Posted in Railways on Saturday 3rd May 2008 at 11:18pm
It was all going to be so efficient - companies would compete on key routes, and impartial regulator would decide on services for the good of the network and user, and new rolling stock would pour into the market. Well, finally, fifteen years after the Railways Act promised a bright future of competition - and despite the meddling of DfT and others, this week saw the third Open Access operator begin to run trains - Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railways. It's been an eventful first week, and today wasn't going to be any different, as I decided to try out the new service. The first challenge was fitting a trip into the Saturday timetable, with four awkwardly timed (for us) trains from London to Wrexham and back. Settled for a later than usual start at 08:16 with a run up to Paddington, fairly uneventful and mostly early running meant time for breakfast, to chat and generally to enjoy the promising morning. It also allowed time to make the transfer to Marylebone - although this wouldn't have been necessary. Arrived to find the service shown as delayed almost an hour before it was due to leave! A locomotive breakdown had necessitated fueling a substitute loco, and as time slipped by it was touch and go whether the train would leave with the new loco and stock, or with that of the next incoming service. Time slipped by, and so did the alternative option to travel on a Chiltern unit to Leamington and change a couple of times for Wrexham. However, a small core of us stayed firm - we'd come for the loco-hauled service and we'd wait for it to run. A few knowing smiles from the gateline staff showed they knew our game, and we were left alone by the large British Transport Police presence at Marylebone due to football, and this being the only place Birmingham trains were arriving.
Finally the service was called, and we walked out to the new platform 4 to wait for it's arrival. The staff waiting for the train were clearly relieved and pleased to be running, and there was a fine atmosphere as the recently repainted 67014 slipped into the bay, with three immaculately turned out blue and grey coaches bearing Wrexham and Shropshire branding. Taking us forward would be 67024 - the replacement engine we'd waited for. Until the modified Driving Van Trailers are ready, these services will continue to use pairs of 67s. Soon on board, settled into a comfortable coach and away from London, well over an hour late. As we moved through the suburbs, alternating bursts of good running with slacks due to speed restrictions or local units ahead, tried to recalculate the journey ahead? Once we'd called to pick-up at Banbury, we had a better idea of timings. Should we leap and Tame Bridge Parkway and risk a couple of hours at New Street, or could we press on into Shropshire? It was clear we were now unlikely to make it to Shrewsbury, where we'd originally planned to turn for home. The staff onboard made up for this with excellent free coffee, friendly service and a genuine interest in what they were doing. A promising start for this new company.
At Leamington Spa we took the line for Birmingham rather than the single-track via Kenilworth. A number of these services, and reportedly all of them at weekends, run fast through Birmingham New Street - making a mockery of the idea of fair competition. We crawled through the southeastern suburbs of the city, passing Tyseley and travelling via Small Heath South Junction and Bordesley Junction to reach Proof House. We came to rest in platform 9 of New Street for some minutes, the driver out of the cab and showing some dismay at the signal check. The doors, of course, stayed locked. Off again, taking the line for Bescot at Soho and reaching our next stop at Tame Bridge Parkway. Calculations showed Telford Central was possible, so we nervously sat tight as we pressed on, getting inevitably stuck at Crane Street Junction before our next pick-up only stop at Wolverhampton. On the move again we passed Oxley, teeming with stored Adelante units, until recently working locally for First Great Western. Stuck behind another local service we crept into Telford with eleven minutes to spare before our train back to New Street. Time for a quick picture in the afternoon sun, then over the bridge to head home via a packed and stiflingly hot Voyager ride which left me tired and cranky.
The restrictions which cynically ensure that Wrexham and Shropshire's service isn't a competitor for Virgin and Arriva are going to make this operation a challenge, and technical issues like today's failure won't help either - but while the staff retain their air of genuine concern for service and interest in customers' needs, this operator will be winning the battle by other means than short journeys. The popularity of the much missed South West to North West trains shows that for many people a direct train with no changes is often as attractive as an early arrival. If Wrexham and Shropshire keep their spirits and level of service high, they'll become popular and well used.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.