Tag Archives: Welsh Government

A Taste Of Freedom

Surprising news that came to my attention on Thursday (6th July) has cut through my backlog of partly-written blog posts and given me something I can cover quickly.

TrawsCymru T1 bus service at Aberystwyth bus station
Fountain Of Freedom: Aberystwyth bus station (pictured, with a T1 service present) is a hub for TrawsCymru services, being served by 5 of the 8.
This week (3rd – 9th of July) happens to be ‘Catch The Bus Week’ 2017 and the Welsh Government have come up with a surprising scheme to encourage people to do just that; catch the bus. Today (Saturday 8th July) is the first day covered by the new initiative, which is to make travelling on TrawsCymru network free of charge all weekend.

Wright Pulsar bus in TrawsCymru T5 livery at Haverfordwest railway station
Ready To Give Free Rides: Wright Pulsar at Haverfordwest waiting to form a TrawsCymru T5 service to Cardigan.
That’s right, free weekend travel on all 8 TrawsCymru services, including the Cardiff Airport Express and the occasional long haul from Aberystwyth to Cardiff. It isn’t just this weekend either; free weekend travel on TrawsCymru is being offered on a trial basis ‘until further notice’ although according to the poster I spotted on Thursday the offer excludes bank holidays (not sure if Easter Sunday counts as a bank holiday). The Welsh Government Website states that the pilot will run until at least May 2018.

TrawsCymru T9 (Cardiff Airport Express) at the airport
In On The Action: The Cardiff Airport Express is officially part of the TrawsCymru network and therefore included in the free travel pilot.
Perhaps even more surprising than the introduction of free travel at weekends is that the Carmarthen-Cardiff section of the T1C Aberystwyth-Cardiff service is included (in the last phase of TrawsCambria, the X40 service did not except the Concessionary Travel Pass, which gives free travel on all bus services in Wales for the elderly and disabled). While I welcome this initiative in the main, the waiving of fares on the Cardiff Airport Express is a bit of a disappointment, but not because I think making the service free (even if only at weekends) is necessarily a bad idea. Rather, I’m disappointed because it suggests that the Welsh Government are still treating it as a normal TrawsCymru service, when I would much rather it be its own thing (because it has very little in common with the rest of the network; isn’t long-distance for example).

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.

Cloudy, With Heavy Detours

Photo of bus-stop X50 branding with TrawsCymru T5 timetable
Rebranding Exercise: the logo of the former TrawsCambria X50, together with a timetable for the TrawsCymru T5
It’s that time of year again; January the fifth, the anniversary of the launch of the TrawsCymru T5 service (which runs between Aberystwyth and Haverfordwest). Last year, to mark the first birthday of the service, I criticised the use of the single service number ‘T5’ on what is really a collection of different routes. This year, I will explain why I believe that only one of those routes deserves the ‘TrawsCymru’ tag.

In 2010, a consultation was held regarding improvements to what was then the TrawsCambria network, which at the time consisted of the following services:
X32 Bangor – Porthmadog – Dolgellau – Machynlleth – Aberystwyth
X40 Aberystwyth – Aberaeron – Lampeter – Pencader – Carmarthen – (Swansea – Cardiff)
X50 (Aberystwyth) – Aberaeron – Cardigan
550 Aberystwyth – Aberaeron – New Quay – Aberporth – Cardigan
X94 Barmouth – Dolgellau – Bala – Llangollen – Wrexham
704 Newtown – Llandrindod Wells – Brecon

Having already read rumours that it was planned to rename the network TrawsCymru, I spoke up in favour of retaining the ‘TrawsCambria’ brand when I visited the consultation roadshow. Professor Stuart Cole’s reply, as I have written before, was that the old name had some ‘baggage’. He may have meant there were intellectual property difficulties with using it (the TrawsCambria name might belong to Arriva, I’m not sure) but my preferred interpretation is that he felt passengers had negative experiences tied up with the TrawsCambria name.

TrawsCymru T5 bus in Haverfordwest, with branding showing place names from along the highly indirect routes
Failing To Keep It Clean: TrawsCymru T5 bus in Haverfordwest, with branding showing place names from along the highly indirect routes
The logical thing therefore, in my opinion, is to ensure the new brand is a squeaky clean example of a top-notch long-distance bus service.

If I recall correctly, the consultation suggested moving to a limited-stop coach network as one of the options. While a limited-stop direct service would be ideal for long-distance passengers, in many cases the TrawsCambria services were the only public transport available. My response to the consultation thus included the proviso that limited-stop services should not come at the expense of bus services which stop anywhere. This comment was echoed some time later by Dr Victoria Winckler, who the Welsh Government commissioned to review the network; the need for speed does not outweigh the need for a bus service.

TrawsCymru T1 bus (foreground) with TrawsCambria liveried bus in the distance
Change Of Brand: TrawsCymru T1 bus (foreground) with TrawsCambria liveried bus in the distance
But, if you’re going to have a flagship brand, that brand has got to stand for something, otherwise what is the point of creating that brand? I don’t think anyone has done that with TrawsCymru; if I recall correctly there were requirements for TrawsCymru livery, free WiFi, smartly uniformed staff and minimum legroom in the invitations to tender for several TrawsCymru services, but most bus operators have services with most of those things anyway. The legroom requirement might have been a Unique Selling Point, but either it was ignored or the value specified was the same inadequate legroom found on most normal buses (I must get a tape measure and check one of these days). More relevantly, there appears to be no criteria for deciding which routes should be branded TrawsCymru. Dr Winckler’s report put forward one view which I had come to myself by that point; that TrawsCymru services, while not being limited stop, should avoid detours.

As I have posted previously, Dr Winckler felt that TrawsCymru journey times should ideally be no more than 33% slower than by car. Again, as I stated before, the 412 and 550 services (which have now been merged into the TrawsCymru T5) flouts this recommendation to a serious degree. The TrawsCymru website has the cheek to call the T5 a direct service, but a service which travels via New Quay, Aberporth, Fishguard and Mathry Road to get from Aberystwyth to Haverfordwest cannot be taken seriously as a realistic alternative to private cars. Even the faster journeys which omit Aberporth are too slow; Cardigan to Haverfordwest via Fishguard is a lost cause for end-to-end competitiveness and likewise (to a lesser degree) Aberystwyth to Cardigan via New Quay is a big detour.

Of course we need all those detouring services; the need to provide a bus service to as many places as possible trumps end-to-end speed, but such services cannot be sold as a useful long-distance travel option, so why are the Welsh Government trying to do so by branding them as TrawsCymru? If we can’t afford direct services IN ADDITION to the slow ones, then we should wipe the TrawsCymru brand away and just run local buses.

TrawsCambria X50 bus in Cardigan, note the branding on the bus does not include New Quay, because the route didn't.
Much Missed: TrawsCambria X50 in Cardigan, note the branding on the bus does not include New Quay, because the route didn’t.
Of course, I am largely repeating myself here; previous blog posts have covered this topic (this one, for example). I think however that this is the first time I’ve gone over it in detail since the T5 launched and confirmed that yes, they did go ahead and do exactly what I had been hoping they wouldn’t; the major detours of the former 550 and 412 service have been included in the TrawsCymru network.

Aside from WiFi, TrawsCymru means nothing more than TrawsCambria did; the new brand is tarnished at least as much as the old. In fact, if anything, the problem is worse. While TrawsCambria included the 550, which should always have been just a local service, it did at least also feature three or four direct X50 services each way daily between Aberystwyth and Cardigan avoiding New Quay (with direct short workings between Aberaeron and Cardigan in addition); the T5 has just one direct journey per day in each direction between Cardigan and Aberystwyth. Plus, TrawsCambria never included the service between Cardigan and Haverfordwest (via Fishguard), which may well be the most indirect bus service in Wales (it takes almost twice as long as driving); TrawsCymru does.

‘The most indirect through service in Wales, at twice the travel time of driving’, hardly a great advertisement for TrawsCymru is it? The only part of the T5 which deserves to be TrawsCymru is the sole remaining direct service between Aberystwyth and Cardigan, without the extension to Haverfordwest (there is, I think, a possible extension south of Cardigan which might work, but that’s a story for another day (maybe 5th Jan 2018!).

Summer Sunday Surprise

TrawsCymru T5 Optare MetroCity bus in Aberystwyth
Now snappable on Sundays? I took this photo on a weekday last year, but it should now be possible to take similar on Sundays.
There’s some good news today (29th May 2016). Today is a Sunday, and for the first time in many years Cardigan will be served by a mainline bus service (in recent years, the only Sunday buses in Cardigan have been the coastal path walkers’ buses, which only run on Sundays in the summer). However, there still won’t be any bus services in Cardigan on Sundays during the winter, since today’s new Sunday services are only operating from the last Sunday in May to the last in September. The new Sunday timetable will also run on bank-holiday Mondays, again until September.

So, what is Cardigan’s new summer Sunday service like? The answer is that there are three journeys to Haverfordwest and back, three to Aberystwyth and back and two shorter workings, one to/from Newport and the other to/from Fishguard. Two trips in each direction appear to be through services between Aberystwyth and Haverfordwest (whether or not they actually require a change of bus in Cardigan, as I believe is often the case with the Mon-Sat T5, I’m not sure).

As you would probably expect, these services are advertised under the TrawsCymru T5 banner, but unlike the rest of the week the Sunday T5 appears to operate a fixed route, with all the Aberystwyth workings travelling via both New Quay and Aberporth. Really then, north of Cardigan this is the old TrawsCambria 550 in disguise. Confusingly, with the services to Haverfordwest the timetable doesn’t indicate whether Trecwn and Mathry Road are served.

Quiet Uprising

I had planned to release a slightly different post this week, which would essentially have been a rant about how the two parties which dominate our political system don’t really offer a meaningful choice in some key policy areas, but I wasn’t happy with it. That may still appear at some point, after some revisions and the Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament elections, but for now it suffices to say the following.

The Tories, and elements of the Labour party (the parts that disagree with having Jeremy Corbyn as their leader I believe), represent the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda, which includes deregulation and privatisation. George Monbiot has written much more about neo-liberalism if you want to know. Both these parties benefit from the First Past The Post voting system (FPTP), and love to claim that you must vote for them to keep the other out. This, sadly is generally true, because of FPTP. The Conservatives have even been at it in their campaign for today’s Welsh Assembly elections; don’t fall for it though because they only have a few more seats in the assembly than Plaid Cymru thanks in part to the fact that only 40 of the 60 assembly members are elected using FPTP. The other 20 seats are filled using a proportional system, so anything can happen.

Today then, at the Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament elections, we have a chance to implement a quiet uprising against the two-party status quo, by voting for smaller parties. Here in Wales, the main choices are of course Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens. I believe all four of these parties have ruled out the £1bn plus second M4 around Newport, the ‘Black Route’, with most favouring the upgraded A-road alternative to a second M4, known as the ‘Blue Route’. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have ruled out the second M4.

Make Votes Matter Day 2016 (Demo For Democracy) Advert
Make Votes Matter Day 2016 Advert

The elections will be followed on Saturday (May 7th) by two events in London, which hopefully will also amount to a peaceful uprising. One is the ‘Demo For Democracy’, organised by ‘Make Votes Matter’, who are probably the latest group to make a stand against FPTP. The other is called ‘Own The Future’ and aims to counter the neo-liberal consensus on privatisation, instead protecting nationalised public services. This is organised by the ‘We Own It’ group.

Election 2016 – Leader Q&A

Over the course of last week, BBC Wales ran a series of five half-hour ”Ask The Leader’ television programmes, broadcast from around Wales. Each featured the leader of a political party, who was questioned by the members of a small audience.

Monday’s programme featured Andrew R.T. Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, UKIP’s Nathan Gill was in the spotlight on Tuesday, Kirsty Williams of the Liberal Democrats took to the stage on Wednesday, followed by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood on Thursday and finally Carwyn Jones, the leader of Welsh Labour, on Friday.

This blog post mainly discusses the points I singled out as being noteworthy from a climate and/or transport perspective.

Andrew R. T. Davies (Welsh Conservatives)

Andrew R.T. Davies was asked whether he supported carbon taxes, but didn’t give a straight answer either way. He dodged the question by saying he favoured a mix of low-cost energy sources, which to me sounded like “cut subsidies for renewable electricity generation and keep burning fossil fuels”.

Another question accused Labour of concentrating mostly on the Cardiff area and ignoring the rest of Wales, asking whether the Conservatives would be any different. I may not have been paying full attention at the time, but the only specific project mentioned was making the A40 (in Pembrokeshire, presumably) into a dual carriageway. More capacity for more polluting cars, and speeding up journeys for motorists at the expense of the rail network; not my idea of a good policy.

A few days later, the Welsh Conservatives announced that they intend to try and introduce 80mph speed limits on the M4 and A55, again speeding up journeys for motorists at the expense of the rail network. When will the counter-productive transport policies stop?

Nathan Gill (United Kingdom Independence Party (Wales))

Nathan Gill confirmed my fears that UKIP are a reckless party of environmental suicide. I still accuse both Labour and the Conservatives of similar, but they’re not quite as bad as UKIP.

Happily, one audience member had the courage to dub UKIP’s plan to ignore climate change as their craziest policy yet. Against a statement that almost all scientists agree that current climate change is man-made, Mr Gill tried to defend his position by suggesting that most of those scientists are not climate scientists, and that we should look it up on the internet. So I did, and most climate scientists also seem to agree that we are causing climate change. Even in the unlikely case that humanity is not the cause, consider the other part of Nathan Gill’s argument. He didn’t deny that the climate was changing, but suggested that stopping it was akin to trying to stop the tide coming in. The tide we know about, and can generally allow for. On the contrary, we have no idea what the world will be like if the 2 degree climate threshold is passed. Natural climate fluctuations in the distant past are suspected to have caused mass extinctions, so it is not unreasonable to fear a mass extinction might occur should the current changes to our climate continue. Thus, if we accept Nathan Gill’s stance on climate change we must accept that we are doomed. Thankfully, we don’t have to vote for his party.

On transport, Nathan Gill stated that UKIP preferred the ‘Blue Route’ M4 relief road at £400m to the £1bn second motorway (Labour’s ‘Black Route’). Sadly, this saving on the M4 wasn’t to fund public transport; instead he proposed spending the rest of that £1bn on the A55 and A470, suggesting it was currently easier to drive via England (using motorways) than use the A470.

Nathan also suggested he would break EU law if elected, by making the Welsh government use only Welsh steel. If he did this, would Wales be fined by the EU? Also, a survey has apparently shown that immigration is the second most important issue for voters in the forthcoming election, despite the fact that is not a devolved matter. These are issues for the EU referendum in June; clearly the role of the Welsh Assembly hasn’t been made nearly clear enough to the people of Wales.

Kirsty Williams (Welsh Liberal Democrats)

One of the questions Kirsty Williams was asked was similar to one of those put to Andrew R.T. Davies earlier in the week; regarding paying more attention to / spending more money on, more of Wales than just the Cardiff area. Her response was in stark contrast to the Welsh Conservative leader’s; rather than pledging future road investment she focused on other issues such as education. For example, she stated that her party had in the past achieved a better spread of schools funding across Wales, presumably as a condition of the Liberal Democrats supporting Labour’s budget.

The same focus on other areas was evident when the subject of the M4 came up. Like UKIP, the Lib Dems would scrap the hugely destructive £1bn ‘Black Route’, but would spend the money saved on creating more ‘affordable’ housing. She didn’t say where the houses would be built, but provided they are put somewhere with strong public transport links the policy articulated by Kirsty is by far the most sensible position of all the leaders questioned so far in the BBC’s series. Such a shame then that her party is still being attacked over some of the Tory policies they were unable to block in coalition, particularly university tuition fees. The British public needs to get over this; the tuition fees went up because they voted the Tories in, not because of the Lib Dems.

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru)

Some of the questions on the fourth evening were quite different to those put to the other four leaders over the week. Nobody else was asked about Bovine TB and the controversial (and apparently futile) measures to eradicate it. Neither did the issue of nuclear power receive as much attention in the other programmes, making this episode the nearest the series came to discussing measures to tackle climate change. Plaid Cymru, it was revealed, are opposed to ‘fracking’, would not open new open-cast coal mines and don’t want to see a new nuclear power station anywhere other than on Anglesey, where they are looking to safeguard jobs following the shutdown of the current plant.

Leanne seemed keen to avoid a coalition with another party following the election, but only ruled out the Conservatives and UKIP as potential coalition partners.

Carwyn Jones (Welsh Labour Party)

The incumbent First Minster was at least the third leader to be asked about the Cardiff-focus of the current Welsh Government. Specifically, in this case (with the programme being broadcast from Llangollen), the question was why North Wales sometimes feels more remote Cardiff Bay than Westminster. Much like the Conservative’s on Monday, the Welsh Labour leader turned to roads in his attempt to address this. Apparently, Labour’s preferred hugely destructive M4 project being funded via borrowing would leave the current roads budget untouched, allowing major work on the A55 as well including a new bridge across the Menai Strait.

While Labour, along with the Tories, seem to be planning the most destructive roads, the Labour leader did at least have something to say about public transport as well. Carwyn Jones announced a ‘North Wales Metro’, to be paid for via a ‘City Deal’, and claimed improvements would come from devolving rail and bus services. Exactly what they would do with the powers if/when they get them devolved was not elaborated on though.

The Missing Party?

There the BBC’s series ended, there was no sixth programme to feature Alice Hooker-Stroud, leader of the Wales Green Party. The recently-started ‘BBC Wales Today’ election tour features a large cut-out figures of the five leaders discussed above in the tent, but Alice Hooker-Stroud is not pictured. Neither UKIP nor the Greens have any seats in the Welsh Assembly, so why does UKIP feature in the BBC’s coverage as much as the four parties who do have seats?

I suppose the BBC do occasionally acknowledge the existence of the Greens. ‘Wales Today’ covered the launch of the Green’s manifesto on Tuesday, just before the UKIP leader’s programme. The BBC will also be including all six main parties in a forthcoming televised debate, but I don’t believe the amount of coverage they are getting in comparison to UKIP is at all fair.

Consultation – Setting the Direction for Wales and Borders Rail

No full blog post this week, my apologies, although I’ve never promised to post regularly anyway.

One reason for today’s short post is that I have been busy writing a response to the Welsh Government’s consultation on the next Wales & Borders rail franchise and have not had time to write a proper blog post. Should you also wish to respond to the consultation, it is available here on the Welsh Government website.

Blurred Direction

A year ago, I commented on the introduction of the TrawsCymru T5 service. I was very critical of the service, and promised further posts detailing the problems. However, it’s the service’s first birthday today, and I still haven’t done so. I’m not promising I’ll ever get round to completing the lot, but here’s the first part of that detailed coverage.

Blurred Direction
Completely Blurred: TrawsCymru bus
‘What are service numbers for?’ That’s a question raised by the T5 (and several local services in the area, but that’s another blog post, again if ever I get round to it). This particular problem is that the ‘T5’ is a blanket designation of a number of routes.

In my travels between Cardigan and Aberystwyth before the introduction of the ‘T5’, I witnessed at least three cases of passengers being confused as to where buses would take them. At least two of these were in 2014, when the ‘X50’ timetable between Cardigan-Aberystwyth was much the same as today’s ‘T5’. One of these was evidenced by some passengers, who obviously expected to travel to somewhere on the detour via Aberporth, jumping up from their seats in surprise as we passed the roundabout which leads to Aberporth without turning off. I seem to remember the driver let them off next to the roundabout, but they’d have had a long walk to Aberporth. Like the ‘T5’, 2014’s incarnation of the ‘X50’ was a blanket designation, covering all Cardigan-Aberystwyth services. I’ve not been travelling to/from Aberystwyth regularly since before the ‘T5’ started, so I’ve not had the chance to observe further confusion. In the more-distant past, things made more sense as there was a ‘550’ service via New Quay and Aberporth and the ‘X50’ was generally direct. However, it wasn’t perfect, some trips served only one of the two (ie. New Quay or Aberporth) and they didn’t have a special service number for those. The third of my observations was such a case, passengers for Aberporth had let an ‘X50’ which went via Aberporth but not New Quay go without them, assuming it didn’t travel via Aberporth. They would have had a wait of well over an hour for the next ‘550’.

Haverfordwest bus stop departure board
The bus stop information doesn’t help: LED sign at Haverfordwest bus station, showing no information of via points
Of course you have to draw the line somewhere, giving the very occasional detours to Aberaeron school a separate route number would only muddy the waters (the school is under 500 metres from the main Alban Square bus stop in Aberaeron), but I believe detours as major as Aberporth and New Quay need to be clearly identified.

Returning to the present, the days of services via Aberporth but not New Quay are gone, perhaps because nearly every service has gone via New Quay since December 23rd 2013. On the other hand, whereas the 2014 ‘X50’ was only a blanket north of Cardigan, the T5 has extended the blanket numbering to Pembrokeshire. As a result, there are now no less than six significantly different routes under the ‘T5’ umbrella.

  1. Cardigan – Fishguard – Haverfordwest
  2. Aberystwyth – Cardigan – Fishguard – Mathry Road – Haverfordwest
  3. Aberystwyth – New Quay – Cardigan – Fishguard – Mathry Road – Haverfordwest
  4. Aberystwyth – New Quay – Aberporth – Cardigan – Fishguard – Mathry Road – Haverfordwest
  5. Aberystwyth – New Quay – Aberporth – Cardigan – Fishguard – Trecwn – Mathry Road – Haverfordwest
  6. Aberystwyth – New Quay – Cardigan – Fishguard – Goodwick – Trecwn – Mathry Road – Haverfordwest

Of course, there are also short workings of most of these routes. In a sane world short workings wouldn’t be a problem, since the destination sign on the front of the bus would show how far the bus is going. If you want something past there you would either don’t get on or, more likely, ask the driver if there will be a connection for wherever you want to go. But this isn’t a sane world, bus operators have to abide by more-stringent regulations for working longer-distance services, so services like the T5 are registered in sections as shorter services to avoid these regulations. The result is a T5 departing Haverfordwest will probably say Fishguard on the front even if the bus continues to Cardigan. Cue more asking the driver if the bus goes to Cardigan.

Aberystwyth bus station T5 branding
Misleading branding: T5 banner at Aberystwyth bus station suggesting a single route (including New Quay)
Going back to the list of six routes, some of these are only once a day, for example the one that doesn’t go via New Quay (that’s one in each direction). New Quay is even included in the route branding for the service, so perhaps there’s an even higher risk somebody will turn up for that one expecting to go to New Quay. They’d be in for a shock, and that trip (in my opinion) is the only part of the service which deserves a TrawsCymru tag. That’s yet another story though.

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?

Blunder Bus

Good morning? …

TrawsCymru Optare Tempo bus
Duty Awaits: YJ06YRZ, one of three vehicles painted in TrawsCymru livery some time ago for the T5 service that has only just appeared.
Not really. Today (5th Jan 2015) sees the launch of the TrawsCymru T5 service between Aberystwyth and Haverfordwest, replacing a number of existing services. There are two good things about this service:

  1. Richards Bros has the contract
  2. The need to change bus in Cardigan is reduced

There are, however, also alot of bad points:

  1. The application of ‘T5’ number covers six different geographical routes
  2. The residual ‘X50’ local service the T5 leaves behind also covers several geographical routes, which are also confused with the 552 and 554 local services
  3. The route contains many major detours from the direct route between Aberystwyth, Cardigan and Haverfordwest, which are likely to impact on the brand image of the TrawsCymru network
  4. Despite all the detours, including operating via Fishguard, the service fails to serve Fishguard Harbour railway station for connections with Cardigan’s nearest rail service
  5. A number of timetable niggles, of varying degrees of anti-logic, have not be ironed out from the old services, and one or two new ones have been introduced
  6. New, shorter, buses are expected to be introduced in a few months time, despite the existing fleet having been repainted into TrawsCymru livery at unknown expense

Bus service logos on bus stop
Transformation: the TrawsCambria X50 logo and the TrawsCymru T5 timetable that replaces it
Each of these points probably deserve a post of their own, and I intend to do just that. How long it will take me to complete all that is another question.

Update: as promised, I have started detailing the issues listed above in their own blog posts. The series is as follows:

  1. Blanket service numbers are covered in a series of articles:
  2. This is really the same issue as item 1. above, and is covered in the same series of posts
  3. The issue of detours is covered in Cloudy, With Heavy Detours
  4. All in good time
  5. Patience Is A Virtue
  6. Good Things (will hopefully) Come To Those Who Wait (eventually)

The Core Conundrum

TrawsCambria has a hole at it’s core. A key function of the network the Welsh Assembly Government created around 2004/5 was bridging the gaps in Wales’ rail network. Four of the network’s six routes, at least in part, mirrored long-lost rail links:

  • X32 Bangor – Caernarfon – Porthmadog – Dolgellau – Aberystwyth
  • X94 Wrexham – Llangollen – Corwen – Bala – Barmouth
  • X40 Aberystwyth – Aberaeron – Lampeter – Pencader – Carmarthen
  • 704 Newtown – Builth Wells – Brecon – Merthyr Tydfil

Of these missing rail links (listed in bold above), the one that has attracted the most calls for re-opening is probably Carmarthen – Aberystwyth. Thus, the X40 was a core route of TrawsCambria and this is evidenced by the fact it carried more passengers than any of the other TrawsCambria routes. However, the X40 is no more, having fallen victim to Arriva’s CymruExpress operation, which itself is now gone. The TrawsCymru TC1 service, intended to replace and enhance the X40, has not yet materialised, leaving a hole at the core of TrawsCambria/TrawsCymru.

40 service bus in Aberystwyth
Arriving From Carmarthen: a Lewis’ Coaches 40 service approaches Aberystwyth
Instead of the X40/TC1 we have two normal services, the 40/40c. This is actually one through service, with a change of service number at Lampeter. The 40/40c service largely follows the intended route of the TC1 but with standard buses rather than the high-specification TrawsCymru ones. The obvious solution is to steal back the six new buses ordered for the TC1, but the current route takes 2hrs 15mins to get between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. That is rather slow, compared to the car, exceeding the recent recommendation (in the Winckler review) that TrawsCymru services should not be more than 50% slower. But what can be done about it? Not a lot, it seems; the 40/40c is already faster than the X40, after most of the detours were removed under Arriva’s CymruExpress.

Bus on service 40 at Aberaeron Alban Square
Eclipsed by the car: First Cymru Wright Eclipse on the 40 service
The only detour remaining is that to Pencader, but removing that would mean finding a replacement bus service for Pencader. This could easily end up doubling the overall running costs and might only have a small impact on the overall journey time. With no other detours, the only thing left to do would be change the entire shape of the service to make it more direct. That would mean missing out Aberaeron or Lampeter, possibly both. The reduced revenue that would result would almost certainly make such a proposal unworkable.

Is it time for plans to be drawn up for a new express rail link between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth? That would allow the 40/40c to remain as local bus services, eg. making detours to Pencader? Meanwhile, the Welsh Government look like they are planning to upgrade the 40/40c to a TrawsCymru route in June or July, ignoring the Winckler review advice that TrawsCymru services should avoid detours.