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Talk on TransWilts train service to Green Party

This morning, I gave a talk on the "TransWilts" train service - the loss of most trains in 2006 and the campaign for the return of something more appropriate - to the Green Party's Regional meeting in Trowbridge. Here's my presentation, which I'll admit to writing in the few hours ahead of the talk!


This morning I was watching the BBC news channel.

India. 60% still rely on bus, but cars growing, And gas guzzlers too. "Everyone has the right to travel" becomes "everyone has the right to a car" in the eyes of the motor manufacturers. Result ... traffic chaos, CO2 and other gases and fumes, bus lanes causing road rage, depletion of resources, and a major problem with accidents and injuries on a poorly regulated network.

Yes - people should be able to travel - and the private car has its place - but there are other options too. For the past three years, I have been particularly concerned with travel along what has become known as the A350 corridor - itself a dreadfully biased name based on a road designation.


The TransWilts Route .... five largest towns ... not only size but requirement to travel.
At Melksham Station
At the turn of the millennium, a single morning and evening train provided a peak commuter flow from Frome, Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham to Chippenham and Swindon. And then in May 2001, the service was increased to 5 trains each way daily.

Very much a minimum cost operation by Wesssex Trains (and actually done, I believe, to earn them pots of extra money under ORCATS which distributes farebox revenue between multiple operators on a line in proportion to the number of trains they run rather than passenger counts on their trains), poorly publicised, old trains, frequently cancelled, a lack of facilities at Melksham in particular - never the less, traffic grew compound at 35% per annum according to the office of the rail Regulator.

BUT that was from a very low base - you up the number of trains from one to five per day, add 35% passengers each year. After one year, the average train is actually carrying less than 50% of the load of the one train a year before, although by the time five years have elapsed all the trains are much busier than the one that you had in 2000 and you have a SUCCESS STORY.

Problem was ... the Strategic Rail Authority surveyed all the trains over a few days in 2002, and used those figures as the basis on which to specify the service to be run under the next Franchise, with a major new timetable from December 2006 for 10 years. Growth rates of around 0.8% to 1.5% were assumed around the region - but then they applied a travel growth figure to train growth which is not at all the same thing. That's why you may have heard of severe overcrowding all over the place - from Severn Tunnel Junction to Trowbridge, and from Oxford to Exeter. The First group, who won the franchise, knew no better than to take the DfT's figures for the more local Wessex Trains area - after all, they were just the InterCity expres train provider and the trusted the DfT where, after all, the guy in charge at the Rail section that had taken over from the SRA by the time tha franchise was let was "one of their own".

A double-whamee on the "TransWilts" though - Low growth forecast from an uncharacteristically low data set while the new service settled in resulted in the complete withdrawal of the new Swindon - Southampton service, and a specification that called for just two round trips a day. Although the spec (SLC2) called for morning and evening peak services in to and out of Swindon, some clever clogs noticed that if you ran the train in to Swindon as early as possibly allowed in the morning, and returned it as late as allowed in the evening, you could run the line without hiring a train to run on it at all - just by using "marginal time" off another line. And those nice people at the DfT even allowed the specification to be changed tp make this cunning plan work.

So, in December 2006 a service that had become popular - a busy 08:18 from Melksham to Swindon, people arriving in the town by rail at 09:00. Leaving Melksham in the middle of the day, or at 17:11, arriving back from Swindon at 18:09. And three other services too. Typical loadings - around 50% of seats taken, 120000 journeys per annum and with capacity to grow.
Crowds at Melksham Station

Replace by a round trip from Swindon at 06:15 in the morning to Westbury, which gets back at a quarter to eight, and another round trip at 18:45, getting back at 20:20. It's far too long a day to be of practical use to most people, and so each of the supposedly peak trains that was retained is now a shadow of its former self and the other two trains are, frankly, virtually empty stock workings.
Graph of commuter starting times


The "Save the Train" Campaign, based in Melksham, was set up after the poorly advertised consultation about the new service had been completed in Summer 2005. Working with all the major players, it is our intent to regain and retain an appropriate service.

We have had some success - indeed I have a validated draft timetable for next December which, however, I see see slipping away from us at the moment.

In February, First stated that they would require an annual subsidy of 110k to run the service; peanuts really, if you think of it - it's a pound for each journey at 2006 levels, or 50p per journey in 3 years time if the same growth rate can be resumed and there's no reason why not.

At a meeting with the same grouping in May, it was stated that 330k per annum is now required ... the whole thing is like a game of dare and who can make the most out of whom, with brinkmanship and politics and shareholders playing a major role, and with the passengers being the pawns in the game.

Railway Economics

Who runs the railways?

Network Rail
Train Operating Company
Rolling Stock Providers
And they all point at each other if you ask them a question!

Who controls/finances the railways and makes major decisions?

The Department for Transport
Train Operating Company
Local Transport Authority or PTE
And they all point at each other if you ask them a question!

An example

Look at the "TransWilts", with a service running every 3 hours from Swindon
to Salisbury or Frome, and including a proper peak hour provision.

Rolling Stock Hire - one train - 250,000
Four complete crews - 50k (driver) 30k (conductor) - 330,000
Network Rail Access charges - 250,000
Ancillary (servicing, fuel, etc) 100,000
Total cost - just under 1 million pounds.

Farebox income:
120000 journeys at 5 pounds each - 600,000

Unfortunately, it's not that straightforward though ... if First doesn't run the train, then it has learned (since December 2006) that passengers from all stations except Melksham will divert via Bath, cram onto overcrowded trains it's running up there anyway. First still get the money - but Trowbridge to Swindon commuters take 60 minutes rather that 35 each way. FOR ROAD SCHEMES SUCH AS THE PROPOSED WESTBURY BYPASS, 44p per minute wasted is allowed in the justification case, but in the case of rail it's "Screw the passenger!".

And don't forget that First also runs the Chippenham - Melksham - Trowbridge bus including, it is noted, a service at almost exactly the same time as the one train that does generate traffic. When I last took a look ... there were 3 on the bus and 20 on the train from Chippenham at around 7 p.m.

Cutting Travel

And here's another thought. Do people need to travel so much?
- Moving nearer to work
- More provision of local services
- Working from Home
- Staying away rather than long distance commuting

Looking forward

The roads are clogged ...
Road Congestion and Transwilts Rail
And there is and will remain a travel need

There IS a strong case for a service - up to hourly in frequency (according to the County Council, who are one of the least rail friendly in the country). Major traffic flows have been identified and at present their is capacity although that could change if we become a major freight route from Southampton to the Midlands and North.

There are six SSTC (Strategically Significant Towns and Cities) along the TransWilts Route - with 5000 new homes in Trowbridge in the next 20 years, 50% growth in Melksham, and so on all along the route. And the roads are already over congested!

Passengers WILL use the train, but will NOT use the bus. And the bus will get clogged up on the roads anyway. There is a strong case for local bus feeders, for good road / rail interchange - bus, cycle, private car, taxi, and for buses to connect and provide services on lower level routes.

Where the future?

Rail - Melksgam to Swindon or Road - Melksham to Swindon

Recent Rail Images 1 and 2.
(written 2008-06-07, updated 2008-06-10)

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