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.
It seems nothing is safe. Late last year (2016), the Welsh Government announced that they would be allowing scallop dredging across the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC). How are we to know what untouched, natural seabed looks like if it is periodically ‘dug up’ by scallop dredging equipment? We can’t do so now, because beam trawling also disturbs the seabed and this, apparently, has been permitted throughout the area for some time. What is the point of giving something ‘protected status’ if destructive practices are allowed regardless?
This matter is not, you may think, on-topic for this blog; but Cardigan Bay isn’t the only example of ‘protected status’ not meaning much. Four Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and the River Usk SAC, would be impacted by the second M4 motorway around Newport backed by the Welsh Government. It is not just the Welsh Government that is ignoring valuable wildlife habitats either, on the 3rd of February 2016 the Woodland Trust pointed out on the radio that HS2, as-planned, would destroy ancient woodland.
Wildlife protections are not the only ones being overridden either. The Museum Of Science and Industry (formerly abbreviated as MOSI and now as MSI) in Manchester incorporates two grade 1 listed buildings. One of these is Manchester Liverpool Road station, the original terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester railway (the world’s first locomotive-hauled passenger line between two cities). While the old station is no longer used by service trains, until recently it was still connected to the national network allowing occasional visits by present day rolling stock, and the museum ran demonstration rides around their site hauled by a steam engine. However, as part of the Ordsall chord project the connection to the national network was cut off, which also restricts the available track for the museum’s internal trains. Admittedly, the project does not actually destroy the listed building and the impact on the museum’s services was probably unavoidable in order to deliver improved national rail services. However, I feel the Ordsall chord should have been designed with a flat crossing to allow trains from the national network to run into Liverpool Road station occasionally.
While my views on the Ordsall chord could be considered a ‘minor quibble’, since trains wouldn’t use the link into the museum very often, there are listed buildings elsewhere that appear to be treated as though they had no such protection. A case in point is Cardiff Central. The station was listed as the most complete major city GWR station of its time, and currently looks well looked after. However, the plans for its future suggest otherwise.
Listed building consent has already been granted for electrification at Cardiff Central. While I am in favour of electrification, I do think the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) designs Network Rail are using on the Great Western scheme are far more visually obtrusive than necessary. On sections where speeds may reach 125mph the heavy-duty structures are perhaps justified, but surely structures of that scale aren’t necessary in and around Cardiff Central, where speeds are much lower. It appears from the listed building consent application that most of the OHLE structures Network Rail are planning to install are a standard XL TTC design with chunky masts of square cross-section. I think that means Extra Large Twin Track Cantilevers, but there are enormous portal structures spanning many tracks at the ends of the platforms too. It is all very square in modern-industrial style with I-beam sections etc. completely out of keeping with the existing cylindrical columns holding up the classic platform canopies. Elsewhere on the GW, Network Rail have come up with a more-subtle design of OHLE especially for Bath’s Sydney Gardens. It isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure they’ve finalised the design, but with elegantly-arching tube-section masts it is a least a good effort; whereas in Cardiff they’ve gone for the standard brutish monstrosities. So far, the only successful consideration of the listed building I’ve found in the plans for Cardiff is that a small degree of care has gone into choosing sites for the outrageous masts (avoiding placing one directly in front of the station name). Because of that, Network Rail’s ‘school report’ from me would be ‘should try harder, shame on Cardiff council for not pressing them to do so’.
Architects ‘Powell Dobson’ fare much worse. If the headmaster was strict, they would be expelled (or sent back to elementary school). Surely, the obvious thing with a listed building is that you do not demolish it, yet that is exactly what their plans for a major refurbishment of Cardiff Central seem to involve. Although it is obvious at first glance that the current northern frontage is retained, a closer inspection reveals that vast swathes of the current station would disappear. Even northern concourse building would have a large hole knocked through one side of it in the plans and the structure on the other side (currently home to M&S) is gone completely, along with the station clock it appears. The platform buildings, all of them, and canopies could also go; there would be little left. Again, although a planning application has not yet been submitted, the council seem to be complicit in this blatant disregard for the station’s listed status. Far from criticising the poor design, the powers-that-be appear to be busy pressing for the project to happen as soon as possible.
You could say that the version of Cardiff Central which ‘Powell Dobson’ have designed is still on the drawing board and may never happen. Granted, there is (I hope) time to stop the destruction, but just look at Fishguard & Goodwick station. Although it is not listed, it is within a conservation area which apparently was deliberately designed to include the station. Despite this, the characterful station building there was demolished in its entirety. Yes; it was falling down anyway and yes a replacement building was constructed but this failed to capture any of the character of the original. The materials used in the new build are all wrong, the chimney stack is missing and the shape of the canopies isn’t quite right. The replacement building doesn’t do the original justice; not one little bit.
If something is given special protection it should be protected, end of. This isn’t happening currently, something needs to be done or more treasures will be lost. This post is timed, almost by-chance, to coincide with WWF’s Earth Hour 2017 (25th March, 20:30), so I will end with the following: If we don’t protect the climate, one of those treasures might be life itself (at the very least, some species would go extinct as a result of climate change).
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.
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.
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.
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. 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?