Tag Archives: rolling stock

Suburban Express? It’s An Oxymoron – Sort It

The ‘Fishguard Flyer’ has a problem…

Optare Solo bus, class 158 train and Stena Line ferry 'Stena Europe' at Fishguard Harbour
International Connections: Boat, Bus and Train meet at Fishguard Harbour (ATW actually managed to provide the booked class 158 on this occasion)
It may be the only express service into and out of south-west Wales, but in the fairly recent past the daytime Fishguard ‘boat train’ was, for some years, deliberately worked by class 150 DMUs. At the time, the service was the 10:57 Cardiff to Fishguard and 13:30 return, at one point continuing to Cheltenham Spa. At the time of writing (March/April 2017), the eastbound service now terminates at Cardiff Central, while the westbound train has been extended to start back from Newport. I believe Arriva Trains Wales now diagram a class 158 on the working, but that may have changed again. Even if a 158 is diagrammed, it seems that class 150s still appear regularly as stand-ins (presumably because the 158s are required in mid and north Wales).

Whether by design or out of necessity this is, in my opinion, a serious problem. The class 150 is, essentially, an inner-suburban design; although the ones in ATW’s fleet have 2+2 seating rather than the even higher-density 2+3 arrangement some other operators have on class 150s. The wide doors are of the recessed, ‘metro-sliding’ type; faster to open/close than plug doors but requiring a large section of windowless wall for the door to slide into. This means that not only is floor space lost to wide standing areas just inside the doors but the seats adjacent to the doors have no window.

Class 150 between Fishguard & Goodwick and Fishguard Harbour stations
Distant Disaster: class 150 on the ‘Fishguard Flyer’
Even passengers who do get a window don’t have a great journey; there are very few tables (and on ATW’s units these are not ideally aligned with the windows either) and the rest of the seats lack legroom. While the same could be said for the class 153s, the single-car ‘Super Sprinters’ do at least have smaller doors at the ends of the carriage, rather than the large ones interrupting the passenger saloon on a class 150 ‘Sprinter’.

As well as being wide and of the recessed type, the passenger doors on a class 150 are located towards the middle of each car (nominally one third and two thirds along). This suburban layout aids the flow of passengers on and of trains, keeping station dwell times to a minimum, but interrupts the passenger saloon area. This cannot be helpful for designing a comfortable seating layout that aligns with the windows etc.

Class 150 to Fishguard Harbour at Cardiff Central station
Suburban Substitute: a class 150 waits at Cardiff Central on the express ‘boat train’ service to Fishguard Harbour
The class 150 design then is optimised for busy short-distance stopping trains, with quite a bit of space for standees and short dwell times. But, as I wrote at the beginning, the Fishguard daytime boat train, unofficially known as the ‘Fishguard Flyer’, is an express service. Westbound, it calls only at Cardiff, Bridgend, Llanelli, Whitland and Fishguard & Goodwick (the eastbound working also serves Carmarthen). Even if using a class 158, which has one of the slowest power-door systems in use, instead of a 150 adds a minute at each station the limited calling pattern that’s only five or six minutes on the whole journey. On a service that takes 2 and a half hours between Fishguard & Cardiff that’s a small price to pay for a comfortable journey (150s are so uncomfortable that I have generally had enough after an hour). A 158 probably would make up some of the time anyway by running above the 150’s max speed of 75mph on parts of the line between Bridgend and Briton Ferry, and I doubt the difference in dwell time would be as much as a minute per station in most cases. That’s because the narrow doors on a 158 don’t seem to be too much of an impediment when passenger numbers are within the capacity of the unit; I expect it is when passengers have to stand that the aisle gets clogged and dwell times go through the roof if the train has the passenger doors at the vehicle ends. If the railway was run in the interests of passengers, long-distance and fast services would always be formed of trains of sufficient length to seat all passengers; so stop wasting saloon space with wide doors and give us some legroom instead.

Suburban Express? It’s an oxymoron; sort it.

Contrast In Comfort: a class 158 and a class 150, both in the latest Arriva Trains Wales livery, at Carmarthen station
There’s a general point here for the next Wales & Borders rail franchise here too, as well as the specific one about the Fishguard service. Suburban trains (those with ‘doors at thirds’) cannot provide maximum comfort and are therefore only acceptable on short-distance services with frequent stops and large volumes of passengers, because it is in those cases that units suitable for longer journeys (ie. with doors at the vehicle ends) suffer from extended dwell times (and more stops means those dwell times have a bigger overall impact).

Pie Corner

Passengers leaving a train at Fishguard & Goodwick stations
Well established: Fishguard & Goodwick station is no longer the newest in Wales
Fishguard & Goodwick station was opened on 14 May 2012, but is no longer the newest railway station in Wales.

At least three new stations have opened in the past three years, as follows:

While it is undoubtedly nice to see continued investment in public transport, all three of the above are in the Cardiff area. The latter two are both on the Ebbw Vale line, which currently only has trains to Cardiff, and ‘Energlyn and Churchill Park’ is on the Rhymney Line of the Cardiff valleys network. The opening of Ebbw Vale Town represents the extension of the Ebbw Vale line, while the other two stations are on existing track.

Pye Corner station nameboard
Pye Corner nameboard. Photo by Steve Gregory
So, just like the UK as a whole, is the south-east of Wales getting more than its fair share of investment? Certainly, the Ebbw Vale line has an hourly service while the Fishguard branch has a 5 hour gap between trains in the afternoon. Granted, the population served by the Ebbw Vale line is much greater, so it warrants a more-frequent service than Fishguard, in fact Ebbw Vale could do with having an hourly service to Newport in addition to its current Cardiff service, but Fishguard’s 5hr gap (and near-total lack of Sunday trains) is a joke. I suppose the first phase of the Ebbw Vale line (Cardiff to Ebbw Vale Parkway), which opened in 2008, has the advantage that it got in first. By 2011, when Fishguard got its local trains back, the last of the class 150 units intended for the aborted ValleyLines train lengthening project was apparently used up.

Arriva Trains Wales Class 150 at Cardiff Central
Class 150 ‘Sprinter’ at Cardiff Central
Surplus DMUs, available for introducing additional services, are now like hen’s teeth. At present then, new stations seem to be the ‘easy option’ for the government to show support for the railways, and on the suburban network arround Cardiff passengers are probably used to frequent stops. Adding additional calls into long-distance regional services would likely have more of an impact on the perceived journey times for existing services.

I suppose it is not entirely fair to claim that Cardiff is getting all the investment. Sure, the Ebbw Vale service goes to Cardiff not Newport, and Wales’ second city (Swansea) has been completely left out of the ‘South-East Wales Metro’ proposals, but the Cambrian and Heart Of Wales lines have seen service improvements, introduced alongside Ebbw Vale Town Arriva Trains Wales’ May 2015 timetables. The Welsh Government appear to have asked Arriva Trains Wales to perform a minor miracle, service improvements with no additional trains to run them, and supprisingly Arriva seem to have delivered.

Pye Corner station under construction
Pye Corner station under construction. Photo by Robin Drayton
Additional services to/from Aberystwyth have apparently been acheived by reducing the time available for maintainance of a class 158 unit at Machynlleth depot by a few hours, and by reducing one train in each direction from four carriages to two between Machynlleth and Shrewsbury. However, they have not been able to provide the full all-day hourly service that the Welsh Government once promised would be launched in 2011. The Heart Of Wales Line (HOWL) has gained an additional weekday morning service, but not over the full length of the line.
Aberystwyth station
Still waiting for hourly: the recently refurbished Aberystwyth station
This appears to be primarily motiviated by the aim of providing an arrival in Swansea for 9am commuters, with the morning Pembroke/Fishguard train from Cardiff (two units which detach at Whitland) reduced to a single unit and the Fishguard service now starting at Swansea (and ommiting the call at Carmarthen) allowing that unit to work the new morning HOWL short-working (from Llandovery if I recall correctly) before going off to Fishguard.

Perhaps the worst compromise is what has happened at the north end of the HOWL. I believe the commuter train into Shrewsbury now starts from Llandrindod rather than Swansea and this has had to be retimed to run earlier in order that HOWL services can interwork with the Crewe-Shrewsbury shuttle to resource the four full-length HOWL workings over the rest of the day. This has the commuters complaining they have to get up earlier. If these really are the only reductions made to facilitate this service I’m really quite impressed (except for that last one about Shrewsbury commuters) but I am concerned that the shortage of DMUs is a “butter scraped over too much bread” suituation.

So, what do you think, is the south-east is getting all the pie? And can somebody find us some additional rolling stock, please?