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.

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.

Suburban Express? It’s An Oxymoron – Sort It

The ‘Fishguard Flyer’ has a problem…

Optare Solo bus, class 158 train and Stena Line ferry 'Stena Europe' at Fishguard Harbour
International Connections: Boat, Bus and Train meet at Fishguard Harbour (ATW actually managed to provide the booked class 158 on this occasion)
It may be the only express service into and out of south-west Wales, but in the fairly recent past the daytime Fishguard ‘boat train’ was, for some years, deliberately worked by class 150 DMUs. At the time, the service was the 10:57 Cardiff to Fishguard and 13:30 return, at one point continuing to Cheltenham Spa. At the time of writing (March/April 2017), the eastbound service now terminates at Cardiff Central, while the westbound train has been extended to start back from Newport. I believe Arriva Trains Wales now diagram a class 158 on the working, but that may have changed again. Even if a 158 is diagrammed, it seems that class 150s still appear regularly as stand-ins (presumably because the 158s are required in mid and north Wales).

Whether by design or out of necessity this is, in my opinion, a serious problem. The class 150 is, essentially, an inner-suburban design; although the ones in ATW’s fleet have 2+2 seating rather than the even higher-density 2+3 arrangement some other operators have on class 150s. The wide doors are of the recessed, ‘metro-sliding’ type; faster to open/close than plug doors but requiring a large section of windowless wall for the door to slide into. This means that not only is floor space lost to wide standing areas just inside the doors but the seats adjacent to the doors have no window.

Class 150 between Fishguard & Goodwick and Fishguard Harbour stations
Distant Disaster: class 150 on the ‘Fishguard Flyer’
Even passengers who do get a window don’t have a great journey; there are very few tables (and on ATW’s units these are not ideally aligned with the windows either) and the rest of the seats lack legroom. While the same could be said for the class 153s, the single-car ‘Super Sprinters’ do at least have smaller doors at the ends of the carriage, rather than the large ones interrupting the passenger saloon on a class 150 ‘Sprinter’.

As well as being wide and of the recessed type, the passenger doors on a class 150 are located towards the middle of each car (nominally one third and two thirds along). This suburban layout aids the flow of passengers on and of trains, keeping station dwell times to a minimum, but interrupts the passenger saloon area. This cannot be helpful for designing a comfortable seating layout that aligns with the windows etc.

Class 150 to Fishguard Harbour at Cardiff Central station
Suburban Substitute: a class 150 waits at Cardiff Central on the express ‘boat train’ service to Fishguard Harbour
The class 150 design then is optimised for busy short-distance stopping trains, with quite a bit of space for standees and short dwell times. But, as I wrote at the beginning, the Fishguard daytime boat train, unofficially known as the ‘Fishguard Flyer’, is an express service. Westbound, it calls only at Cardiff, Bridgend, Llanelli, Whitland and Fishguard & Goodwick (the eastbound working also serves Carmarthen). Even if using a class 158, which has one of the slowest power-door systems in use, instead of a 150 adds a minute at each station the limited calling pattern that’s only five or six minutes on the whole journey. On a service that takes 2 and a half hours between Fishguard & Cardiff that’s a small price to pay for a comfortable journey (150s are so uncomfortable that I have generally had enough after an hour). A 158 probably would make up some of the time anyway by running above the 150’s max speed of 75mph on parts of the line between Bridgend and Briton Ferry, and I doubt the difference in dwell time would be as much as a minute per station in most cases. That’s because the narrow doors on a 158 don’t seem to be too much of an impediment when passenger numbers are within the capacity of the unit; I expect it is when passengers have to stand that the aisle gets clogged and dwell times go through the roof if the train has the passenger doors at the vehicle ends. If the railway was run in the interests of passengers, long-distance and fast services would always be formed of trains of sufficient length to seat all passengers; so stop wasting saloon space with wide doors and give us some legroom instead.

Suburban Express? It’s an oxymoron; sort it.

Contrast In Comfort: a class 158 and a class 150, both in the latest Arriva Trains Wales livery, at Carmarthen station
There’s a general point here for the next Wales & Borders rail franchise here too, as well as the specific one about the Fishguard service. Suburban trains (those with ‘doors at thirds’) cannot provide maximum comfort and are therefore only acceptable on short-distance services with frequent stops and large volumes of passengers, because it is in those cases that units suitable for longer journeys (ie. with doors at the vehicle ends) suffer from extended dwell times (and more stops means those dwell times have a bigger overall impact).

Reconstruction

As can be seen by the comment below, this site is hosted by 000webhost. The plus side is that it is free of charge; and that’s a big plus in my book. The negative side is that the service is not particularly great, there is little or no support and they recently decided to move servers (I think) without providing an automated facility to move our websites. Their instructions were to backup our existing websites, delete them and recreate the site on the new system. I did this last Thursday (6th April).

Unfortunately, the backup procedure they suggested wasn’t the easiest to restore a WordPress site (which this is), so I’ve been struggling to bring the site back online. I think I have managed to import all the posts and comments, but some of the settings are missing. The dynamic Ordnance Survey Open Space maps I have on the site are not working either, and the new theme hasn’t been customised (and makes a mess of the image margins). I will have to fix all this at some point but I don’t have the time right now; I’m just happy that I’ve managed to get the site working at all.

Clear Direction

First Cymru bus in Haverfordwest
Time Of Change: A photo from autumn last year of a bus working one of the services affected by today’s new regime
Today, 3rd April 2017, a number of bus service changes are taking place in Pembrokeshire. Actually, First Cymru’s new timetable booklet is dated as running from 2nd April (yesterday), but since the Sunday bus network is a woeful ‘nothing at all’ the effective date is today. When this post is published however, I will not be in Wales. Today, I’m returning from Norwich on one of my railway exploration holidays, so I planned ahead. On Friday 24th March, it happened that my father wasn’t coming into work so I went by bus. With the new timetable coming up, I decided to take a camera to get pictures for this post; and a story developed.

The first leg of my journey was uneventful. I reached Haverfordwest as planned and waited for my next bus, which I photographed; the 349 service to Monkton, calling at Picton Place, County Library, Dew Street, Horsefair (Tesco), Merlin’s Bridge, Johnston, Honeyborough Roundabout, Cleddau Bridge, Pembroke Dock, Pembroke and Monkton. To me, this was the ‘349b’ service, although First referred to it simply as ‘349’. The first five places listed were reached without mishap, but by the time we reached Johnston an alarm had sounded on the bus. The driver pulled over and cut the engine; after a short wait he restarted it and we continued. Not for long though; the alarm soon returned and we were parked in a lay-by-type bus stop in Johnston.

Failed First Cymru bus in Johnston
Broken Down: the failed 349(b) in Johnston
The driver phoned ‘the engineer’, stating that the alarm had been accompanied by loss-of-power. We waited until the engineer turned up; I was hoping they would send a replacement bus (as Richards Bros have done once or twice when I’ve been on one of their services that suffers a breakdown) but it was just a van. Although an annoying delay to my journey, which made me even later for work (as I pointed out to a fellow passenger who asked, I’m ‘late’ for work anyway whenever I go by bus), the failure gave me the opportunity to collect additional photographs which I would have otherwise been unable to obtain, and are preferable to the rather dull picture I took back at Haverfordwest bus station.

First Cymru bus in Johnston
The real 349: the Tenby bus approaches our failed Monkton one
With no replacement bus provided, we were instead forced to wait for the next service, due to leave Haverfordwest half-an-hour behind our failed bus. We had already spent almost that long stationary, so it wasn’t long before the second bus arrived; the ‘349’ to Tenby. To me, this was the ‘349a’. The driver from the failed bus told the other driver that nobody was trying to get to Monkton, which the ‘349a’ does not serve; and off we went leaving the engineer, the stricken bus and its driver behind. It wouldn’t be the last we saw of them.

Milford Haven from the bus at Neyland
Unexpected View: the Cleddau estuary seen from the bus at Neyland during the detour
The reason I have my own ‘349a’ and ‘349b’ designations for these services will now become clear (although, if you’ve read my 3-part 2016 series on bus route numbers, you might guess where I’m going with this). It is also why I had hoped a spare bus would be found. At the Honeyborough roundabout, our ‘349a’ turned right, rather than heading straight-on to the bus stop as the ‘349b’ would have done. These are clearly different routes, which is not what First (by calling both ‘349’) would have had you believe. The right turn takes the 349(a) into Neyland, which is not served by the Haverfordwest-Monkton service. After looping round Neyland, we came to the Honeyborough roundabout again; this time heading out to the bus stop. Lo-and-behold, sitting there was our errant ‘349b’, with engineer’s van. By not going via Neyland, it had overtaken us but had obviously failed again so I was no later into work than if I had stayed with it.

Pembrokeshire County Council bus service change of operator notice
Reassurance: Pembrokeshire County Council notice on our failed bus, stating that the 381 service will continue
With the story (almost) complete, I finally get to the news. Haverfordwest bus station is to see a reduction in services, with outward services to Milford Haven (302), Johnston (the Tenby and Monkton services discussed above) running direct from Withybush Hospital to Picton Place (Iceland), missing out the bus station. The bus station is still served in the other direction, heading towards Withybush Hospital, with the Monkton services extended there rather than terminating at the bus station. First’s information might lead some to believe that Pembrokeshire is suffering a major bus cut, since they describe the 381 service (Haverfordwest-Tenby via Narberth and Kilgetty) as being ‘cancelled’, with the last day of operation being Friday 31st March. In reality, that service has been taken over by Taf Valley Coaches, as the Pembrokeshire County Council notice on the First buses I took in the story states.

First Cymru bus poster
Service changes: First’s poster on our failed bus
The headline however is that, from today, I will no longer have to call the two ‘349’ routes ‘a’ and ‘b’, because the direct Monkton service will now be known as the 348, while the original 349 (via Neyland to Tenby) remains the 349. A little victory for me (I probably can’t claim any credit for it, but it feels good anyway); now how about bringing back the 550, 50 and 412 designations and sorting out that colossal amalgamation which is the TrawsCymru T5?

Going back to the story, given the huge delay to the ‘349b’ service I was concerned that the service might not recover punctuality all day, jeopardising my ‘connection’ on the return journey. Somehow (perhaps by cancelling a trip?) it seems First did get the ‘349b’ running on-time again (or reasonably close to it), because my journey home went smoothly.

Tectonic Activity

Part 4 of my railway modelling series brought the story up to the end of 2016, concluding with a note that I had mixed up the left-over Polyfiller I had been given. Unfortunately, I added too much water and thus it didn’t work particularly well. Over several more days, I layered on quite a bit of the additional filler I had bought. A week after I had applied it, the runny Polyfiller mix still hadn’t set (the new stuff was setting hard in under 24 hours). Since it was the leftovers of an old packet, I thought it may have got damp before I made it up and thus decided to scrape most of it off and redo it with my new plaster.

Photograph of my model railway baseboard looking towards the hills
Looking Tasty: while plastering, I had irrational thoughts that it might be nice to eat some of the plaster, perhaps because it looked similar to butter icing for cakes.
With the new year and the end of the holidays it was back the day job, reducing the time available for modelling. Weekend landscaping works continued (the evenings are too dark) on the layout, for a while. The chicken wire mentioned in the previous post has gone missing; so I won’t be needing the wallpaper paste I bought. In hindsight there wasn’t room for much landscaping anyway, so once I had finished off the top of the main hill by shaping the filler into a few ‘rocky crags’ there was no need for much more. I wasn’t sure about the crags, but one of my brothers took a look and thought they were ok. His feedback wasn’t so positive on other aspects though; one side of my cutting was too step and he felt the hills were too ‘plonk’ at one end of the board, rather than spreading out more. I had originally planned to make the larger hill extend further onto the board, but my grandmother pointed out that would eat into space for the station; hence the design that was built.

Bit-by-bit, I then started adding a rock-face effect to the cliff using foil (mostly Toblerone wrappings), scrunched up and then partly straightened, as a mould. I hadn’t got far with that before I discussed the steep side of the cutting with my grandmother. She agreed that it was too steep, so we took a chisel to it and reshaped it to a more-realistic profile, before I carried on with the rock-face effect.

Model railway baseboard with hills in the foreground and cork trackbed beyond
All Iced Up: the plaster/filler has turned the hills into a winter wonderland, looking like they are covered with snow (or, alternatively, like a cake covered in icing)
As the hills took shape, I started gluing down the rest of the cork tiles, cut to shape so that certain areas where there will not be track can be at a slightly lower level. I had only stuck three sections of cork when the PVA wood glue I had bought (and used on the chipboard) ran out. There may have been a little left that I couldn’t get out of the bottle, but even so that is almost 250ml of glue on my model already! Fortunately I had been given a large bottle of PVA labelled as being for sticking paper/card; I had intended to use that for ballasting in case PVA for paper isn’t the same as PVA for wood, but I figured it would stick the cork down alright too.

Cracked plaster (interior filler) on model railway hill
Disaster Area: close-up of the section suffering from cracks caused by ‘artificial earthquakes’.
It was rather thick, gloopy glue, way past it’s use-by date I suppose, but I went ahead with it and just hoped it would stick. Perhaps because of the thickness of the glue, the last few sections of cork needed a lot of extra weight to press them down, and I even had to resort to hammering the cork flat with a wooden mallet at some of the joins where the cork was jutting up above adjacent pieces. This hammering caused ‘seismic activity’ in the baseboard which broke off part of the plaster on the small hill side of the cutting. I fixed that, by re-attaching the broken plaster with more of the stuff, but there are still a number of cracks in that part of the hill, perhaps caused by further hammering (which may have been the chiselling of the cutting mentioned above).

Close-up of damage to model railway hill
Cracking Model: Another view of the depressing results on that corner of the model (the chiselled cutting side is also visible)
Once the Toblerone-wrapping work on the cliffs was almost completed, I started thinking a bit more about the design of the station area. I still haven’t decided whether I have space to expand the hill as my brother suggested, because I don’t know how big the car park will be, so I left a bit of the cliffs unfinished in case they get extended later. I did take a tape measure to our cars, to get an idea of how much space is needed, but never got round to scaling these down and making a parking-space-sized template to experiment with on the model. A combination of consultations to work on (principally the ones for the new Wales & Borders rail franchise) and general despondency given the cracked hill then put a halt to the project.

Photograph of model railway hill (work in progress)
Snow On The Hills: a closer view of the larger hill section following the application of plaster/filler

Worthless Protection

Intercity 125 train running alongside the sea near Llanelli
Sorry, no dolphins: I don’t have any good Cardigan Bay / Wildlife photos, so here’s a train by the sea in Carmarthenshire instead.
It seems nothing is safe. Late last year (2016), the Welsh Government announced that they would be allowing scallop dredging across the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC). How are we to know what untouched, natural seabed looks like if it is periodically ‘dug up’ by scallop dredging equipment? We can’t do so now, because beam trawling also disturbs the seabed and this, apparently, has been permitted throughout the area for some time. What is the point of giving something ‘protected status’ if destructive practices are allowed regardless?

This matter is not, you may think, on-topic for this blog; but Cardigan Bay isn’t the only example of ‘protected status’ not meaning much. Four Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and the River Usk SAC, would be impacted by the second M4 motorway around Newport backed by the Welsh Government. It is not just the Welsh Government that is ignoring valuable wildlife habitats either, on the 3rd of February 2016 the Woodland Trust pointed out on the radio that HS2, as-planned, would destroy ancient woodland.

Class 47 locomotive in Manchester Liverpool Road station (museum of science and industry)
Now unrepeatable: 47500 at Manchester Liverpool Road station, having been brought here off the national network
Wildlife protections are not the only ones being overridden either. The Museum Of Science and Industry (formerly abbreviated as MOSI and now as MSI) in Manchester incorporates two grade 1 listed buildings. One of these is Manchester Liverpool Road station, the original terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester railway (the world’s first locomotive-hauled passenger line between two cities). While the old station is no longer used by service trains, until recently it was still connected to the national network allowing occasional visits by present day rolling stock, and the museum ran demonstration rides around their site hauled by a steam engine. However, as part of the Ordsall chord project the connection to the national network was cut off, which also restricts the available track for the museum’s internal trains. Admittedly, the project does not actually destroy the listed building and the impact on the museum’s services was probably unavoidable in order to deliver improved national rail services. However, I feel the Ordsall chord should have been designed with a flat crossing to allow trains from the national network to run into Liverpool Road station occasionally.

While my views on the Ordsall chord could be considered a ‘minor quibble’, since trains wouldn’t use the link into the museum very often, there are listed buildings elsewhere that appear to be treated as though they had no such protection. A case in point is Cardiff Central. The station was listed as the most complete major city GWR station of its time, and currently looks well looked after. However, the plans for its future suggest otherwise.

Comparison of Cardiff Central now and if Powell Dobson's plans were implemented
Clock Clobbered: Among other parts of the building (such as that currently home to M&S), the clock tower is gone in Powell Dobson’s horrendous plans for Cardiff Central.

Listed building consent has already been granted for electrification at Cardiff Central. While I am in favour of electrification, I do think the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) designs Network Rail are using on the Great Western scheme are far more visually obtrusive than necessary. On sections where speeds may reach 125mph the heavy-duty structures are perhaps justified, but surely structures of that scale aren’t necessary in and around Cardiff Central, where speeds are much lower. It appears from the listed building consent application that most of the OHLE structures Network Rail are planning to install are a standard XL TTC design with chunky masts of square cross-section. I think that means Extra Large Twin Track Cantilevers, but there are enormous portal structures spanning many tracks at the ends of the platforms too. It is all very square in modern-industrial style with I-beam sections etc. completely out of keeping with the existing cylindrical columns holding up the classic platform canopies. Elsewhere on the GW, Network Rail have come up with a more-subtle design of OHLE especially for Bath’s Sydney Gardens. It isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure they’ve finalised the design, but with elegantly-arching tube-section masts it is a least a good effort; whereas in Cardiff they’ve gone for the standard brutish monstrosities. So far, the only successful consideration of the listed building I’ve found in the plans for Cardiff is that a small degree of care has gone into choosing sites for the outrageous masts (avoiding placing one directly in front of the station name). Because of that, Network Rail’s ‘school report’ from me would be ‘should try harder, shame on Cardiff council for not pressing them to do so’.

Another illustration of the extensive demolition planned at Cardiff Central.
Deplorable Destruction: Another illustration of the extensive demolition planned at Cardiff Central.

Architects ‘Powell Dobson’ fare much worse. If the headmaster was strict, they would be expelled (or sent back to elementary school). Surely, the obvious thing with a listed building is that you do not demolish it, yet that is exactly what their plans for a major refurbishment of Cardiff Central seem to involve. Although it is obvious at first glance that the current northern frontage is retained, a closer inspection reveals that vast swathes of the current station would disappear. Even northern concourse building would have a large hole knocked through one side of it in the plans and the structure on the other side (currently home to M&S) is gone completely, along with the station clock it appears. The platform buildings, all of them, and canopies could also go; there would be little left. Again, although a planning application has not yet been submitted, the council seem to be complicit in this blatant disregard for the station’s listed status. Far from criticising the poor design, the powers-that-be appear to be busy pressing for the project to happen as soon as possible.

Former station building at Fishguard & Goodwick station
Bags Of Character: the beautiful station building at Fishguard & Goodwick station, now demolished.
You could say that the version of Cardiff Central which ‘Powell Dobson’ have designed is still on the drawing board and may never happen. Granted, there is (I hope) time to stop the destruction, but just look at Fishguard & Goodwick station. Although it is not listed, it is within a conservation area which apparently was deliberately designed to include the station. Despite this, the characterful station building there was demolished in its entirety. Yes; it was falling down anyway and yes a replacement building was constructed but this failed to capture any of the character of the original. The materials used in the new build are all wrong, the chimney stack is missing and the shape of the canopies isn’t quite right. The replacement building doesn’t do the original justice; not one little bit.

Close-up of the new building at Fishguard & Goodwick station, showing the wrong roof and wall materials and crazy angle of canopy supports.
Mad Materials: close-up of the new building at Fishguard & Goodwick, showing the wrong roof and wall materials and crazy angle of canopy supports.

If something is given special protection it should be protected, end of. This isn’t happening currently, something needs to be done or more treasures will be lost. This post is timed, almost by-chance, to coincide with WWF’s Earth Hour 2017 (25th March, 20:30), so I will end with the following: If we don’t protect the climate, one of those treasures might be life itself (at the very least, some species would go extinct as a result of climate change).

‘Bedrock’

Part 4 of my railway modelling series. While the legless board was lying in the house following the events of part 3, a couple of shopping trips were made. On the first, I picked up a shiny new length of flexible track. The metal-cutters I had tried on an old length of broken flexible track produced very untidy results so, at the same time, I also bought a track-cutter to use on the new track.

Part of chipboard hill structure on model railway baseboard
Base layer: the structure of my hills begins to take shape
As well as ‘IT guy’ I am also ‘furniture assembler’ at work; the desks come packed with four strips of chipboard (roughly 2in by 1in cross-section) and I already had collected quite a few of these. At home, I had been given a small amount of chicken wire and Polyfiller, but this was not going to be enough to landscape my model. The aim of the second shopping trip was there to obtain materials for scenic development. I picked up some more plaster along with some PVA wood glue and cork tiles for laying under the track. I thought I would probably need some wallpaper paste too, so bought some of that as well.

A Step Up: Another level added to the hill structure (in the far corner)
A Step Up: Another level added to the hill structure (in the far corner)
Before commencing the messy work, I marked out the position of the track on the board, and rolled one of my longest items of rolling stock over the layout to mark the overhang on the curves. I then realised I wouldn’t be able to see these markings once I laid the cork. Fortunately, my grandmother had a bright idea; once I had lifted the track she produced a large amount of ‘tracing paper’ (I think it was actually baking parchment or greaseproof paper, given that it came on a roll in a cardboard box) and I copied the markings onto that.

Close up of the larger of the two hill sections, cobbled together from scrap chipboard
Recycled Material: Close up of the larger of the two hill sections, cobbled together from scrap chipboard
Going back to the track-lifting; this was necessary to avoid getting scenery-building material all over, and proved to be a challenge. Despite the fact I had left part of the track pins protruding, they took quite a bit of effort to pull out. When the pins eventually came up they did so suddenly and violently, taking the track with them and bending the fishplates joining the rails to the next (still fixed-down) piece of track. I hope only the fishplates are bent, not the track itself.

Chipboard hill structures on model railway baseboard
Chipboarding Complete: the basic structure of the hills, now complete
The bare baseboard was then taken back out to the shed and the legs re-attached. Over several days, I then constructed the underlying structure of the hills at one end of the baseboard using the free chipboard gathered from work. A lot of sawing and gluing was necessary, and I wasn’t able to get a lot done each day partly due to the limited length of daylight (there is no electricity in the shed) but mostly because I kept having to leave the glue to dry. Before I could glue the bottom layer of chipboard to the ply surface, I had to cut and fix the first small section of the cork base for the track (this can be seen in the photos, running through the cutting).

Looking down on the chipboard hill structure
Top View: the completed hill structure from above.
Finally, on 29th December, I completed the gluing of chipboard. On the 31st, I mixed up the left-over Polyfiller I had been given and made a start on trying to round-off the hills. More on the that will follow in the next instalment.

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