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FORWARD!

(from John Allcock, Chairman of the WBRUA, Autumn 2023)

 

Welcome to this Autumn’s Newsletter. I may start on a pessimistic note but stay with me because there is cause for optimism. Firstly, though, I remain disappointed that the long-promised improvements to the passenger service on the Wrexham-Bidston line have yet to be realised and that throughout the late spring, summer and early autumn, TfW has struggled to deliver a reliable service on our line. Passengers who have been trying to use the service will be aware of the cancellations, late running and stations being skipped to recover time. Indeed, data published in September by On Times Trains (showing how each railway station in the UK has performed so far in 2023) showed stations between Wrexham and Bidston lines in the bottom 30 out of the 2,616 stations across the UK for cancellations, delays and disruptions. The WBRUA is aware of people who have had to change their employment or learn to drive because they cannot depend in the train service to get them to work.

 

Struggling to get meaningful engagement with Transport for Wales (TfW), in March in 2023 the WBRUA issued a Statement to politicians (local MPs, MSs and Councillors) and the media identifying the issues with the service. This was followed in mid-May with a joint Open Letter from Rail User groups from North Wales and Northwest England who had similar concerns with the service TfW was providing. The irrefutable facts the WBRUA provided in its Statement and subsequently incorporated in the Open Letter resulted in the media picking up on the problem, and Questions in both Parliament and the Welsh Senedd. On 13th June Lee Waters MS (the Welsh Government Minister responsible for rail) accompanied by Jan Chaudhry van der Velde (TfW Rail’s Managing Director) met with representatives from the WBRUA in Wrexham and travelled with us over the line to Shotton. At this meeting a Five Point Plan to improve performance on the Wrexham-Bidston line was promised.

 

The ‘Plan’ was published and made public shortly afterwards. Whilst the ‘Plan’ identified 5 positive and welcome initiatives, the WBRUA fed back that it did not clearly identify measurable deliverables or timescales. One positive was a commitment to allocate a senior manager to the line to drive improvements. This happened in July and the WBRUA has had weekly Teams meetings with him for the last two months. He has established a more detailed plan and provides a weekly dashboard monitoring performance. There has been some improvement in the service since mid-summer and it is to be hoped that further initiatives in the pipeline, several of which were proposed by this Association, will accelerate the upturn. The WBRUA continues to challenge TfW, providing constructive feedback for improvement from local knowledge and detailed observations, underpinned by experience of railway operations.

 

In the past TfW was difficult to engage with in any meaningful way, but the relationship has improved significantly, demonstrated by a very informative session at Birkenhead North depot with their engineers, the information shared by Jez Williams in our weekly meetings and Jan Chaudhry van der Velde agreeing to speak at our AGM on 17th November. Guy & I, together with other User Groups, met and questioned TfW’s CEO at Chester on 8th August, after which we were shown plans for the upgrade of Chester station).

 

I’ve got this far without mentioning the Class 230s which entered service at the time the Spring Newsletter was published. Internally the 230s have been well received by passengers but they have suffered a number of problems and have been a major factor in the line’s poor performance.  In the early summer during a period of extremely high tree pollen, the 230’s air filters quickly blocked up and engines overheated, an issue TfW are confident of fixing for next year. It was also found that the battery banks overheated after several return journeys, resulting in trains being changed over during the day to keep the batteries from overheating – again, steps are in hand to resolve this. Although the 230s got off to a bad start there has been a steady improvement in their reliability as we move into Autumn and TfW is currently committed to getting their performance up to a level that is acceptable.

 

In recent weeks the WBRUA has recorded 230009 delivering a better performance on some runs than the class 150 on the corresponding diagram. Looking forward it is hoped that performance and reliability on Borderlands will continue to improve. It may be that we will, in the coming months, see the Class 150s disappear from the route if there are sufficient Class 230s to sustain the whole timetable or, if not, possibly some services operated by class 197s.

 

Whilst the full two trains an hour service, first promised by TfW to start December 2021 is still some time off, the operator is keen to implement an enhanced service on an incremental basis once reliability is secure and rolling stock available. The recent Government announcement that funds are to be redistributed to other schemes following the cancellation of HS2 raises hope that the improved connection at Padeswood will be progressed, together with the required additional signalling to enable the full two trains an hour service to be implemented. The announcement also gives us an incentive to lobby again for the new station the WBRUA has been actively promoting for many years near the Deeside Industrial Park.

 

The recent opening of Headbolt Lane station, served by Class 777s changing from 3rd rail to battery power from Kirkby, is of huge relevance for Wrexham-Bidston-Liverpool through services. Both TfW and the Liverpool City Region (LCR) are keen to implement through services and the hopeful success of the Headbolt Lane service will underpin further extensions to the Merseyrail network beyond the existing electrified third rail routes. The WBRUA fully supports the integration of the Wrexham-Bidston line into the Merseyrail network and is ambivalent to who operates/owns the trains (be it TfW, Merseyrail or some form of partnership) – it is the service provision from the passenger perspective that matters.

 

Whilst there are a number of routes within or just outside the LCR that could be integrated into the Merseyrail Network, it is clear that the Wrexham-Bidston line should be near the top, if not at top of that list. A key factor from the LCR perspective is that then Metro Mayor wants to see better services to Upton and Heswall as well as a new station at Woodchurch. This Association will continue to actively promote the introduction of a through service to Liverpool through all relevant channels.

 

And we can use your help to achieve these aims. Members are the eyes and ears of the Association and we now have a faster channel into TfW to report anything you become aware of relating to the line which could be of relevance. We have drawn TfWs senior managers’ attention to informed comments made on social media, and your views are also always welcome. Any assistance you can give the Association will be appreciated as we push (and, as the Operator now accepts, assist) TfW to maintain a decent service and secure improvements.

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