Moor, Please

This is the third instalment of my Midlands rail adventure write-up, following on from Rutland Ramblings.

Two arched spans of Leicester station's historic frontage
No Chance: ‘Departure’ arches at Leicester station (photo taken later in the week).
Planning for Sunday 13th August was frustrated by a terrible timetable. As part of my holiday I wanted to travel over the Erewash Valley Line, the direct route from East Midlands Parkway to Chesterfield passing Toton TMD (Traction Maintenance Depot). Prior to the trip, I had established that the route had hardly any passenger services, but on Sundays a 10:08 service from Nottingham was booked to use part of the route, including passing the TMD. I had decided to aim for that service (and then going from Chesterfield to Birmingham to see the Shakespeare Express) but was horrified to discover that there were no northbound services from Leicester before 10am on a Sunday.

Thus thwarted, I was forced to abandon the idea of riding the Erewash Valley Line. We therefore reverted to our Heart Of England (3-in-7 days) Rover tickets earlier than planned and went directly to Birmingham New Street on the 10:22 from Leicester (CrossCountry’s 170101). With very little rail mileage the previous day (all of which was using the ‘East Midlands Rover’), I was keen to make the most of the rover and so added a return trip from Birmingham to Redditch which also helped fill the time that would have been spent on the trip up to Chesterfield. The third day of the ‘Heart Of England’ rover would be used later in the week for our return journey to Wales.

Exterior of the main station building at Birmingham Moor Street
Sight Of Relief: Birmingham Moor Street station after we had found our way to it from New Street
For the Redditch trip, we travelled on London Midland’s 323202 which was coupled to a second class 323 to form a longer train on the 11:45 from Birmingham. We did not note down the departure time from Redditch (which was 12:27) on the day’s itinerary, so to avoid the risk of being left behind I didn’t even step onto the platform there to take a look at the station. Back at Birmingham New Street I was very pleased to discover that there were open toilets (as opposed to ones behind a pay barrier as some other large stations managed by Network Rail have). This forced me to somewhat adjust my opinion of the station, which I had previously considered a hell-hole to be avoided like the plague. We then headed out of the station in search of Birmingham Moor Street, somewhere I’ve wanted to see more of ever since my first visit, which was rather brief.

Castle class 4-6-0 steam locomotive number 5043
Steaming Into Birmingham: 5043 arriving at Moor Street
On the way between the stations we took a wrong turn but happily still managed to find Birmingham’s attractive GWR station with ample time for a look round. 5043 ‘Earl of Mount Edgcumbe’, heading north, then brought ‘The Shakespeare Express’ into the station at around 13:36 and off into the tunnel to Birmingham Snow Hill.

Water tower on the platform at Birmingham Moor Street station
Supplies For Steam: water tower at Birmingham Moor Street
The station still has a water tower and water crane, though I’m not sure if they’re connected together so using it as a water stop for the ‘Shakespeare Express’ might not be possible. The station looks quite authentic but on closer inspection I was dubious about some of the colours used; rather than just ‘light stone’ and ‘dark stone’ there seemed to be at least three shades in use. There was also a baby changing facility, which my grandmother informed me the railways didn’t have in the old days. The signage for it though did not look at all out of place, it being in the same white-on-black style as the rest. It really is a very good-looking station.

Under the station roof at Birmingham Moor Street
Inside Moor Street: the open space behind the buffer stops for the bay platforms

Castle class steam locomotive tender-first at Birmingham Moor Street
Back Through: The Earl of Mount Edgcumbe heads tender-first towards Stratford-Upon-Avon
5043 then returned, just after 14:00, now running tender-first towards Stratford-upon-Avon. I was disappointed that the Hall class locomotive originally advertised for the Shakespeare expresses had not been reinstated, but at least that allowed me to drop the idea of taking a bus to capture it away from a station. Also, assuming the Hall would have been tender-first southbound as the Castle was, I wouldn’t have been able to get the photograph I wanted of it at Moor Street anyway.

Non-standard London Midland station name-board with gold background at Stratford-Upon-Avon
Golden Gaffe: unattractive golden sign at Stratford
At 14:30 we set off in pursuit of the Castle-hauled train on a service formed of 172212 and 172221. Stratford-upon-Avon station is sadly not the picturesque sight that Birmingham Moor Street is. It does retain a traditional station building, complete with canopy, and what looks like a GWR footbridge. The latter however is obscured on one side by a modern footbridge in a horrible pink colour and some of the station name-boards have a rather odd-looking golden background (rather than London Midland’s normal black).

Exterior of a building with visible timbers in Stratford-Upon-Avon
A Sample Of Stratford: one of the many buildings with visible timbers in Stratford-Upon-Avon
The town however has quite a selection of attractive old-looking buildings, although by the time we had reached the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre my grandmother was so fed up of the crowds of other tourists that we did not continue to find their other theatre. Instead we headed back towards the station on back streets that, thankfully, most of the other visitors hadn’t noticed.

Model railway in Stratford-Upon-Avon
Nearly Missed Model: My brief glimpse of the model railway
The railway exhibition we had seen advertised on the way down to the theatre was closing when we passed it on the way back, but they did let us in for a quick look at one of their model railways. We made it back to the station in time to see ‘Earl of Mount Edgcumbe’ making a disgraceful departure from Stratford-upon-Avon. Clouds of filthy black smoke were emitted and barely any acceleration achieved; I think it even slipped a little soon after finally making it passed the end of the platform I was standing on.

Class 172 Turbostar unit 172334 at Stratford-Upon-Avon
Time To Turbo(star): 172334 waits to whisk us away from Stratford-Upon-Avon station
Our train back to Birmingham was shorter that the one we had arrived on, a single 3-car class 172 unit instead of a four carriage formation. Our 3-car unit was 172334, forming the 16:29 departure from Stratford-upon-Avon. Rather than alight at Birmingham however we stayed on-board through to Smethwick Galton Bridge.

The canal at Smethwick Galton Bridge, seen from above
Calm On The Canal: looking down at the water from Smethwick Galton Bridge station
Unfortunately the ‘Galton Bridge’ itself (which I think takes a road over the canal below) could not be easily photographed owing to the sides of the railway bridge that the Snow Hill line platforms are located on. We then returned to Birmingham Moor Street on the 17:46 service (172341) and managed to find our way back to New Street without the detour we had made earlier. Finally, 170637 took us back to Leicester. On this leg, as on the outward run, we were puzzled by a grand building not far from a reservoir. A quick survey on Google Earth as a write this has revealed that this was probably Whitacre Water Works, just east of Water Orton.

Invitation To Foreigners

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.

Arriva Trains Wales DMUs of three different classes (153, 150 and 175) at Carmarthen station
About a year left to run: Arriva Trains Wales units at Carmarthen station
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.

Arriva Trains Wales class 150 DMU crossing a bridge on the Heart Of Wales Line just south of Llandovery
HOWL Of Pain: a class 150 on the Heart Of Wales Line. Will four hour journeys on uncomfortable trains like this be eliminated in the new franchise?
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.

The Time Train?

Network Rail buildings at Whitland station
Re-Structuring: new Network Rail buildings at Whitland
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.

Continue reading The Time Train?

Summer Of Sorrow

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.

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).

262 Not Out

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.

The houses of parliament / palace of Westminster, seen from the London Eye
Fortress On The Thames? Perhaps not, now that the Tories’ attempt to fortify their position has failed.
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.

Soccer Saturday Shame

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).

Pembroke Coast Express (Intercity 125) crossing river in Neath
Wet In Neath: The Pembroke Coast Express heads west in the rain

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.

An Intercity 125 on the Pembroke Coast Express, and a class 158, at Cardiff Central
Chaos Is Coming: Cardiff Central (pictured) will next week be extremely busy with football fans heading to the stadium nearby
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 Shocker

A view of the harbour at Goodwick, Fishguard
Harbouring change: a view of the harbour at Goodwick, Fishguard. Stena Line’s ferry terminal is out of shot to the right.
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.

Train and ferry at Fishguard Harbour
Changes all round: the ‘Stena Europe’ and the trains connecting with it will both run at different times from today
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.

Intercity 125 train in London Paddington station on arrival from Swansea
Link Lost: London Paddington (pictured) is no longer be reachable from one of the two ferries from Rosslare to Fishguard.
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).

Arriva Trains Wales class 150 at Cardiff Central on a Fishguard service
Lost train: the Fishguard boat train about to leave Cardiff at 10:57, a service which did not call at Swansea. From today this working is replaced by a service from Swansea to Fishguard, so not only will passengers have a slower route they will also have to change at Swansea.
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).

GWR class 387 electric multiple unit at London Paddington
The future now arriving: class 387 electric unit at London Paddington.
Stena’s unprecedented changes are not today’s only shock to the established Great Western status quo. You will also get a shock, a potentially lethal one, if you touch the overhead wires on several sections of the Great Western main line, including between Paddington and Maidenhead. There, class 387 Electrostar electric multiple units have become the first electric trains to carry fare-paying passengers on a section of line electrified under the current Great Western electrification project. Sections further west have been live for testing purposes for some time, but cannot be used for passenger services yet due to gaps in the overhead line between them and Maidenhead.

Returning to the Fishguard ferries, a definate plus is that there is now an extra train connection on the Irish side. Before, the only night ferry had rail connections in Rosslare. Now, it appears the new earlier timing of the Fishguard to Rosslare daytime sailing will allow it to connect with a train to Dublin which previously left Rosslare just before the lunch time boat from Fishguard arrived. As far as I can make out, given the differenced between Real Time Trains and the ATW timetable booklet, the connections shape up as follows:

Monday – Friday services – Old Timetable

Dublin Connolly 16:37
Rosslare Europort arr. 19:25
Rosslare Harbour dep. 09:00 21:15
Fishguard Harbour arr. 12:30 00:30
Fishguard Harbour dep. 13:29 01:50
Swansea arr. 03:47
Swansea dep. 03:52
Cardiff Central arr. 16:00 05:01
Cardiff Central dep. 16:25 05:12
London Paddington 18:32 07:30
London Paddington 08:45 20:15
Cardiff Central arr. 10:46 22:30
Cardiff Central dep. 10:58 22:32
Swansea arr. 23:28
Swansea dep. 23:45
Fishguard Harbour arr. 13:27 01:33
Fishguard Harbour dep. 14:30 02:30
Rosslare Harbour arr. 18:00 06:30
Rosslare Europort dep. 07:20
Dublin Connolly 10:15

Monday – Friday services – New Timetable

Dublin Connolly 13:36
Rosslare Europort arr. 16:26
Rosslare Harbour dep. 08:00 18:10
Fishguard Harbour arr. 11:15 21:25
Fishguard Harbour dep. 12:50 22:14
Swansea arr. 00:04
Swansea dep.
Cardiff Central arr. 15:19
Cardiff Central dep. 15:26
London Paddington 17:30
London Paddington 07:45 16:45
Cardiff Central arr. 09:49 18:48
Cardiff Central dep. 09:49 18:50
Swansea arr. 10:45 19:45
Swansea dep. 11:00 20:11
Fishguard Harbour arr. 12:30 21:58
Fishguard Harbour dep. 13:10 23:45
Rosslare Harbour arr. 16:25 04:00
Rosslare Europortdep. 17:55 05:35
Dublin Connolly 20:44 08:46

Fishguard Facilities…

…And ‘Connections’

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.

Continue reading Fishguard Facilities…

May-Day, May Day, Mayday

View from a class 158 train on the Cambrian Coast Line
Snowdonia Scenery: A backdrop like this apparently prompted Prime Minster May’s change of plan regarding when the next general election would be held
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.

Harlech castle from a Cambrian Coast Line train
True Inspiration? Could the fortresses of Snowdonia have been Mrs May’s motivation to attempt fortification of her party’s position in power?
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.

View from class 158 train on the Cambrian Coast Line
Bright prospects? Maybe if June’s election is the last held under First Past The Post.
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.

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.