I hope you’ve all had some time off this summer and have managed to get some quality time in doing the things that really matter most to you.
Since we were privileged to take over running your train network last year a huge amount has happened, some of which you will have seen in the media and some of which you will have experienced first-hand.
I myself and the majority of my colleagues travel by train every single day too so we’re not blind to the problems and frustrations you’ve faced. Equally we see excellent customer service our staff give day in, day out, often in difficult circumstances.
A huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes and the journey of transformation is moving ahead. So I am pleased to be able to give you an update on where we are and what you can expect from us going forward.
Capacity, cancellations and short forming
Firstly, I must apologise to anyone who has found themselves on a very busy train, unable to get a seat or worse still, not able to board at all.
That’s not something we ever wanted to see when we took over and I know just what a big impact that can have on your day as a customer. We need to deliver for you.
We inherited a small and old fleet of trains last year which we are keeping going through the tireless work of our engineers. But the trains need replacement (the new trains are ordered and paid for) but also modifications, refurbishment and investment to keep them going in the shorter term.
From next year all UK trains must comply with accessibility requirements. This is the right thing to do and we are passionate about making the railway far more accessible. About ¾ of the trains we inherited didn’t comply. So we’ve been taking a small number out of service at a time to get them up to standard. However this has reduced the total fleet available and when other issues occur we have had no spare trains to cover, which impacts too much on you the customer.
Unfortunately, because it’s an old fleet, we’ve seen more trains than normal needing general repairs too. And because we cover such a large rural network, we’ve had multiple tree and animal strikes, which take longer to repair.
We are also acutely aware that we experienced particularly bad issues in autumn last year and to combat that we are investing heavily in better technology (called wheel slip protection and automatic sanding) to protect our trains ahead of poor weather this autumn and winter. However again this means extra trains need to come out of service for this work to take place.
All these things add up and at times we’ve been pushed to the limit of what we can put into service.
We have tried to avoid cancelling services entirely, but have been forced to “short form” trains. For example if we were very short one day we’d have to run 1 two-carriage train, instead of 2 coupled together. A two carriage train is never ideal in a busy period, but is better than cancelling a service altogether. When we talk about making “difficult decisions”, this is the type of thing we mean.
I know this isn’t what you rightly expect your train service to provide and I would never seek to gloss over that, but I am a great believer that we must tackle whatever problems we are faced with head on.
We are blessed in wales and the borders to have some of the most skilled and committed people in the whole rail industry working for us and as a team we will build a service we can all be proud of. That will take time and there will be bumps in the road. At the start of our tenure, we tried to emphasise that the ‘journey begins’ because the new trains take years to build and there are very few spare diesel trains anywhere in the UK.
What are we doing about it?
As you may have read, an £800 million order is in place to build us a brand new fleet of trains. We’re very excited for that but have made no secret that they won’t be ready until 2023. Like buying a new build house, all the different components need to come together and we have purchased 148 new trains, meaning 95% of journeys in the future will be on brand new trains.
In the meantime we’ve been looking at short term options to increase our capacity in any way possible.
Some of you will have travelled on our two Class 37 trains on the Rhymney line, which are a stop gap, but are large trains which have made a real difference there in the short term. We also brought in five short trains (Class 153s) from GWR in the spring. We continue to explore all options where these are feasible, but some trains cannot operate on all routes in Wales due to their size, weight or design.
When we took over this contract, we identified opportunities to refurbish old trains to a great standard. These will be an excellent capacity solution and we’ve ordered some to join our fleet. However both suppliers of these trains have experienced delays, and while incredibly disappointing from our point of view, we understand that these conversions are difficult and innovative. We’ll continue to work with the suppliers to get where we need to be.
As other train operators get new fleets, ordered a few years ago, some older trains are becoming available. Many of those are perfectly good trains and in some cases, are newer than our current fleet. Early in September, the first of these arrived in Wales, ready for driver training. We have secured 12 of these and you will see them in service before the end of the year.
Myself and colleagues at Transport for Wales are incredibly grateful for your patience, loyalty and understanding. We are still early into our journey to transform this railway and we are proud to be your train operator. The future is bright, but there are many challenges to overcome on the way.
I plan to update you all via this blog regularly. I will also be occasionally available on our twitter channel for you to ask questions.
Colin Lea, Customer Experience Director