It's two years ago this month that I saw a letter in the local paper suggesting that the train service across Wiltshire was to be withdrawn at the end of December 2006 ... and felt (as a user of the service, and someone who's job heavily depended on other people arriving on it) that I should take a further look at the situation. At that stage, the jury was out as far as I was concerned as to whether or not the service justified being retained or enhanced, or whether the decision taken by whatever authority was the right one in the broad picture of things, in spite of the personal effect it would have on me.
What did I learn? Early on, I learned that the current service had been growing dramatically (I could have suggested that, based on what I had seen, but I was given figures by the Rail Regulator to back it up). I learned that the current service had been an unwelcome guest at its northern terminus at Swindon, with the operator of that station - the First group - doing little to help traffic on the line to salisbury and Southampton. And I learned that the operating company - Wessex Trains - had been so cash starved that publicity was sporadic. In fact I learned that it was something of a miracle, brought about by the necessity to travel the route and the abject unsuitability of other public transport alternatives, that it was growing as it was. That the growth was only a tiny, tiny proportion of what could have been achieved.
Was it worth an effort to have the case seriously looked at? Well - I personally came to the case after the Strategic rail authority's consultation (which few people in these parts were aware of at the time) had closed. And I was told that the case had been looked at, that it could not be re-opened, and that it was my fault that my inputs wouldn't be listened to because I had missed the deadline. Fair enough? No - not really. I spoke with others who HAD objected in time and had receive brush-offs too. I spoke with train users - regulars who were going to have their service cur from under their feet who hadn't been aware of the possibility. And I learned for the first time about many consultations - about how the end goal of the process was to gather views, and not to act in the light of those view. "Give 'em a chance to blow off steam then we'll go ahead with what was proposed in the first place". We even brought a smoking gun to light - thanks to Freedom of information, we learn how discussions had taken place in order to restrict customer's inputs to the minimum required, and how those inputs had been solicited in parallel with decisions that were being made, rather than before any decisions. Basically, the process stank so much that it convinced me that the case had not been seriously looked at, and that it deserved said consideration.
You'll notice that - at this point - I had still not concluded what an appropriate service would be. Just that a PROPER look was appropriate.
Flawed process can, sometimes, lead to a good decision. And there seemed little practical point in finding that a process was flawed, turning all the wheels to reveal that fact, only to have the wheel go full circle and come to the same findings based on a fine and upstanding re-worked process. So I found myself learning, and learning fast, all about trains - train services, train finances, train politics, train marketing, and train enthusiast and pressure groups. And in parallel learning about our home county of Wiltshire - the towns, the people, where they live, play and work and how they get between those venues. And there's a third strand too - looking forward to the future and seeing how populations, travel requirements, and facilities available would shrink and grow 1, 5, 10 and 20 years hence.
Where did this lead me?
It lead me to conclude that the 35% figure for growth supplied by the Rail regulator was unduly high - a fluke. But that the 0.8% figure used as the basis of the new service specification was unduly low - a distorted figure that forecast something different to rail growth. The growth figure that should best have been use was around 9% to 12%.
With an ongoing service at around the current level, would the growth also carry on at about 10%? Yes - it would. Based on journeys per head of population, based on surveys of potential passengers, we learned of a service that wouldn't "peak out" until it was carrying some 5 to 10 times the current passenger levels - a strong growth curve to continue. And a growth that would be accelerated with better station facilities, more reliable trains, better marketing all of which were relatively cheap options.
And so - the goals were set. (1) To get the TransWilts train service to a point where it was known about - no longer a footnote on a re-franchise of a great swathe of train services. (2) To get the future of the service seriously reviewed, with an objective of establishing what an appropriate service would be. (3) To achieve / regain, and retain, a service at that appropriate level.
Was I alone?
No. Absolutely NOT. Had I been alone in my quest, it would have fizzled out in the first few weeks. "It'll be a miracle if you can raise a meeting with 20 people" said the doubters. We raised 20. We raised 50. We packed out a 2 coach train with a three figure number last Christmas. And we raised 1700 signatures on a petition on the PM's web site - the biggest domestic public transport issue there at the time.
How was the new kid on the block received? Gosh - I was fearful of this one! I expected - and could have totally understood - a cool reception from folks who had been strong in there support for the service for many years. Yes, there were pockets of doubt and I can recall three specific cases locally; one telling me that I didn't know what I was about (true at first!!), one warning me that I didn't know what I was up against and that I would get burnt out getting nowhere, and a third intent on defending his own seat. Which I did not want anyway! That wasn't what it was about.
But in amongst those few doubters, there was the vast majority who were supporters. I dressed up in a mask and walked around the town. Advertising a Ball to raise funds in support of Cancer research - and with my train "stuff" as a sideline. No-one was very interested in the ball even though nearly every family has been touched. But everyone wanted to talk train.
I'm a bit of a WWW / Internet publicist, so I started off by registering a domain - I was surprised to get it - www.savethetrain.org.uk
- putting up a site desribing the situation (and taking care not to over-sell) - and seeing what would happen. Well - today, over 37,500 different host computers have visited the site. That's over 1500 different NEW visitors every day.
I haven't - I couldn't possibly - have got to this stage on my own. There are many who have been supporting, and many who have been actively supporting. Including people who are greatly respected and in high places. And there are those who have been much more that just actively supportive too; there's such a great temptation to name names, but look around on our forums and you'll get a flavour and have a pretty good idea who some of them are. Others - "you know who you are" have also offered quite exceptional help without which the campaign wouldn't have progressed as it has done, but are readers and commenters in the background rather than direct contributors in the public space. And I'm delighted to see the team remain - with one sad exception; Gordon Dodge passed away a few months ago and is deeply missed.
Where are we now?
1. We HAVE got the service known about somewhat better. Locally with newspaper and local TV and radio exposure, local councillors and MPs and prospective MPs right along the line through Wiltshire have given (and continue to give) active support. Looking wider, the First Great Western and First Group directors, and civil servants at the Department for Transport are very much more aware of the service, the area, and its needs than they were 2 years ago when its proposed demise was a two line paragraph in a 100 page report.
2. The service HAS been looked at further. On one hand, I'm greatly impressed by some of the committment and effort that I'm told had been put in by various paties, and I'm certainly impressed by a number of individuals in important positions with the three key player organisations - First, the DfT and Wiltshire County Council. On the other hand, I'm depressed by the lack of any decent practical steps forward, and the provision of an even less appropriate service than that which was threatened upon us two years ago. It could be argued that the purpose of looking further at the service has been to "Manage our expectations" (a term used by one of the civil servants) in a downwards direction.
3. The service WAS slashed back in December 2006. Requests to run the remaining 2 trains at the most useful time of day came to nowt - with trains from Swindon at 06:19 and 18:42. 60% of trains removed. 95% of traffic lost. An act of gross vandalism. With - as you would expect from vandals - nothing done on the ground to put the wrongs right.
Strangely, there is some suggestion that even amongst the apparent lack of success quoted we have achieved something. I have heard it said that when the service was closed down for over a week last August, it might have returned in the form of a shuttle bus service between Trowbridge and Chippenham, to be integrated into First's 234 route in due course - the way certain services have been withdrawn in Staffordshire. And we are talking ...
Where do we go now?
What is an appropriate service? The case has been made - as the barest minimum - for a decent train to allow commuters from the rapidly expanding West Wiltshire area to reach Swindon for an 08:45 to 09:00 start to their day, and return after a finish at 17:00 to 17:15. That's NOT an "appropriate" service - but this additional train would be a first vital step in that direction.
An appropriate service would offer a minimum of a train every 2 hours throughought most of the day (3 hour gap at lunchtime OK) from Swindon to Westbury, either continuing on or with excellent and reliable connections to Frome, Warminster and Salisbury. And with this service increased to hourly, traffic would offer / grow such that each individual train would be busier than the individual trains on a 2-hourly service.
There are also two great myths that have been dispelled. The time the service takes is not critical to a few minutes - on this line, it really doesn't matter if it's 25 minutes or 30 minutes from Melksham to Swindon (heck - it's well over an hour by other public transport!). And the LOCAL fares, at a far lower "per mile" rate than peak main line ones, could stand an extra 2 pounds per journey on top of inflation rises ... on 120k journeys per year, that would being in an extra quarter of a million pounds - remarkably close to the extra income that the First group say they would need to make the service viable.
We have moved on in two years. It's no longer "the provision of such a service is not justified". It's now "It's not my responsibility, Guv - I support you but ask THEM". And that statement is made by Wiltshire County Council pointing at the First Group and at the Department for Transport. It is made by the First Group pointing at the Department for Transport and Wiltshire County Council. And it's made by the Department for Transport pointing at Wiltshire County Council and the First Group. So the case IS made - and admitted to be made.
While I have been seated here, writing this update in the public area of the hotel in Melksham where I work when I'm in town, a retired gentleman popped in to return a computer book he had borrowed from me overnight. "Aren't you one of the chap's who's been involved in campaigning for a better train service for Melksham?" he asked me, and we got chatting.
Anthony used to use the train, but "it's only one a day now, and the timings don't suit me. I really need a train at around 10 O'Clock in the morning .... and to be able to get back late in the evening" he told me. He now uses the car. And what are Anthony's journeys? Melksham to London. He only goes a few times a year, but each trip in his "gas-guzzler" - his words - are a loss of not only a local but also a long distance fare to First Great Western.
Come on, everyone. Let's get our fingers out and let's get an appropriate service running, as soon as practical, for the thousands of Anthonys of this world who live in Wiltshire and the thousands who want to visit us. And ... that appropriate service would also be to the mutual benefit of the Dft, and First, and Wiltshire County Council too. I do love the opportunity to put a "win, win, win, win" case.
(written 2007-08-22, updated 2008-10-11)
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