TransWilts service – planning for 2014 to 2028

The following briefing was updated in August 2013, when we were looking at a service improvement in December 2014. Little did we appreciate at the time how quickly things would move – “quick” and “rail industry” are not often bedfellows – but we managed to get all our ducks in a row and the service stepped up from 2 to 8 trains each way per day on 9th December 2013…

In the few months to August 2013, things have moved rapidly forward from “how to we avoid the TransWilts plans falling off the table in the nationwide refranchising mess, and the local static management contract that’s likely from October” into a very real probability that services will be amended to something much more appropriate from December 2014.

Briefing – from TransWilts Community Rail Partnership – 27th August 2013

Community representatives all the way from Westbury to Chippenham have welcomed the planned improvement in the train service from Westbury to Swindon, calling at Trowbridge, Melksham and Chippenham – the three largest towns in Wiltshire – along the route.

The new service will run about every two hours on Monday to Saturday, with an additional commuter service in to Swindon in the morning and returning in the later peak. There will be five return trips on Sundays.

At the new frequency, the train should become the de-facto transport choice for travellers making journeys such as from Trowbridge (Wiltshire’s County Town) to Swindon, with a departure nearly always being available within an hour (earlier or later) than a passenger’s ideal time. This is the most frequent regular through train service ever offered between Trowbridge and Swindon. In the heyday of the railways, more services were offered but many required a change of trains at Chippenham; in those days, the average train journey was around 12 miles, but that has now doubled, Trowbridge to Swindon is 23 miles as the crow flies, and the journey time will be reduced from 53 minutes by car (AA route planner) to as little as 34 minutes.

The new timetable has clearly been planned to provide services throughout the day, and to be operationally robust on a route which connects with no fewer than 3 main lines – from London to Bristol and South Wales, London to the South West of England, and Cardiff / Bristol to Southampton / Portsmouth. These connections give a wide range of extra travel opportunities, and in the light of experience the community, local council and rail industry may agree minor adjustments over coming years to improve official connections and trim a few minutes off certain journeys. Electrification of the main line through Swindon and Chippenham will lead to a number of weekend closures and also to no train services for a few weeks in August 2015 (similar to the current blockage on the Swindon to Gloucester line for redoubling), and when the main line timetable is changed to take advantage of the faster acceleration of electric trains, we would anticipate further minor adjustments. Work has already been undertaken to ensure that infrastructure capacity will be sufficient for this service to run, even with the extra main line services planned post-electrification. That work also validated the operation with an additional stop at a potential station at Royal Wootton Bassett, under specific constraints. At Westbury, the initial service has to be timed to arrive and depart when a platform is available, and further considerable improvements will be possible if and when an additional platform is provided there.

Melksham is the third largest town in the Wiltshire Unitary area. The city of Salisbury is of course much larger, and so is Swindon which has its own local government. Then there are the towns of Chippenham and Trowbridge, and Melksham comes third behind them. And yet rail passenger journeys from Melksham have been pitiful – although the town is over half the size of Chippenham, train journeys have been made at less than one hundredth of the level. And that’s because the very limited service from Melksham – with a gap from 07:18 in the morning to 19:11 at night – hasn’t provided marketable travel opportunities for those who want to commute (requiring around 9 hours rather than 12 away), or who need an additional fallback service to be available if they have to work late. For business visitors to Melksham, just one train a day (at 17:45 from London) has ruled them out of arriving in the town by train, and a return departure at either 07:20 (far too early) or 19:47 (far too late) have been unattractive. This is truly ironic for the town which is the UK home to Knorr Bremse, a long established high techology rail company with around 250 employees who have just won the contract to build the braking systems for the new IEP electric trains.

With the best part of 100 commuters every day already commuting by train from Westbury and Trowbridge to Chippenham and Swindon, but currently doglegging with a change of trains, longer journey, and wait for a connection at Bath Spa, the additional new direct services will carry a significant number of happy passengers, each saving up to 45 minutes of travel time per day. The new service will make a sea-change to Melksham’s residents and businesses; it will take time for people to change their habits, but over time the difference made will be lifechanging to many individuals, and to the business and leisure life of the town.

Melksham station is adequate for the current low numbers who use it – and the platform itself will be adequate if the numbers joining each train rises from around 5 (the current number according to the office of rail regulation) to around 40. That would be an increase of over 30 fold when taking into account the extra number of trains, but it would also still be only a tiny fraction of the usage per capita that’s already happening at other stations such as Chippenham, Trowbridge and Bradford-on-Avon. However, away from the platform such an increase in passenger numbers requires infrastructure updates, which indeed are considered, planned for, and indeed largely funded by elements of the Local Sustainable Transport Fund – 4.25 million pounds to improve Wiltshire’s Rail Offering, won last year by Wiltshire Council from the Department for Transport in a stiff competiton.

In November 2009, Wiltshire Council purchased land from the British Rail Residuary Body at Melksham Station for future rail related (re)developement. This land directly backs on to the roundabout spur at Foundry Close, with just a fence in between and a few yards of overgrown / rough land. An access for – at least – pedestrians and cyclists needs to be constructed here; it will bring the northern half of Melksham half a kilometre closer to the station, and within a practical walking distance. And it will provide easy access to a cafe / fast food outlet, supermarket, newsagent and two takeaways for rail passengers.

The land purchased also includes a large former goods yard area which was occupied by a builder’s merchant at the time. They subsequently moved to new premises on Semington Road, and the land was cleared; it is currently in use for parking vehicles by a crane and heavy machinery company, but the community was assured that any lease of the land would be a short term one, so this land can – within a few months – be used for the parking of cars rather than cranes. That will fill a further inadequacy in the facilities at Melksham station; currently there are just 10 car parking spaces there and hundreds will be needed. This car park will also give scope to raise some additional revenue in order to help make the rail service self sufficient.

Bus, taxi and information systems are other more minor improvements planned at Melksham Station, and the Community Rail Partnership is working to set up a base in the service building in the new car park – initially to provide customer information and other services to newcomers to rail travel from Melksham who will naturally need more support in the early days.

The new services are coming about because of shared goals and close co-operation between many parties – Wiltshire Council, First Great Western, the Department for Transport, the Wessex Association of Chambers of Commerce, and with the help of our MPs – Andrew Murrison for Westbury and especially Duncan Hames for Chippenham. Many other people have worked tirelessly behind the scenes for many years – you know who you are – and a big THANK YOU to you. A role of honour will be prepared! Relative newcomers to the political, financial, community and operational aspects of rail (such as myself writing this) owe a huge debt of honour to these people, and at the same time I see others wanting to get involved, help, learn with and from us and all work together to promote the common good of the service. Such newcomers are welcome – they’re more than welcome with open arms – as we now need to make sure that the new services are the great success that all the work done so far (business case, operations study, business survey, public survey and trial service in summer 2011) have suggested they will be.

Already we have produced a current timetable sheet for Melksham, First Great Western printed it at no local cost, and it was distributed to 12,000 homes in the town. That was in the last couple of weeks. On 23rd July, some 15 volunteers helped Wiltshire Council and their consultants in passing out and collecting survey forms to gather travel to station data at Chippenham, necessitating a start at 05:30. On May Day holiday, and again on the August Bank holiday, local publicity for the train has resulted in large numbers of people making use of the existing service (and a big Thank You to First for rescheduling the 06:38 to 08:38!). This bodes well for the future.

In order to get the very best out of the wide range of skills and interests available, we’re formalising the Community Rail Partnership at a special meeting on 31st August. CRPs bring the community, local government, rail infrastructure owners and train operator together to help make the very best of existing train services, marketing them in the local community, adopting stations, and being the eyes and ears for feedback. Until now, it has been too soon to formalise but with a train service at a very marketable level, and with ever-closer co-operation, we’re now in the position that a traditional CRP is unquestionably appropriate, and once the new service has started we anticipate applying to join the Association of Community Rail Parnerships – ACoRP.

Everyone wants to see the new service being a great success – well loaded trains of travellers commuting, travelling to college or the history centre in Chippenham during the day, taking shopping and leisure trips off peak and at weekends. We want to see an improvement in the quality of life for people who are saved up to 45 minutes of commuting every day from Trowbridge, and we want to see people arriving at Melksham station on business to what is for all practical purposes a new railway destination. There’s a lot of hard work to be done! Lots of ideas that are already well formed to be driven forward. With that work and a success of most of the elements descibed, alog with a whole host of other journey options too, we have a viable train service that will bring significant economic benefit, quality of life and lower carbon footprint too to the communities it serves.

Here is previous page content to August 2013

Up to 2010, the local community in association with the train operating company, local authorities and planning and public transport experts speculated and evaluated appropriate service levels for the future on the TransWilts line, bearing in mind potential traffic and operational capacity to make a sound business case. We concluded that an hourly service would be ideal bearing in mind the rapid growth of passenger rail travel elsewhere in the region, and of the towns along the line, but that a service every two hours, in addition to the current shoulder-peak services would be a good practical step that was likely to make a strong case and be well used.

In 2011, Wiltshire Council, the Wessex Association of Chambers of Commerce, Network Rail, First Great Western and the community under the fledgling TransWilts Community Rail Partnership got together to test our hypothesis that a service each way, every 2 hours, would work. This involved a business case study, an operational study, a public survey, a business survey, and a trial service. The business case study concluded that the benefit cost ratio was 2.74:1, the operational study that the service could run, both pre and post electrification of the main line, without capacity enhancements. The public survey attracted 600 responses from people who said they would use the service to commute and a strong leisure response too. The business survey covering local employers with a total of 11,000 staff brought a 94% response that the service would make a significant positive difference, and the trial service had to be strengthened with longer trains and still overloaded.

In 2012, the evaluated service was included as a costed (and fully financed) option in the Great Western franchise bid, with a service set to start in late 2013. All four bidding companies were full briefed on the TransWilts and the communities served to enable them to make the best fitted possible bid. A successful application was made under the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) for funding to improve access to stations, with particular reference to making sure that community-side facilities were in place to ensure that people knew about the services, and could use them through bus / cycle / car / taxi / walking facilities enhance to handle the anticipated traffic levels. Then in October, the franchise system as a whole was suspended and the Great Western refranchise cancelled due to systemic problems across the UK, and revealed on the West Coast main line.

During the first six months of 2013, the government has been picking up the pieces of the franchising problems. The First contract to run the GW franchise was extended from March to October (2013), and First has bid to run the services for a further three years under management contract, based on a continuance of existing provision. Background work behind the scenes has been ongoing to help ensure that the appropriate TransWilts service is provided never the less, but until the overall ongoing provision across the Great Western area is decided, mechanisms for the improved TransWilts service aren’t clear. The TransWilts Community Rail Partnership volunteers are working very closely with First Great Western and Wiltshire Council (service adjustments, publicity, surveys beyond the platform, station tidiness and gardening) and will be formally incorporating on 31st August to ensure a strong ongoing working co-operation between all parties so that the new service, when it starts, has the backup behind it to make it a huge success.

The following section on this page describes the submissions to the Great Western Franchise bids in 2012, which remain a current description of the appropriate service that’s been evaluated and found to be a practical and effective case – financially, operationally, and emotionally. Summer 2013 – we’re moving forward towards something which closely follows these plans below; it is NOT identical as changes effecting lines beyond the Westbury – Swindon section need other revisions which are at franchise time scope, rather than at the moment where we’re just looking at a management contract to continue to operating existing services for the most part.

The Options for the TransWilts …

How should we respond to the GW Franchise consultation?
The questions which are of particular interest for the TransWilts 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.

We should respond to the consultation by answering in support of all the work that has been done and is outlined above, framing our answers to show how they have wide support and meet the objectives of the refranchise operation, and of the Department for Transport as a whole

DRAFT RESPONSEManagement Overview

* 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.