Sunday, 13 October 2013


I now regularly sees the sun come up whilst trundling rapidly across the Gwent levels and regularly stand on Cardiff (Central) Station waiting for connections amidst the tantalising smells wafting across from the Brain brewery (at least when there is a South West or West wind). I find that I have become a regular rail user, joining the many thousands of people commuting to (and from work) in the south.

As a regular rail user (Arriva Trains)I find that to be honest, aside from the occasional glitch (over running maintenance from weekends, periodic broken down trains, point’s failures and cable thefts, etc) most of the time the system seems to function. Having lived, worked and commuted in London (for some seven and half years) I find myself commuting by train again. On a good day I can make it from station to station (Treforest to Newport, etc) in around 50 mins (and that with one change) which is not too bad.

A simple choice: People before Profits
Other rail travellers are not so lucky, with rail franchise operators running services that ensure certain connections literally cannot be made, which is one way to avoid getting fined. This is not a satisfactory way to run a rail service, the key word here being ‘Service’. Obviously this state of affairs speaks volumes,especially as it fails to impact on the Westminster elite (I use the term loosely) as they tend not to travel by train very much (save when cultivating votes).

In much of our country trains a once cheap and reasonably reliable form of public transport is conspicuous by its absence, that not to mention costs and infrequent services deter actual and potential rail passengers. When you factor in the legacy of the Conservative and Labour rail service rundown and cuts in the 1960 and early 1970’s and excessive profiteering on the part of the privatised passenger franchise holders and much is explained.

Our country suffered particularly badly from rail cuts in the late 1960’s when Labour was in office under Harold Wilson, that and the pit closure programme that hit hard in the south and north east. The privatisation of British Rail, something that New Labour loudly boasted that they themselves would have done if the Conservatives had not already done it, was one of the latter significant more questionable ideologically driven batch of privatisations (between 1994 and 1997).

For the best part of ten years prior to privatisation British Rail could best perhaps have been described as starved of funds. The passenger arm was initially broken up upon privatisation into 25 seperate passenger franchises. Our country’s rail region Wales and West ended up as Wessex Trains and Wales and Borders which at one point included the Cardiff Railway Company services which operated as Valley Lines. This franchise was then split into two separate franchises, which are currently run by First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales.

Our current franchise was awarded to Arriva Trains Wales in 2003 and runs for 15 years, and is due to end in 2018. There have been many persistent calls for the rail franchise to be run as a not-for-profit operation – with profits being feed back into the system, rather than vanishing to pay shareholders dividends. The Welsh Government has been considering this option for when the deal ends. Arriva Trains Wales is the only train firm covered by the Welsh Government’s transport remit. Any longer-distance services e.g. Swansea or Cardiff to Paddington are currently operated by First Great Western who have their fares regulated by the Westminster Department for Transport.

Now while this may well be ancient history, but it has implications for the way the railway franchises run how their profits are made and where they go. Despite the best efforts of New Labour and the Con Dems to reduce it, the franchise companies still receive a significant chunk of public (state) funding. Basically this has to be repaid to the Government before any profits can be made on top – hence the regular (and painful) rise in rail fares. It would make more sense for profits made to stay in the system rather than get hovered up to pay shareholders dividends and senior mangers fat bonuses.

The service we currently get reflects the disinterested priorities of the franchise holder rather than our national priorities when it comes to our railways and the services we need. A couple of weeks ago, I used the Arriva trains service from Betws-y-Coed to Llandudno junction (my actual destination was Conwy) but connecting trains (that stop) could best be described as infrequent. The friendly advice was to walk across the bridge to the town rather than wait a few hours for the connecting service (as Conwy appears to be an infrequent request stop).

For those people who don’t know about it, the Conwy Valley line is one of our country’s most beautiful rail journeys (at least in my opinion) it runs from Llandudno (via Llandudno Junction) to Blaenau Festiniog is single track and served by a series of unstaffed  stations (some of which are request stops). If I am being honest the service provided could best be described as minimal and inconvenient for potential passengers, possibly far less of service runs on the line than at any time since the railway was built with a train every three hours on weekdays and Saturdays, with six departures per day each way in total.

The electrification of the local lines into Cardiff, Bridgend, Newport and Swansea is long overdue as is the tram system to link the Bay properly with the rest of Cardiff. The Transport (Wales) Act which came into effect in February 2006 gave the National Assembly the powers to plan and co-ordinate an integrated transport system, how much longer do we have to wait to see some vision? In the meantime the rail companies have been busy ramping up rail fares, attempting to reduce rail services, all with the tacit co-operation of the Westminster Labour Government and the Department for transport (in London).

Such duplicity has never been acceptable - it’s time for our government in Cardiff to take the long term view, to bite the bullet and actually put its money where its mouth is and work to redevelop our rail services, boost the development of rail freight and to co-ordinate rail and bus services across the whole of Wales. To do this effectively Wales needs to have full control of its transport policy and transport budget devolved as quickly as possible and the franchise when it is renewed in 2017 needs to be run on a not for dividend profit basis. That day cannot come soon enough!

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