Rhodri Clark spoke to Colin Lea, mobilisation director at Transport for Wales Rail Services

 

The entire fleet used by ATW will be replaced between 2019 and 2024, mostly with 148 new trains

 

The months and years ahead will be ones of major change at Wales and Borders, for employees and passengers alike. The transition from the current franchise, held by Arriva since 2003, to the new rail service will be particularly marked because of the contrasting nature of the respective contracts.

Arriva was awarded a “no growth” contract, which inevitably resulted in more than a decade of near-stasis, with no new trains and few significant timetable changes. The new contract, which takes over train operation next month, is the diametric opposite. The entire fleet used by ATW will be replaced between 2019 and 2024, mostly with 148 new trains from CAF and Stadler. The Core Valley Lines, north of Cardiff Central, will be electrified, with tram-trains introduced on the Pontypridd side and tri-mode (diesel, electric, battery) units on the Rhymney and Coryton lines.

These, and many other innovations, will make up for lost time. However, Transport for Wales (TfW) also needs to manage public expectations, because changes noticeable to passengers will take time to emerge.

By now, relief should have appeared in the form of five four-car Class 769 units, converted from former Thameslink EMUs. They were announced by the Welsh Government last year and KeolisAmey’s bid was predicated on them being in use on the Valley Lines by next month. Colin Lea, mobilisation director for TfW Rail Services, now hopes they will be available in time to allow full deployment with an amended timetable from May – which would release more Sprinter units for modifications to meet the Persons with Reduced Mobility deadline of January 1, 2020.

Is there a Plan B if Class 769 does not arrive in the next few months, or does not work reliably in the steeply-graded Valleys? “There are very, very few options out there,” replies Lea. “We’re very pleased with the progress Vivarail are making with the five Class 230s for North Wales, but really the 769s are critical to the PRM mods.” The 230s will replace four Class 150 units.

An early improvement which is not dependent on additional rolling stock is the introduction of additional Sunday services, the first of which will commence in December 2018, subject to final national timetable checks. Frequencies are currently unchanged since British Rail days on some parts of the network. From December 2019, Sunday train mileage is planned to be 22% higher than today, including year-round Sunday services
on the Maesteg, Llandudno and Conwy Valley lines.

Another significant change in the new contract is the replacement of the Public Performance Measure (PPM) with Passenger Time Lost (PTL). Train punctuality will be recorded at numerous points along the route, including all stations where services on more than one line connect with each other. PTL will also take account of the numbers of passengers on each service.

“It’s designed to measure the impact on passengers,” says Lea, who is employed by Keolis but has a TfW job title to help present a unified front to the public. “We’ve got a period when the staff get used to it. It will take us a while to change the timetables to get away from the odd buffer that’s built up in places [near the ends of journeys]. It [PTL] takes away the incentive for us to turn trains around short. It will ensure that we put our resources into the trains that are affecting most people. It will make a big difference.”

The new service will also be monitored on various other performance indicators, including station cleanliness and service quality. This is similar to the regime instituted by the Scottish Government for the ScotRail franchise.

TfW, which takes direction on high level policy from the Welsh Government, sidestepped the difficulties which have arisen at some Department for Transport franchises by specifying a funding envelope for Wales and Borders bidders, who competed to offer the best services within the financial parameters. The overall envelope was disaggregated as an envelope for the first 4.5 years and other amounts for the three subsequent periods, with bidders able to flex their annual spending within each period.

Lea remarks that Keolis bid for the DfT’s InterCity East Coast and TransPennine franchises but its cautious approach was not welcomed. “We had substantial, multi-million pound bids where we were beaten by an unsustainable offer,” says Lea, pointing to FirstGroup’s recent warnings of losses at the TransPennine Express franchise.

“That’s why, when the Welsh opportunity came up, we were keen to bid for it. We’ve got a proper budget to work with, thanks to TfW’s evaluation process. Importantly, it was based on a balanced approach across a range of critical measures, with the aim of learning from franchise lessons from the past.”

Referring to KeolisAmey, he adds: “Our shareholders are interested in long-term, stable returns. We’re not in it for the years of ‘wonderful’ followed by years of ‘nightmare’. We were perfectly happy with the sharing mechanism and the scope.”

The profit-sharing mechanism resembles those in recent DfT franchises, he says. However, TfW was determined that it and the bidders would be realistic about revenue growth. It gave bidders an expected growth profile, which Lea says was based on historic growth on a network operated with old and sometimes inadequate rolling stock.

New rolling stock, service improvements and station modernisation are expected to accelerate growth, despite the Welsh Government’s decision that Wales and Borders will match the DfT’s RPI+1% fares increases from 2020. Some one-off fares reductions are planned, notably in North Wales. If revenue grows ahead of TfW’s profile, KeolisAmey will share the profit with TfW, up until a maximum cap is reached. Above that, all of the additional profit goes to TfW, an arm’s length body of the Welsh Government.

Penalties will be incurred if passengers routinely stand for more than 20 minutes, on any route. This may seem a tall order on the Core Valley Lines, where the tram-trains will have relatively large areas for standees. However, Lea is relaxed, pointing to the frequency improvements after the CVL are electrified. There will be four trains per hour (tph) from the head of each valley, resulting in 12tph between Pontypridd and Cardiff – where the trains are particularly busy with students as well as commuters.

“It will require a change in the kind of travel patterns that people are used to. We’re moving to an urban transport system.” He remarks that currently the commuter peaks are sharply defined, with almost no shoulder peaks. “We may see that peak periods widen, as people see they can trust the service more.

“In Nottingham, where we [Keolis] run trams, the peak is far more spread out than here,” says Lea, speaking in Cardiff.

The CVL cater for journeys of an hour from the heads of the valleys as well as short journeys in greater Cardiff. Major reductions in journey times will follow electrification, but Lea explains that the length of journeys from the upper Valleys influenced the choice of tram-train, rather than trams.

In some respects, the CVL will replicate Manchester Metrolink, also operated by KeolisAmey, but the Stadler Citylink vehicles are closer to trains and less like trams than Metrolink’s vehicles. Another reason for choosing tram-train is capacity at Cardiff Queen Street station, which has double track approaches and junctions at both ends and only four through platforms.

“We’ve got a proper budget to work with, thanks to TfW’s evaluation process”

The intensive service frequencies required by TfW dictated that two trains per hour from the Pontypridd direction will need to use the City Line (via Fairwater) to arrive in Cardiff Central, then continue to Queen Street and out of the city towards Pontypridd. No services will need to reverse at Queen Street, with the Cardiff Bay branch being served by trains from and to the Pontypridd direction. Signalling and track changes are needed to reflect the future service pattern, which entails all Cardiff Bay services crossing the path of trains from the Rhymney and Coryton lines to Barry and Penarth.

The CVL are due to transfer from Network Rail to Welsh Government ownership in September 2019 (subject to legal and regulatory approvals), with Transport for Wales Rail Services operating, maintaining and electrifying them as a vertically integrated system. The City Line was not part of the initial negotiations over the asset transfer, but Lea says there are talks underway with Network Rail to consider including within the scope of the asset transfer the section from Radyr to the loop line west of Ninian Park which connects the City Line to the main line to Swansea.

Vertical integration removes the Schedule 4 and 8 regime, which sees Network Rail making payments to Train Operating Companies (TOCs) in respect of planned and unplanned disruption. However, a similar regime will still be needed where the CVL interface with Network Rail assets, and to allow for future use of the freight paths which will be preserved on the CVL. The Office of Rail and Road will continue to regulate the CVL.

Will vertical integration reduce costs? “I believe that there are savings to be had from vertical integration, and better customer focus,” Lea responds. Electrifying the CVL will involve considerable disruption to passengers, but the disruption will be managed in a more customer focused way, he says.

Valuable time is lost during engineering possessions because of the “red tape” before work can start. “As we will be vertically integrated, we will be able to cut through some of that red tape – whilst ensuring safety is our number one priority, of course – which allows us to be more productive and more sensible about access at different times.”

At the same time, the CVL will remain part of the national rail network, complete with RSSB and other railway standards and through ticketing (a feature lost when the Bury and Altrincham lines were converted to Metrolink operation).

The “design and discovery” phase of the CVL modernisation began on 4 June. A team of 35 is undertaking due diligence and detailed surveys of the existing assets. Early answers are needed because the information is vital to the design process, including determining the optimum location of new crossing loops.

The work will also reveal the extent of Japanese knotweed infestation along the CVL. “It’s a really big problem here,” Lea observes.

 

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