Moving on from the end of the line

Geraint Talfan Davies asks what can be done to improve the south Wales to London rail service while we wait for electrification

The best news for Wales, during a pretty thin period, has been the decision on electrification of the rail network between London and Cardiff and the prospect that this will also extend to the Valleys lines (and, I hope, Swansea). But there will be a long wait – the best part of a decade – before that and the new rolling stock arrives. So how can we improve things in the meantime?

The biggest complaint of passengers between south Wales and London is that the service has become a commuter service serving all stops in between – Reading, Didcot, Swindon and Bristol Parkway. The fabled 1hour 45minute journey from Cardiff to London, that was such a selling point when the 125 services were launched, pre-dated the creation of Bristol Parkway which, on its own added the best part of 10 minutes to the journey. That was the end of train services that ran non-stop between Newport and Paddington.

Is it not possible to re-instate one or two early morning services a day that would run non-stop from Newport – or at least non-stop from Bristol Parkway – and similarly back to Wales in the evening? The First Welsh Express – that would bring us back under the two-hour travel time mark.

And what of on-board services? A few weeks ago I had to travel from Manchester to London on Virgin Trains. Being the holder of a Senior Railcard and able to book in advance, I was able to buy a first class ticket for £40, something I have often done on First Great Western between Cardiff and Paddington. But the difference was quite remarkable – possibly, the difference between a bus company and an airline.

Apart from a ‘travelling chef’ on a handful of services, the First Great Western line offers a simple trolley service, although that can be dependent on the availability of staff, which can be decidedly patchy at weekends. It doesn’t compare with the Virgin offer – clearly built around the Business Class airline model – which included a complimentary meal and wine, a public address system that sounded as if it came from a decent radio and not a squawk box and, more importantly, unbroken mobile phone and Wifi connection for the whole journey – possibly a side benefit of electrification.

In contrast, the making of phone calls from a mobile phone on the train between Cardiff and London is a source of high comedy, as people dial and redial. Animated folk can find themselves talking to themselves for five minutes before they realise that the line has long since died. Stomachs knot as people struggle through broken-backed conversations. The postal equivalent would be to have a letter delivered in separate paragraphs a day at a time.

The number and length of Brunel’s tunnels are hardly a good enough excuse. In February the Financial Times reported that the London Underground was close to signing a deal with the Chinese manufacturer, Huawei, to install a mobile phone network through the tube network in time for the Olympic Games next year. If the deal was completed work would begin this summer and be complete by March. The paper also reported that BT was running a Wifi trial on the tube platform at Charing Cross.

In comparison, unbroken phone and Wifi on the Great Western line would seem to me to be a simple proposition, as long as it does not involve copper wires that seem so perennially attractive to thieves on the Network Rail system.

Any more suggestions?

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA

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