests the problem is more widespread and still hasn’t been fixed.

Passenger information display at Whitland station showing 'Fishguard Goodwick' calling point
The ‘and’ is missing: Information display at Whitland
The boat train duly arrived, almost on time, about half an hour later. Sadly, the unit was another class 150, not what one hopes to see on the only express service into and out of south-west Wales. After some time when this woefull allocation of stock was ATW policy, I believe the service is now supposed to be worked using a much-nicer class 158 unit. However, they often seem to be short of 158s and the dreaded 150s have to deputise. I boarded along with (I think) six others. Since I was starting from Whitland however, rather than coming all the way from Cardiff, the views on the rural trip along the Fishguard branch largely made up for the metro-sliding doors and absence of legroom on the 150.

Train and passengers at Fishguard & Goodwick station
Local Traffic: Passengers leave the train at Fishguard & Goodwick
A little while later, we arrived at Fishguard & Goodwick where I alighted along with many others. Providing a useful local service on the Fishguard line is therefore proving to be a worthwhile use of the Welsh Government’s money. I dashed out of the station and, after looking both ways, across the road to grab a video clip of the train heading down towards the harbour. After that, I started climbing the hill towards ‘Stop and Call’ (where that name comes from I have no idea) to find a vantage point to film the unit departing Fishguard & Goodwick with the return trip to Cardiff. Another ‘Trains For Fishguard’ video is therefore a possibility, maybe even for release on Monday, but I’m not making any promises. A quick walk down the hill got me to Goodwick town centre just in time to catch the Optare Solo on Richards Bros’ 410 bus service all the way up to Stop and Call, then back down, across and up to Fishguard. There, I had a fair wait in the library (looking railway books) before heading back outside to catch the Richards Bros 412 home. Flagship Optare Tempo YJ55BKF* was on the working, as I had expected.

Returning to the news that the full Fishguard trial service is to continue, there is a key question: is it good news? Yes, of course it is. It is however not quite a decisive victory. The survey carried out, towards the end of the trial period, to help inform the decision of whether to continue with the service suggested that more options were under consideration than just ‘retain service’ or ‘cancel service’. One possibility was retiming the second train of the morning out of Fishguard to provide an arrival in Carmarthen at arround 08:45, instead of arround 9am at present. Another was replacing the last evening train with a later service, in the process eliminating one of the changes that are currently required at Clarbeston Road. There was even an option of additional workings to make the service run every three hours throughout the day. The government’s announcment however does not mention any of these further improvements, the level of service available during the trial will continue unchanged. Good news then that the service will be retained, but not as good as it maybe could have been. And, as seen today, ATW still fails to get the name of one of Fishguard’s stations right and still fails to provide suitable rolling stock for the boat train (although I suppose if there is no 158 available it is better to run something than canceling the train and providing a replacment bus; that said, sitting on YJ55BKF I did wonder whether it was more comfortable than a class 150).

* I don’t know if Richards Bros officially have a flagship, but I refer to Tempos YJ55BKE and YJ55BKF, which are of the same spec, as flagships as they are the best buses I have yet been on.
Note: I did just about get this post out at 21:00, but it was incomplete. I’ve edited it to extend it quite a bit.

Three More Months

There are now just three months left to run on the three year trial service of five extra trains each way on the Fishguard Harbour branch line. The Welsh Government have launched a community survey as part of their review of the service. I have produced a new video (part of my ‘Trains For Fishguard’ series) to mark the occasion and publicise the survey.

Class 150 train at Fishguard & Goodwick station
Don’t Pull The Plug: train at Fishguard & Goodwick

The review, and the survey, will shape the future service on the line. I hope the result will be an improved service not a reduction.
FishguardTrains.info has more information, and a link to the survey.