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Make the Cambrian Coast Railway Great Again

picture of a transport for wales train with the text Transport for Wales, make the Cambrian Coast railway great again

An open letter to Transport for Wales – the company responsible for the running of the Cambrian Coast railway

Dear Transport For Wales,

Yesterday I had the wonderful pleasure of travelling on the Cambrian Coast railway from Barmouth to Aberystwyth on your railway. This was my first ride on the line since you took over from Arriva Trains Wales earlier this year. 

The journey from Barmouth was lovely. At the station, the ticket seller was extremely helpful in finding us the cheapest tickets to Aberystwyth. Surprisingly it was a family ranger ticket which didn’t require a family and friends railcard (I just wish I had known that before I purchased a digital railcard the night before!) 

the rear of a train about to head on the wooden Barmouth viaduct over the river Mawddach on the Cambrian Coast railway
A Transport for Wales train leaving Barmouth and Barmouth viaduct
Photo used with permission from @Simply Barmouth

The train guard explained we could either change trains at Machynlleth or Dovey Junction and apologised as there would be an hours wait until the train to Aberystwyth. We decided that since it was a nice day, we would stop at the quieter station of Dovey Junction so that the children could run around and burn off some energy in the sun without fear of annoying anyone else. 

What was surprising about the hour wait is that the trains from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth are hourly, yet the train along the coast is two-hourly. Why can’t the timetable be scheduled better so that the trains connect better at Dovey Junction? I know one of two trains a day manage it, why can’t all trains? We also had another hour wait on the way home.

Another problem which soon had us regretting changing at Dovey Junction instead of Machynlleth was the lack of toilet facilities, especially as we have two children suffering from faecal impaction and needing regular toilet breaks. 

Finally, after a long wait, the train to Aberystwyth arrived. I have heard quite a lot of comments complaining about there only being two carriages to Aberystwyth and now I actually understand why. We got on and the guard apologised that it was standing room only. The train was so busy and packed that we couldn’t take my youngest daughter to the toilet, despite her sobbing she couldn’t hold it any longer. Hubby had to actually get off at the next stop and walk along the platform to get back on in the middle where the toilets were with her. It was even too busy for the guard to check our tickets or tickets of the passengers who boarded the train at Borth! 

The train journey home was similar. There were so many people rushing to get on the train at the platform that I was separated from my youngest daughter who had been stood in front of me beside the doors. People just rushed the doors and wouldn’t let me on, not even to help her up the steps. Thank goodness she didn’t fall and that hubby managed to get on before me and grab her. The annoying part was the elderly woman in front of me who had seen me and my daughter yet still wouldn’t let me past her even though my daughter had gone!

Leaving Aberystwyth the train was again packed, although this time the guard managed to make it along the carriage to check tickets. This time we stayed on the train to Machynlleth for the toilet facilities. 

Whilst the Aberystwyth line clearly has problems with overcrowding, what about the other section of the Cambrian coast to Pwllheli? 

train on a wooden viaduct over the river Mawddach on the Cambrian Coast railway
A Transport for Wales train crossing Barmouth viaduct towards Barmouth
Photo used with permission from @Simply Barmouth

This is an impressive line full of small stations, seaside towns and takes THREE hours to run from Machynlleth to Pwllheli. A long time to stand if there is no room to sit and with no buffet trolley which remains on the Aberystwyth train as there are no facilities in Pwllheli for the buffet car. There are several small request stops where only a two-carriage train has enough room to stop at the station and in some cases, only the middle doors can be used. Then you have the popular attractions on the line, such as the tourist destinations of Aberdyfi, Tywyn, Barmouth, Harlech, Porthmadog, Criccieth and Pwllheli and the Haven site of Hafan y Mor which has its own train station (formerly a Butlins site). Tourist attractions like Harlech and Criccieth castle, Great Little Trains of Wales lines such as the Welsh Highland Railway, Talyllyn railway, Fairbourne Railway, Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, Ffestiniog railway and the iconic walk and viaduct of Barmouth bridge. 

This line has a two-hourly service but badly needs an hourly train service, especially in the summer. Two hourly trains leave trains packed with standing room only and even people left behind. Trains running late because it takes longer to load and unload passengers, passengers unable to enjoy the views because of the overcrowding. Guards unable to check tickets or allow people to purchase tickets on the train as the stations don’t have ticket facilities. They cannot walk through the throng of people blocking the aisle, as well as having so many stops so close together where they have to open the doors. This has been going on for a long time and isn’t a new problem. I used to catch the train to go to work in a rather well-known supermarket in a nearby town. During the summer I was constantly late having spent the entire 45-minute journey standing and sometimes unable to purchase a ticket or having it checked. 

Why is the CambrianCoast Line largely overlooked by yourself and your predecessors Arriva Trains? Why are trains constantly cancelled at short notice, sometimes without even a road replacement? Why do you not have enough stock for the lines?

One of the things I wonder is whether a lot of these problems, such as late trains and not enough stock, is because of the signalling system that the Cambrian Line uses. 

In 2006 it was announced that Network Rail would pilot the ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) on the Cambrian Line. The ERMTS, which is used in several European countries, expects to allow a more frequent service on single line tracks such as the Cambrian Coast. This was to be a pilot scheme and should it be successful, the system was expected to be rolled out on other lines around the UK. It took until 2010 for the full line to be converted to the ERMTS system and for the previous RETB (Radio Electronic Token Block) system to be removed. Yet in the 19 years since the ERMTS entered service, no other line has had this system implemented, 

In fact, a report from 2011 talks about the difficulties of the ERMTS system on the Cambrian Coast;

Have there been benefits from ERTMS on the Cambrian?

For the UK 

• Learning how ERTMS can work in a UK context (and learning that ERTMS is not as well-developed technically as we would like!) 

• Excellent experience of the problems of trying to convert an existing railway 

• Realisation that a single-line railway was perhaps not the best place to conduct a trial

For ATW on the Cambrian Coast line 

• Our very simple railway has been converted to something much more complex (and expensive!) 

• So far, the results suggest we should have kept what we previously had… 

• …but we like to be helpful to the rest of the UK! Nevertheless, we are determined to make Cambrian ERTMS a success!

Source – Leppard, Peter (3 May 2011). Minimising the impact on the train service when resignalling an existing route with ERTMS, using its existing rolling stock (PDF). Copenhagen, Denmark: Global Transport Forum Limited. 

This report itself, as well as the fact that NO OTHER LINE IN THE UK uses this system show that it isn’t working. We struggle to have enough trains to run on the line, trains are still late, the whole system is unnecessarily complicated and we can no longer have special trains like the always popular steam trains, of which the last one ran the line in 2009 when they used to be daily in the summer! There used to be trains known as the Butlins Special which ran every Saturday, a long train with plenty of carriages which stopped only at the main stations rather than the smaller request stops. 

a steam train with The Cambrian on the front passes under the bridge where the photographer is stood
July 2009. One of the last steam trains on the Cambrian Coast Railway

Perhaps it’s time to return to the signalling system that used to be used on this line which would allow freight trains, spare trains and special trains to once more use this line and to make this line more reliable once more!

Something needs to be done and as yet I see no improvement to the line from Arriva Trains. All I see is the prices increasing and trains constantly cancelled with no notice or replacement and late-running trains as well as severe overcrowding

The line needs a more frequent service with more carriages but you also need to employ more staff. Too often we hear that a train has been cancelled because of lack of staff. You need enough staff to run the line, that’s Business 101! Without enough staff, it doesn’t matter how many trains you have if they’re just sitting in your depo. Why are you struggling with staff? Do you need more workers or do you need to look at why your staff are leaving or becoming ill? Clearly, something isn’t working and your line is a shambles with Wales and especially Transport for Wales, becoming a laughing stock! 

transport for wales train on the Cambrian Coast railway
Photo used with permission from @Simply Barmouth

For many, this is the main and only line! With the closure in the 60s by Beeching’s Axe of many of the connecting lines it has left this line, a glorious line that it is left isolated. No longer is there a connection to North Wales, Bangor, Holyhead and Chester via the old Afon Wen and Menai Bridge line which used to connect just after Criccieth. No longer is there a connection at Morfa Mawddach (formally Barmouth Junction) to Dolgellau, Bala, Llangollen and Ruabon on the Barmouth to Ruabon Line. No longer is there a connection to South Wales and Carmarthen on the old Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line. No longer is there a connection to Oswestry on the Newtown to Oswestry Railway. Now, you have to travel to Shrewsbury to connect to any other railway. 

Tourism, as well as locals, rely heavily on the railway to get them to work, school and for leisure. Yet, overcrowding and a limited timetable put many people off the journey. I know for us, we would rather use the train than a bus, but at what point does enough become enough and you start to seek alternative transport. I love this line, I am passionate about this line and I will support it as I’m aware of its importance to the area of where I live. Yet something badly needs to be done to improve the service, before once more an axe is threatened over the line! How much money are you loosing with guards unable to check and sell tickets? How many people are put off using the line because of overcrowding or long waits?

You have the opportunity to make the Cambrian Coast the pride of the UK and the most spectacular as well as reliable single-track line and I hope you do so. This line is unique and iconic and I hope you see the potential as much as I do!

Yours, 

Rachel – My Crazy Brood

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