Anger as Valleys rail coaches moved to England
Western Mail: Feb 27 2008
by Rhodri Clark,
AN INVESTMENT of £32m of Welsh public money appeared to be in tatters last night as it emerged 10 rail coaches destined for the nation’s commuters will be moved to England.
A total of £13.2m has been used to extend station platforms in South Wales for longer commuter trains from April, while a further £18.8m will allow trains on the Merthyr Tydfil line to operate half-hourly instead of hourly.
The Assembly Government previously said it had secured nine Sprinter units – each made up of two rail coaches – to lengthen the busiest commuter trains from Treherbert, Rhymney and Maesteg, and for Merthyr’s improved service. But yesterday it emerged that five of those nine units will be moved to First Great Western (FGW), as part of a £29m package to stop the company losing its franchise.
Overcrowding and cancellations on the Cardiff-Portsmouth route have been a political embarrassment for FGW and the UK Government, leading some Bristol passengers to stage a highly publicised fares strike last month.
Those trains will now revert to three coaches each, thanks to the five two-car Sprinters that were destined for the Valley Lines.
They will be used in England, releasing other units for the Portsmouth line.
Conservative transport spokesman in the Assembly Andrew Davies said that was robbing Peter to pay Paul. “It’s taking much-needed rolling stock off already under-pressure Valley Lines to supplement the failing FGW franchise.
“Rolling stock is moving out of Wales. That’s a failure on the part of Transport Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones. We learned recently that none of the 1,300 new carriages announced by the Government is coming to Wales. We’re left playing catch-up because we’re not on the field of play.”
Jenny Willott, Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, said, “If these trains are permanently diverted to FGW, it seems that the WAG’s plans have been hugely undermined.
“Train services in the Valleys need investment. To take the trains out so that the investment doesn’t do what it’s meant to do is completely counter-productive.
“They [the five Sprinter units] are having to prop up FGW, to help FGW achieve the service they should already be providing. It’s outrageous.”
Rail users’ group Railfuture South Wales said the Cardiff- Portsmouth service had more political clout in Westminster than the Valleys. Chairman Guy Hardy said, “It seems that the position of Welsh rail travellers is inferior to that of English rail travellers, and the Department for Transport (DfT) look on us as second-raters.”
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said the five Sprinter units would be sub-leased from Arriva Trains Wales to FGW. Asked if the DfT was involved in this change, she said, “I think the answer is probably no.” She said it was a matter for the WAG and FGW.
An FGW spokesman said, “I can’t provide you with any detail on that. It’s not going to be in the public domain.”
South East Wales Transport Alliance, implementing the £32m investment, said, “We’re concerned to hear this news and will be raising the matter with the WAG next week.”
From this summer until summer 2011, every Cardiff-Portsmouth train will have an additional third carriage to provide a 40% increase in capacity. But Vale of Glamorgan resident Ian Hume, a regular on the route, said, “It’s nothing to celebrate. Around two years ago the DfT took the three-car units on that line and redistributed them somewhere in northern England. That brought them down to two-car units, with only one or two three-car units for the whole service. There will still be overcrowding.”
A WAG spokesman said the lease of the five train units was a “short term” measure that would benefit many of FGW’s customers in Wales.
Yellow card for FGW
Train operator First Great Western (FGW) was shown a yellow card yesterday and warned it will lose its franchise unless it reduces cancellations.
The Government also said FGW had “misreported” its cancellations.
FGW operates services to London from Swansea and Cardiff, where Network Rail’s infrastructure problems have compounded delays and cancellations of FGW’s making. It also runs trains from Cardiff to Bristol, Taunton and Portsmouth.
The RMT rail union urged the Government to end FGW’s franchise now, for breaching the franchise agreement which took effect in April 2006, but Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly gave FGW another chance.
“The performance of FGW has fallen persistently short of customers’ expectations and has been unacceptable to passengers and Government,” she said.
“The £29m package of benefits agreed with FGW will make a real difference to passengers. It includes more than 500,000 cheaper tickets on the busiest routes, extra carriages between Cardiff and Portsmouth and vastly increases investment in the refurbishment of Thames Valley commuter trains.”
A new Remedial Plan includes milestones for reducing cancellations which the Department for Transport will monitor and review. It also outlines additional rolling stock and employment of more drivers, guards and technicians “to secure a more reliable service and drastically reduce the number of cancellations”.
FGW is also being issued with a Breach Notice for misreporting its cancellations.