Time waits for no man, and time machines haven’t been invented yet. Nevertheless, it seems history can repeat itself. I’ve spent most Saturdays over the past few summers collecting footage for a video or two I want to make about the Pembroke Coast Express. The modern Pembroke Coast Express isn’t too much trouble to film, but to get footage of a steam-hauled one? A steam railtour to Pembroke Dock has run in previous years, but that was before I discovered they existed. This year’s run (2017) was cancelled, but even had it appeared GWR motive power was unlikely to be provided. There was nothing for it; I would just have to cheat and find a suitable GWR locomotive in use elsewhere on the network. Just such an event was scheduled for Saturday 12th August, in Melton Mowbray of all places, along with the Shakespeare Express (Birmingham – Stratford-upon-Avon) on most Sundays throughout the summer so I booked a holiday to fit around these. That holiday started on Friday 11th August, and I started ‘time travelling’ earlier than expected.
Stena Line have today introduced a new ferry timetable which has played a part in the start of a new chapter for the Great Western Railway. Apparently, the ferry timetable between Fishguard and Rosslare has remained largely unchanged for decades. Today however all four departures have been shifted by at least an hour, some almost as many as three.
Arriva Trains Wales (ATW) have, for their part, reworked the Fishguard rail timetable to ensure rail connections are available. However, they have been forced to breach the terms of their original 2003 franchise agreement. That contract required only two trains per 24 hours, and specified that these must run between Fishguard and Swansea (or Cardiff), connecting with ferries and either running through to/from London or connecting with London services.
Obviously, so far ATW have opted to connect with First Great Western services to and from London Paddington rather than run through services themselves. In light of Stena Line’s changes however, the London connections required by the 2003 franchise agreement are no longer provided. One of the ferries now arrives at Fishguard Harbour fairly late in the evening; by the time the connecting train reaches Swansea or Cardiff the last train to London would be long gone with the first morning train to London not due for nearly four hours, thus breaching the terms of the 2003 contract.
In fairness to ATW, the London service no longer appears to be a reasonable requirement given Stena’s new ferry timing, unless I have misinterpreted the franchise agreement the only way ATW could possibly comply would be to either run through to London themselves (and their staff probably don’t have the required route knowledge) or somehow make First Great Western provide an additional service in the middle of the night. The departure time from Cardiff would be about 1am and arrival in Paddington about 4am (or slightly earlier if First Great Western, using a 125mph train, ran the service). Meeting that requirement would therefore cost a lot of money for very little gain (is anyone likely to find a service at such unsociable hours useful?).
ATW cannot be let off the hook completely however, since another aspect of their changes also appears to breach the franchise agreement. The new rail timetable shows that the problematic evening train, which couldn’t connect into a London service, terminates at Carmarthen, without even a connection to Swansea. That, according to the 2003 franchise agreement, is clearly a breach of contract; through services to at least Swansea are mandatory. Since publishing their timetable, it seems ATW have realised this and the Real Time Trains website is now showing that the new evening boat train, the 22:14 from Fishguard Harbour, will run through to Swansea after all. It will terminate there at 00:04. The 21:58 arrival at Fishguard Harbour however, which would connect into the overnight ferry, is now shown online as starting from Carmarthen at 21:03, thus involving a change for passengers from Swansea and Cardiff and breaching the 2003 agreement. That is also a change from ATW’s PDF timetable leaflet, which suggests the service would start from Manchester Piccadilly at 15:30 (with a suspicious instantaneous reversal in Carmarthen station).
It isn’t only the timetable that isn’t clear, ATW’s current contractual commitments are also shrouded in mystery. Although the 2003 franchise agreement is available online, the contract for the additional Fishguard services introduced in 2011 is not. For this post, I attempted to gain a clear picture by submitting a freedom of information request for the 2011 contract. My request was refused on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. We therefore cannot be sure if the Arriva are allowed to use the local services that do not connect with ferries to meet requirement for services to run through to/from Cardiff or Swansea, and we don’t know if reducing Fishguard’s train service from 7 trains each way (per 24 hours) to 6 (the 01:50 overnight service is withdrawn now that the sailing it existed to connect with is no more).
Stena’s unprecedented changes are not today’s only shock to the established Great Western status quo. You will also get a shock, a potentially lethal one, if you touch the overhead wires on several sections of the Great Western main line, including between Paddington and Maidenhead. There, class 387 Electrostar electric multiple units have become the first electric trains to carry fare-paying passengers on a section of line electrified under the current Great Western electrification project. Sections further west have been live for testing purposes for some time, but cannot be used for passenger services yet due to gaps in the overhead line between them and Maidenhead.
Returning to the Fishguard ferries, a definate plus is that there is now an extra train connection on the Irish side. Before, the only night ferry had rail connections in Rosslare. Now, it appears the new earlier timing of the Fishguard to Rosslare daytime sailing will allow it to connect with a train to Dublin which previously left Rosslare just before the lunch time boat from Fishguard arrived. As far as I can make out, given the differenced between Real Time Trains and the ATW timetable booklet, the connections shape up as follows:
Monday – Friday services – Old Timetable
|Rosslare Europort arr.||–||19:25|
|Rosslare Harbour dep.||09:00||21:15|
|Fishguard Harbour arr.||12:30||00:30|
|Fishguard Harbour dep.||13:29||01:50|
|Cardiff Central arr.||16:00||05:01|
|Cardiff Central dep.||16:25||05:12|
|Cardiff Central arr.||10:46||22:30|
|Cardiff Central dep.||10:58||22:32|
|Fishguard Harbour arr.||13:27||01:33|
|Fishguard Harbour dep.||14:30||02:30|
|Rosslare Harbour arr.||18:00||06:30|
|Rosslare Europort dep.||–||07:20|
Monday – Friday services – New Timetable
|Rosslare Europort arr.||–||16:26|
|Rosslare Harbour dep.||08:00||18:10|
|Fishguard Harbour arr.||11:15||21:25|
|Fishguard Harbour dep.||12:50||22:14|
|Cardiff Central arr.||15:19||–|
|Cardiff Central dep.||15:26||–|
|Cardiff Central arr.||09:49||18:48|
|Cardiff Central dep.||09:49||18:50|
|Fishguard Harbour arr.||12:30||21:58|
|Fishguard Harbour dep.||13:10||23:45|
|Rosslare Harbour arr.||16:25||04:00|
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.
SWWITCH’s rail study acknowledges that rail west of Swansea is slow, but offers no solution. I can go one better.
Continue reading Stuck On The Slow Train
The ‘Fishguard Flyer’ has a problem…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
Welcome to 2016, let’s hope this will be a happy new year.
Windows PCs have, for some time, featured a number of fairly basic games, such as ‘Minesweeper’ and ‘Solitaire’. The latter is a card game which appears to be the same as one my parents referred to as ‘Patience’. The object of this game is to organise the whole pack of cards into four piles, one for each of the four suits. The cards in each pile also have to be in the correct order (Ace at the bottom, then 2, 3 etc. through to King). There are rules about how to set up the cards and where they can be moved, which means that depending on how the deck is shuffled it may not be possible to complete the game. You can also make a poor move which ‘snookers yourself’, the game in the screenshot looked like it was going well but I eventually got stuck. Unlike real-life though, in the computer version there is an undo feature, and I was able to complete the game after undoing a good number of moves and trying a different approach. If you find you can’t complete the game, you give-up, re-shuffle the cards and start all over again (hence the name Patience, I suspect).
What has this to do with public transport in Wales, you ask? Well, I have been trying to produce a timetable to illustrate my aspirations for rail services from Carmarthen and it is trying my patience. Unlike the game Patience though, I am not sure whether it is possible to deal the cards in such a way that everything will work the way I want it to. There may have to be compromises, but how can I prove whether that is the case?
My problem, or one of them at least, is the single-line sections on Pembrokeshire’s three branches. The ‘main line’ from Swansea to Carmarthen, and from Carmarthen to Clarbeston Road, is double track apart from short stretches in and out of Carmarthen station. It therefore isn’t too difficult to plot an hourly train between Swansea and Clarbeston Road, with extras between Swansea and Carmarthen to boost that section to a broadly half-hourly service. However, the Pembroke & Tenby branch (from Whitland to Pembroke Dock) is single track with just one passing loop (at Tenby) and the Milford Haven branch (from Clarbeston Road) is similar; just the one loop (at Haverfordwest). The Fishguard branch is perhaps the easiest since, despite the sole double-track section (at the Trecwn RNAD junction, where there is no station) being impractical for passing passenger trains, it is relatively short and I’m only trying to path a 2-hourly service (Milford I’m trying to make roughly hourly). The challenge with Fishguard is making connections with TrawsCymru bus services to/from Aberystwyth at Fishguard Harbour. These currently don’t exist, but I’ve worked them out independently and they need to arrive at xx:32 (32 minutes past the hour) and depart at xx:41. This means the trains must arrive between xx:21 and xx:26, and depart between xx:42 and xx:52. This makes the ‘Fishguard Flyer’ boat train, which needs to be about 10 minutes earlier (westbound) and 10 minutes later (eastbound) than the regular pattern (due to signalling headways on the double-track sections), rather difficult.
Anyone got any tips?
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.
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.
It was a line with two trains a day… Now (until the trial ends, probably in September) it has seven, but is that enough to make the Fishguard branch viable?
The January 2014 issue of the magazine Modern Railways suggests that, if this was mainland Europe, even the current level of services would not be sufficent to safeguard the line’s future. The French equivalent of Network Rail apparently requires a minimum of nine trains a day to justify the long-term future of a route (ie. heavy repair work). In Germany that minimum level is a two-hourly service (one train every two hours) for 16 hours a day.
Back to Wales, and both the Fishguard branch and the Heart Of Wales Line fall short of the frequencies required across the English channel. Let’s hope the conclusion of the Fishguard trial is that a greater, rather than lesser, frequency is warranted.