The man in charge of running trains in Wales is no stranger to facing questions.
A few weeks into the job and Transport for Wales head honcho James Price stood before politicians in the Welsh Assembly to be quizzed about how the firm was going to improve things on the railways after taking over from the heavily criticism Arriva Trains Wales.
Things didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, when floods and broken down trains caused delays and cancellations right across the network.
So how have things gone since then?
There are plenty of statistics and performance measures to gauge just how well TfW are doing, but for the best overview, nothing quite beats Twitter.
We caught up with Mr Price at our offices – and laid bare people’s complaints as well as their Tweets.
“I can tell if it’s a bad day, just by looking at Twitter,” he admitted.
TfW can get up to 300 tweets in a single day, with comments ranging from lateness, overcrowding to whether there is soya milk on the catering trolley.
Grand plans for 2022 or 2023 might seem like positive news, but they mean virtually nothing when you are forced to stand in a packed carriage heading home to Ebbw Vale.
“The customer just wants something that works,” said Mr Price.
“A service that works should be the baseline and then we play tunes on top of that.”
How punctual are the trains?
The latest rail performance figures show nearly 2.8millon people travelled by train last month on more than 25,000 scheduled services across Wales.
The same figures show 6.5%, or just over 1,600 of those services, arrived more than five minutes late at their final destination. Compare this to October, at the height of the autumn disruption, where 11% of trains arrived more than five minutes late.
Passengers on the North Wales Branch were more likely to be late last month, with 28.3% of services arriving at stops more than three minutes late, compared to 10.7% of Valley Lines services.
Mr Price doesn’t deny just how frustrating it is when trains are late. It’s why he introduced a new performance measurement called passenger time lost (PTL) to get a better handle on how lateness affects passengers.
PTL uses the average lateness at each monitoring point and factors in the number of passengers using these stations. TfW are the first operator in the industry to use this.
“Before now, we used the public performance measure (PPM) to measure punctuality, but that just looks at how late a particular service is at it’s final destination,” explained Mr Price.
“PTL is designed to measure the impact on passengers. It records train punctuality at numerous points along the route and also takes into account the numbers of passengers on each service.
“PTL will take away any incentive for us to turn trains around short. It will ensure that we put our resources into the trains that are affecting most people. It will make a big difference.”
Throughout autumn and at the the beginning of the year, PTL performance worsened, mostly due to the poor weather and a backlog of broken down trains. This number is steadily improving now and the core valley lines have achieved PTL targets for five of the last eight months.
Mr Price added: “The valleys lines are performing better because it’s a metro-type service and therefore more controllable. The wider network is more likely to come up with disruption because there are so many more variables at play, such as freight trains, breakdowns and other operators.”
TfW says it has improved PTL on its services compared to the same period when Arriva was in charge, with a 2.1% betterment on the Wales and Borders service, and 1.6% betterment on the core valleys lines. If you are wondering what that actually means, a 2.1% improvement equates to just 1.26 seconds less waiting time per passenger on average.
“Anecdotally, people have been saying to me the trains are running better now,” added Mr Price.
Are TfW cancelling trains?
One of the most frustrating things for rail commuters is unexpected cancellations. Unsurprisingly, the number of unplanned cancellations rose sharply over the 2018 autumn period due to a shortage of trains at the height of the stormy weather.
In all, there have been 678 fewer cancellations in the last eight months under TfW compared to ATW for the same time period last year. This reduction has been seen across both Wales and Borders and the core valley line services, 372 fewer and 306 fewer respectively.
This trend is expected to continue as fleet reliability improves, TfW says.
For Mr Price, he is taking a personal interest in making sure the service is running as expected and even sends text messages to individual train managers.
“I take the train every day, sometimes three or four times a day,” he added.
“I experience those same frustrations when services are late or cancelled. But it’s rarely because staff have done a poor job, it’s usually because something has gone wrong somewhere.
“I would rather ask the question about why passengers are experiencing this and then work on whether there is anything we can do about it, rather than blame anyone.”
Where are the promised new trains?
When a service runs with fewer carriages than booked, TfW call this “short forming”.
This affects around 2% of valley line services and around 10% of services on The Marches.
But Mr Price has a plan: to replace nearly all of the Arriva Trains Wales fleet between now and 2024. He is making up for lost time. Arriva ran the trains based on a ‘no growth’ contract. Inevitably, this lead to more than a decade of near-stasis, with no new trains and few significant timetable changes.
There are 148 “longer, quieter” trains on order, with 77 being supplied by Spanish firm CAF and 71 by Swiss company Stadler, which are scheduled to come in to service in 2022.
In the meantime, TfW planned to bring in new class 769 trains, but the only thing is, they are still being built. TfW has had to resort to running older models and refurbished old London Underground trains instead to plug the gap.
In June, TfW announced plans to bring in refurbished Class 37 loco-hauled four carriage trains, which date from the 1960s.
“Someone said to me the C37s were a ‘really good people mover’ and that’s what we need right now,” said Mr Price.
“The class 769 trains are running behind schedule – they were perhaps too ambitious with what they thought they could deliver. They are having to learn on the job and iron out problems as they are going.
“At least TfW are second in line for the orders, so it could be worse.
“We could fine the supplier for breach of contract, but that’s not really my style, as it doesn’t really help and could even make things worse.
“We could sit back and say we’ve fined the company for non-delivery, but that doesn’t help the passengers at the end of the day. I’ve been careful not to point the finger of blame at anyone, instead looking at ways to make it work.
“The step change will be with the new rolling stock and new stations are built and the new timetable change comes into play. That’s when people will notice a real difference.
“But in the meantime, we’ve got a public commitment to deliver the service that we said we would deliver. We’ve engaged with the market looking for alternatives, which is why we have the Class 37 on the Rhymney line.”
The Class 37s came off the Rhymney line back in 2005, so TfW are effectively bringing back trains that were retired some 14 years ago. But Mr Price says his priority is to increase seating capacity.
He said: “People might ask what on earth are you doing bringing back old stock, but we cannot be leaving people behind at stations. This is an interim thing.”
What about the official Autumn Review?
There are two separate studies going on looking at just what happened last Autumn: an independent review and a separate TfW investigation. Mr Price thinks the work done so far puts TfW in the “best possible shape” heading into Autumn 2019.
Both reviews highlighted ‘wheel flats’ as the cause for most of the disruption, with one in five trains damaged last autumn. Mr Price is confident TfW has a much clearer understanding of what exactly causes this and how to avoid it happening again this coming Autumn, but also said there were some uncertainties remaining.
What sounds like a simple problem of leaves on the track is actually much more complex, said Mr Price, which was why he commissioned Metropolitan Railway Consultants Ltd (MRCL), a specialist in wheel-rail interface, to work with the TFW Rail Services engineering team and Network Rail.
The review even went so far as to install cameras on some trains to record exactly what was happening at the point where the wheels met the track.
In response to this, TfW has installed wheel slide protection on its trains ready for Autumn 2019. Mr Price acknowledges this is a sticking plaster for a wider issue, and is determined to get to the root cause.
“The data shows an increase in trains being affected year on year since 2011,” said Mr Price.
There were 170 wheel flats turned during Autumn 2018 compared to 31 in 2012.
“There is definitely climate change going on,” added Mr Price.
“They have found something weird in the atmosphere but they don’t know what to do about it – a kind of resin, maybe from the trees, is ending up on the tracks.
“You have to remember the tracks were built more than a hundred years ago in the age of steam. Things have changed. Back then, trees were set further back so they wouldn’t catch fire from the engines. Now, environmental considerations have allowed vegetation to encroach closer to the track, which could be a factor.”
The review recommends further monitoring and studies are ongoing.
Is the network fit for purpose?
The Welsh rail network was never built as a standardised network, probably because of the way each line was built and run separately, said Mr Price.
That means not all trains can run on all parts of the network, as bridges are lower or narrower in some areas, or stations can only deal with certain trains.
“In the future, we don’t want to be seeing any of this,” said Mr Price.
“Money isn’t really the issue here, it’s more about gauging limitations or limitations of our depots. We have seven or eight fleets operating on the network, but most can only operate on certain bits, for example the Class 37s on the Rhymney line.
“We have a programme of work with Network Rail to try and improve this, but it will take time.”
It’s not just the tracks. The Canton maintenance depot struggled to deal with the backlog of broken down trains in the Autumn because the 40-year-old wheel lathe being used to fix the wheels was also breaking down and “completely knackered”.
“The wires kept shorting and burning out,” said Mr Price, who added the lathe had recently undergone refurbishment.
So far, passengers will probably not have noticed the work going on in the background by TfW engineers and staff. The big changes will come over the next few years as new stations are built and part of the network is devolved to TfW control.
“I don’t think people do believe we are putting them first yet,” said Mr Price.
“But if they saw what we were doing every day and how hard we are working to deliver the service we promised, then I think people would believe it.”
And what about the future?
Mr Price insists he is passionate about getting the “basic service” up and running so that becomes the “new norm”, he said. That’s when he can start “playing tunes”.
TfW are currently working on a ‘tap in tap out’ ticket for commuters on the go, something which is being developed to also operate on other forms of transport including buses, in the future.
“We need more buses going to the train stations at a time when people need to get to and from them,” he said.
“But deregulation hasn’t helped and instead created a problem where services end up competing with each other and even with the trains themselves.
“There is a Government white paper out at the moment which will hopefully seek to re-regulate the bus service.
“Then, we can start specifying routes. It is already planned for the new bus interchange in Cardiff to work closely with the trains.
“But in the future, more power or influence from Welsh Government will be needed.”
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