Save the Melksham Train
Welcome for Michael Ancram and Chris Grayling

Looks like tomorrow will be a big day, with our MP and the Shadow Transport spokeman in town. There will be some press there, a representative of First, a representative of Wilts County Council, a representative of the South West Regional assembly and many more. I don't know whether we'll have anyone from Government Offices South West, or from the Department for Transport, but I would very much hope so.

As I'm not really used to organising these things, I don't know exactly what to expect; I'll have a couple of possible agendas to hand to be able to make the visti effective whatever the metrics turn out to be, and I've even started to write myself some notes / possible 10 minute intro so I don't have to "wing" it too much and leave something out.

ALL welcome. If you can let me know, so much the better. If not, just turn up.

If I find myself talking, perhaps this is what I might say:

1. Welcome

a) I'm Graham Ellis - I run computer training courses here in Melksham. Many of our customers arrive and leave by train from their homes all over the country, and me and my family use the train and other public transport whenever we can for business and personal trips.

b) Welcome to Chris Grayling, shadow Transport Minister, and Michael Ancram who represents the Devizes constituency, which includes Melksham, in Parliament.

2. History and current service.

a) Melksham's train service comprises 5 trains each way Monday through Friday on the Swindon to Southampton service, with 4 on Saturday and 3 on Sunday.

b) Ticket sales for journeys to and from Melksham rose from about 3,000 in 2000/2001 to over 27,000 five years later, with around 109,000 journeys made on the stopping service through the station annually. That works out at an average of 32 passengers per train. Some trains are considerably busier, and some are quieter. One of the features of the traffic flow is that passenger
numbers on the same train, same day of the week can vary dramatically from week to week.

b) Tickets to and from Melksham are bought to and from Swindon, Bristol, and Salisbury in significant numbers (over 5% of sales each). There is also around 25% of long distance traffic; I have spoken with travellers to and from Neath, Exmouth, London, Bolton, Edinburgh, Cornwall, Bognor Regis, Southampton and York amongst others all within a few days.

c) The single track section of the line through Melksham is frequently used for diversion of express trains. For example, for 9 days at the end of September the line will be used for express trains from Chippenham to London which will pass through Melksham nonstop, and the local service will be replaced by buses from Westbury to Swindon. The service operator has explained to me that they cannot stop their expresses at Melksham.

d) Engineering works frequently close the line for all or part of the weekend. We have had only a handful of "regular service" weekend in the past 9 months.

e) Replacement buses are much slower (journey times doubled or worse) and unpopular; they convey perhaps a quarter of the passengers that would ride the equivalent train. Tickets have rarely been collected on the buses in the past, and in many cases no-one is provided to collect fares at either end of the journey either. This means that bus users are often riding free of charge and are NOT include in the usage statistics.

f) The weekday service has a fearsome cancellation record, and publicity and information is almost non-existent even at Swindon and Chippenham.

g) The station site in Melksham is unattractively positioned in the back of an industrial estate. Land has been earmarked to provide improved access via the new Spencer's Gate housing area, and the shops and restaurants close by. This land also provides for a relocated station a few hundred yards to the North of the present one.

h) The line is maintained to a high standard and has a generous loading gauge making it ideal for freight trains, which are seen from time to time. I understand from people who live within earshot of the railway that it can be pretty busy at night.

i) In spite of the negative factors described, traffic has grown over the years to the extent that I've travelled on trains - and NOT the peak trains either - where I've not been able to get a seat.

3. Threats and case

a) The Strategic Rail Authority specified the complete withdrawal of the Swindon to Southampton service in their request for bids for the new Great Western franchise that was awarded to the First group last December.

b) An alternative service of 2 per day in each direction is to be provided, with a specification that one train arrives in Swindon in the morning peak and another leaves in the evening peak.

c) All bidders were invited to put additional cases in their bids to the Department for Transport, and there have been stakeholder consultations and some service modifications through the area covered by the new franchise since then.

d) The latest draft timetable shows trains leaving Swindon for Chippenham, Melksham, Trowbridge and Westbury only at 06:20 and 18:32, arriving back there at 07:44 and 20:10. Only the 06:20 train runs within 30 minutes of an existing service.

e) Trains from Swindon at 08:43, 14:23, 17:42 and 22:11 are withdrawn. Trains arriving back there at 06:20, 08:18, 14:01, 17:21 and 22:01 are withdrawn.

f) If the proposed new service replaces the current one, it will no longer be possible to travel by train from London to Melksham except leaving London at 17:00 or 17:33.

g) If the proposed service changes go ahead, it will no longer be practical for commuters and business people to travel from Swindon and Chippenham to Melksham, Trowbridge, Westbury, Warminster or Salisbury to work, nor for them to return by train at the end of the day.

h) Commuters from Frome, Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham to Chippenham and Swindon face a much longer day - they will arrive in Swindon 34 minutes earlier than at present, and not be able to leave again until 42 minutes later than at present. The morning service from Frome will no longer be direct.

i) Train users who work part time or evenings will not have any suitable train service available.

j) Most of the weekend travel opportunities, including the option to work / spend the day in Swindon, will be removed under the draft weekend timetables. These have not been circulated as widely as the weekday drafts.

k) The First 234 bus service, which also serves Trowbridge, Melksham and Chippenham does NOT serve the station in Chippenham, even though there's a new road / rail interchange there, and First have promoted this as a part of their franchise publicity. Requests for the 234 bus to serve the station in Chippenham have been politely rejected on cost grounds.

l) New legislation (consultation was last April) relating to the complete closure of stations and services that do not meet certain economic criteria is likely to catch the much reduced Melksham service in its net. A service that continued to grow as the current service has done would most likely be safeguarded.

m) The British Rail Board Residual Body is planning to sell by auction on 31st October 2006 land which has been safeguarded for improved station access, and for the new station site.

n) Chippenham, Melksham, Trowbridge and Westbury all continue to grow, and are forecast to have some of the highest rates of growth anywhere in the UK. The road link between the (A350) is mostly single carriageway and has significant bottlenecks at Westbury, near Melksham Station, and at Beanacre. Road access into Swindon is congested and slow at peak times, and parking there is expensive.

o) Current train travel per head of population in Melksham is less than one twentieth of that of neighbouring towns such as Bradford on Avon and Chippenham, both of which have (and will retain) much more frequent services.

p) When asked to look at / review their decision, the Department for Transport quotes an SRA survey taken over a period of just over a week in Spring of 2005. Usage of the trains in that week was significantly lower than the averages revealed by section 2(b). Taking a short sample of traffic on a railway service that has significant peaks and troughs, and extending it to a complete year, is statistically flawed, and the evidence gathered is of little scientific and commercial use.

4. Discussion

a) With services cut back as proposed, I foresee a rapid drop in the number of passengers using the service.

b) If the current service was retained, I would see continued growth at the sort of levels we've seen averaged over the past few years. Such growth would be stimulated by a more reliable service (promised by First throughout the Franchise area), improved station facilities (also promised by First), and by better information and marketing.

c) If the current service was replaced by a regular interval (2 hourly) service leaving Westbury at 05:45, 07:45, 09:45 and 11:45, then 14:45, 16:45, 18:45 and 20:45, returning from Swindon 1 hour later, traffic levels would increase dramatically. This service could be provided by a single type "153" coach and could be run as an extension of the Southampton to Westbury service through 2007, perhaps being taken over by the new operator of the South West franchise at that point.

d) The economic case (best financial balance sheet) of these three cases is in favour of the regular interval service. This option also provides the best solution for passenger convenience and for the economics of the towns served, and encourages their continued prosperity.

4. Where from here

a) We strongly encourage the Department for Transport and the First group to provide an appropriate train service from this December. As a minimum, this service should be at the current level, but the better case, economically and socially, is for a train every 2 hours.

b) We request that the more detailed timetable review re-times the morning train into Swindon to arrive shortly after 8 a.m. and to leave on its return shortly before 6 p.m. so that it retains its utility as a commuter service.

c) We request that the land safeguarded for station access / improvements at Melksham remains safeguarded.

5. Conclusion

a) I would like to thank everyone who has supported the "TransWilts" train service and the case for its retention; they are too numerous to mention, but I would especially like to thank to Michael Ancram and to Chris Grayling, for all their efforts on our behalf so far. They are truely appreciated.

b) We must continue to press the case for the TransWilts train. Although things may look bleak today, I'm reminded of the railway line to Looe that was within 2 weeks of complete closure in the time of Dr Beeching, but was reprived at the last minute. Today, trains are so busy in the summer that the conductor can't even get around to everyone during the journey. It CAN be done, even at this 11th hour.

Written 2006-07-06 10:05:27

Available entries ...

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Looking slightly wider
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Welcome to News and Views
Welcome to News and Views

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