Wales and West Franchise: Playing Devil’s Advocate

Note that this is a piece I wrote for inclusion in the Heart of Wales Line Travellers Association newsletter. Essentially I am arguing for Welsh rural rail to be made part of an integrated rural transport serive, like a bucolic equivalent of the South Wales Metro or London Transport franchise.

The scope of the new Wales and Borders franchise was the subject of discussion at the recent AGM.  This is because there is pressure from some quarters to make the Wales franchise exclusively Welsh by removing the cross border services. The prevalent position within the Association is that this is an encroachment on Wales’s railway turf and to be resisted. This is largely because the most lucrative services are those that cross the English border and help support the rest of the Wales and Borders franchise and the smaller and weaker the controlling Franchise, the less resources can be lavished on the Heart of Wales line. Considering that the Heart of Wales line is starved of trains and other investment precisely because the larger franchise provides better utilisation of these assets, it is not totally obvious that this must be the case.

The Wales and Borders is really a very mixed bag. There are the railway service equivalent of urban beggars in the South Wales valleys, rural paupers (that’s us by the way), and kings of the land plying between north and south Wales.

The competition for business these days is such that customers have to know what your brand stands for. British rail knew this which is why sectorisation in the 1980’s was such a success: customers knew that an intercity train would have a better ambience than a regional railways one, and that you might have to stand on a Network Southeast service. The marketing and branding of all the different services in Wales results in a catch-all branding and marketing of all these disparate services. With that I’m mind let me put forward another alternative which might benefit us as supporters of the Heart of Wales line.

Imagine that we dismantled the Wales and Borders franchise and the services handed over to the appropriate operator for services that serve that existing market. Cardiff and its various feeder lines are already likely to run as part of Valleys Metro (Network Southeast to elaborate the BR metaphor). This will make it a Welsh operation although probably run by some sort of Passenger Transport Executive serving municipality of Cardiff. Can the rest of benefit from this sort of focus from our operator?

Most of the long distance services that originate in England could be spun off to appropriate existing franchisees. Maybe the Manchester to Milford Haven (what we think of the Marches line services) can become a Great Western operation. London Midland who already run to Shrewsbury might run the service from their company’s hub in Birmingham to Aberystwyth as well as via Wrexham to the North coast. A nod to the past when the LMS ran to the north of Wales and the GWR owned the south. Alternatively to the above, some long distance cross border services might fit better with Cross Country’s market.

With all the longer distance services now farmed off to other operators we would be left with a small number of branch lines and very unremunerative social railways. Think the Conwy valley, the coastal bit of the Cambrian Coast from Machynlleth to Pwithelli, various all-stops services west of Swansea. And the Heart of Wales line.

These unprofitable bits of railway can then be passed to a Wales rural services franchise. Going back to the stress on marketing, this would preferably be an operator that has a strong brand identity and ability to operate multi modal services. Step forward Trawscymru. As a Welsh government operator running the busses, I suggest it is well equipped to lend its brand to the rural trains. There would be echoes of the freewheeling days of early privatisation when any bus operator, so it seemed, would put their names to the new rail franchises. This columnist suspects that the Trawscymru brand might become the rural version of the Valleys Metro proposed to the south of Wales – i.e. a “mode agnostic” integrated transport operation with its distinct market and identity.

Liberated of the long haul premium passenger traffic, our “Trwscymru plus trains” can concentrate on its market for reliable and affordable rural transport service, with local authorities being the main stakeholders. Of course the whole operation will need to be extensively grant supported and for this money the service will be tightly specified. The sparse rural traffic leaves little opportunity for bus and train to compete, the main alternative is the motorcar and our tightly integrated transport operator is best equipped to win business from that mode.

Community lines such as ours ought to enjoy greater clout within a smaller operator, and a bus centric operator such as TrawsCymru ought to know how to handle themselves in our sort of market with its slim pickings. This focus on driving down costs might extend to rolling stock. The “new” class 230 D-Train (London Underground stock) has potential. Some routes might be made self contained and open the possibility of using ultra lightweight vehicles such as the Parry People Mover.


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