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End underdevelopment of network says Welsh Affairs Committee

The Welsh Affairs Committee has urged the Welsh and UK governments to put an end to long-term underdevelopment in the Welsh rail network. This includes taking steps to secure modern rolling stock and replacing some of the oldest train carriages in the UK.

The findings come ahead of the Welsh government being given the power to decide the operators of the next Wales and Borders rail franchise, beginning in 2018.

In 2003, the current Wales and Borders rail franchise established a 15 year agreement which had no allowance for growth in passenger numbers and no provision for extra train capacity. Since then, passenger numbers have increased by approximately 75 per cent. ‘Over the years, effort and investment by Arriva Trains Wales and the Welsh government have sought to cope with the increase in demand. However, this has been at a higher cost than anticipated, and wider improvement to the system has been far less than could be expected,’ says the Committee’s report.

‘The end of the current franchise brings some hope that, from 2018, rail services for passengers might improve,’ it says. ‘The Welsh government views the next franchise as presenting the opportunity to bring about transformational change. However, this will only be possible if a number of infrastructural improvements are made, principally, electrification of the network.

‘There is also an urgent need to acquire more trains, with modern facilities. The network is suffering from a lack of capacity, while the rolling stock has an average age of 27 years, with the oldest being 40 years old. The Committee has recommended that more action be taken to acquire new trains such as tagging onto existing orders of trains, and where existing trains are made available due to upgrades elsewhere, that Wales be given first refusal on these trains.

‘During the course of the franchise, Arriva Trains Wales have performed well against its punctuality target. It has also achieved good results in terms of passenger satisfaction, although this has declined recently as the public has grown tired of old and cramped trains.’ Arriva Trains Wales have also been able to secure additional services during their term, with routes to Manchester Airport and Birmingham International Airport being of great benefit to users. Despite some rumours to the contrary, the Committee says it was reassured by ministers that the franchise map will not change when it is re-let.’

The letting of the next franchise will follow a major change in the responsibility for franchising in Wales, with these powers being transferred to the Welsh government. Once this process has completed, it is essential that the respective governments continue to work together and share experience and expertise so that the best service for passengers is provided.

On publishing the report Committee chair, David TC Davies MP, commented: ‘The decision to let the 2003 franchise on the basis that there would be no growth in rail usage was a huge mistake. It has meant that the investment that might have been expected has not been made, and rail users have had to endure the consequences of this. Often this has meant not being able to get a seat, or that the trains have been dirty.

‘As the franchise comes up for tender in 2018 it will be the Welsh government who will have the responsibility to ensure there are improvements. They told us that the 2018 franchise presents the opportunity for transformational change. If they are successful, then that will be to the great benefit of rail passengers in Wales. However, it must also be emphasised that the franchise will remain cross-border. MPs will not have a direct scrutiny role, and will not be able to take up complaints by English users of the franchise. Therefore, we have recommended that a protocol be established whereby English MPs can raise their constituent’s complaints with the Welsh cabinet secretary, and receive a response.’