Wales has always had a rather poor deal from the railways. The iron road came late there as shown by the 1851 map in my book, Fire & Steam, which shows more than 6,000 miles across Britain but a whole swathe of central and western Wales without a single line, the largest area, apart from the Scottish Highlands yet to be connected.
And so it continued throughout history. It was not until the late 1860s that a line was built through the centre of the country but even today it is impossible to go from south to north Wales by rail without diverting into England. Oddly, then the Principality got far too many lines as corrupt promoters conned investors into funding completely uneconomic routes and ridiculous rivalry between the Great Western and North Western led to much duplication. A large number of lines were built in the valleys but these were largely constructed to serve the coal industry and offered little to passengers. This crazy and unplanned network meant that, for example, Merthyr Tydfil, a coal town, was served by no fewer than seven railway companies, Brecon, a tiny town, had four branch but no main lines serving it while Swansea had six passenger termini.
Wales is still suffering from that legacy. There have been two sets of franchises for Wales since privatisation (in the first instance the valley lines were, oddly, separated from the other service) but both have been plain vanilla, with no growth, no new stock and few improvements (indeed one of the biggest investments in Wales, the new Newport station is reckoned to be an unmitigated disaster but regular users). Unlike in Scotland, the devolved government was not given the power to franchise out services but instead had a consultative role.
This is, at last, about to change. Responsibility for setting the terms of the franchise and choosing the winning bidder is being transferred to the Welsh Government in time for the letting of the new contract which is due to start in October 2018. Already four bidders have been shortlisted – Arriva, the present incumbent, Abellio, KeolisAmey and MTR – ironically, as the unions have been quick to point out, the companies involved all have part or full government shareholdings, respectively German, Dutch, French and Hong Kong. A Welsh state owned company would not be allowed to bid.
However, the Welsh Government is keen to move away from the present model. Arriva Trains Wales is not popular in the Principality because of its poor performance, the shortage of rolling stock and the lack of any investment. The company complains that this is not its fault since the franchise was specified very narrowly and that the shortage of stock is not its fault but with annual profits hovering around the £20m mark, Arriva and its German owners have done very well out of the deal while putting very little back with a requirement to invest just a notional £400,000 over a 15 period, barely enough to buy a couple of shelters on a platform. In response, Arriva Trains Wales claims to be investing £30m per year but there is very little evidence of that and it receives more than three times that annually in subsidy.
Because of the high profitability of Arriva Train Wales and the lack of investment, the Welsh Government has, cannily, tried to undertake a different type of franchise arrangement. Its specification, therefore, has been very general and aspirational. Rather than specifying a set of criteria on which bids could be judged, the government asked for bids based on how improvements could be achieved. Rather than simply expecting the ultimate winner to deliver on these commitments, the Government is committed to the idea of a partnership, effectively creating an integrated franchise which will be overseen by the newly created arms-length body, Transport for Wales. The Welsh Government is very keen to ensure that the franchise will be ‘not for profit’ but how that will be achieved given the commercial interests of the bidders remains problematic.
The priority for the Government is to improve the Welsh Valley line services to make it into a South Wales Metro as this would provide an enormous boost for a deprived area. Currently the services are provided mainly by old two car diesel units with infrequent services and the whole network is in dire need of renewal. Electrification has been costed at £350m but the Department for Transport has promised only £125m. Imagination is needed. One way would be to turn the lines into light rail meaning the signalling and rolling stock would be far cheaper, but the existence of a couple of remaining coal trains is a barrier because of safety concerns of a mixed use railway used simultaneously by heavy freight trains and trams. Even though the amount of coal being carried is no longer very significant and is set to reduce further, the black stuff in Wales is an emotional subject. Again, with innovation such as closing the line for a couple of hours in the middle of the day or at night, a solution might be found. Trade union issues will also need to be resolved but clearly high frequency and relatively cheap trams would be a far better option on these lines than heavy rail which is far more expensive to operate.
To do this, of course, Transport for Wales would have to take over the infrastructure from Network Rail. That would be a relief in Cardiff since, as one inside put it to me, ‘we can’t afford Network Rail any more’. The infrastructure provider has, in the past, been seen as a barrier to improvement since any work it is asked to price up comes up far more expensive than expected.
The Welsh Government also wants to see extensive improvements to the regional services which are provided by old stock and, at times, very overcrowded stock. One complication is that at the moment the franchise includes several services that operate partly or mostly in England. Politically, in this age of devolution, this leads to complaints from passengers on the other side of the border. I mentioned, for example, in Rail 797 that the residents of Church Stretton in Shropshire were infuriated by the fact that services stopping at their town had been cut back by Arriva Train Wales.
There are, therefore, lots of difficulties for the new franchise to overcome. However, by taking an inclusive approach, reducing the incentive to make profits and putting forward a growth agenda, the Welsh Government is on the right path. Money, though, remains the biggest potential obstacle to creating the rail service that the Principality deserves for the first time in its history.
Taking the train can be a strain
Whenever I travel to Europe, I try to take the train if it can fit in with my schedule. So when I was asked to give a talk at Nancy in eastern France, I checked out the various options – the town has some TGV trains but there is also the nearby Lorrain TGV station.
Finding out the right information was not easy, however. The Eurostar website does offer various destinations in France but it did not offer me journeys changing in Paris (even though it involves only a walk of some 400 metres between Nord and Est stations) and therefore did not suggest the last train which left St Pancras at 16 31 and gets me there are 11 14 (by the way, is it not daft that you put in Paris into their search engine and they say, that’s not a station on the network….and offers Nord or Lyon). So I booked that through the SNCF website the return suggestions SNCF offered me were two hours longer than the quickest ones and it did not mention the first train back, at 7 16, which is the one I needed to catch. I only found out about that train because I had initially done a search, but so I had to phone SNCF (7p per minute, thank you very much) and the nice young man told me that because my outward journey involved two changes, the return service would also do that and the one I wanted only involved a change in Paris. How bizarre is that?
So to sum up, neither SNCF nor Eurostar provide full information on train services available and it was only through considerable effort that I found the right trains. Our own Journey Planner may have daft glitches (like if you type a space after the station name, it says no such station is available) but is, on the whole, pretty good and would not omit trains like that.
Now that Eurostar is a bit up against it thanks to Brexit, perhaps it should begin to offer more of a comprehensive European train travel service, something it has singularly failed to do in its 20 years of existence. It is, by the way, shameful that it has taken this long for the company to run to Amsterdam, London’s busiest air route with the service due to start next year but still with no specific date. Brexit may give the company the motivation to sort out the, admittedly hellish, bureaucracy and run to more destinations and provide information for journeys to the whole of Europe.