Open Letter from Rail User Groups covering Merseyside,
Cheshire, Wrexham, Flintshire & Shropshire
Mid-Cheshire Rail Users’ Association
North Cheshire Rail Users’ Association
Shrewsbury-Chester Rail Users’ Association
Wirral Transport Users’ Association
Wrexham-Bidston Rail Users’ Association
At a recent joint meeting of our Associations we unanimously agreed that Transport for Wales (TfW) had consistently failed to deliver an acceptable train service for the passengers we represent. Those who have attempted to use the Wrexham-Bidston, North Wales Coast, Chester-Warrington & Liverpool and Shrewsbury-Chester lines have suffered severe delays, cancellations, shorter (and therefore overcrowded) trains and very poor levels of communication throughout the tenure of this Train Operator. TfW has fallen well behind the standards of other comparable operators in recovering from the effects of the pandemic, a situation made worse by their concentration of effort in South Wales to the detriment of routes in the North and Borders.
In the Autumn of 2018, shortly after TfW took over the Wrexham-Bidston line, the train service was suspended for some weeks ‘because more trains than usual needed maintenance’. Over four years later the train service was suspended by TfW for the same reason, but this time it was not even the trains which operate the Wrexham-Bidston service, but mainline class 175s and it was weeks before an hourly service was reinstated. Over the period TfW have operated the line, services have also been withdrawn at short notice because of ‘staffing issues’.
The Office of Rail Regulation has expressed concern about the failure to maintain the Class 175 fleet (causing three failures following engine compartment fires) and issued the following Improvement Notice on 17th March 2023:
Transport for Wales Limited as the Train Operator have failed to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable that passengers and employees are not exposed to the risk of harm. Three fires have occurred within a one month period between February and March 2023 onboard class 175 trains whilst in passenger service. The operator has failed to implement effective arrangements for the organisation, control and monitoring for the maintenance of the class 175 fleet needed to ensure the safe operation of the transport system.
On 20th March 2023 Transport Focus also made an official complaint about the passenger experience as a result of on-going fleet issues. Writing to the COO at TfW, it asked for an action plan with timescales for a raft of improvements around performance, reliability, provision of information and honesty. Transport Focus commented that users responding to their recent survey put Transport for Wales in joint bottom place for overall satisfaction, alongside TransPennine Express, and in the bottom few for all other categories, including punctuality, reliability, crowding and information during the journey. In the weeks since that letter, we have seen scant evidence of the improvements requested.
Rail replacement bus services take up to twice as long as the train. They are poorly signposted, with TfW stating that it is not their policy to issue hard copies of the bus timetable at stations. Replacement buses on the Chester-Warrington-Manchester route only appear around 50% of the time, and members of these User Groups find themselves advising passengers who are wandering around stations looking for information. Services diagrammed for 4-car trains (seating capacity over 250) have been covered by 56-seat coaches at Shrewsbury and TfW staff in North Wales have told the public that they have no authority to order taxis for stranded passengers, everything having to be agreed through Cardiff. More fundamentally, the ongoing lack of train service and poor bus-substitutes forces those who use them to find alternatives (in many cases, their cars), further undermining their confidence in rail and almost certainly impacting on the local economy as well as worsening the congestion on our roads. Buses are typically carrying less than 10% of the passengers who would have previously travelled by train.
TfW has consistently failed to provide accurate and up to date information, and ongoing unreliability has resulted in passengers questioning their ability to operate the North Wales and Border routes. Derogatory comments on social media are never uncommon; however, what is striking in the case of TfW is the massive tide of negative opinion and absence of any comments in their favour from correspondents outside South Wales. Media posts make it clear that the travelling public have lost all confidence with the Wrexham-Bidston train service. The User Groups are aware that passengers have been unable to take up offers of employment because of the lack of a reliable train service, whilst others have left existing posts for the same reason.
The introduction into service of new rolling stock by TfW has been an unacceptably protracted affair. Had the Class 230s and more 197s been in service by now (as per TFW’s original plan), the loss of 175s would not be as critical. The Class 230s first arrived at Wrexham in the summer of 2020 and at the time of writing just one unit of the five delivered (total cost circa £25M) is in passenger service at any one time, operating every two hours between Wrexham and Bidston. The trains’ manufacturers Vivarail assured the WBRUA in September 2022 that all technical issues had been resolved, yet these new trains are losing time every day against a schedule set many years ago for 40-year old trains. Notwithstanding the train testing and driver-training programme there have been a dozen failures since 3rd April for technical reasons and timekeeping was no better some six weeks after their introduction. TfW say that all new trains suffer teething problems and that timekeeping will improve when drivers gain the confidence to use the greater performance of the new trains. We find this unacceptable.
We suggest that this situation could have been avoided with more effective management of its rolling stock assets by TfW. Some workings on the North Cheshire line are short formed, particularly Saturday morning services to Manchester. Recently a wheelchair passenger was left on the platform at Warrington due to no room on the train - not even standing room. Much-publicised locomotive-hauled trains to the North Wales Coast have been replaced by cramped two-coach multiple units designed for short journeys. Unfortunately, this is yet another item on an increasing list of failures to deliver what was promised and expected.
Significant public money has been spent without the benefits from the investment being realised in a timely manner. Ticket revenue is continuously being undermined - the ticket gates at Chester are typically left open from 19:30hrs in the evening, many TfW conductors are not checking tickets on board and very rarely leave the cab on evening services. Announcements are of poor quality if they are even made.
The impact on TfW’s bottom line must be significant. Furthermore, the short-listing of non-electrified routes to be worked by the new battery-electric Class 777s recently introduced by Merseyrail is dependent upon, among other things, passenger demand. While bodies like the Liverpool City Region and GrowthTrack 360 (GT360) are appreciating the value of routes currently operated by TfW, the failures on the part of this operator are in danger of making routes such as Wrexham-Bidston appear an unattractive investment as revenue plummets.
All the foregoing points to a complete failure of Senior Management. We believe that an independent review of TfW should be instigated as a matter of urgency, determining where the root cause of the problems lie and what needs to be done to rectify the situation. In the meantime as a minimum, the Welsh Government should be demanding reassurances from TfW that it is exploring all options for returning regular passenger services with suitable rolling stock wherever they have been withdrawn as soon as humanly possible. There is already a chorus of voices saying that the Wrexham-Bidston, and indeed other lines, should be taken over by an operator with a better focus on our region rather than remain with TfW which is both South Wales based and focussed.