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

2 thoughts on “Moving on from the end of the line

  1. Tell me about it!, the quality in service between Virgin and the rest is remarkable.
    I travel from up north, and travelling to Virgin (even in standard class) is a pleasure. A cafe on board so you can waste a couple of minutes. Wi-fi on board. Radio on each seat. Really clean carriages. And professional looking staff.

    It is for that reason I believe Virgin should get the next Welsh franchise.

    Furthermore Geraint- can you tell me why on earth it is faster for somebody to travel from Holyhead to London, rather than to Cardiff. It’s crazy!

    And why is rail so expensive- I mean the news that the Welsh Gov has spent £600k to cut journey times by a few minutes between Bangor and Cardiff seem horrendous. I could’ve cut that by not stopping at every station on the line!.

    But seriously, rail needs looking at. Take Ireland- you can now travel from cork to dublin in an hour. Do you think if there was a Welsh “Network Rail” things would improve? or would their budget be so small it wouldn’t be able to do major work.
    As in my view, the South of England seem to get all these nice new trains and railways when we are stuck in the 60’s. Why do we let this happen!?

  2. I think there is a proposed increase to 4 trains per hour from Paddington to Bristol alongside electrification. This should, I think, be taken as an oportunity to change the London to South Wales service to one train per hour to Cardiff calling at the full assortment of current stops in England (Reading, Didcot, Swindon and Bristol Parkway) in addition to the Welsh stops (and prefrablly extended to Swansea) and one train per hour to Swansea ommiting Didcot and Swindon. If both services each hour extended to Swansea, perhaps the faster service could also ommit Reading, and maybe even Neath, Bridgend and Port Talbot, on certain services.

    Before electrification enables those extra Bristol services (which would take over the Swindon stops to allow the faster Swansea services) however I doubt there is much that can be done to improve journey times. WI-FI (if not already installed) could be done, but it is unlikely the franchise holder will want to fit all their trains as only a portion of the current fleet will be retained (for the non-electrified routes to Taunton and beyond) after electrification. Work to allow mobile phone coverage and a signal for WI-FI on future trains in tunnels however would be useful.

    Of greater concern than WI-FI and phone coverage however is the electrification project itself, which is where any available money should be directed first and foremost. Cutting the wires short at Cardiff is unacceptable, the desion not to wire to Swansea is I think based on looking at the services to Swansea in isolation. This is a huge mistake in my opinion. Not wiring to Swansea kills the case for electrifing the Severn Tunnel Diversionary route, electrifying both the Severn Tunnel Diversionary route and the main line all the way to Swansea would half the number of new diesel (bi-mode) trains required. On Great Western, while the local benifits for these 2 extensions of electrification would be small, this will result in a large improvment of the case for the sections which have already recived the go-ahead.

    On East Coast, the very limited frequency of services beyond the current electrification means the bi-mode trains are un-necessary, a few members of the existing fleet of class 67 locomotives would be able to drag electric IEP trains over these sections, without the weight of diesel engines and fuel adding to the electricity requirements over the electrified sections. This reduces the size of the bi-mode fleet still further.

    The only bi-mode routes left with my suggestions so far are London to Carmarthen and the London to Cotswolds line (Worcester and Hereford) services. If a few more of the current Intercity 125 trains are retained for the busiest Cotswolds line services the rest of the Cotswolds services could be operated by Voyager units. These would gain an extra car with a pantograph to make them into bi-modes and would be made available by ordering new Pendolinos for Virgin trains services which use Voyagers running on entirly electrified routes.

    My proposals above have reduced the requirement for new gas-guzzling diesel express trains to 2 trains a day, 1 from Carmarthen to London and 1 in the other direction. Note I did not mention London to Pembroke Dock earlier, without electrification to Swansea I fear the end of this service. This was left out of the list of services IEP will operate. The reason is probablly Narberth tunnel, which is probablly too tight for IEP’s longer coaches.

    The solution I see (which would also be used for the Carmarthen service) is to give Swansea’s new IEPs to East Coast instead, displacing East Coast’s current electric fleet to work London to Swansea. I think these trains, unlike IEP, should fit through the Narberth tunnel, and their loco-hauled configuration means a few specially fitted existing class 47 or class 57 diesel locomotives would be able to take over, leaving the electric locomotive at Swansea (where the depot would become the main depot for the trains inherited from East Coast, as opposed to what seems to be a reduction in function for Swansea’s depot under the IEP plans). Without electrification to Swansea you couldn’t have diesel locos take over the Pembroke services at Cardiff, so either the service would be cut or one of the existing diesel trains (or worse, a Voyager) has to run under the wires all the way from Cardiff to Paddington.

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