Why Wales went off the rails in Autumn 2018

(Title Image: National Assembly of Wales)

Economy & Infrastructure Committee
Autumn 2018 Rail Disruption (pdf)
Published: 20th March 2019

“Passengers’patience has been tested. The appointment of a new operator under much-improved franchise arrangements offers a real opportunity to improve service standards and meet customer expectations. Those expectations must be carefully managed in the short-term – as we all understand that shiny new trains will not be arriving for a while.”
– Committee Chair, Russell George AM (Con, Monmouth)

Last autumn, around the same time Transport for Wales/Keolis Amey took over the running of the Wales & Borders rail franchise, large numbers of trains were taken out of action resulting in serious disruption to services. The Committee undertook the inquiry to get to the root cause of the problems.

1. The main cause was so-called “wheel-flats”

While a number of trains were taken out of service to repair damage caused by Storm Callum, a number were also taken out of commission to repair what are called “wheel-flats” – where the train wheels slide along tracks because compressed leaves create a slippery layer on the surface of the track. This is obviously dangerous because it affects braking but it also damages the train and the tracks.

At its peak, 41 trains (of 127) were taken out of service.

Other factors which affected the severity of the problem include the increase in number and severity of severe weather events, Network Rail’s track maintenance regime, driving technique (i.e. harder braking during severe weather) and the capacity amongst engineering staff to deal with so many “wheel flats” in such a short space of time.

Wheel Slide Protection (WSP) is due to be installed on all TFW Rail trains by autumn 2019, so the problem shouldn’t be as bad in the future.

2….but it’s unclear why the problem was so bad this year

Transport for Wales commissioned independent experts to figure out why the problem was so bad, but there was no single answer.

The (then) First Minister, Carwyn Jones, told the Senedd in plenary that long-term under-investment in the Welsh rail network by the UK Government and Network Rail was to blame – but Network Rail said Wales had received 5% of UK rail enhancement spending in 2017-18 and 2018-19, up from the often-quoted 1% of spending.

Economy Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), blamed the poor quality of rolling stock, with Arriva Trains Wales – the previous contract holder – only maintaining trains to the bare minimum standard due to the contract. Arriva contested this.

3. There was conflicting evidence over access to trains prior to the franchise handover

Witnesses from Arriva maintain that Transport for Wales had adequate access to the trains prior to the new franchise taking over in October 2018. Arriva’s Tom Joyner told the Committee he wasn’t aware of any issues and said it was “one of the smoothest handovers I’ve seen”. He listed a number of actions Arriva took prior to handover including improvements to wheel maintenance at the Canton depot, additional leaf cleaning and giving drivers additional training in autumn driving.

However, TfW’s Chief Executive, James Price, claims there was a “bust up” four to five weeks before the handover and access to the trains “wasn’t as free as it should have been”.

4. Have lessons been learned?

Transport for Wales offered assurances to the Committee that noticeable improvements will be made over the coming year.

In addition to the aforementioned wheel slide protection, TFW will measure customer satisfaction across a broader range of measures and improvements to compensation payments such as compensation for delays of 15 minutes or more as of January 2019 and hints (nothing official) at compensation for passengers unable to get on a train due to overcrowding.

Of course, the big change here will be the gradual introduction of new trains from 2021.

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