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Reviewing TransWilts performance 2015-16

In December each year, the Department for Transport publishes ticket sales figures for all stations in the year to the previous March. When I first got involved and asked about service use on the TransWilts, these were the figures that the Department for Transport offered me as data / evidence, with a specific pointer to Melksham Station as it's the only one uniquely served by the line, even though it only accounts for a proportion of the traffic carried.

Over the years, figures have gone up and down; Melksham's figures haven't always reprinted real journeys made, as for a number of years people were buying Melksham to Bristol tickets but only travelling Trowbridge to Bristol - a shorter but strangely more expensive journey. Figures for the years since that distortion largely worked out of the system are 10028 / 11046 / 11330 / 12080 / 23930 / 51858 / 60676 per annum - that last being published just last week. Following below my comments ... posted on our forum but reproduced here for a permanent easy record.

I'll admit it - I'm a little disappointed that passenger numbers using Melksham Station "only" grew by 17% last year. Sure, it was the top growth in the region, but I had hoped to be top by a nautical mile. And, yes, I know that being and remaining at the top of such a list is a hard act to repeat year on year.

So - what happened between April 2015 and March 2016 compared to April 2014 to March 2015? Two factors come to my mind.

Firstly, we had two weeks in July with virtually no service while HSTs were diverted via Melksham and a reversal at Bradford Junction between Chippenham and Bath. For sure we had well planned rail replacement buses, but thay loose a lot of traffic (anecdotally - the majority of traffic) and the fare collection regime on them is relatively weak, so that ticket sales figures dip magnifies the traffic loss. Then there was a whole month (August) of the Cardiff - Portsmouth running as a Swindon - Portsmouth. Yes, stops at Melksham at roughly the same time as "usual" but an awful lot of pubicity around the West Wilts area warning people of buses almost everywhere else, Our main promotion (and it won the national marketing award from ACoRP!) was the Weymoyth Wizard from Swindon and Chippenham to Weymouth ... which failed to stop at Melksham so wasn't reflected in numbers there.

Secondly, the Melksham Rail Link bus was withdrawn from 17th July. This had been carrying an increasing number of passengers from Bowerhill, Snowberry Lane, the Skylark Road area, Melksham Forest and Melksham Town Cenre to the station on a daily basis, and most of them back home at the end of the day too. In the short time it ran (Febraury 2014 to July 2015) this service which extended the diagram of a minibus (no extra vehicle needed) had grown to some dozen passenger journeys a day to and from the Station, with continued growth signs - indeed numbers had double between a "survey" carried out be a Wiltshire Councillor in January 2015 and its withdrawal in July. The traffic carried didn't for the most part didn't find other means to reach the station ... the bus had been provided in the first place because there was no practical alternative. Provision of a new station car park - whilst welcome - wasn't / isn't much use to people without cars!

Guessing at the numerical effect of the above. The disruption due to the engineering works probably accounts for around 4,000 journeys in the Melksham figures, though ironically it boosted the number of people travelling through over the 12 month period to, I would estimate, some 400,000 to 500,000. The loss of the Rail Link Bus, which an educated and cautious guess tells me would have continued to grow but slower than in had been growing, accounts for a further 4,000 drop in Melksham figures for the 8.5 months involved. So taking those two losses into account, and making no allowance for the loss of summer marketing, I speculate that the new Melksham figure for the year to March 2016 should have been 68676 (up from 51858 - rise of 32.4%) rather than 60676 (rise of 17%).

It's no use crying over "spilled milk", but we can learn from the spillage. We knew ahead of time (even before the trial started) about the engineering works and that we would have some figures held back because of it, but the alternative of waiting for a trial after the electrification was unattractive. The Rail Link Bus cancellation remains, in my view, a travesty. And we'll see a further dampening of the percentages to account for around 1,500 journeys lost between April and July 2015 and April and July 2016 in the 2016/2017 figures. In numerical terms, the figures for 2016-17 will be about 8,000 below where they could be, and the 2017-18 figures around 10,000 down, and so on. The economic case suggested for the extra operational cost of a single run of this bus was [c2]ã25 per day, and although run free from February 2014 to July 2015, passengers would pay a pound. That means that it would be just about commercial in its own right next year, even before you look at the extra rail income from some 10,000 extra journeys on services that are running anyway - average journey cost of passenger using the service (say) as low at [c2]ã3 - that's [c2]ã30,000 of income thrown away, and with it some people's jobs and whole quality of life.

Looking ahead - we always said (and we've been more re-assured by evidence) that if everything's lined up properly the TransWilts service, and passenger numbers to / from Melksham, can continue to grow very strongly for a number of years to come. But we have also said that it would just take a key component to go wrong to have a huge supression effect on the figures. The excellent change from a trial to a permannet service removes the obstacle of people feeling they can only use the service if they have a backup available if it's not around any longer,and hat's something that bodes really well for the future.

Looking at the passenger numbers getting on and off trains at the moment, and passing through, I believe that the figures for the current (2016/17) year should show good growth over 2015/16 - we're over 8 months into the 12 months and it would require a complete disaster of a start to 2017 for figures published next December to be poor. For data for 2017/18 to continue to grow, what should we be looking at?

1. Increased capacity on existing trains and at the station

2. Improved information at Melksham (specifically) station especially when things aren't running 100%

3. Services to extend the day - in particular in the evening and on Sunday morning

4. Better reliability (don't mind short delays; cancellations and long delays an issue)

5. Service gaps filled to cater for flows available in those gaps and to allow walk-up traffic

6. Better connections to other trains and buses

7. Extension of trains beyond Westbury (benefits much more Swindon and Chippenham than Melksham)

8. Clarity in ticketing, removal of some of the anomalies, cross ticketing options

9. Continued reduction in ticketless travel

10. Continued marketing with a spread to further markets.

As I write those notes, many/most of the aspcts are already planned / well under way, and the other are identified / discussed. Over the last few days, I've taken a look at the station usage figures for other places where services have been improved and I'm noting that some are continuing with strong growth and others peaking; with TransWilts (and with Melksham's figures) we have a market which is large compared to many others, and I feel confident that with everyone working together still, we can penetrate and grow that market increasingly for years to come. Make no mistake - there's still a lot to do. I talked years ago about "regain and retain" an appropriate service, and said that "retain" would be the biggest part of the job. Not only do I re-iterate that comment now, but also I suggest that the appropiate service for us to regain is hourly, daily, from early morning to late evening - and we're still working towards that first goal.

(written 2016-12-15)

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