A personal post from Graham Ellis
Lisa and Graham live in Melksham, Wiltshire, England

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Initial thoughts - response to GW Rail Franchise Consultation for Wiltshire

These are my own thoughts on an appropriate response to the Greater Western Franchise Consultation from the Department for Transport, as it should relate to services running across Wiltshire on the TransWilts line, and the consequences thereof.

I have already posted a short analysis of what the proposals could actually mean in terms of timetables - see [here]

The consultation is open until 31st March, but the Department for Transport encourages early responses. The consultation document is at [here], and responses should be sent to:
Consultation Co-ordinator, Department for Transport, Zone 2/25, Great Minster House, London SW1P 4DR
or emailed to consultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

I'm also going to encourage respondents to consider sending a copy to their MP, Passenger Focus, and their local authority.

The questions which I am particularly addressing are:

21. Taking in to account the current service pattern and the future changes, respondents are encouraged to suggest train service changes that they believe will be affordable, deliver value for money and provide a strong commercial, social or economic case.
22. Respondents are encouraged to consider appropriate train times and service frequencies during planned disruption for the life of the new franchise. Respondents are also encouraged to consider alternative service propositions.
and also touching on
6. Respondents are encouraged to consider any changes to the services included in the Great Western franchise that they would like to propose as part of a remapping exercise.
9. Respondents are encouraged to bring to our attention research, evidence or publications which the Department should consider as part of this re franchising process.



Management Overview



Joining the Transwilts train at Westbury Station* Services from Swindon to Westbury should run at least TEN times per day (Monday to Friday), EIGHT times per day (Saturday) and SIX times per day (Sunday) from the first timetable change of the new franchise under the forthcoming Great Western Franchise. ((That's compared to two trains a day under the current franchise))
* Most of these trains should continue to Salisbury
* A similar service should be provided from Salisbury and Westbury to Swindon
* All trains in both directions should call at all stations

Picture - Joining the 19:35 train from Westbury to Swindon (TransWilts) train on a Sunday in August 2011. An extra trial morning service gave a practical day out opportunity to Weymouth, and was very well used (loading to up to 400 passengers on the TransWilts). Returning passengers in the evening used existing services, such as the 19:35 from Westbury to Swindon, pictured here. This train usually carries 20 - 30 passengers, but while the trial service was running in the morning it averaged around 240 people. It's a good example of how an appropriate service for a flow can lead to additional traffic on existing services too.

The case for the level of service requested (10, 8, 6 round trips per day, M-F, Sat, Sun) has been well researched (see below) with a benefit to cost ratio for the improvements conservatively calculated at 2.74 to 1. No capital infrastructure investment is required in order for the trains to operate - they are within the capacity of existing facilities both before and after electrification / train replacements. Wessex Chamber of Commerce surveys representation businesses employing 11,000, and of 1,600 individual, confirm the theoretic case that the service is required, and a trial service operated on Sundays in the summer of 2011 consistently loaded very heavily indeed.

This request for a higher level of service on the Swindon to Salisbury (TransWilts) line is supported by Wiltshire Council's Local Transport Plan 2011 to 2026, and by the current Wiltshire Council bit under LSTF (Local sustainable Transport Fund). It is also widely supported by rail user groups, special interest groups, local councils, MPs, businesses and the public (see Chamber of Commerce survey and trial service results)

The LSTF bid if successful will provide funding for the initial ramp-up costs of the service, which should be broadly self supporting within 3 years. Peak traffic both ways, very little seasonal change, serves many intermediate large towns, plenty of onward connections at both ends mean it is a regional link rather than a branch line. The LSTF bid will also providing funding for station improvements at some locations to handle dramatically increased traffic, including bus / car / cycle interchange.

South of Westbury, there are currently a number of occasional services running under the FGW franchise which were specified prior to additional trains being provided by South West Trains and Southern on the same routes, and often just a few minutes apart. It would be logical to review these, with services south of Salisbury being transferred to an operator with a depot in the area, rather than being operated from Bristol. The effect of these changes would be to make rolling stock available within the Great Western franchise to provide the improved TransWilts service. This proposal does NOT suggest service withdrawal, except where another service is available with 15 minutes either way and journey times are not extended by more that 15 minutes.

In detail



Background



The current franchise to operate trains on most lines in the South West of England, including on the TransWilts line from Swindon to Salisbury via Chippenham, Melksham, Trowbridge, Westbury, Dilton Marsh and Warminster runs out on 31st March 2013. The Department for Transport is soliciting consultation inputs as to what should run during the next franchise period - which it's proposing should be for 15 years from 1st April 2013 - i.e. until 2028.

The current specification requires 2 trains to run each way, each day (Monday to Saturday) on the northern section of the line between Swindon and Westbury, with two services northbound on Sunday. An extra service, over and above the specification, runs southbound on Sunday. This current service, including the extra train, is the stated starting discussion point for the service under the new franchise.

Analysis of current service



The current service, with trains from Swindon to Salisbury (and Southampton) at 06:15 and 18:45, and trains from Westbury at 07:05 and 19:35 on Mondays to Fridays, is lightly loaded. It was intended to provide a commuter service between West Wiltshire and Swindon, but the 11 hours between arrival in Swindon at 07:45 and return at 18:45 discourages use as such. The very early morning departure southbound from Swindon, before the arrival of the first connecting train from London, makes the TransWilts line an impractical way for visitors from London to reach West Wiltshire to visit businesses there, and the timing of the evening train back into Swindon at 20:20 is some 3 hours after most business visitors will want to have left the area.


Passengers from Swindon and Chippenham to Trowbridge, Westbury, Warminster and Salisbury and beyond can take an alternative route, changing at Bath. However, this is slower - sometimes much slower. For example, it takes 34 minutes on the 06:15 from Swindon to Salisbury, but 63 minutes if you miss the 06:15 and catch the 06:25, changing at Bath Spa.

Passengers traveling to and from Melksham (population around 22,000) have no alternative rail option, as the only trains serving the station there are the TransWilts ones. Bus services exist from Melksham to Trowbridge and Chippenham, but are significantly slower than trains. If you use the Traveline.info web site to provide details of Melksham to London services, you are typically offered options that take an hour from leaving your starting point in Melksham to leaving Chippenham on the train - that's for a journey of just 6 miles. So a journey from Melksham to Swindon by bus / rail takes 75 minutes, versus 25 minutes by train. Visitors to Melksham prefer to use the train too - not only for the significant time saving, but also because the buses from Chippenham don't serve the station there until mid-afternoon, so the transfer includes a significant walk (or connecting bus) around a town the visitor may not know, often with heavy luggage. The alternative taxi fare from Chippenham to Melksham is 20 pounds. Many visitors who need to reach Melksham and who have cars drive the whole way due to the lack of public transport that meets their needs for the last 6 miles.

Readers may wonder at the extraordinary timings, and wonder why they are so inappropriate. It is our understanding that the train runs in what is known as "marginal time" - i.e. when it's spare from service on another line, and that the timings selected allow the Train Operating Company to make a significant saving by hiring one less train, and by sharing a crew with the other line at each end of the day rather than having a dedicated crew. Local fares are very low, and under "Cap and Collar" arrangements in the current franchise, some 80% of the risk (i.e. profit / loss) has been taken by the Government - effectively meaning that cutting expenditure on running services has been five times as important as increasing revenue. As a service of two trains each way per day has no change of generating five times its running costs from passenger fares, it follows that it has been commercially logical for the Train Operating Company to run the service at the cheapest time of day that's allowed, even if that means it doesn't really provide any level of service.

Looking Forward



Around 1000 new homes are under construction / authorised / planned in Melksham in the next few years, but no new land is allocated there to business use. But businesses in Melksham are plentiful, and will no doubt continue to thrive at current employment levels. Many more new homes are planned in Chippenham, Trowbridge, Salisbury, Royal Wootton Bassett, Westbury, and Warminster, and with significant industrial development in some cases. So we're looking at increased urbanisation / population around the towns and stations, and an increased level of daily commuting to and from work. This is graphically illustrated at Melksham, where old pictures taken around the time that the last franchise was let show derelict factories beside the station, whereas current pictures show 3 floor, closely packed residences at the same location, with only limited parking there.

In 2009 Wiltshire went Unitary - the intermediate tear of government was removed, and now the county is administered as a whole, with Trowbridge as its County town, and Chippenham and Salisbury as its other major towns planned for growth. The fourth town, population wise, is Melksham; Swindon is a separate entity. With the coming of the Unitary council, there are now much closer commercial and operational links between the towns. Some services are being rationalised too - multiple facilities combined into one, branches and smaller offices closed (Melksham, which I know best, has lost most facilities at the hospital, and the branch of Wiltshire College formerly housed in the town, for example) and with that comes the desire and need for commuting along the TransWilts corridor. Note, especially, the requirements of the sick (minor injuries units now in Chippenham and Trowbridge), and the young who do not yet have driving licenses or who cannot afford a car or the insurance on it - and who are learning at Wiltshire College, right beside the station in Chippenham.

Rail passengers have grown, compound, 10% per annum since the analysis was done by Jacobs for the previous franchise, 7 years ago. But those analysis worked on the basis of a growth of just 1%. All evidence points to continued demand for more rail travel. Petrol prices have risen from 77.9p / litre in 2004 - the year of the Jacobs report - to 129.9p / litre in 2011. Taking inflation out, that's still a rise of 31% in 7 years, and it has resulted in a sea change of attitude in that it's "cool" to use the train again, and to be concerned about sustainability. Other costs of private car ownership have risen too - from parking to road tax to insurance, and in the current climate of economic restraint, it makes sense for some families to become more reliant on public transport.

However, in spite of the economic downturn, the roads are significantly busier that they were in 2004, leading to more stressful driving conditions, and time queuing. For business drivers, driving time is wasted time and now that almost everyone is equipped with a mobile computing device, the train can become an office - thanks partly to the smooth ride offered compared to a bus. There's a double gain here - not only does driving waste time, but it also leaves the driver in need of a rest.

These trends are likely continue at least through the first half of the franchise, giving rise in each case to a demand for public rail transport on the TransWilts corridor that's very much higher that was the case in 2004, and from a much higher base point too ... and even in 2004, the decision between 2 trains per day and a train every 2 hours balanced on a knife edge.

Requested level of future service



The Franchise Consultation has asked us to take the current service level as a starting point for these discussions. Fair enough - we have to start somewhere, and better the current level including the extra train than the level specified at the start of the last franchise.

However, for the reasons listed above, I and many others believe that the train service level on the TransWilts line needs to be dramatically increased. With access to many and varied experts, we hypothesized that an "appropriate" service would be one that runs at least hourly in the peak (in both directions, as this is not a single-ended commute; there is considerable intermediate traffic both ways), and at least once every 2 hours offpeak.

THIS IS THE LEVEL OF SERVICE THAT WE'RE REQUESTING IN THE NEW FRANCHISE - but based on real evidence, as follows:

a) First Great Western produced a draft timetable to meet our hypothesis
b) The MVA Consultancy looked at the Economic and Business case for the proposed service
c) The Wessex Association of Chambers of Commerce sponsored and ran a business survey (160 businesses, 11,000 staff effected)
d) Network Rail undertook an operational study of the proposed timetable
e) The Chambers of Commerce also sponsored and ran a public survey, which drew some 1,600 respondents
f) TransWilts Rail, Wiltshire Council, the Chambers of Commerce and others sponsored extra Summer Sunday trains to test public demand

In all six cases, outcomes were very strongly positive.

a) Not only did the draft FGW timetable produce excellent schedules for the known flows, but it also reduced the short workings in the Westbury / Warminster area and gave a far more useful service to Dilton Marsh (another station hamstrung by lack of trains when people want them, going where they want to go) and produced a significantly improved Trowbridge - Westbury - Warminster - Salisbury service.

b) The MVA consultancy report shows a benefit to cost ratio of 2.74 : 1 - considerably above the 1.5 : 1 threshold required for service enhancements. It also shows the service breaking even in 2 - 3 years (an astonishing result for what's been characterised at times as a "branch line", largely due to (i) the double ended nature of the line, (ii) excellent onward connections at both ends - not just serving a single town, (iii) a lack of seasonality )

c) 94% of businesses said that a TransWilts service as proposed would have a noticable positive effect on their business. Many specific examples were quoted - ranging from employee recruitment to staff moving between offices to customers visiting.

d) The Network Rail operations study confirmed that the proposed service level was practical without capital expenditure, with just a couple of minor adjustments to the planned timetable. In particular, the extra trains are able to run even with an increase in express services from 4 to 6 from Swindon to Royal Wootton Bassett - and that calculation is based the acceleration of the current HST units and class 153 units on the TransWilts - very much a worst case that will never happen with upcoming electrification.

e) The public survey brought 600 responses from people to say they would use the service to commute. Even taking a 60% optimism factor here, that's still 360 round trips (720 single journeys) per day - purely from our sample. It also resulted in identification of high leisure traffic - days out, shopping, going on holiday, etc - around 180 round trips (360 journeys) per weekend day. And we note that commuters usually travel alone, but leisure traffic tens to be in groups, so that the 360, with 60% optimism again, gives around 430 journeys (215 round trips) per weekend day

f) On 8 summer Sundays, an extra train was run at 07:30 from Westbury to Swindon, and at 08:20 from Swindon to Westbury, where it arrived at 09:06. The TransWilts Rail group undertook advertising of the 08:20 from Swindon (which continued from Westbury in its normal first duty as the 09:12 to Weymouth), and it ran with 3 - latterly 4 - carriages. Loading upon arrival in Westbury was up to 400 passengers, most of whom carried on to Weymouth. The return 17:56 from Weymouth was strengthened (rather more than initially planned due to the success of the service) and dropped a 3 or 2 car portion at Westbury to form the regular 19:37 to Swindon. This latter train usually carries between 20 and 30 passengers, but it was regularly running with well over 200 every time - to the extent that passengers were left behind on 2 occasions. We had in any case reduced our advertising to prevent excessive overcrowding (we reached 160% at one point), and we undertook control measures on the return trip, when the TransWilts section was shorter, by providing information to Chippenham and Swindon travelers that they could travel back via Bath, and that would give them more space and a choice of return journey times.

A further positive aspect - which again took us by surprise at its popularity - was the loading of the 07:30 Westbury to Swindon - an "unlikely" time for a service on a Sunday morning. Passenger count was as high as 68 on arrival in Swindon (on a day that there were engineering works that meant it also provided a useful connection from Chippenham to the first London train), and up to 36 on other days. We spoke to many of the customers and established:
i) A significant number of very long distance passengers - Scotland and the North of England - some in preference to flying
ii) Significant day-out traffic to London and to sporting events, very little of it seasonal
iii) Even some local commuter traffic
Many people had simply found the service because it was included in the National Rail timetable, and all were disappointed that it was running for a few weeks only.

The only level of service on the TransWilts line that would make logical sense under the new franchise is a service close to that which has been drawn up and proven through the tests above.

Extra service and passengers to this level will stretch off-station facilities at several stations along the line, and bus and cycle access and parking will need to be provided. This is currently subject to a LSTF bid by Wiltshire Council for funding, which will also fund the three year "ramp up" cost of the service - something that the DfT is asking for to support any increased services requested in the upcoming franchise.

It should be noted that the operational case studied allowed for two additional stops by all TransWilts trains - one at Royal Wootton Bassett (suggested to the west of the junction, in the cutting by the A3012 bridge which already has a footpath to it from the town) and one on the single track section between Chippenham and Trowbridge at Staverton and Holt. The business case does NOT require these stations to make the case, but they do enhance that case if built.

So - please, Mr DfT, include the following in your specification for the new Great Western Franchise

a) A service of 10 or more trains each way between Swindon and Westbury on Monday to Friday
- at least seven carrying on to / starting from Salisbury, or connecting at Westbury
- Serving ALL stations (and that includes on any connecting services at Dilton Marsh)
- Service to run at a least once every 2 hours (Some gaps a little longer allowed offpeak)
- A peak hour services to arrive in Swindon at or about 07:45, and another at about 08:20
- Peak services to leave Swindon at about 17:45 and 18:45
- Later train requirement from Swindon
- Maximum journey time from Swindon to Westbury - 52 minutes, and to Salisbury (inc any change time) 90 minutes

b) A service of 8 or more trains each way between Swindon and Westbury on Saturdays
- at least five carrying on to / starting from Salisbury, or connecting at Westbury
- Serving ALL stations (and that includes on any connecting services at Dilton Marsh)
- Service to run at a least once every 2 hours (Some gaps a little longer allowed offpeak)
- A peak hour services to arrive in Swindon at or about 08:20
- Peak services to leave Swindon at about 17:45
- Later train requirement from Swindon
- Maximum journey time from Swindon to Westbury - 52 minutes, and to Salisbury (inc any change time) 90 minutes

c) A service of 6 or more trains each way between Swindon and Westbury on Sundays
- at least four carrying on to / starting from Salisbury, or connecting at Westbury
- Service to run at a least once every 3 hours
- A service to arrive in Swindon at or about 08:20
- A service from Swindon at or about 08:30 to convey through carriages to Weymouth
- A late afternoon service from Weymouth to convey through carriages to Swindon
- Later train requirement from Swindon
- Maximum journey time from Swindon to Westbury - 52 minutes, and to Salisbury (inc any change time) 90 minutes

How to specify the service level?



The above description is very prescriptive, and also fits in with the work done so far on the case. We are concerned, however, that a prescriptive approach may lead to loopholes which have allowed a service which fails to meet the spirit of the specification, but meets the letter of it, to be run. We would encourage the Department for Transport, therefore, to frame the franchise as a whole in such a way that the commercial interests of the train operating company and the interests of traveling customers of the train service are aligned as far as possible.

Some extra inputs



a) The South West Trains franchise also has services running on the line between Salisbury and Trowbridge (part of their London to Bristol service). These services dwell for between 8 and 22 minutes at Salisbury and Westbury - that's a sum of the two dwells - and we wonder if it would be possible to adjust the SLC covering those trains to insert an extra stop at Dilton Marsh. The area around Dilton Marsh has changed in recent years from farmland to residential, with many of the residents working in Bath, Bristol, Swindon and Salisbury and these trains, in addition to the ones specified above and other existing Bristol / Bath services, would ensure that Dilton Marsh had sufficient service to ensure it strong growth.

b) Since the previous franchise was let, South West Trains have provided extra trains from Salisbury to Southampton. There is a case for reviewing the pattern (and perhaps level) of services additional to Cardiff / Portsmouth run by Great Western trains south of Salisbury. This is referred to in the consultation request in relation to the Brighton services, but there are others too for which the trains may be better deployed providing services in the core area rather than occasional extras in an otherwise regular (clockface) timetable.

c) Schedules should allow for an extra stop in each service to be made at Royal Wootton Bassett on each service, and for an extra stop to be made between Chippenham and Trowbridge on each service, at some future data. The suggested maximum journey times are generous to allow for this, and also to allow for trains to have a few minutes added to their timing between Thingley Junction and Bradford Junction. This will help ensure the Secretary of State's objective "[to] ensure that train services perform to the highest practical reliability and punctuality standards" on a service that uses a single line stretch between two other lines each carrying 2 trains an hour each way.

d) Consideration should be given in the resignalling that accompanies electrification of the line between Swindon and Thingley Junction to adding an intermediate signal or equivalent if no fixed signals are used in each direction between Thingley Junction and Bradford Junction to allow for two trains to follow each other at reduced headway.

This is a draft response to the Department for Transport consultation, prepared by Graham Ellis. I am Vice Chairman Melksham Railway Development Group, member of the TransWilts Community Rail Partnership, member of the West Wilts Rail User Group, an administrator of the "Coffee Shop" forum for Great Western passengers and Wannabe passengers, and president of the Melksham Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I also run a business in Melksham which since 2000 has brought many visitors to the town, many from long distances, and they travel by rail, coach, private car and air. On a fairly regular basis, business commitments take me away from Melksham to many different places in the UK and beyond, and for those journeys I use both rail and private car, sometimes flying overseas. I may be contacted by email (graham@wellho.net), or messages may be left on 01225 708225 and I can return calls where appropriate. I would be happy to discuss the detail and logic of aspects of this response in helping others formulate responses which make deliverable suggestions.

References



http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/ltp3-public-transport-strategy.pdf - Wiltshire Council LTP3, public transport section
http://www.twcrp.org.uk/report.html - Chambers of commerce surveys report
http://www.twcrp.org.uk/update.html - an overview of the case
MVA report [Copyright document. Please ask me for copy / details. ]
Network Rail report [Copyright document, Please ask me for copy / details]
http://www.twcrp.org.uk/mab.pdf - Autumn 2011 update including some statistics from trial service
http://www.wellho.net/mouth/3410_.html - Report on trial extra services, Summer 2011
http://www.wellho.net/mouth/3565_.html - A sample of what the service to the requested specification could look like
http://www.speedlimit.org.uk/petrolprices.html - Petrol price inflation
http://www.wiltshiretimes.co.uk/news/9440791.Wiltshire_workers_suffer_most_as_living_standards_fall/ - Wiltshire standard of living
http://www.firstgreatwestern.info/coffeeshop/index.php?topic=10024.msg104559#msg104559 - support from Member of Parliament for Chippenham

http://assets.dft.gov.uk/consultations/dft-2011-36/great-western-franchise-replacement.pdf - the consultation I'm drafting an answer to

Readers are welcome to learn from / quote sections of this in their response and discussions, provided that they do not selectively quote in such a way that they alter the tone or message of the original. A courtesy copy of responses would be appreciated
(written 2011-12-31, updated 2012-01-17)

 
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Trapping errors in Tcl - the safety net that catch provides
Images of the new year in Melksham
Telling which ServerAlias your visitor used - useful during merging domains
First of the year
Initial thoughts - response to GW Rail Franchise Consultation for Wiltshire
What would an appropriate train service on the TransWilts line mean
I wish I was not a special case
How big is a web page these days? Does the size of your pages matter?
Christmas Day - for unique pictures
Happy Christmas ... a Christmas morning walk in Melksham
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