Rail services across Wales and the Borders look set to improve over the next two weeks after what Transport for Wales (TfW) says has been a “mammoth train repair programme.”
Engineers have worked almost 1,000 hours of overtime over the last four weeks to return damaged trains to the tracks.
It means services on the Wrexham-Bidston line will be restored to normal levels from Monday 3 December, and other pre-planned cancellations can be reviewed on a daily basis as the week progresses.
Transport Secretary Ken Skates has warned that the rail network still has “challenging times ahead as the autumn conditions continue”.
Confusion reigned for much of the week with communication from TfW about the state of the service on the Wrexham-Bidston widely slammed by passengers left wondering if trains were running or not.
Electronic message board at Bidston station this week
Last Saturday all services were pulled from the line and replaced by buses as trains were diverted to Cardiff to add extra capacity to network due to the Wales v South Africa rugby international.
Trains have been running on the Wrexham – Bidston line for most of the week but only on a two hourly basis as only one train was operating on the line.
A bus service taking twice as long has been in operation filling the gaps in the timetable.
By contrast passengers commuting along the Rhymney line from Caerphilly and Cardiff enjoyed a disruption free ‘Good Service’ over the past week with trains pulling up to the platform every 15 minutes or so.
It’s a significant comparison, both the Rhymney and Wrexham – Bidston lines are serviced by the same Class 150 diesel multi unit trains.
Flintshire County Council’s Chief Officer for Streetscene and Transportation, Steve Jones, said:
“Flintshire County Council was disappointed with the bus substitution service so early in the new franchise, however the Council is working closely with Transport for Wales to mitigate impact on service users and supports the forthcoming enhancements during 2019.”
TfW say the number of available trains in the fleet has increased by more than 10% in the last four days after the “mammoth” engineering push, and the number of trains reporting new faults is starting to fall.
James Price, Chief Executive of Transport for Wales, told AM’s on Thursday that the fleet inherited from previous operator Arriva Trains Wales “was not maintained quite as well as it could have been”.
The main issue which saw 20 trains pulled from service in one weekend revolved around ‘wheel flats’ caused by the ‘autumn conditions’.
Leaves on the line make rails slippery and cause trains to experience reduced adhesion.
This can lead to wheel slip when the train is taking power, and wheel slide when the train is braking, the rapid transition from slippery rail to dry rail and back can sometimes result in flats being created.
Flat spots are more common in the autumn and winter when the rails are slippery, but can also be caused by faulty brakes or wheelset bearings.
Network Rail and Transport for Wales have launched a joint investigation to understand why this autumn’s weather caused so much damage to the fleet.
Mr Price told the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee the “wheel flats thing did come out of leftfield on that weekend,” experts from French rail company SNCF have been draughted in to help.
There were “eight or nine” reasons that could be to blame said Mr Price but the “best experts in Europe” don’t understand what went wrong.
Those experts are conducting a range of scientific studies on the track conditions and how the trains have coped with them to help prevent a similar situation happening again.
TfW has said an £800m investment in new trains will bring in rolling stock better able to cope with autumn weather conditions as well as offering passengers a much improved travel experience. The first of those will be introduced in North Wales as early as next year.
TfW chief executive James Price
James Price said: “As our engineering teams return our trains to the tracks, passengers will start to see their services improving. We know that this has been a difficult time for our passengers, and we’d like to thank them for their patience.
“Our main focus now is on understanding what went wrong, and doing everything in our power to prevent it happening again. In the long term, that will be investing £800m in new trains across the network, but while those trains are being built and tested, keeping our current fleet fit for service will remain a top priority.”
Transport Secretary Ken Skates said: “The work carried out by the Transport for Wales’ engineers to return damaged trains back to service should be recognised and applauded.
“We still have some challenging times ahead as the autumn conditions continue, but I would like to take this opportunity to thank the engineers who have worked so hard to this point.”