Heart of Wales Line research
Letter to Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Climate Change.
Dear Mr Waters,
Calon Cymru Network would like to place on record our commitment to the Heart of Wales Line as a vital transport artery for Mid Wales, and also our worries about passengers’ declining confidence in the service on the line. which is impacting use of the line and leading in turn to questions about its long term future.
We believe that closing it would be an economic, social, and environmental disaster. The very opposite is needed - investment and upgrading to make it a regular, reliable service generating new economic activity as well as serving as a much-loved tourist route and social connection between communities up and down the line.
To this end we include a small piece of research carried out late in 2022.
Heart of Wales Line train service ‘shambles’
Trains on the Heart of Wales Line are shunned by many residents because of unreliability and sudden cancellations. Most stations on the line, which connects Swansea and Shrewsbury, are in the countryside of Mid Wales, a desert for other forms of public transport.
The journey takes just over four hours to cover 121 miles, an average speed of under 30mph. Until December 11th 2022, weekday trains were supposed to leave Swansea at 6.01, 9.27, 14.35 and18.30, and at the other end of the line they left Shrewsbury at 5.56, 10.09, 14.05 and 18.24. The Sunday trains were one in the morning and one in the afternoon in each direction.
A new improved timetable came into force on December 11th, offering a fifth train in both directions on weekdays, and additional trains in early morning and late evening from Shrewsbury to Llandrindod and Swansea to Llandovery, plus a night train from Llandovery to Swansea.
Late in 2022, Calon Cymru Network put out a call for evidence from people living near the line. Derek Jones, the founder and editor of the local news service, Love Llandovery, published the request for information, and within a few hours more than three dozen readers had contributed their experiences. In addition we received, from a staff member of a large government agency, a spreadsheet of delays and cancellations on the ten days between November 12th and November 21st 2022. At that time there were only four trains up and four down the full extent of the line on weekdays and Saturdays, and two on Sundays, in in each direction. Over the 10 days, the timetable showed 36 trains due to travel all the way up the line to Shrewsbury, and 36 to travel down from Shrewsbury to Swansea. The spreadsheet logged 24 cancellations and six delays, Seventy-two timetabled trains, 24 cancelled and six delayed: a cancellation rate of 33% and in addition a delay rate of 8%. The odds of a service not arriving at all, or not on time, were almost as high as the odds of reaching your destination without undue hassle.
“The way things are going this line will close, another nail in the coffin of small towns on route.”
”The thought of being stuck in Shrewsbury railway station at half-past six at night on a Saturday is too scary.”
“They no longer put on replacement buses.”
“Unfortunately the Central Wales service seems to be Transport for Wales’ default service for cancellation if there is stock or staff issues.”
“Four of us left stranded in Llandrindod without warning and NO back up bus service… we had to get a taxi home at the cost of £50.”
“My family were stranded in Llandrindod when their return train to Llandovery was cancelled. I had to put in a 90 min round trip to pick them up. It’s a shambles.”
“I often wait for a train only to be told it has been cancelled. I have travelled to Llandovery and not been able to get a return train. I have waited for the replacement bus service which never arrives. Not reliable at all.”
“There are many, many people who have stated that they have no faith in trains turning up so don’t use the railway any more.”
“Completely unreliable, more likely to be stranded/ no return train, CANNOT be used for anything other than adventures when you don’t care if it takes 2 days to get there and no guarantee you’ll ever get back again, outrageous really these days when public transport especially in rural areas is a lifeline for those of us trying to get to work. Reliable public transport SHOULD be possible, not good enough!”
“The service is an absolute disgrace, and needs drastic improvement to create a vital public link that the area really needs.”
The reasons given for cancellations include staff shortages, a damaged embankment, and broken down trains and no available replacements,
One contributor who knows a lot about the operation of the line made the point that Transport for Wales does not roster the drivers and crew for the whole journey, but only as far as Llandrindod Wells or Llanwrtyd Wells. If replacement staff are not available at these mid-line stations, the train stops and passengers are stranded. In the days of British Rail, our contributor notes, the drivers and crew were rostered for the whole journey, avoiding the issue of a premature stop in deep Welsh countryside.
Transport for Wales Rail, a not-for-profit agency owned by the Welsh Government, took over the Heart of Wales service from KeolisAmey in February 2021, less than two-and-a-half years after the 2018 end of Arriva Trains Wale’ 15-year franchise to operate local lines in Wales. Arriva withdrew from bidding for the franchise to continue, but revenues for winner KeolisAmey slumped due to the Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and on the Heart of Wales line, a freight train carrying diesel and gas oil derailed at Llangennech, near Llanelli on August 26th 2020, spilling some 300,000 litres of fuel, which caught fire. The southern part of the line was closed for six months.
Passengers say their complaints about cancellations and delays often have not been met with an adequate response, especially considering the absence of any other public transport in the long rural sections of the line, serving villages and towns across north Carmarthenshire and Powys in Wales and Shropshire in England.
Cancellations, worn-out trains, no guarantee of replacement buses, stranded passengers: an “absolute disgrace”, as one passenger ruefully commented.
None of the issues raised above are systemic and in no way should be used as justification for closing the line. Both Covid and the oil spillage were one off events that will be overtaken by economic recovery as time goes on. The dreadful service on offer reflects a chronic lack of investment, inefficient management, and a blatant disregard for the needs of the rural population.
There is demand from the rural population for a properly resourced, regular and upgraded Heart of Wales service. Moreover, as an organisation committed to sustainable development along the Heart of Wales corridor, CCN believes strongly that an effective regular service linking towns along the line with main line stations and access to airports and other key destinations would be a key element in any strategy to attract new businesses and economic life into a region in desperate need of economic regeneration and diversification.