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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