Save the Melksham Train
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Listening to Dr Keith Robinson, Chief Executive of Wiltshire County Council - 2346/5371
Written by admin (Graham Ellis) on Wednesday, 23rd May 2007

Yesterday evening, I attended the AGM of the local Chamber of Commerce and had the pleasure of listening to a talk from Dr Keith Robinson, Chief Executive of Wiltshire County Council, as to why the county should become a unitary authority and the district councils (West Wilts, North Wilts, Salisbury and Kennet) should be swept away.  Much of his explanation came down to the efficiency of having a single organsisation, and the confusion caused at present by the multiple levels.

Talking to a business audience, in a beautiful county where tourism is also important (and access for business and tourist too), I was disappointed to here only scant mention of encouraging a business enviroment, just one mention of the proposed new authority being the "Highway authority" and not a single word on helping / encouraging tourism, nor on public transport.  However, I was encouraged to here that the Unitary County would be so confident that it could save between 15 and 20 million pounds in each year that it's "bid" that to the government, and in reallity they feel they can save a lot more.

Towards the end of the questions, during which Dr Keith did make some responses on tourism (admitting responsibility, and perhaps a lack of attention in the past) but still nothing on access / transport.  Since the talk was primarily on the gains we would make by going unitary, I explained to him that under his control the county council (the local transport authority) had presided over the loss of all through rail services across the county - putting public transport journey times up from 50 minutes to 100 (Chippenham to Salisbury) and for all intents and purposes from 25 minutes to 95 from Melksham to Swindon. I asked him whether he was happy with this change, and what effect / difference we would see from a unitary authority. 

Dr Keith explained that they have no control over the train operators and that, whilst they weren't happy with the change, it was out of their hands.  When informed that First were willing to run the service, and indeed had met with the council to try and sort something out, Dr Keith suggested that I am better informed than he is and asked that we carry on the discussion later.

The chief executive does indeed have many things on his plate - the annual savings that he's talking of making are over a hundred times what it would cost him to oli the wheels of an appropriate Transwilts train service, for the benefit of all the local ratepayers and businesses - the business development potential from a decent train service is huge and indeed a vibrant economy would cut other social costs by more than the subsidy.  But I was shocked that he didn't appear to have even an overview of some of the facts of the case, and I'm happy to have brought some to his attention.

Later discussions did get a little more detailed, and will open a correspondence - he shares with me the objective of helping economic and tourist growth, and conceded that visitors from London to Melksham may well be put off now that a 25 minute direct train ride from Swindon has turned into a 95 bus ride with a change in Devizes.

The Doctor raised Corsham and Boscombe Down stations as major areas that the council had worked hard an made major steps towards the re-opening of stations; personally, I feel that the self-congratulation on Corsham (at least) is premature as the plans got killed off when the Oxford - Bristol trains were withdrawn. Success should be measured in terms of traffic grown (0% - there is no station!) rather than how near they managed to get.

Keith Robinson acknowledged the large commuter flow out of the proposed unitary area - to Swindon, Southampton, Bath and Bristol - and the need to provide public transport rather than rely on cars into the future. He is talking about the Unitary authority / current re-arrangements having a life of 30 years, so is planning for 30 years hence.  And in that time, there will be major growth in the five towns, and Chippenham too.

We discussed what I feel to be a rather curious decision to offer additional public support for the Trowbridge to Swindon bus service, but not to have done so yet for the train service.  Both have roughly the same ridership numbers (between 110k and 140k journeys last year), but the train took 35 minutes and the bus takes 95.  It was expained to me that the different decisions were based on the fact that the bus serves intermediate points;  alas, the good doctor had no suitable answer when I pointed ou that the train, too, served intermediate locations such as Melksham which doesn't have any direct public transport service to Salisbury or (to all intents and purposes) to Swindon.

I went to the meeting with no intention of ambushing the chief executive ... but rather made the decision that I should raise the matter when I realised (with some shock) that public transport matters were below his radar.  I will be writing further to him with expanded information and a fuller case; he has promised to look further at this and get back again to me, and I hope that this will be in a very positive way.  There's a real chance of a low-cost "win-win" here - a much shorter term and cheaper project than building a brand new station anywhere, with a real economic and commercial payback for the county.

Re: Listening to Dr Keith Robinson, Chief Executive of Wiltshire County Council - 2346/5372
Written by admin (Graham Ellis) on Wednesday, 23rd May 2007

Can I suggest that if anyone here would like to help fill Dr Keith Robinson in on the subjects we cover on this board, they might like to email him.  Email addresses at WCC are firstname lastname at wiltshire dot gov dot uk ... and his is no exception  ;)

link to index of articles

Save the Train was the campaign to bring an approriate train service back to and through Melksham.

Most big contributors are still around writing at the Coffee shop forum where new members are very welcome.

The train has been saved - sort of - we have stepped back up from an unusable service to a poorish one but it's doing very well. We did that through setting up the TransWilts Community Rail Partnership. That fulfilled its early objectives; it has been taken over by local and regional government types who are now doing medium and long term work. The team from this forun can also be found at the Melksham Rail User Group (which was the Melksham Rail Development Group at the time these articles were written and we had no users.

We mustn't loose sight, though, that the train service remains poor and needs our community support in marketing and campaigning to keep it going in a positive direction ... and all the more so when we're expecting to find a different normallity once we get out of the Coronavirus Pandemic and head for zero carbon via the climate crisis. Yes, it's saved ... it's now a key community facility ... the need for enhancement and the strong and near-universal local support remain, and the rail industry and goverment remain slow to move and provide the enhancements even to level us up with other towns. Please support the Melksham Rail User Group - now very much in partnership rather than protest with the rail industry and local government, including GWR, TransWilts and unitary and town councils. And please use the trains and buses, and cycle and walk when you can.

-- Graham Ellis, (webmaster), February 2021

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