Save the Melksham Train
PLEASE LOBBY - First, Dft, County Council, your MP

Now is a good time to make your voice count .... please have a look through this and email your opinions about the future of the service to the movers and shakers. There's a chance they might even move and shake!

Thanks! -- Graham

In December, the First group, under a specification set out by the Department for Transport, slashed the service by two thirds, and there are now just 2 trains a day each way. Worse, the new service runs at times that are (to put it mildly) far from what the customers want - 06:19 and 18:42 from Swindon. And worse AGAIN - as many as 1 in 2 of the remaining trains are cancelled. Little wonder that a service that had grown, compound, 35% per annum for each of the previous five years has lost 90% of its traffic. And the alternatives are miserable - driving up and down the A350, changing trains with an awkard interchange at Bath, or using a bus that sporadically goes to the station at Chippenham where you have to change. All with much longer journey times.

First are in serious trouble with the Department for Transport over their performance and they're having a series of crisis meetings, and also reviewing the timetables to run from now, and from May 2007, and from December 2007.

Can I ask you, please, to have a look through the text below and make YOUR inputs to the key players - "if you don't ask you don't get" over the next few days. There's a consultation closing next Monday, then further dates and deadlines beyond that for other changes. Please ask for:

a) Provision of a service that actually runs according to the timetable
then
b) An immediate service that meet the 9 key travel needs of the West Wilts corridor - which is no more than a return to the needs that were met prior to December
then
c) From May or December 2007, a 2 hourly service - from Swindon at 06:45, 08:45, 10:45, 13:45, 15:45, 17:45, 19:45 returning from Westbury 1 hour later. That's just one train on the line - a realistic minimum service.

The key players to write to are:

Andrew Griffiths andrew.griffiths@firstgroup.com
Alison Forster alison.forster@firstgroup.com
Dean Finch dean.finch@firstgroup.com

Peter West Peter.West@dft.gsi.gov.uk
Tom Harris Tom.Harris@dft.gsi.gov.uk
Andrew Seedhouse Andrew.SEEDHOUSE@gosw.gsi.gov.uk

George Batten georgebatten@wiltshire.gov.uk
Eric Egar ericegar@wiltshire.gov.uk
Fleur de Rhe-Philipe fleurderhephilipe@wiltshire.gov.uk

and IMPORTANTLY your MP:

Michael Ancram ancramm@parliament.uk
Andrew Murrison murrisona@parliament.uk
James Gray grayj@parliament.uk
Anne Snelgrove SNELGROVEA@parliament.uk

This make sense for Wiltshire as a whole (the line links the five largest population centres, with stong travel links needed), for West Wiltshire (Warminster, Westbury and Trowbridge links to Chippenham and Swindon) and especially for Melksham which currently has no viable train service at all.

I enclose (following) a letter I sent to Peter West yesterday, as it provide a great deal of extra background information if you wish to read further in to theis subject.

Many thanks.

Graham

Graham Ellis
404 The Spa, Melksham, Wilts
http://www.wellho.net graham@wellho.net
See also http://www.savethetrain.org.uk
+44 (0) 1225 708225 (phone) +44 (0) 1225 707126 (fax)

Dear Peter,

I'm writing to you concerning train services on FGW's Swindon to Westbury line, where traffic grew by between 8% and 35% per annum from 2000 to 2005 (depending on which statistics you use), but has evaporated since the new timetable of 11th December as the service is infrequent and often cancelled (1 in 2 already for this week), with no trains at all left at the time that people need to travel.

I understand (email copy at the end) that you have been reading with interest various letters copied to you, but haven't to date responded as they weren't asking you questions directly. So please can I ask some questions directly? ((I'm going to put "QUESTION" in my text where I would like a response, but I'm also going to give a lot of supporting background as I'm copying other parties who may not be as well informed as - I hope you are ;-) ))

*** BACKGROUND

GEOGRAPHY AND PASSENGER FLOWS

The line / service concerned is from Swindon to Chippenham, Melksham, Trowbridge, Westbury with potential service onward to Warminster and Salisbury, and / or to Frome. Passengers from the northern 2 stations (Swindon and Chippenham) to the southern stations (Trowbridge and beyond) can travel by other services changing at Bath. This is a 'dogleg' journey with connections that are "hit and miss" and a change at a station that's far from good for the change. Journey times are much extended. Melksham, population 24,000 and estimated to rise to 32,000 under the RSS (Regional Spatial Strategy) has no alternative train service, and the bus to London (for example) takes 3.5 hours rather that 1.5 hours by train. Journey times from Melksham to Swindon - perhaps the most popular journey - extend from 25 minutes to over an hour when you add in connection time in Chippenham.

Under the RSS, Westbury, Warminster, Chippenham, and Trowbridge will also grow rapidly, and Swindon is earmarked for major growth too.

Swindon, Salisbury, Chippenham, Trowbridge and Melksham are the five largest towns in Wiltshire, and there are many people living in Melksham / Trowbridge / Westbury / Frome / Warminster who work in Swindon. There is also considerable other flows between the towns.

The "West Wilts Corridor" as it's known has a trunk road - the A350 - servicing it. It's single carriageway for the most part, with some new bypass sections and other sections that run through towns and villages - Westbury, part of Melksham, Beanacre, and Yarnbrook. The road is crowded at the best of times, with a number of accident blackspots and severe jams at the rush hour and at times when road works / service maintainence are in progress.

RAIL TRANSPORT

Until December 2006, The train service on the TransWilts line (as I'm choosing to call it) was 5 trains each way on Mondays to Fridays, 4 each way on Saturdays, 3 on Sundays. Key features of the service were:

1. A service arriving in Swindon at around 08:30 and a service leaving at 17:30 for commuter traffic.

2. A Service arriving in Melksham at around 09:00 (and a few minutes later in Trowbridge) and returning at around 17:00 made it practical to commute from Swindon to both of these towns, and to travel to them from London / return afterwards and get in a whole day's work

4. A service in each direction in the middle of the day which provided half day work / leisure opportunities and long distance connection options.

5. A really early train each way, which gave West Wilts passengers the ability to get to London for a full day's work by train, and also to Salisbury and beyond.

6. A through service between Chippenham and Salisbury, Swindon and Southampton.

7. A direct daytime train service between the county town (Trowbridge) and the largest town in the county (Swindon)

8. A Saturday train in the later afternoon from Swindon, suitable for shoppers and soccer fans

9. A Sunday / Bank Holiday daytime service both ways.

With all of these travel opportunities, ticket sales for journeys to and from Melksham rose in five years from 3000 to 27000. And that was with very little sales and marketing input. And it's important to note that this in not JUST about Melksham - journeys on the line as a whole rose similarly; I don't have figures for early years, but I understand from First that journeys rose to 109000 per annum.

These are impressive growth figures but they could have been even better; the timings were wise, but the following factors should be noted:

a) There was very little publicity about the service in the area covered

b) There was a lack of information about the service at Swindon and Chippenham - almost as if First wanted to pretend that the Wessex Trains service didn't exist. I was told to get the First train to Bath and then the bus to Melksham, even after First took over.

c) The service was notoriously unreliable, with frequent cancellations during the week, and some weekend trains replaced by buses on the majority of weekends.

d) No train service at all was provided to Melksham, nor for other local journeys, for extended periods when the line was in use for diversions.

e) The station at Melksham is unwelcoming - currently in the back of an industrial estate. But there is an opportunity to put a new access / entrance via a new development which requires a few yards of road across a piece of BRB residuary land.

f) Passenger use at Melksham peaked at around 1 journey per annum per head of population, compared to 20 journeys at the broadly comparable town on Bradford on Avon.

So there was much more scope for growth.

*** Current Status

The "SLC2" service under the Greater Western franchise called for removal of the through trains south of Westbury, and the running of 2 trains each way daily between Swindon and Westbury. The bidders were given freedom of timing, except that one train was to be a commuter service into Swindon and arrive between 08:00 and 08:30, and a return commuter train was to leave between 17:30 and 19:00.

The service actually provided arrives in Swindon at 07:50 and 20:08, and leaves Swindon at 06:19 and 18:42.

The new service is even less reliable than the previous service, in spite of First's assurances that matters would improve (a) from 90 days after they took over the franchise then (b) from the timetable change in December 2006.

QUESTION ONE. I understand that the SLC2 has been modified to allow First to arrive in Swindon before 08:00. Why was this done? Are you aware that consultation inputs suggested an arrival of around 08:30, and yet the time was made even earlier in the final timetable than it was in the early drafts?

QUESTION TWO. Are you aware that the consultation inputs suggested that the then-current 17:43 evening departure was about right, and yet that crept later and later? Did the DfT make any inputs on this / have any say?

Current traffic levels have plummeted, since the new service has removed ALL NINE key features of the previous timetable. The morning train toward Swindon now has about 12 passengers on it into Chippenham (i.e. at the end of the section it uniquely serves) whereas the previous loading was between 40 and 50. The evening train had 6 people on it the other day, whereas it used to be over 50. The other two trains also have only a handful of passengers.

Further calculating on this, I estimate that an extra 60,000 journeys per year are being made on the road, with around 30,000 being made via the Bath dogleg and around 20,000 journeys are not being made at all.

QUESTION THREE. What consideration was given to passengers making use of the key features of the previous timetable and their alternative travel plans? Which of the nine travel patterns did you look at?

QUESTION FOUR. What do you consider the potential market to be for the new services, or have they been provided (in your opinion) at times which are EITHER operationally convenient for the operator OR intentionally timed when they won't be used as a prelude to closure?

However, Peter, I do NOT want to concentrate on the current disaster - I would like to work with you, with First and with other interested parties to provide an appropriate service that:

a) Meets the needs of the previous travellers
b) Encourages new travellers
c) Is cost effective for First (or another operator) to run
d) Requires minimal financial input from the taxpayer via the DfT

and that it meets aspriation (a) AS SOON AS possible.

*** FUTURE

POTENTIAL TRAFFIC FLOWS

The rapid growth of passenger numbers on this service in the early part of the decade and the recent loss of most of it indicates that this service's use is dependent on it meeting user's requirements in terms of its timing, and that the current service supply does NOT meet the demand. This now historic behaviour also suggests that an increase in service will, with time, give an our-of-proportionally good return on numbers. THIS IS NOT A SERVICE where doubling the trains would halve the passengers on each - with the right timing, and with a service as frequent as every hour, you would find that more trains gave you more passengers PER TRAIN. I can supply further data / contacts / references if required to back this us.

Potential traffic - with a single train (class 153 single coach would suffise for the first year or two) running a "clockface" service - every 2 hours, from
Swindon at 06:45, 08:45, 10:45, 13:45, 15:45, 17:45, 19:45, returning from Westbury 1 hour later:
2007 - 100,000 journeys
2008 - 120,000 journeys
2009 - 142,000 journeys
2010 - 170,000 journeys
2011 - 204,000 journeys
That's started from a forcast DROP in the first year due to the current (we hope short-term) unreliablity and lack of service. And it assumes a conservative growth figure compared to what the ORR tell us was acheived historically.

OPERATIONAL SUGGESTIONS and QUESTIONS

There IS a need to meet the travel needs with the service provided - and the nine features that I listed above are an excellent start. Alison Forster wrote (8th January) that the service that First provide "must still meet the needs of the customer". Clearly, it's not doing so at present as the customers aren't travelling on the train.

QUESTION FIVE. What action can / will the Department for Transport take in the short term to ensure that the operator meets their committment - which seems a sensible one - to meet the need of their customers in the very short term?

This week, five out of 20 trains - 25% of the remaining service - were cancelled even before the week started. A second train was cancelled on Monday (8th January) so that as I write this paragraph at quarter to 7 on Tuesday night, just three out of six trains scheduled so far have run.

This is not a new reliability issue. There was a cancellation most weeks under Wessex Trains - the previous operator - and that gave us a 98% record. First assured that although they needed a "honeymoon" period of three months, things would get better. In May, Alison Forster was writing on the First web site about how things had improved since they had taken over, but she was a bit premature; services became progressively more prone to cancellation to the extent that (I understand) there was a standby bus always on hand in late November / Early December for certain service - at it was frequently called in to action. "Never mind" said First - once we've cut your trains by 60% we'll be able to operate the remaining ones reliably".

Performance has deteriorated further, and the latest promise is that the service will be up to snuff soon. "We expect to be up to full strength with the fleet by 22 January at the very latest." writes First's Andrew Griffiths. As this is the latest of a line of promises on reliability, with the previous ones broken, I wait to see the outcome.

QUESTION SIX. Is the current performance of between 50% and 75% of services running, and the rest cancelled, acceptable performance? If not, what action will the Department for Transport take to rectify it, and when?

QUESTION SEVEN. Subject to timetable planning, would the Department for Transport object to service being retimed to provide a Swindon arrival at 08:25, and a Swindon departure at 17:45?

Looking at the two-hourly service I described above:

QUESTION EIGHT. Would the Department for Transport allow the operator to increase the service to the suggested level if they chose to do so? Would the Department for Transport allow the operator to add an additional train to their resources for the purpose?

QUESTION NINE. Are there any capacity issues on the lines which prevent the service level being raised either (a) to its previous level of 5 trains a day or (b) up to a 2-hourly service

RESPONSIBILITIES

a) I understand that the First group bid to run the Greater Western Franchise for a certain price, and using a certain number of trains, and that their bid was the one that your department chose to accept. Therefore, the number of trains required and the funding thereof was decided by First.

b) Once the First bid was accepted and the contract written by the Department for transport, First are no longer able to change it without your agreement.

c) If First are unable to perform to the contact they themselves suggested, then it means that they set the hurdle too high and that - although they cannot change it - it's them who set it up like that in the first place.

QUESTION TEN. Can you confirm that my understanding of (a), (b) and (c) is correct in each case.

I understand that you - Mr Peter West - are the main contact for operation, enforcement and improvement of the FGW franchise at the Depratment for Transport, and that political changes / instruction would come from Mr Tom Harris.

Mr Andrew Seedhouse, your office based at Government Office South West, stated (public meeting, 20th November, Trowbridge) that his role is "managing expectations". To me, that indicates that GOSW has no direct role in providing or specifying the service, but rather is there to ensure that passengers accept a reduced level of service with as little fuss as possible.

I understand that local government (regoional, county, district, town, parish) has no responsibility for rail services in their area - at least in the rural parts of England.

QUESTION ELEVEN. Can you confirm that I have the correct names / contacts, or if not please tell me who has which responsibilities so that I can address the right questions to the right people.

QUESTION TWELVE. Can you tell me whether or not you give consideration to inputs received from local government. Do you rate it as highly important to get local input?

I understand that the current service (SLC2) has been specified to run for 10 years, and that no services in it will be reduced during that period. In other words - that the SLC2 specifies a minimum 10 year service level.

QUESTION THIRTEEN. Can you confirm that understanding is correct?

FUNDING

I understand that First offered to provide an improved service at a price of about 300,000 per annum on the TransWilts line, but that offer was rejected by the Department for Transport.

QUESTION FOURTEEN. Was this offer made at a time when First knew they were likely to win the franchise and could quote a price that was highly profitable for them?

QUESTION FIFTEEN. In light of the evidence of the volatility of traffic on the TransWilts line, and the new RSS growth plans, would the Department reconsider their decision of funding the additional trains - perhaps against a reduced bid from First in light of the extra traffic that might now be expected? Under what mechanism, and to what timescale?

Although train fares on the FGW network as a whole are the highest in the country, the fares on the "TransWilts" are - per mile - much lower. I suggest that a rise of perhaps 10% above the rate of inflation for 2 years would be acceptable if it bought us a 2-hourly, reliable service.

QUESTION SIXTEEN - have funding options such as this been considered?

*** WHO WROTE THIS LETTER?

This letter is written by Graham Ellis - a resident, voter and business owner in Melksham, Wiltshire. Although I initially got involved with the future of the train service in relation to my own use and business, I have found a great deal of support (and virtually no opposition) in the communities up and down the line. You'll find I've placed a great deal more information on the web site http://www.savethetrain.org.uk ... and you'll find the view of many other there too.

Support has also come from all 4 MPs along the course of the route, as well as from MPs on the previous extension to Southampton. That's all three parties who are in favour of the restoration of an appropriate (i.e. 2 hourly) service.

Operational railway staff are also very supportive, as are senior union representatives I have met and emailed.

Local councils, too, have provided support and the line in question, and an improved service on it, is a key aspiration of Wiltshire County Council's local transport plan.

*** CONCLUSION

Peter, that's a long letter setting out how the TransWilts service, providing a link between the major five towns of Wiltshire, grew dramatically to December 2006. It provided a service for which there was no practical alternative for many journeys, and all indications were that it was set to continue its growth.

Under the FGW franchise between the DfT and First, the service was dramatically reduced last month, with the remaining trains scheduled at times that they're hardly used, and cancelled up to half the time. This has resulted in many journeys being transferred to the road, and a great deal of inconvenience and negative economic effect.

There's a golden opportunity to provide a "clockface" two hourly service from Swindon to Westbury. It would meet many transport needs, continue the growth, and bring great utility and benefit to its users at little cost.

QUESTION SEVENTEEN. Can we have your support, and the support of the Department as a whole, for the sorting out of the current reliability issues, and for the implementation of the appropriate level of service suggested? Will you take steps to implement this support in effective action as soon as practical?

QUESTION EIGHTEEN. What (if anything) can I, and all the people I have ofering me support, do to help you achieve our aspirations?

Many thanks for listening, answering and (I hope) acting positively. I would be delighted to supply further information if you need it, or to welcome you on a visit to the area an the line if you would like to see it for yourself.

Yours sincerely,

Graham Ellis
Well House Consultants, 404 The Spa, Melksham, Wilts
http://www.wellho.net graham@wellho.net
+44 (0) 1225 708225 (phone) +44 (0) 1225 707126 (fax)

Written 2007-01-10 07:06:44

Available entries ...

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Preserved Railways - a look forward
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Campaigning Mantra - Philosophy behind the case
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Comment on December timetables
Front page update
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FSB - North and West Wilts Commitee - Federation of Small Businesses
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A Comparison - travel in the USA by train
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Radio - tomorrow morning?
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New faces - mayors and chairs.
Diary notes
News Roundup - a LOT is happening
Update being updated!
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An update
Gordon Dodge, Rest in Peace
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Petition Response - detail, opinion, context
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In praise of estate agents
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Letter from Derek Twigg
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Parliamentary Debate, 25th April
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Ready for Tuesday
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Didn't you read page 52 of web document?
Core meeting
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35% Growth in one year - Melksham ticket statistics
Great meeting but just a start.
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Old pictures. Not to be repeated event
Don't believe everything you hear
Excursion!
Official (Government) view ... and I agree
Encouraging traffic not just warm words
Meeting, 20th September - getting nervous
Don't let this become history!
Looking slightly wider
The story so far
Welcome to News and Views
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