Following a period of ‘competitive dialogue’ with four possible partners, the Welsh Government (or their relatively new ‘Transport For Wales’ body) finally issued the Invitation To Tender (ITT) for the next Wales & Borders rail franchise in the past week. This time next year, the current Arriva Trains Wales franchise should be just a few weeks away from coming to an end.
The pre-qualified four are Abellio Rail Cymru, Arriva Rail Wales, KeolisAmey and MTR Corporation. The winner will be an ‘Operator and Development Partner’ (ODP), required to play a bigger role in the development of infrastructure than train operating companies in the UK have done since privatisation. Therefore, at least some of the bidders for the new contract are joint-ventures involving an infrastructure firm along with one of the ‘usual subjects’ in UK franchise contests.
Not all the ‘usual subjects’ are represented though, First Group and Stagecoach are conspicuous by their absence from the line-up. That leaves subsidiaries of foreign railway companies leading the four hopeful groups. Arriva belongs to DB, the state-owned railway of Germany, Abellio to NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch state-owned railway), Keolis to SNCF (owned by the French state) and MTR (in part) to the Hong Kong Government.
The short listed bidders now have a little while to work up a final tender to submit to the Welsh Government / Transport For Wales. Most sources are reporting that all four bidders are still in the game, but there have been suggestions that only Arriva and Abellio remain in the contest. With any luck, the claims that the franchise will still be awarded by the end of February 2018 (despite a delay to the devolution of the powers for awarding the franchise to the Welsh Government) will prove true, allowing the new regime to begin in October 2018.
It is also to be hoped that the new contract will offer widespread improvements. However, unlike in DfT-led franchise competitions, the Welsh Government have not made many of the requirements in the ITT public for the new Welsh contract. At this point then, it is all a mystery. Fingers crossed everyone.
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.
A series of unfortunate announcements meant that the UK Parliament headed into its summer break with a trail of destruction in its wake. I have very little time for this blog and I was unable to keep up with the tide of depressing and controversial announcements in order to form them into a coherent post.
One of the announcements was a particularly big blow; the cancellation of the Midland Main Line electrification to Nottingham and Sheffield with only Bedford to Corby going ahead. Cardiff-Swansea electrification was also ditched but for reasons I hope to explain in future isn’t perhaps as serious a disaster. I did start to write about these announcements in more depth but never finished.
Some of that may surface in time, but for one reason or another there’s been several weeks without posts on this blog and for that I apologise. I cannot promise much in the way of future posts either, although a six-day holiday gave me material for a travel report series which I intend to publish in fortnightly instalments starting next Sunday.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Another First Past The Post election has failed to deliver a fair result. With parties winning up to 36 more (or fewer) seats than their share of the vote would suggest, it is time to Make Votes Matter!
May was Theresa’s month, but the unexpected General Election of 2017 was in June; and produced an almost entirely unexpected result. For most of the campaign, almost all the predictions suggested that the Tories would win the increased majority they craved. Some also suggested that the election could be “ a fight for the very survival of Labour“. With the First Past The Post electoral system making it almost impossible for the other parties to win many seats, destruction of the Labour party could have left the so-called ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ with no opposition.
This means the election was really two contests rolled into one; a straight fight for which party gets to form a government (like any other general election) and also Jeremy Corbyn’s battle to prove that his leadership and the Labour party have a future.
Victory for Theresa May’s party was seemingly never in doubt and indeed, unfortunately, they have of course won the election. However, given their objective of a decisive majority it almost looks like a defeat for the Tories. Labour have lost, as expected, but made gains and finished up with 262 seats. They may still be down, but they’re not out. That, for me, is a glimmer of hope; it now appears that there is a possibility that the next election will see the Tories removed from Government.
We are still a way off a positive outlook for the future, at the start of the election campaign I hoped the Labour party would pledge to introduce proportional representation for future elections. They did not, and for that reason (among others) I didn’t vote for either of the two main parties. The outcome I would really have liked to see would have been a Labour victory short of a majority. That could have enabled, through agreement with other parties, the introduction of a proportional electoral system and accelerated action on preventing climate change. Sadly the result we got fell short of that, but it was about the best outcome I thought possible given the opinion polling in the run up to the election. With the Tories’ position significantly weakened, I can now think to myself ‘maybe next time’.
Hope has not emerged victorious, but it has not been crushed either.
A rather damp 27th May 2017 (this past Saturday) saw the return of the through services between London Paddington and Pembroke Dock which form part of the summer Saturday timetable. Out filming the westbound service at Neath, I was caught in a shower and returned to the station rather soggy. Fortunately, the weather had improved by the time I reached Cardiff Central, where I filmed the first of the two eastbound services (which is formed by the stock off a Swansea to Pembroke Dock service, the westbound London to Pembroke train forming an afternoon/evening return working).
Since they are First Great Western Railway long-distance services out of Paddington, these trains are formed using 8-carriage Intercity 125 trains. They prove valuable in some weeks as the crowds of tourists travelling to and from Tenby simply would not fit on the 2-car class 150s which operate the Monday to Friday and winter services on the Pembroke & Tenby line.
I hope for the railway’s sake that next Saturday (3rd June 2017) will be a quiet one in Tenby, because otherwise it is likely that there will be a lot of unhappy passengers. This is because, as station announcements were warning this week, the UEFA Champions League final is coming to Cardiff. What the announcements did not say, but the Great Western Railway journey planner website does, is that both Intercity 125 services on the Pembroke Dock branch are cancelled for that day. The services will be truncated to run between Swansea and London only, as they do in the winter timetable. I presume this has been done in order to free up IC125 sets to provide additional services through Cardiff which will be extremely busy due to the soccer game. According to the journey planner though, while the GWR service reverts to the winter timetable, Arriva Trains Wales is expected to run their summer Saturday service on the Pembroke Dock branch. This leaves a gap of over four hours, and another of over three hours, for the GWR services that will not be running, compared to the every-two-hours winter service. The ‘Weymouth Wizard’ summer Saturday special between Bristol and Weymouth also seems to have been removed from the schedule next weekend.
Update: the Weymouth Wizard ran, slightly retimed, using hired mark 2 coaches rather than an IC125 set; as far as I’m aware the Pembroke & Tenby was left with nothing.
While pulling the IC125s to provide extra capacity in Cardiff is probably a sensible move, passengers on the Pembroke Dock branch will get a raw deal. There is no mention of the change in the paper timetable booklet as far as I’m aware, so anyone who doesn’t look online might turn up for a train that doesn’t exist. The most disgraceful part of the whole affair is that, apparently, GWR are not even arranging replacement road transport to cover for their missing trains in Pembrokeshire, meaning anyone who does turn up for them will be stuck for hours waiting for the next Arriva Trains Wales unit (and, if the weather brings out the crowds, they will have to play sardines on it).
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:
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.
Following a trip to Snowdonia, Prime Minister Theresa May took many by surprise, including myself. Perhaps even more surprising however were some of the comments in her speech announcing the snap election. “At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division.”
That, it seemed to me, was a veiled admission that the views of the ‘opposition’ are generally close to those of the government on most important issues. I have probably pointed out before that there is little difference between Labour’s policies and those of the Conservative party, and the first past the post electoral system means other parties are largely excluded. Therefore, the electorate isn’t really given a meaningful choice at general elections; certainly on some issues. The Labour party have, at least in the past, supported expansion of Heathrow airport, and Theresa May’s government has indicated they intend to approve expansion. No choice there then; voting for either of the main parties is, or has been, a vote for a blank cheque for the aviation industry to continue to increase its greenhouse gas emissions.
But on the issue of the UK’s relationship European Union, there are actually differences of opinion in the house of commons. The Conservatives have an opposition for a change and they don’t like it, so they are holding an election in the hope they can silence it. There should only be unity in Westminster if the views of vast majority of the population are the same, otherwise the people who hold different views are not being represented in Parliament. Ours is, after all, supposed to be a representative democracy. If the public are divided in their opinions and the house of commons isn’t, then parliament does not represent the people and the system isn’t working. In 2015, the Conservatives took 50.8% of the seats in the commons with only 36.8% of the vote. That tells you all you need to know; the system is broken; and given that turnout was less than 70% the actual proportion of the population that actually ‘asked’ for a Conservative government will be lower still.
Apparently, Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to overturn the rigged system. I might believe that if Labour’s manifesto includes a commitment to scrap First Past The Post, which is rigged against the smaller parties. That could still be a possibility, since Labour has not yet published its manifesto. Campaign group Make Votes Matter have pointed out that Labour are running a consultation on their 2017 manifesto. That doesn’t seem to have closed yet, so if the link still works when you read this please respond to the consultation and make sure to include a call for proportional representation in your response. There may be more opportunities to influence Labour’s policies on there policy forum site (I’ve yet to investigate it). If Labour can be persuaded to adopt proportional representation, the next challenge will be getting the Tories out of government so that proportional representation can be introduced. That isn’t such a tall order as the initial media coverage would suggest, if the other parties see the opportunity to make things right and work together. There are signs is could be happening in some areas, with the Liberal Democrats apparently not contesting the seat held by Caroline Lucas. Add that to the fact that the Tories have very slim majorities in some seats and there is hope.
Returning to Theresa May’s speech when announcing the election, her statement “The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.” is not my impression. The general election held under First Past The Post in 2015, and the EU referendum that followed, were extremely divisive. The SNP are threatening to tear Britain apart, and the Tory majorities first past the post returns to Westminster are a huge contrast to Scottish voting patterns (only 14.9% of Scots voted Conservative in 2015). It has been argued that the election on the 8th of June is ‘a fight for the very survival of Labour’, but we face an “existential crisis” for Great Britain itself as well. Mayday indeed, but “If you fight you won’t always win. But if you don’t fight you will always lose” (from somebody’s signature on the RailUK Forums, attributed to Bob Crow). Theresa May may think on this May Day that she is going to win the election, but it isn’t over yet.
P.S. As well as Make Votes Matter, linked to above, there are a number of other groups campaigning for proportional representation. One of these, the Electoral Reform Society, has a petition here and there are probably more out there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
whether a single double-track route for services from north of Taff’s Well to Cardiff is sufficient and, if not
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
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).
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.