Save the Melksham Train
Melksham and TransWilts train service - closure by stealth?

* Melksham is a town with a population of over 20,000 and growing - there's much new construction in the area and a further 750 house development was approved just last month.

* Melksham is served by five trains a day (slightly fewer at weekends) on the Swindon to Southampton service, and ticket sales have grown steadily from 3200 per year (five years ago) to 27435 last year. That's a seven fold increase. For every passenger who joins or leaves a train, 3 or 4 stay on (personal observation of all trains on a single day).

* The request for bids for the new Greater Western Franchise calls for the current service of 68 trains a week to be replaced by just 20 trains a week with a commuter run to Swindon in the morning, back in the late afternoon, and a round trip during the evening.

* This "proposed" new service is due to come into effect in December 2006.

Consultation has been poor and I believe that local requirements / suggestions have not been taken into account. It should be a "no brainer" that a service that's grown this rapidly should be encouraged and nurtured but the reverse seems to be the case.

Government actions:

1. The bid request announced the proposed withdrawal of the service in one line on 32 of a long document. No reason was given.

2. Consultations on what should be in the bid were held AT THE SAME TIME as the invitation to tender was issued, so that responses could not effect the initial bid process though - perhaps - they can now effect the fine tuning of the contract awarded.

3. The Department for Transport consulted with the Strategic rail authority and discussed how consultation could be minimised. (Information obtained under Freedom of Information).

4. Although the bidding process is running quickly, the Department for Transport is very slow to answer questions. I'm still waiting for a reply to a letter of 5th October, for example. The Department wrote to my MP on 8th November telling him that Roger Jones would reply ... I still await that reply.

5. Such replies as we HAVE received consistently tell us that traffic levels are low and that's why the service is being reduced, but requests to define what is meant by low traffic levels have never been answered. Ticket sales for Melksham are higher than for many other stations - even termini such as Wick and Fishguard rank lower.

It looks rather like the planned new service has been dreamed up to run a service without having a train assigned to the line at all. An early service will go up to Swindon in the morning and the stock will run the Swindon to Cheltenham service during the day. It will come back in the evening and provide an extra train as - perhaps - a token gesture; the current evening train is the least used of the day and I can only think that the new service proposed is for operational reasons rather than passenger level reasons.

The current operating environment:

1. Trains on the Swindon to Westbury and Southampton line always seem to be the first to be cancelled. I know of 5 services (that's 7%) in the last week, yet Wessex Trains clain to run over 99% of their services.

2. Northbound through trains to Southampton have already been cut back to Westbury (although Southbound ones are most still through services).

3. Waits of up to 27 minutes have been introduced into schedules of the remaining through trains at Westbury. As from 11th December, there's even a service that's scheduled to sit at Melksham station for 10 minutes.

4. The morning train from Westbury to Swindon was retimed to run 20 minutes earlier making it much less attractive for people working in that town - it just gets there too early.

5. In the event of engineering works or accident on nearby mainlines, the service through Melksham is delayed or withdrawn. We were without local trains (apart from the 05:52 to Swindon and 06:56 to Southampton) for 2 weeks in August 2004, for example. Requests to stop the expresses which have to slow right down for the curve through the station were rejected.

6. Connections at Swindon are NOT held so that anyone travelling from London will find that there's no onward train available in the event of a delay on the main line. That's happened twice (to my knowledge) just to the afternoon train in the last 2 weeks.

7. Some connections at Westbury are truely dreadful. It's now impractical to make a return journey on what used to the main line from Weymouth unless you leave there just after lunch. The one later train leaves you stranded for 2 and a half hours at Westbury. The 06:56 to Southampton which should provide a good connection to a London train at Westbury misses the connection
by 3 minutes.

8. For 8 weekends recently, the trains were replaced by buses from Westbury right through to Swindon even though the works were limited to / on the Westbury to Bristol stretch. I know that work was being done at Bradford on Avon and at Keynsham on some weekends (neither on our line), and question whether our service really had to be suspended of if it was just stopped as an operating convenience.

9. Although goverment and operator talk a great deal about the Swindon commuter run (probably because they're saving that element), in practise much of the traffic on the line is long distance and oddball journeys. On a recent day, travellers questioned were making journeys that included to/from Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, South Wales and London. I can also document recent journeys ... York, Bolton, Colchester, Edinburgh. I estimate that such journeys make up a good proportion (perhaps even 50%) of the traffic.

The station at Melksham:

1. There's no public telephone as there is supposed to be at every station; Wesses trains have a special dispensation NOT to provide one.

2. Timetables are part of a complex table and don't show the connections that people want to London, Bath and Bristol.

3. Signage is poor and the stations' in the back of an industrial estate which discourages timid travellers.

4. Interchange to bus services in non-existant. Even though buses pass the end of the station approach, they don't stop anywhere nearby and they are timed such that they do not connect.

Publicity:

1. First Group's publicity suggests catching a bus to Melksham from Chippenham if you're coming by train - even though that's a walk across Chippenham whereas the connecting train leaves from the same platform.

2. Wessex trains make little mention of the line in their publicity and include it only in a complex timetable that doesn't show the journeys that many people want to make. The new timetable handout from 11th December still wasn't available (at Temple Meads, Bristol) on 5th.

3. Q Jump (on line booking - part of TheTrainLine.com) can't find the service to Melksham (I've had this reported several times and had to assure people that there really IS a train).

4. National Rail Enquiries could only off the advise that "the next train is at 21:33" when I asked them for alternative suggestions when the 17:02 to Swindon was cancelled last Thursday.

5. The West Wiltshire Public Transport timetable that used to be issued regularly was replaced by a BUS timetable recently, so it no longer shows the train service.

What call is there for service?

Speak to people in Melksham and they'll tell you

1. They would use the service if it was more reliable
2. They would use the service if it was more frequent
3. They would use the service if it the station was improved
4. They would use the service if they knew about it!

A recent survey by the county council at Chippenham Station estimated that some 70 people a day from Melksham drive to Chippenham and park there to go on the train. That probably makes more money in car parking charges than they would get from having everyone on the train!

The platforms at Chippenham are signalled for two way working and trains can be / have been reversed there. With a single 153 running an hourly shuttle from Chippenham to Westbury, I estimate that traffic levels would increase a further 3 fold. I encourage research to prove (or otherwise) this estimate

In other words ... if only the mandrins actually LOOKED at the service and situation and allowed the provision of something appropriate, it would really work out logistically, environmentally and even financially.

On 13th November, I invited Roger Jones, divisional manager from franchies at the department for transport, to visit the line for himself. I've yet to receive a reply.

Written 2005-12-06 07:13:09

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