March 21, 2015

Catching up on a week all in a single post (?)

I don't know where to start - it's been a busy week - a VERY busy week - on "TransWilts business".

The railway service from Swindon to Westbury moved from being "parliamentary" - i.e. a limited service operated to meet legal requirements [including the SLC] only - in December 2013. From 8th December 2013, until 10th December 2016, additional trial services are running. They comprise a single carriage train shuttling up and down from Westbury to Swindon - six round trip starting at 7 a.m. and finishing at 9 p.m. What happens beyond that date will be determined by how well (or badly) the new trains have performed, and also by the political climate, economy, and future predictions. It will also be effected by factors such as the availability of the train / whether better use could be made of the carriage elsewhere, even if the use figures and finances return a benefit to cost ratio over 1.0 on the TransWilts.

That's the background.

On Monday and Tuesday this week, we were at an ACoRP (association of Community Rail Partnerships) meeting in Nottingham). We were admitted to this group - after failed previous attempts - just under a year ago, and it's fascinating to learn and share the experiences of others who have been involved for many years in promoting local lines - getting people onto trains both by indirect means (such as station adoption and making the services / places more welcoming) and by more direct marketing approaches too. It's good to have strong visibility of our own metrics / line in "Whitehall" and within the Community Rail Community too, and I believe that significant steps were taken to inform those with a wide remit (so little time to understad each line in depth) of our successes and concerns in the early part of the trial, end to let them know some of our numbers and the very real human stories behind those numbers.

On Wednesday, we attended the VisitWiltshire conference / exhibition in Salisbury. Tourism is one of the fastest growing businesses in Wiltshire, and tourism and public transport links - espcially longer distance ones and connections off normal commuter flows - go hand in hand. The format of the exhibition and conference was such that the delegates had little time to take in the exhibitors, and those of us who were in the lobby area perhaps got evenless footfall than most. However, it was an excellent networking opportunity, and we met and will be taking forward a significant number of contacts in our strategic planning - TransWilts Vision 2020 about which (I hope) you'll hear a lot more.

Wednesday evening and Thursday (daytime) we attended the First Great Western Community Conference in Bristol - again useful both in promoting the service and wider connections, and in learning so much about future plans. It's anticipated that there will be an annoncement in the next few days of a new direct award franchise to First through to March 2019 - the chancellor said as much in his budget - and there are suggestions it will be "rather good" for community rail and perhaps specifically for the TransWilts too, but the detail remains to be seen and I'm not going to speculate as to whether it's wholesale good news, or a mixed package in which there are some really great things, but some elephants left in the room too and perhaps some compensatory things that will be issues. I was asked to present (5 minutes!) on "Promoting a new Service: the TransWilts experience" - see here for my slide set. One of the things that's come across to me very clearly this week is just how forward / advanced we are in some of our activities, in our engagement with the TOCs and other community rail groups, and indeed how the TOC which currently operates our services is now somuch more supportive and engaged than so many others in different parts of the UK.

Friday - a quiet "behind the scenes" morning meeting to take forward a major publicity opportunity for later in the year, about which more in due course, and an evening at the Mayor's reception in Melksham. The Mayor told us how Melksham is now joint 7th in the whole of the UK in a growing towns survey, how we have 2/3 less vacant shops than the average town (sign of a bustling high street?), how great the Christmas lights, river festival, town crier competiton, floral activities, and other events were, and looking forward to the new link road opening at Portal Way, rugby and football pitches at a new site to replace existing ones, and towards the new Campus. Somewhat woolly words on that latter, as the reception was before a meeting on the Campus next Monday that we hope will straighten out a few things, and (I will admit) deep personal disappoimtment that she chose - not even in passing - to mention that Melksham had the fastest growing train service in the UK in 2014. Does that go to show just how much work we still have to do in the communities who are not used to rail travel, or that the service is now taken as an assumed right - if the latter, I would caution the town council that they should not rest in their laurels, with a reminder that the train service was cut back with all peak hour and daytime trains removed in 2006 due to a lack of timeous inputs and support from enough people. A real concern to me, and probably to others on the new trains - several of which are full and standing almost every day. To be fair to the Town Council, the previous mayor did recognise the Melksham Railway Development Group last year - the first year of the trail - and chair (Peter) and secretary (Sion) received a civic award; we just need to keep the service in the public eye at all opportunities.

On Saturday, we held the TransWilts Forum at Chippenham Town Hall - the public launch of the TransWIlts CIC in the morning - looking at the longer term strategy issues - which need to be planned for already - and in the afternoon, an update on the TransWilts CRP / the Swindon to Westbury service and it ongoing support and promotion through 2015 and into 2016. We were delighted to be joined by two members of parliament (Andrew Murrison for Westbury, and Duncan Hames for Chippenham) both of whom are / were involved in the Bristol to Oxford proposals, and receive strong support for our "Great Western Link" proposal which covers the Western end of that route (Bristol to Salisbury), taking in an number of other aspirations and plans along the way. Support too for our plans for the TransWilts line "itself" - making use of the re-timetabling opportunity of electricification and stock cascading to join up a unit from the Stoud Valley (currenlty sitting at Swindon for 75 minutes out of each 120), the TransWilts unit, and a "Romsey 6" unit (currenty sitting at Salsibury for most of the hour) into an hourly through service, maintaining paths and robusteness at Southampton and passing one another close to the end of the single line section through Melksham to allow for freight paths. Much more about these proposals anon. And excellent that we had a keynote speech from Matt Barnes of First Great Western, and Wiltshire Councillors, (at least 3), at least one prospective parilamentary candidate, and representatives from Corsham, Royal Wootton Bassett and Marlborough all there too looking to the future. Sadly, a long list of "apologies for absence". Paul Johnson's presentation is here

The new TransWilts CIC home page is at here - worth a look!

Saturday afternoon - a review of and look to the tactics for the TransWilts line. From under 20,000 passenger journeys per annum in 2012 (the last calendar year with the complete old service), traffic rose to 183,400 in 2014 (the first complete year with the new service) - that's against a target of 45,000 for the first new year, 108,000 fort the third and 120,000 for the fifth (if it's doing well enough to still be running by then). However, concern was expressed by Claire Perry (minister at the Deparment for Transport), whenshe visited in AUgust 2014, that our success to date might have been novelty interest, and the question was raised "are these figures sustainable, or a flash in the pan?". An excellent question which we could indicatively re-assure her on, but the proof, of course, is in the pudding. So I'm delighted to have learned from First Great Western yesterday that their January 2015 passenger journey numbers were 43% up on the January 2014 numbers for the line- that's 11k up to 16k and another source tells me of exceptionally strong continued growth in February. But ... through the summer we've got major service changes due to engineering works (with FLASE rumours of "no trains in August") and we have to inform people of those, resolve issues, and keep advertising and pressing the case. This need was eloquently illustrated by the lack of any acknoledgement of how the service helped Melksham in 2014 at the Mayor's reception, and by the DfT statistic - meant (I know) to be positive - that Community Rail typically results in an extra 2.8% annual growth - and with just 2.8% attributed to community input in our case, considering the low base, it means that there's a staring point at the top thay says we managed to generate just over 500 journeys (2.8% of 18,000) of 183,400 last year and leads to the the question "is CPR support worth it in this case?" - that's very much the battle we had to join ACoRP in the first place.

Anyway - carrying on ahead, you'll find my afternoon presentation here and that goes through all the various issues and looks as to where we're headed over the next 12 months, and indeed the period up to December 2016. It IS subject to amendment as we learn what's in the next franchise (announceent within days, though how many of the specific that will tell us and how much will remain commercial in confidence is an interesting question), and see the flavour and the direction of the next government. At the Association of Community Rail Partnerships meeting on Monday and Tuesday, it was suggested that groups should arrange to meet their new MPs and brief them as soon after the election as possible. I think we've stolen a march on that - unless a 100 to 1 outsider gets in locally, we already know and have the support of our future MP. And TransWilts can progress onwards through coming years - the target was to regain and retain an appropriate train service; it remains the target, even though some of us didn't realise what a big job that would be, nor just what travel demand there is, what local developemnt, and so just what a high level and connected service is required for it to be considered "appropriate".

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March 16, 2015

Rail Conference, Nottingham

I think this is the first week that I'm NOT training this year (!) ... so I'm at a rail conference organised by the Association of Community Rail Partnerships today and tomorrow, in Nottingham. A wonderful opportunity to network, to meet and talk with a wide range of our rail partners and also (during this afternoon) to hear from four groups taking "the Abellio" challenge all ofwhich makes me realise just how different our line / setup is - and indeed ho wall rail lines vary in their local metrics. Starting with "we live on passenger numbers" where others don't worry about that even to the extend of not knowing, though supporting stations which have fewer passengers per day than our smallest station has leaving / joining our single busiest train.

* How to make stations attractive through art
* How to make rail stations and travel feel safe
* How to encourage more young ladies into the rail industry
* How to involve difficult to reach groups such as mental health folks and benefit for all

I had serious questions on all of them ... but yet, not my issues to be actively concerned and it's good to be informed.

Another busy day tomorrow.

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