Friday, 19 March 2021

Will Transport for Wales deliver for North Wales and Borders?

In 2018 Transport for Wales Rail Services took over the franchise to operate Wales and Borders services, which were previously operated by Arriva Trains Wales. Transport for Wales Rail Services the company initially owned by a Keolis Amey joint venture managed day-to-day running of rail services, as well as overseeing the development of South Wales Metro and the introduction of new trains. Transport for Wales was established as the government body to oversee road and rail transport, whilst TfWRS would have been best described as a railway company owned and operated by KeolisAmey.

When TfWRS took over the franchise, several promises were made, including the introduction of new trains, investment in existing rolling stock, as well as service improvements and station upgrades. On the face of it, TfWRS has so far appeared to have started to come good on some of its promises. £700m has already been spent or earmarked for the South Wales Metro scheme and orders for new trains have been placed, although it looks as if the class 197s ordered from CAF will not start to arrive by 2021 as originally planned and the 769s Flex units, which were intended as a stop-gap measure to release Class 150s so that they could be refitted to comply with accessibility standards are 2 years late, although some are now finally beginning to enter service.

Original timeline for rolling stock replacement 

As far as North Wales and the Borders goes, very little has happened. In fact, one of the first things TfWRS attempted to do was cut the first AM off-peak service calling at Gobowen, Chirk and Ruabon. The decision was made in an attempt to ensure the Cardiff-Holyhead express service could achieve the journey in under 4 and a half hours. A BBC article written at the time stated "A TfW spokesman said: "We have made a commitment to introduce a new Cardiff-Holyhead service departing from Cardiff Central with a total journey time of under four hours 30 minutes, using better trains to provide an improved service."

Such a move would have breached the terms that Welsh ministers had agreed with the Department for Transport when they were given powers to control Wales and Borders services. The agreement states "they shall not act in a manner that directly or indirectly unfairly prejudices the interests of passengers using English services in favour of the interests of passengers using the Welsh component of a Welsh service or a Wales only service" [1]. In the end, TfWRS reversed the decision, but it was a worrying proposal, especially for passengers in England who rely on Wales and Borders services.

 Holyhead-Cardiff loco haued "WAG Express" service in ATW colours at Chester Station

The outbreak of Covid19 has, of course, had an impact on the rail network as a whole and the industry remains in a precarious position. The dramatic fall in passenger numbers combined with poor service performance prior to the pandemic forced the Welsh Government to change the nature of the agreement with KeolisAmey and decide to take control of the day-to-day running of rail services. KeolisAmey will still oversee the development of South Wales Metro, but the Welsh Government has taken ownership of TfWRS in order to manage the day-to-day operation of rail services.

Of course, the dramatic decline in passenger numbers means that the Welsh Government now has less money to play with and has already spent or earmarked £700m of the funding initially granted by the DfT to TfW to transform rail services.

But it does appear that TfW has started to quietly cancel or curtail plans instigated before the pandemic to improve services and stations. One such promise which was made in 2019, was to install ticket machines "to all stations that do not have one by 2022". Now in 2021 this has been curtailed to just a few key stations, with busier stations seeing upgraded machines, whilst older machines will be moved to a few select stations based on passenger estimates.


TfW Class 230 on test on the Wrexham-Bidston line

This may seem on the face of it to be a minor issue, but for rural lines which are perceived to serve relatively few passengers, the installation of ticket machines was seen as a way to boost revenue. For example, ticket sales on the Wrexham-Bidston line have for years been relatively low and as such, it is has been assumed that the line serves a small number of passengers. However the sale of tickets is also low because passengers cannot buy tickets at the majority of stations, and yet whilst it is true that conductors can sell tickets onboard (although they have not done so since the outbreak of Covid), it was never always the case that a conductor checked or issued tickets. Often during the morning and evening commute with stations stops spaced closely together, particularly towards Wrexham, conductors are not able to issues tickets to all passengers whilst remaining in charge of the safe operation of the doors. So many passengers get a free ride, TfW loses vital revenue and passenger numbers go under-reported.

On the left a tweet from TfW regarding ticket machines from 2019, on the right a tweet from 2021

Sticking with the Wrexham-Bidston line, TfW decided after the second lockdown that passenger services should be reduced to 2 hourly until further notice, and be served by a single Class 150. Hopefully, services will quickly revert to hourly as restrictions ease and, by December 2021 service frequency should increase to half-hourly, as this was another key promise made by TfW when they took over. It was also promised that class 230s constructed by Vivarail would begin to enter service by 2020.

Granted the late delivery of class 230s was for the most part out of TfW's control. Several factors including Covid19 resulted in it taking longer than originally hoped to manufacture the units. Covid has also meant that crew training is taking longer than expected. The delivery of Class 769s in South Wales has also run late for similar reasons.

But the key promise of a half-hourly service by Dec 2021 will not, in the end, be entirely what was expected. Whilst there is no hint yet that TfW is going to reverse plans for a half-hourly service, the service itself will not be implemented in full. Instead one of the additional services per hour will not stop at every station and therefore some communities will miss out on the benefit of the new service. In an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for more investment, Minister for the Economy Ken Skates said a half-hourly service “will only be delivered by skipping stations along the route”. He explained that the full half-hourly service cannot be implemented because of “capacity and signalling constraints”. Certainly, the current service turnaround is tight, with trains taking an hour to get from Wrexham to Bidston and there are a limited number of freight movements per day which use the line between Deeside and Wrexham.

Those who have campaigned for improvements to be made to the Borderlands Line argue that the improved performance of the Class 230s compared to Class 150s, combined with speed improvements between Shotton and Bidston means that valuable minutes can be saved to provide a timetable buffer, without the need to miss stops. They are also willing to accept that a short break in the half-hourly service may have to operate when freight paths are needed, but there are currently usually only 2 freight movements each way during the daytime between Dee Marsh and Wrexham.

Ken Skates has gone on to say that full implementation of what is being called the "North Wales Metro" will require funding from the DfT. Initially, it was suggested that an additional block section would need to be installed by Network Rail in order to implement a full half-hourly service. But now Mr Skates along with Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram are asking for £100m worth of investment to introduce 4 trains per hour from Wrexham directly into Liverpool. Now, of course, calls for investment are welcome and I like many other passengers would like to see services operating directly into Liverpool. But what hope is there really of this happening if relatively modest improvements such as a half-hourly service and ticket machine installation cannot be delivered in full?

I realise I'm talking a lot about the Wrexham-Bidston line, it is the line that is local to me and it is one that I have actively been involved in calling for improvements for almost 7 years! Some people have been calling for improvements for over 30 years. And just as it seems that improvements are beginning to happen TfW could be about to backtrack on some of its promises.

I understand the initial funding provided to TfW to improve rail services did not stretch to improving Wales and Borders services. But as TfW now has full control of services that serve both England and Wales it only seems reasonable that passengers should expect that some of the money be invested in Borders services and not just South Wales Metro. Some English towns and cities will benefit from new Class 197 DMUs and the Wrexham-Bidston line will hopefully one day soon benefit from Class 230s. But with South Wales benefiting from £700m worth of investment and a raft of new bespoke trains, passengers could easily be forgiven for thinking that the "Borders" part of Wales and Borders has been forgotten about.

[1] page 6


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Friday, 12 March 2021

Mersey Gateway, 3 years on

The Mersey Gateway opened in October 2017 providing improved links from the M56 and Runcorn across the Mersey to Widnes and on to Liverpool. The £600m project which took 3 years to complete, comprised of a new 6 lane cable-stayed bridge spanning the river Mersey and substantial upgrades to the A553 which runs through Runcorn connecting the M56 to the new bridge.

The new crossing received a mixed reaction from locals and motorists when it first opened, as for the first since the Silver Jubilee Bridge opened, motorists would have to pay to cross the Mersey from Runcorn to Widnes. There were also teething problems with the barrier-less toll system. People complained that signage warning people that they must pay online to use the bridge was poor, this in part lead to almost £20m worth of fines being issued within the first 20 months of operation. 

Other problems occurred with people using rental vehicles, who thought they were paying for their crossing, but had in fact paid for crossings made by another person who had previous used the same vehicle.

Many people simply just forgot about the toll and missed the 11:59pm day after deadline, which if you miss generates a £20 fine + £2 toll charge in each direction. This fine increases steeply if you do not pay within 14 days.

Residents who live in Halton can apply for a residents pass, at a cost of £10 per year, which allows for unlimited crossings at no extra charge. And regular users can also create an account online which can be topped up and provides users with as much as a 10% discount for each crossing, depending on if they choose to use the sticker option or not. In December 2019 Emovis Operations which operates the toll system released an app which has made it easier for users to keep track of and pay for crossings.

View of the bridge from below the viaduct carrying traffic from the A533 to the bridge

Despite the teething troubles and an ongoing campaign to remove the toll, the bridge had up until the outbreak of Covid19, been a success, carrying 67,000 vehicles each day between October and November 2019. It had also reduced congestion, particularly on A557 Weston Point Expressway, which regularly saw queues of 10 minutes or more.

Mersey Gateway in numbers

  • Bridge length 2.1km
  • Tallest supporting pylon 125m
  • 146 stay cables
  • Longest single span 318m
  • Carrying as many as 67,000 vehicles a day (pre-Covid)
  • Cost £600m

Even if you do not consider the number of vehicles using the bridge to be a measure of success, the new bridge is a local landmark comparable to the existing and iconic Silver Jubilee Bridge. Its 3 tall concrete pylons support a relatively slender deck via 146 stay cables, and yet, whilst the tallest of the 3 concrete pylons reaches 125m high, the bridge itself manages to compliment rather than overshadow the existing road and rail bridges.

Speaking of the existing bridge, it had reached its design capacity some decades ago and was in need of urgent repairs, this despite recent extensive works to repair the road and deck and repaint the distinctive steel arch structure. The fact is, the bridge simply wasn't designed to carry the volume of traffic which crossed the bridge each day. The original plan was to close the bridge for up to a year once the new crossing had opened to carry out repairs and convert 1 lane in each direction to cycling and pedestrian provision. 

The iconic Silver Jubilee Bridge has been part of Runcorn's skyline for over 50 years

In the end, the Silver Jubilee bridge didn't fully reopen until February 2021. This was, in part due to changes to the proposals made by Halton Borough council. They wanted the bridge to integrate better with the town centre in order to tie in with the redevelopment plans they have. Under the original plans, the bridge would have been accessible by cyclists and pedestrians, but would have been less well connected to the town centre. Road access would have been maintained to the A557 via the existing junction arrangement. Instead, the grade separated junction that connected the A557 to the bridge has been replaced by a single at-grade roundabout. 

The new roundabout connecting the A557 to the SJ Bridge

The Silver Jubilee Bridge is once again open to vehicle traffic and is now tolled, costing £2 to cross. This arrangement wasn't without its critics, but it does seem to be the only logical approach. Keeping the existing bridge free to motorists would of course encourage people to use the bridge instead of the new crossing, despite the journey time over the existing bridge being much longer, which would have been compounded by increased congestion as people attempted to avoid the tolls. 

Video trip across the Mersey Gateway bridge from Widnes along the A533 through Runcorn to the M56.

Speaking as someone who infrequently uses the bridge, it would have been nice if the bridge were free to cross, as it is now nigh on impossible to get from West Cheshire or the Wirral to Liverpool without paying a toll. If you really wanted to avoid paying the toll to use the Mersey Gateway bridge, the only option would be a 10-mile detour via the congested roads of Warrington town centre. To avoid paying £1.80 to use either of the Mersey tunnels would entail a detour of 30 miles.

Having said that, I do appreciate that the £600m project had to be funded somehow, and the government seemed unwilling at the time to fund the construction of a new crossing. This despite tolls being removed from the Severn crossings in 2018 and around the same time the Scottish Government funding a new £1bn bridge across the Firth of Forth, which is also toll-free.

But in the end, a new and in my opinion attractive bridge has been constructed which people in the region will continue to feel the benefits of for years to come.

Want to know more? You can find out about how the bridge was constructed in the series of blogs I wrote as I was following the project. Click here to find out more.


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Friday, 5 March 2021

Parc Adfer - Turning trash into energy

Parc Adfer is the name given to a £800m waste to energy facility located on the Deeside Industrial Park in Flintshire, North Wales. The plant which became fully operational in December 2019 can process up to 200,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste per year and generate up to 17MW of electricity which is fed to the national grid, enough electricity to power up to 30,000 homes.

The facility was built through a public-private partnership (PPP), with Wheelabrator Technologies chosen to deliver and manage the project, Wheelabrator which operates other waste-to-energy facilities in the UK and US will operate the plant for 25 years. The company processes over 8 million tonnes of waste per year across its 25 sites, generating 732 MW of electricity, enough to power 671,000 homes.


The building itself seems relatively modest for a plant capable of proccessing 200,000 tonnes of waste a year

Five Welsh authorities worked in collaboration with assistance from the Welsh Government to develop the proposal, which is known as the North Wales Residual Waste Treatment Project (NWRWTP). The 5 local authorities are Flintshire, Isle of Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, and Denbighshire. It is from these 5 local areas where the majority of waste is collected.

Local waste from Flintshire is generally brought in directly by refuse vehicles, whilst waste from further afield is brought in by articulated vehicles with high volume capacity trailers. Waste transfer sites receive waste from refuse vehicles, which is then transferred to the trailers which can each carry up to 27 tonnes. In this way, local authorities can reduce the number of vehicles that are needed to deliver waste to the facility.

The construction of the plant generated some local opposition, with people raising concerns about air pollution, however, Wheelabrator say “Our facilities use the most advanced environmental control systems to meet and exceed some of the most stringent environmental standards in the world” adding “Waste-to-energy facilities are required to comply with strict air quality limits established by the European Waste Incineration Directive”. [1]  

Indeed, modern waster-to-energy facilities are nothing like the incinerators of old. High burning temperatures up to 1110°C and filtration systems can burn off and then filter out much of the particulate matter. The facilities themselves can reduce the volume of the original waste material by 95-96%. Whilst Metals which remain within the waste can be removed and sent on to be recycled, the remaining ash can also be recycled and is used within the construction industry as secondary aggregate. 

Further to this, Wheelebrator refer to a study that was undertaken on behalf of the German Federal Environmental Agency [2]. The report demonstrates that waste-to-energy facilities can have a positive net impact on greenhouse gas emissions through the reduction of methane emissions, which would normally be generated by waste which has been sent to landfill. Whilst methane only accounts for 10% of greenhouse gases globally it can trap 84 times more heat per mass unit than carbon dioxide

View from Weighbridge Rd

Of course, there remain pros and cons, as such facilities do still emit Co2 into the atmosphere and very small amounts of other particulates, even if the amounts are so small, as not to pose a risk to the environment or people living close by. In general though, energy recovery from waste can play a crucial role in managing the waste that we the public produce. 

Flintshire Country Council recycles 58,000 tonnes of waste per year, but this still only accounts for about 69% of the total amount of waste that is recycled. This is significantly above the national average for Wales, which stands at 60% of waste recycled. However, this still leaves a huge volume of waste that either can't be recycled or isn't yet being recycled by the public 

So, whilst as much as 40% of the waste generated by households in Wales and across the UK remains un-recycled or un-recyclable, we must find solutions to disposing of the waste which we produce, a solution which doesn't involve burying it in the ground for future generations to deal with.