Save the Melksham Train
This is an archived page.
Please see [here] if you're looking for the current "Save the Train" home page.
Please see [here] for the TransWilts site.
Friday, 26th March 2010. Launch of TransWilts Community Rail Partnership. Bridge House, Trowbridge, from 19:30
An exciting new step forward to rejeuvenation of the line, its service and its use
BUSY, EXCELLENT MEETING ... see [here] for initial report
Train service remains dire - southbound from Swindon at 06:15 and 18:45, northbound from Westbury at 07:02 and 19:35. Please pledge your support if you would like to see an increase to six trains a day -
arriving Swindon at 07:48 08:53 11:50 14:50 17:36 and 20:19,
returning at 06:18 09:02 12:02 15:02 17:55 and 18:45.

Keynote for 2010

Forum archive ... Blog archive

Wiltshire's Train link - R.I.P??
As of December 9th 2006, the Swindon to Southampton train service is withdrawn. A "stub" service will be provided for a further year between Westbury and Southampton, and that will be cut back further in December 2007 - a Salisbury to Southampton service.

The northerly section of the route - Swindon to Westbury - will be reduced from 5 trains each way daily, which is already a meagre service, to just two trips a day. Worse still, these will be run in what's known as "marginal time" - i.e. at a time when a train that's unemployed on providing services elsewhere happens to be freely available. There will be a round trip from Swindon at 06:20, and another round trip at 18:42.

I have been running the "Save the Train" website to draw the spotlight towards this change, which was sneaked into the Great Western Franchise by the SRA - one line in the middle of a 52 page document that only came to local attention along th erout of the line after the consultation period had passed. How have we come to this? What should happen? What can we do to help it happen?

Here's a message I received via the website - one of many - in the last few days.

"It saddens me greatly to see the "service" that is proposed from December. How it can be of any use to anyone is beyond belief and is just another example of First's couldn't care less attitude. In this day and age, we are supposedly being encouraged to use public transport, so why are the government creating impossibilities?"

And my answer

Many thanks for your comments via the web site ... I wish I had a good answer for you as to why the service to be provided is so minimal and inappropriate.

The Background

Prior to the new Greater Western Franchise being tendered and awarded, the Strategic Rail Authority commissioned a couple of reports from Jacobs Consultancy which covered services over the whole SW (GW franchise) area. The Jacobs reports came down in favour of retaining a peak hour service to and from Swindon (and against retiming it an hour away from the peak - a specific option that was tested and rejected, but never the less has been implemented). The Jacobs reports (from 2004) also came down in favour of 4 additional off peak return trips, at 2 hourly intervals. Again, this has not happened.

I have just (20th September) obtained copies of the Jacobs reports, under a "Freedom of Information" request. I asked for all reports and correspondence up to date that related to analysis, evaluation and decisions made and that was ALL that was provided, so that suggests that there no further studies made later. Such a suggestion tallies with letters I heva received from Derek Twigg, formerly minister at the Department for Transport who refers to 2004 data as his justification for the service level we're to have in 2007. He has given no indication what so ever that more recent figures have been taken into account.

It is notable that the Jacobs reports were based on traffic growth forecasts of 0.7% to 1.8% per annum, whereas the service from Swindon to Westbury has experienced a 35% per annum traffic grown for the last five years, and the First group tell me that Bristol area traffic (we're part of that region) has grown by 41% overall in 3 years. I'm personally at a loss as to why Jacobs used such a pessimistic figure - and one that's been proven to be incorrect.

So - how did we end up with an inappropriate service from this December - a pre-dawn train before the morning commute, and an early evening train which runs after most people who work a regular day will already want to be home? The SRA's request for the FGW service didn't require the trains suggested by Jacobs to be run, and some "smart Alec" noticed that by running the trains on this line in what's called "marginal time" - time that stock isn't required elsewhere - the minimum specification could be achieved and the number of trains required could be reduced by 1. Which means for profit for the operator, especially as much of the traffic can be routed via Bath. Awkward, yes. Slower, yes. But people whio have to use public transport have little choice if they need to travel.

I spotted reference within the FOI information I received to the service level specified under the previous franchise (Wales and West, 7 years prior) that the service level requirement had been just 2 trains a day each way. I do know that the extra trains (up to 5 a day each way) that have helped grow ticket sales to and from Melksham by 700% in 5 years were added by Wessex trains in between re-franchises. I find myself trying to read between the lines, and wondering if another reason for the expert's report being rejected was due to 'sour grapes' - "this was added without our approval in 2001, so we're going to get our own back now"; I can't actually beleive that any government person or civil servant would be so petulant and childish, but it would seem to add up.

The mess, the politics, the support

I have no evidence that the service we're been provided with has been properly evaluated by Jacobs, the SRA, the DfT or anyone else in the decision chain. It has been looked at and is considered inadequate by Wiltshire County Council, by local MPs, by user groups and others along the line. In other words, you could say that we've been 'shafted' - given a service that's not even been properly evaluated through due process, and does not meet local needs, and is contrary to what our elected representatives feel should be provided.

From the operator's viewpoint ... The First group, who also operate other train services in the area and the vast majority of the buses as well, do have a commercial (company driven) case that could be argued to slash the service. With a change at Bath Spa (adding to the journey time, awkward interchange) some of the longer distance traffic that's lost from the withdrawn trains will be retained. Shorter distance traffic that has to use public transport will use their 234 bus service - adding up to an hour to certain journeys. But beggars can't be choosers. To be fair to First's local managers they're making some right noises to help with their customer's case and looking at possibiities of providing a sensible service, and they've already modified some 234 journeys to provide at least some better connectional opportunities. Whether such local actions and noises go beyond a customer relations exercise and have real substance - well, the Jury's out as far as I'm concerned. At the back of my mind is their statement that they're looking to increase dividends to their shareholders by 10% per annum and (in the same statment), they're crowing that one of their ways is by increasing fares. So the commercial case is, very much, First.

For another operator such as Stagecoach, the metrics would be totally different. It's not so much that the company would have a different philosophy, but that the TransWilts train service would be encouraged, marketed, and run as a competitive and near-commercial service in its own right rather than as a vestige of a reluctant government's specification. I've been quoted an incredibly wide range of costs, incomes and thus subsidy figures for a service level at the 2 hourly interval that Jacobs recommended. And remember - they recommended that on the basis of about 1% growth and not 30% plus. They recommended it on local service evaluation WITHOUT considering longer distance service extensions. And they recommended it WITHIN the GW franchise, not looking at exciting options such as extending the 2-hourly Waterloo to Salisbury train to Swindon via Westbury.

The Future

As it stands, the service from December doesn't even meet the DfT's minimal specification, which calls for a train to arrive in Swindon between 08:00 and 08:30 - it arrives 10 minutes earlier. I fear that shouting and screaming about this and demanding a change would simply result in a change to the specification, which I understand that can be made with agreement between the operator and the DfT without further consultations or input. That's really just a waste of effort and likely if anything to move us even further from our goal of a reasonable TransWilts service.

What else to do, then?

I understand that there are still serious discussions going on, though I fear that time is running out - or perhaps has run out - for December 2006. In December 2007, the new South West Trains franchise takes over the southern part of the current Swindon - Southampton service - cut back to Westbury/Southampton from December, then (it's proposed) cut back further to Salisbury/Southampton at that takeover.

There would seem to be scope - rather than cutting it back - to extending it back up to Chippenham, to Swindon, and indeed to Oxford. There are major traffic flows from Oxford West that are poorly served by a Didcot change. There's Swindon to Trowbridge, to Warminster, to Salisbury and to Southampton. There's journeys like Chippenham to Salisbury that are very hard by Public Transport at present. Tourist trade, Oxford to Salisbury ... with a fast, longer distance service the utility of the service doesn't just add - it multiplies. Links into other proposals such as East-West Rail (Oxford to Cambridge and beyond at both ends) would multipy the utility and journey opportunities further.

Is this all pie in the sky? I would have thought so a year ago. But now I'm not so sure. "There are serious discussions going on". I'm at a Transport Focus meeting for the South West in Taunton on Saturday; it's sponsored by many of the movers and shakers and there will be people there and listening, contacts to be made. Our campaign has gotten itself noticed in the last year, and noted for coming up with sensible cases too; our logic is hard to refute, and I wouldn't rule out either the First group or Stagecoach running an appropriate level of service to connect Swindon, the towns of West Wiltshire, and beyond from December 2007, nor other / further possibilities in the more distant future.

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