TrawsCambria to TrawsCymru

This story in the Western Mail today highlights some of the problems of the TrawsCambria network of long distance bus routes across Wales:

     Cross-Wales bus service snubbed by long distance passengers

We can get a sense of the history of the service from this article in Wiki. But the significant recent development came five years ago with the stated aim of transforming it into a "network of high-quality services". Yet, as the story very clearly shows, the previous Welsh Government singularly failed to do that. The network is fair enough, but the services that operate on that network are well below anything that could be described as high-quality.

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The previous minister responsible for transport (and economic development) was Andrew Davies, and what he failed to do was to see the distinction between long distance and short distance travel. This was reflected in two major ways:

•  First, that the service was operated by ordinary short-distance buses which were simply not suitable for journeys of more than about an hour because the seats weren't comfortable enough and there were no toilet facilities

•  Second, that the service made far too many intermediate stops, thus increasing journey times.

In essence, we were left with something that was closer to a local bus service travelling a very long route than an express coach service that could provide a viable alternative to travelling from one part of Wales to another by car.

Roughly 12% of passengers travelling on the existing TrawsCambria network are travelling between principal towns. Around 60% are travelling between administrative centres and their hinterland. The majority are traditional short-distance users, travelling to the nearest town for post offices, libraries or shopping.

It fell between two stools precisely because insufficient thought had been given to what the service was meant to do. But the good news is that this is finally set to change. The starting point is what Plaid set out in the 2007 manifesto:

We will create a fast, convenient national long distance express coach service, well-integrated with feeder rail and local bus services.

In contrast, Labour's manifesto was still thinking in terms of buses. But with Ieuan Wyn Jones now in charge of the portfolio it seems that things are at last moving forward, in particular with the appointment of David Hall. To give some idea of what's in store, this is a PowerPoint presentation he gave last month:

     

The presentation speaks for itself (well, apart from slide 16) but there is one point that I would particularly want to highlight.

•  A coherent and readily identifiable network of longer distance services, linking centres not directly served by the rail network in Wales.

In essence, this network is primarily meant to do what a rail service would do if Wales had a complete rail network. That's why, to take three examples, the route map does not have any service running along the north Wales coast, nor does it link Machynlleth with Newtown, nor extend from Carmarthen into Pembrokeshire. That's because rail already does that job ... although if we developed our rail services that job could be done even better.

     

For that reason I would seriously question whether extending the service into Ynys Môn is at all necessary because a properly integrated interchange at Bangor would serve the same purpose. I would instead make a far stronger case for extending the X50 service south from Aberteifi (Cardigan on the map) to Haverfordwest and Milford Haven. But those things can be worked out in the business plan. And uniting the X43 and 704 route is a no-brainer.

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Yet the one thing I would stress is that any long distance coach service can never be as good as the rail service would be. One of the core elements of the network is to link Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, but the railway that used to run between the two can be fairly easily reinstated. The same is true for the line between Porthmadog and Bangor. Reinstating the rail route between Newtown and Cardiff is part of Tad Deiniol's proposal.

So I think we should regard the new TrawsCymru network as something temporary rather than a permanent solution. We should be looking to establish a new north-south rail route, but even if we started work on it tomorrow I doubt that it could be completed within ten years. Yet in the long term that is what we must do ... and we should start now by working out the route so as to protecting it against future developments, particularly in towns that the railway used to pass through.

This is a video showing the north-south rail route I would like to see developed:

     

Some more information about it is here and there is more detail on the Ffestiniog/Cambrian Coast link here.

But there is a difference between long-term planning and what we can achieve in the short term. A network of fast, frequent and comfortable coach services between all parts of Wales is something we can achieve in the next year or so.

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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

And for this reason we urgently need better roads than the medieval network we have now. On the A470, IWJ's Cwm-bach - Pontnewydd ar Wy straightening and the Porthmadog bypass are a good start.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

Fantastic video, for its aesthetic value as well as making the point about the need for better rail links through Wales. (Swansea to Llandudno in less than 20 minutes - that is a fast rail service!).

As I travel from Llandudno Junction to Newport about 4 times a year I looked at the possibility of doing the journey by bus a few months ago. Using a combination of services it was possible to get to Cardiff in about 7 and a half hours, but it would have been impossible to do the return journey in a day.

I would welcome the new Traws Cymru service, and depending on price, would probably use it. But as you note, the current long distance services are mainly used as local services, I hope that these services would be protected, that the new service is "as well as" not "in staid of" the current provision. As nice as a posh coach with toilets and tea bars going from Barmouth to Wrecsam would be, it would be a shame if its provision meant that people would no longer be able to get from Llanuwchllyn to Corwen on their free bus pass.

Anonymous said...

Total nonsense.

The Carmarthen-Aberystwyth line was lightly engineered with tight curves and steep gradiants which dicatated a journey time of two to three hours.

Reinstating the old route would be pointless, building a new one prohibitive.

MH said...

Ah, the certainty that can only be fed by ignorance, Anon.

Actually, the route between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth is remarkably easy over most of its length but, if you look closely at the video, you'll see that I have re-routed to avoid the twistiest parts, such as the part currently used by the Gwili Railway.

MH said...

I'd love to say that I was holding the video camera in one hand while flying the helicopter with the other, Alwyn. But I wouldn't dare do that because the Civil Aviation Authority would stop me from doing any more!

I do agree with you that the new service shouldn't be at the expense of local, stopping services. But it might well be true that using smaller buses on shorter routes would allow for more frequent local servces. I guess it would also improve timetable reliability.

James D said...

1) Sheer pedantry: I know the TrawsCrwban's slow, but going from Cardiff to Bridgend via Port Talbot seems like overkill...

2) But seriously, the main problem with the X40 is that it goes via places that aren't on the way from Cardiff and Swansea to Aberystwyth. There are three broadly sensible alternatives, but compromises won't work as long-distance routes:
a) Port Talbot - Swansea - Cross Hands - Carmarthen - (via Pencader) - Llandysul - Aberaeron - Llanrhystud - Aberystwyth
b) Port Talbot - Swansea - Cross Hands - Llandeilo - Talyllychau - Lampeter - (via Cross Inn) - Llanrhystud - Aberystwyth
c) Cardiff - Pontypridd - Merthyr Tudful - Sennybridge - Llanymddyfri - Lampeter - (via Cross Inn) - Llanrhystud - Aberystwyth

3) Rail can make the sort of compromise routings that fail as road routes work, but only if the line speeds are significantly higher than the 50-60-70mph (single-dual-motorway) a coach can do. Broadly speaking, we're looking for a standard of 100mph on main lines: and from the painful crawl that currently is Swansea to Carmarthen, we've got quite some way to go.

4) As for your video, there are some things I like and some I don't. I absolutely love your curve-easing viaducts in the Vale of Ffestiniog (they'd look awesome!), but I do feel that there is further scope for curve-easing elsewhere. The thing I most dislike is the way you've kept the hopeless Great Western as the through route in Swansea -- it is difficult to imagine a slower way of getting from Port Talbot to Llanelli. Pretty much the first thing that needs to be done to sort out the railways in Wales is to re-open the Rhondda and Swansea Bay and the Llanelli Railway Extension as the main through route through Swansea.

5) Fares are another issue. I don't regard free rides for pensioners and discounts for children as sacred cows: all that selecting particular disadvantaged groups for special treatment does is to make things worse for other disadvantaged groups. I would ultimately like to see the end of distance-based fares: we already know that very few people use local buses for long-distance travel. Instead we should be looking at having somewhere in the region of six fares for the whole of Wales: 2-hour and 1-day versions of local bus and tram, plus coach and train, and plus first class fares.

6) I agree that the 704/X43 combo is a no-brainer. Particular attention should be paid to service levels: the first bus from Brecon to Cardiff is about half an hour too late to be of use to anyone who actually works in Cardiff. And the Saturday service is just laughable. At the other end, Newtown would be great if only the trains from there ran through Oswestry to Wrecsam, rather than going all the way into Shrewsbury and back out. As it is, the bus should continue to Wrecsam. And as for the other bit of the X43 (Brecon to Abergavenny), this should continue to Pontypŵl, Cwmbrân, and Newport.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, both rail and coach services should be branded as Trawscymru. What other routes would people suggest? I recall the Railway Development Society proposing Caramrthen-Hereford and Swansea-Abergavenney (heads of the valleys)services a few years back.

MH said...

James, thanks for such a detailed comment. I hadn't noticed the mistake on the map, and I guess the Bridgend/Port Talbot detour is the major reason why the service is so slow ;-)

I agree that we need to make more direct journeys with fewer stops and detours. I think it is best to go through Carmarthen, so I'd go for your a.

As for rail speeds, it's a compromise between twistiness and the cost of building a straighter alternative. Given Wales' topography, we simply can't avoid a degree of twistiness, but there are many sweeping stretches of straight track (or old trackbed) where speeds in excess of 100mph are easily possible. So the key is in the choice of train. If we use lighter trains which can accelerate quickly, it will cut down the journey time. The other factor is signalling, which also limits speed and speed variability. I'd like to see us opt for in-cab signalling.

Agree with you about the tangled rail route around Neath and Swansea. I'd like to see a new station somewhere near Llansamlet, with the main line cutting out both Neath and Swansea stations, with the old twisty line being used as a light rail/tram shuttle, extending as a tram service further into Swansea and down to the Mumbles. There are a wealth of lines that could form an integrated light rail service for the area, from Llanelli to Port Talbot, and up to Ammanford, Ystradgynlais and the Neath Valley.

Fares is another subject altogether. I certainly think we need an integrated fares system, like London's OysterCard. I wouldn't like to see free travel for older people cut back, in fact I would want to see us do all we can to make public transport cheaper for everyone ... as that is the main incentive for reducing car use. Extending the service mornings and evenings would also be a big factor to encourage people to use public transport for travel to work.

Cibwr said...

Paris pays for its metro partly from a tax on business in the capital. Maybe there is some scope for a transport tax on companies - but essentially you have to pay for most of it via either direct taxation or by fares. I had always thought the TrawsCambria system was designed as a long distance limited stop service, its depressing that its been run as longdistance every stop local services. A complete lack of strategic thinking there I think.

Rhydgaled said...

------------Part One - Various Points------------
First, I perfer the name TrawsCambria myself (not that the name is particualy important) and I agree that in most cases a proper rail network is needed instead. Second, there is already a through rail route (freight only) avoiding Neath & Swansea staions. This route is called the Swansea District line and as well as frieght the service to Fishguard harbour uses it.

As far as comfort goes the TrawsCambria buses vary alot. The inital pair of Richard Brothers Optare Tempos (YJ55BKE & YK55BKF) liveried for the X50 route are better than most of the others due to having much more legroom (never been on the Stagecoach TrawsCambria service though so they might be better). Buses like these two should eventually make up the entire TrawsCambria fleet except on very low demand routes, toliet facitites and ample time to use them should be provided at various points on the longer routes.

In my opinion a rolling programe is needed with TrawsCambria services being shorterned/removed with the buses being moved to new TrawsCambria routes as rail lines are constructed.

I think 90mph running could probably be achived on over 90% of the route between Cockett and Carmarthen by upgrades without diversions to the current route. The same can be said for the double-track parts of the line west of Carmarthen.

Rhydgaled said...

------------Part One - Various Points------------
First, I perfer the name TrawsCambria myself (not that the name is particualy important) and I agree that in most cases a proper rail network is needed instead. Second, there is already a through rail route (freight only) avoiding Neath & Swansea staions. This route is called the Swansea District line and as well as frieght the service to Fishguard harbour uses it.

As far as comfort goes the TrawsCambria buses vary alot. The inital pair of Richard Brothers Optare Tempos (YJ55BKE & YK55BKF) liveried for the X50 route are better than most of the others due to having much more legroom (never been on the Stagecoach TrawsCambria service though so they might be better). Buses like these two should eventually make up the entire TrawsCambria fleet except on very low demand routes, toliet facitites and ample time to use them should be provided at various points on the longer routes.

In my opinion a rolling programe is needed with TrawsCambria services being shorterned/removed with the buses being moved to new TrawsCambria routes as rail lines are constructed.

I think 90mph running could probably be achived on over 90% of the route between Cockett and Carmarthen by upgrades without diversions to the current route. The same can be said for the double-track parts of the line west of Carmarthen.

------Part Two - Some Of My Proposals------------
Apart from some short new lines and the opening to passengers of a few frieght-only lines (mostly in the Swansea area) I think the first objective should be to re-connect the towns with largest populations to the rail network. To this end the line to Caernarfon should be rebuilt (the X32 would then be cut back to Caernarfon). This would be followed by the Rhyl - Denbigh - Corwen - Bala railway, cutting a new Rhyl - Newtown TrawsCambria service back to become Corwen - Newtown. Afterwards, Denbigh would also be connected to the main line via Mold and Buckley. Further south the Cardiff valleys network would gain electrification with the Merthyr line being first and upgraded to 90/100mph where posible with an extention to Brecon. In Google Earth I have mapped an alternative (and much straighter, but with a few tricky to avoid steep gradients) route for the Merthyr - Brecon line. Back up north subsidy would be given to extend the Llangollen railway through to Corwen westbound and the existing network eastbound as a public transport link. The X94 could then start from Corwen instead of Wrexham.

The next phase would involve rebuilding the lines from Brecon (via Builth Wells and Llandidloes) to near Newtown and from Carmarthen to Lampeter (maybe with your new tunnel). Here, rather than buy the Gwili railway I suggest an equivalent amount of land and length of track be obtained extending from Whitland along the old route to Cardigan and given to the Gwili in a straight swap. It should be ensured that trains on the Gwili's replacment route (which they would then be free to extend towards Cardigan) are allowed to run into Whitland station (using the bay platform that currently has broken track leading into it) to connect to the national network. A line to Barmouth from Bala should also be reinstated to allow complete retirment of the X94. Becasue this is a scenic area I considered having this run by the Llangollen railway, but modern fast services could be a better idea. Even if the line is steam operated the modern services from Rhyl/Mold&Buckley should run at least as far a Bala.

The next phase would be to extend the line from Lampeter, first to Aberaeron (to serve the tourist area including New Quay and allowing the X40 to change to Lampeter - Swansea or Llanelli) and possiblly further. Finally the Cofiwch Dryweryn line (connecting Bala and Blaenau Ffestiniog) would be reinstated.

This leaves a connection from the Cambrian Coast line to the North Wales Coast Line and the idea of connecting via Blaenau Ffestiniog sounds good, except that, in a way, it would duplicate the service run by the Ffestiniog railway.

Rhydgaled said...

Sorry, posted part 1 twice, any way I can delete it? Anyway, part 2 continued:

Going back to TrawsCambria there would still be a Aberystwyth - Caernarvon service (to provide a more direct link from Machynlleth - Dolgellau) but this would essentially be split in two, Aberystwyth - Blaenau Ffestiniog and Porthmadog - Caernarvon (it could however be extended to Holyhead via the east & north coast of Anglesey).

A Brecon (or Builth Wells) - Corwen TrawsCambria bus would remain also (duplicating the railway south of Newtown but a fair distance east, serving reletivly small populations that would likely otherwise not have any good service). At some point a Glyn-Neath - Carmarthen service would be introduced. A railway along the coast connecting the westerly extremerties of the rail network wouldn't really be do-able, therfore the Richards Brothers X50 service would remain, extended southwards to Fishguard and maybe St Davids. The 550 would continue too, but perhaps only between Cardigan and Aberaeron (the only part of the route where it differs from the X50). Likewise 2 new services to Abergavenny would be added where a railway couldn't go, one from Swansea or Port Talbot via the Heads Of The Valleys and the other from Lampeter via Llandovery and Brecon.

In summary that is:
X10 - Heads Of The Valleys (Swansea - Port Talbot - Maesteg - Merthyr - Ebbw Vale - Treherbert - Aberdare - Abergavenny)
X20 - Glyn-Neath - Ammanford - Cross Hands - Carmarthen
X40 - Swansea - Carmarthen - Lampeter
X50 - St David's - Fishguard - Cardigan - Aberystwyth
550 - Cardigan - Aberporth - New Quay - Aberaeron
X60 - Lampeter - Llandovery - Brecon - Abergavenny
X70 - Brecon - Builth Wells - Llandrindod - Newtown - Corwen
X80 - Aberystwyth - Caernarfon - Holyhead

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