Mike Joseph celebrates a new accessibility for the western edge of Wales
It was the talk of Fishguard’s Thursday market. News so unexpected that those bringing it to market were as surprised as those hearing it for the first time. Everyone – Dave the Coffee Man, Bridget of Seaways Bookshop, Buzz Knapp-Fisher the eco-innovator, Moira Lewis, Goodwick’s County Councillor – saw that this is news that will transform life in Fishguard.
If you are not fortunate to live in north Pembrokeshire, you might not realise that so much hangs on Ieuan Wyn Jones’ March 29th announcement of ‘five additional trains’ each way between Fishguard and Carmarthen starting in September. But on the western fringe of Wales, it means the difference between no rail service to speak of since Beeching’s 1964 cuts, and suddenly the prospect of decent connections to the rest of Wales and Britain. In effect, it is a new Welsh rail service “It’s the missing piece of the jigsaw,” says Hatti Woakes, tireless campaigner for rail to Fishguard, who is both surprised and elated at such a successful campaign outcome.
From this September, seven return journeys, six days a week (five new trips plus the existing midday and midnight boat trains) will serve Fishguard. For the first time in half a century, Carmarthen, Swansea and Cardiff will be within an easy daily commute. Fishguard’s growing festival scene will be accessible to day or overnight visitors from south-east Wales. Cardiff’s St David’s and Millennium Centres will be just a day trip from north Pembrokeshire. Students can attend college in Carmarthen and Swansea, or work in Llanelli and Neath. In other words, the diversity of daily living options that south-east Wales takes for granted becomes possible in north Pembrokeshire.
It doesn’t end there. North Pembrokeshire’s ageing population can look forward to remaining mobile and connected to the wider world when driving is no longer an option. And a coastal destination which National Geographic has rated second highest in the world will now be fully accessible to green, car-free tourism. There is much to celebrate.
But it has not happened overnight. It was in December 1999 that Hatti Woakes attended a meeting of local town councils, called to discuss rural north Pembrokeshire’s transport problems – a fragmentary bus service, no provision for seasonal tourism, and a single daytime return train to Fishguard Harbour to meet the Irish ferry. From that meeting, in March 2000 the North Pembrokeshire Transport Forum was born “to work for the provision of effective, integrated public transport systems”.
Over eleven years, the Forum has promoted integrated bus services, encouraged community transport, cycling, walking and safe routes schemes, and plugged away at the seemingly hopeless case for rail to serve local needs, not just the declining ferry foot passenger trade. Hatti describes their campaigning style:
“When there’s a problem, we don’t issue press releases, complaining its the end of the world. We have a quiet word in the right place, and we find there may be a reason for the problem.”
When First Great Western withdrew its direct London-Fishguard service (after a century of unbroken service) the Forum surveyed Fishguard passenger destinations:
“We were astonished to find people were travelling from everywhere – from Chester in a huge arc right round to Cornwall.”
So Fishguard was no different from anywhere else in our interconnected world. Its rail service should meet those needs.
Over time, the Forum was joined by others in the relentless campaign. In September 2009, Sam Faulkner and Joanne Griffiths, pupils at Ysgol y Preseli and a Cardigan school, launched their Fishguard Trains Petition: “to make rural North Pembrokeshire better connected … This is something in which we believe and would make regular use and we are sure others would too.” It was the friends’ own idea. Sam said that his school was happy to give him time off for BBC filming as long as he wore his school uniform. Joanne explained to camera “We’re not old enough to drive yet, buses they take quite a while, trains are very quick, they’re useful for us and easy to use … We hope the Welsh Assembly will fund it. Until then we still have to rely on mum and dad.” 130 initial signatures grew in four weeks to 1,317. Paul Davies AM was happy to present their petition to the Assembly’s Enterprise and Learning Committee.
On top of long-standing pressure from the community, two industry studies had projected over 20,000 extra journeys in the first year of a restored Fishguard service. The scheme was awarded the third highest benefit cost ratio of any rail reopening scheme in England and Wales. So it came as a shock that autumn to discover that the Welsh Government’s new National Transport Plan envisaged no rail improvements in west Wales. With a series of successful re-openings in south east Wales, in particular the new Ebbw Vale to Cardiff passenger service, – a new express link between north and south Wales, and rail enhancements planned across the country, the south west simply didn’t feature in Cardiff Bay’s planning. Years of pro-active investment in the south east had achieved sustained growth in rail usage. West Wales was the only part of Wales where this logic did not apply.
The Plan offered this excuse:
“To the west of Swansea, a five-mile single track section between Gowerton and Loughor is a major pinch-point, constraining timetabling and restricting any potential growth of passenger services along the corridor.”
Nothing could be done until the Gowerton line, singled by Thatcher in 1986, was re-doubled. This argument cut no ice in Fishguard. The Forum, the petitioners and local rail planners all envisaged a shuttle as far as Carmarthen, where passengers would change to the existing Manchester-Milford service. Gowerton was a red herring.
I saw something else. The existing Fishguard boat trains didn’t even use the Gowerton line, but rather the high-speed route opened around Swansea in 1912 to speed London passengers non-stop to their transatlantic liners at Fishguard. If Cardiff politicans were uninterested in prioritising rail investment in north Pembrokeshire, could they be persuaded to take interest in a plan for express links between south east and south west Wales, on the lines of the north-south express service? And if, as it turned out, the Swansea bypass line offered a park and ride opportunity where it crossed the M4 at Swansea West services, might that also arouse interest in Cardiff Bay?
I helped to assemble a coalition of Plaid activists (including Plaid’s former Chairman, John Dixon), which resulted in a joint response to the National Transport Plan from the party’s Pembrokeshire Constituencies:
“The Welsh Government has already successfully innovated a two-hourly express service between Cardiff and north and north-west Wales. The opportunity exists to use the Swansea District line to complete this network of express routes across Wales. This line already supports the fastest services between south-east and south-west Wales (Cardiff to Fishguard in about two hours). We now urge the Government to study the potential of using this line to offer a new hourly express service between Cardiff and Carmarthen, running non-stop between Cardiff and Llanelli. From Carmarthen, this service would alternately serve the three Pembrokeshire branches. All the furthest corners of Wales would then be linked to the capital by express rail services, competitive with road for speed, safety and of course environmentally.”
The constitutencies’ response envisaged a road/rail interchange at Swansea West/Swansea Parkway, and future electrification of the all-Wales express network.
It was to no avail. On 11 January 2010 Ieuan Wyn Jones, Minister for Economy and Transport, wrote to the Petitions Committee conceding that “it would be possible to run extra trains to Fishguard before the redoubling scheme is completed”. However, as the regional train planners:
“… have proposals for a large number of service improvements, the majority of which do need redoubling, it could be seen as premature to prioritise Fishguard’s needs. Therefore there is no current commitment to provide these additional services, nor funding allocated to them…”
John Dixon, no longer Plaid Chairman, and indeed no longer in Plaid, says of Ieuan Wyn Jones’s u-turn last week, “The announcement is valid, but it looks terribly cynical.” What the Minister considered premature in 2010 suddenly appears timely in 2011. Elections evidently clarify priorities in the minds of politicians. But why should we complain? There is much to celebrate. Dixon is also concerned that
“We are still seeing a piecemeal approach, not the high-speed all-Wales network vision. Don’t expect any Assembly to have that vision. That will continue to depend on outside campaigners.”
Hatti Woakes is more upbeat:
“The atmosphere has changed completely in these 12 years. People now value trains, they’re reliable now, they find their cars expensive, and we’re aware of the environment.”
Joanne and Sam’s YouTube video proclaims:
“WE WON THE FIGHT!”
Now all attention turns to the practical arrangements on the ground. Will Fishguard and Goodwick station, closed in 1964, be reopened to make the new service accessible at the heart of the twin town? Will the timetable for the new service be designed for Arriva’s operating convenience, or will it make best use of onward connections at Carmarthen and Cardiff? Will Sam and Joanne’s friends all pack onto the train for shopping trips to Carmarthen and Cardiff? Will they (and their parents) realise that the night clubs of Swansea will be accessible by train – the late boat train leaves Swansea just before midnight? A new world is opening up for everyone in north Pembrokeshire – just as the Great Western Railway opened up travel to the New World via Fishguard 99 years ago.