This meeting, on the theme of “Developing Gloucestershire’s Railways”, was convened by Nigel Bray of Railfuture Severnside on 21 October 2006 at GL1 (Gloucester Leisure Centre) was attended by 30 people including David Drew, MP for Stroud.
In the chair was John Walker and the speakers were Mike Obst, Principal Transport Planner (Rail), Gloucestershire County Council; and Andrew Griffiths, Regional Manager (Severn & Solent), First Great Western.
10 apologies were received including Parmjit Dhanda, MP for Gloucester and Dr. John Cordwell, Liberal Democrat spokesman for transport on GCC.
Mike Obst opened his presentation, “Rail in Gloucestershire” by explaining that Gloucestershire County Council’s policy was to make better use of existing rail capacity and increase the attractiveness of rail travel with a view to reducing road congestion. He summarised the present position of each rail route in the county, listing the improvements that Gloucestershire County Council would like to see.
The Malvern-Bristol-Taunton route would be enjoying hourly clockface services, including at Cam & Dursley, from 10 December but an area of concern was the later timing of the first Bristol-Cheltenham stopping train
The revised train plan for the new Cross Country franchise would take effect in December 2008. GCC welcomed the hourly Bristol – Manchester service, which would maintain the half hourly fast service between Cheltenham and Birmingham. Areas of concern were the reduction in direct trains to / from the South West; the loss of direct services between the West of England and Lancashire, Cumbria and the West of Scotland; and the scarcity of stops at Gloucester.
GCC’s aspirations included more trains to / from the South West; use of five – rather than four car – Voyagers to minimise overcrowding on remaining services; and interchange at Stafford and Tamworth with the West Coast Main Line. Gloucestershire County Council did not want pricing to be the sole means of managing overcrowding.
Retention of the hourly clockface service on the Cardiff-Nottingham route was welcomed but the recent level of cancellations and delays left much to be desired. Gloucestershire County Council would like more Nottingham trains to call at Ashchurch, together with peak hour calls at Lydney and Chepstow. It also favoured provision of First Class accommodation to attract business travellers. If the Nottingham service could not be made punctual because of network congestion in the Midlands, Gloucestershire County Councilwould support its diversion to Birmingham International instead
Gloucestershire County Council had undertaken station audits to identify improvements which could be achieved easily, such as 30 additional parking spaces at Lydney and maps to show rail / bus connections.
The proposed Gloucestershire Parkway station at Elmbridge Court would require no additional track or signalling. The station itself would cost £6.5m to build but £29.5m would be spent on associated road works and bus priorities. The project had been approved in principle by the Government Office for the South West. If it received DfT approval, it could be completed in 2011. Tight performance margins on the Bristol-Birmingham route might prevent Voyagers from calling at both Cheltenham and the Parkway station but Gloucestershire County Council was examining possible solutions to this. The Council wanted Nottingham services to serve all three main stations (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire Parkway and Gloucester Central) and also extension of Arriva Trains Wales Cardiff-Gloucester services to Cheltenham, calling at Parkway.
On the Cotswold Line (Oxford-Worcester) the long single line sections meant that the present level of service was the maximum possible without putting Performance at risk. Gloucestershire County Council initiatives to promote the route include rail timetable boards at Bourton-on-the-Water, Northleach and Stow-on-the-Wold.
With a view to promoting the Gloucester-South Wales (Severn & Wye) line, Mike had held a meeting with the Lydney Partnership, Forest of Dean District Council, Arriva Trains Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government. In November Arriva Trains West was due to convene a Cross-Border Rail Forum at Hereford which would discuss the Severn & Wye Line among others.
The Stroud Valley line was the diversionary route for London-South Wales trains whenever the Severn Tunnel, itself now operating at 90% capacity, was not available. The present capacity between Standish Junction and Swindon was for one train each way per hour with an occasional third train. Two trains each way per hour was not achievable (at least not without delays) unless the second track were to be reinstated between Kemble and Swindon. Network Rail had now agreed to a feasibility study into this.
On the M5 rail corridor the only imminent improvement in capacity was a third platform at Bristol Parkway. The problem on this route remained the mix of fast (Virgin) and slow (freight and local passenger) trains. A glimmer of hope was the Regional Planning Assessment prediction of up to 1,000 new rail journeys into Bristol on this route being generated by proposed new housing.
GCC had examined four sites for rail freight terminals. Ashchurch MoD was available, although used only intermittently. Sidings at Lydney were protected for future use but the former Dowmac site at Quedgeley had been discounted because of the massive signalling expenditure needed. A scheme currently being developed at Sharpness Docks would cost £60,000 (net £45,000 to Gloucestershire County Council ), mainly for resleepering and opening of a new level crossing in order to activate a former dock siding. Any traffic was likely to be for customers unable to use Bristol docks because of higher costs at the latter.
Andrew Griffiths pointed out that First Group was now the largest train (and bus) operator in the UK and this, he said, placed it in a very good position to achieve a high degree of rail / bus integration. First was required to pay a premium of £1bn to the Government during the 10 year life of the Greater Western franchise, which specified maximum as well as minmum service levels on each route. To achieve this financial turnround, First Great Western would invest £200m to improve services and Performance. Many of FGW’s Performance issues were deeply rooted in Network Rail infrastructure problems such as line speed but the new Integrated Control Centre at Swindon, where FGW and NR staff worked together, was resolving day to day problems more speedily than had hitherto been the case. FGW had recently bought some trains, as distinct from leasing them from ROSCOs. He believed that the “simpler advance purchase fares” would attract new business.
By 2012 FGW had to meet a Public Performance Measure (PPM) target of 90% of its trains arriving at final destination within either 5 or 10 minutes of its scheduled arrival time. Currently FGW PPM was in the low 80s, due chiefly to the age of rolling stock and infrastructure. NR was currently working to increase the line speed on the Relief Lines between Reading and Paddington, as well as spending £750m on West of England routes, including £11m on recent work to restore 125 mph running through Wootton Bassett.
FGW now managed 210 stations. It would be introducing new ticket machines and Customer Information Systems. Andrew considered that FGW had inherited a “rag bag (of CIS systems) which don’t all work in the same way”. Gloucester would be getting much improved CIS screens and all stations would have internet access. A new help point was planned for Kemble, which was unstaffed in the afternoons; this would “enable customers to speak to a real person”. Kemble would also gain 100 parking spaces at a cost of £200,000 but this might well pay for itself through increased rail business.
Gloucester station, used by 750,000 passengers annually, and Cheltenham, used by 1m passengers per annum, would be getting improved passenger facilities. At Gloucester street access would be provided to Platform 4 and the station subway would be improved.
The HST fleet would be re-engined because the existing engines do not meet modern standards of fuel efficiency and emissions. Nine re-engined power cars were now in service and produce only one third of their previous carbon emission levels. The entire FGW fleet is to be fitted with CCTV and a new £8m maintenance depot is being built at Bristol to take over work currently done at Cardiff. No new trains are specified in the franchise but DfT has agreed to examine the question of HST replacement. As only 13 % of HST passengers use the buffet, the shorter HST routes will be formed of seven cars with no buffet, although a catering trolley will be provided.
Andrew said that about half of the 40 key issues raised by the FGW’s recent Consultation on its December 2006 Timetable had been resolved by reshuffling resources without additional financial support but others, including the timing of the 06.04 Exeter St. Davids-Great Malvern, could not be improved on for the time being. Stroud Valley services had improved but further enhancement would require redoubling of the track from Kemble to Swindon. There would be a Consultation exercise aimed at the December 2007 Timetable.
QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
1. John Thorne referred to the large population along the Malvern-Bristol rail corridor but said its basic (stopping) train service was only two-hourly. He asked whether any comparable route in the UK had such a poor service frequency.
Mike Obst replied that the Regional Spatial Study indicated large new housing developments along the route. DfT had originally proposed turning the service round at Worcester Shrub Hill, where trains were to have had a layover of 1hr 20 mins. He suggested that concern over climate change might persuade the Government to encourage modal shift towards rail.
2. A Bredon Parish Councillor (formerly of Malvern Town Council) commented that a better interface was needed between customers, their representatives and decision makers. Existing democratic institutions relied on elected persons being willing to take up issues which might fall by the wayside on the way up through several layers of government. “Groups within local communities want to speak directly to decision makers and providers of transport,” he said.
Andrew Griffiths replied that since taking on the new franchise, FGW had reorganised to create a Station Management structure separate from Trains Management. The latter had hitherto been regarded as far more important and stations had been the poor relation. He believed the new organisation was better geared to meeting users.
3. Gerard Duddridge suggested that the location of the Gloucestershire Parkway station would reduce capacity where there had once been quadruple track. He noted the current weekend Engineering work resulting in VT using buses between Birmingham and Gloucester instead of diverting trains via Oxford and Swindon as in previous years. He added that GWRS was gradually recreating a diversionary route from Cheltenham to Stratford at no cost to TOCs.
Mike Obst said that it might not be possible to have a four track Parkway station on grounds of cost but the site did not rule out a larger station at a later date. Cheltenham-Stratford reopening was highly desirable and a long term aspiration of GCC but unlikely in the present financial climate. He agreed that diversion of VT services via Oxford was preferable to bussing passengers from Gloucester to Birmingham. Andrew referred to the reinstatement of double track between Probus and Burngullow, Cornwall in 2004. The section had been singled in 1986 to save just £11,000 per year on maintenance but redoubling had cost £14m. “The lesson of the ‘80s is not to take out infrastructure.” Mike added that people campaigning for Kemble-Swindon redoubling needed to emphasise the importance of the Stroud Valley line for South Wales diversions.
4. John Franklin said that many people from the Cheltenham area drove to Kingham to catch trains to London because the earliest possible arrival on a cheaper (ie not Standard Open) ticket during the week was 11.30. He asked how 12 different types of Advance Purchase ticket could be simpler than the Supersaver (which FGW had abolished on the routes where it controlled the fares). Andrew explained that FGW had introduced different price bands to take account of differing levels of spare capacity. Quotas for Advance Business tickets were small because they applied to trains which were already busy. There was in any case a natural problem of capacity on routes into big cities during peak hours, making it very difficult to find paths for additional trains.
5. Cherry Lavell asked for a later connection to Cheltenham from London. The connection from 22.15 SX Paddington (23.33 Swindon) terminated at Gloucester 00.22 with no onward service to Cheltenham.
6. Dick Drew asked when the new Timetable would be available. Very shortly, replied Andrew.
7. A speaker asked for subways and better signage at Bristol Parkway. Andrew said the existing lifts were preferable to a subway but agreed that signage could be better.
8. David Redgewell raised points made by David Drew MP during the latter’s flying visit just before the start of the meeting. Some services in Devon and Cornwall which had been cut in the original December 2006 Timetable were restored because of pressure from all political parties. Rail users needed to engage with local politicians because decisions would be made about train services in the same way as they had recently been made regarding hospitals. Andrew commented that ultimately transport was about politics which came down to a question of priorities.
David Redgewell asked the Chairman to meet with the relevant Cabinet members of GCC to seek reversal of its decision to withdraw funding from Severnside Community Rail Partnership. It was agreed that Nigel Bray would represent the Branch at such a meeting.
9. Alan Drewett asked whether it would be possible to have a four track section east of the proposed Parkway station, to enable Voyagers to overtake. Mike believed that this might cost £millions. TOCs preferred dynamic loops several miles long because short loops tended to result in trains having to slow down and wait to enter and leave them.
10. Dr. Clive Mowforth said the retiming of the first SX train from Cam & Dursley to Gloucester 30 minutes later from 11 December meant he would not be able to start work much before 09.00 and would have a longer working day because of the timing of return trains. He asked what determined the DfT’s specifications of service levels, adding that matters would be easier if there were a more flexible approach to ticketing allowing him to his season ticket from Stonehouse also. Andrew replied that the FGW Timetable revolved around pathing at Reading and this compromised the timing of trains further west. Mike suggested a Gloucester Area commuter ticket. Andrew added that he would be happy to look at the case for a Rover ticket.
11. Philip Colls suggested that bus stations and principal bus stops ought to advertise train services from the nearest station. Mike said he entirely supported the concept, referring to his earlier comments concerning promotion of Cotswold Line train information at bus stops in Bourton and Stow. He added that it would be helpful to harmonise the dates on which bus and rail timetables changed. Nigel quoted the example of Ambleside bus station (operated by Stagecoach Cumbria) which displayed train departures from Windermere (operated by First Transpennine).