The occasionally Wales based Westminster based Welsh Affairs Committee has condemned the "old and cramped" trains provided by Arriva Trains Wales. The Select Committee has noted that many of the problems associated with the rail franchise were down to "a huge failure" to allow for more passengers when the current 15-year franchise was originally awarded in 2003.
Even Arriva informed the committee some of the trains being used were "approaching 4.5 million miles on the clock". That’s an equivalent to travelling to the moon and back nine times – but without any of the mod cons that the Apollo spacecraft had. Personally I would have some concerns about going to the moon in a 27-year-old spacecraft…but at least it might be warmer than some of the trains I have ridden in to and from work this and previous winters.
The Select Committee Report has calculated that rail passenger numbers have increased by approximately 75% since the franchise was first established. No allowance for growth in passenger numbers and extra trains in the terms of the contract awarded to Arriva by the Strategic Rail Authority, a body scrapped in 2006, it was revealed.
The committee was also told that the average age of the Wales and Borders fleet of trains was about 27 years old – if we think about the maintenance and reliability issues that come with running a 27-year-old car, then perhaps non regular rail users can begin to get a picture of the state of the rolling stock.
The Select Committee was right to recommend, because of the cross-border nature of some rail routes are included in the franchise, that a protocol be established allowing English rail passengers' concerns to be heard by Welsh ministers. As was also noted by the Select Committee, this time, when the franchise comes up for renewal in 2018 it will be the Welsh Government who will have the responsibility to ensure there are improvements.
Hopefully the Welsh Government ministers will pay particular attention to prospective bidders plans for the new franchise, especially as the current rail franchise holder in the running to compete for the new franchise. Those of us who are regular rail users have had to live with an often-ramshackle rail service, and will continue to do so for at least a few years more.
At least from 2018 the decision on who will run the next Wales and Borders franchise will be made in Wales. This may only prove to be a crumb of comfort if the Welsh Government has the vision, the ambition and the powers to ensure that we have rail franchise that’s has expanded capacity, reasonably priced rail fares and a plan to grow our rail network.