This forum was set up as a place where passengers, and wannabe passengers, of trains in the area covered by the Great Western franchise could discuss / learn more about their services - what made them tick, how to get the best out of them, and how to ask for and indeed help with improvements. And the key trigger to setting it up was the TransWilts line and what happened to it in December 2006, when most services were AXED and remaining oned RETIMED for what we believed to be the OPERATIONAL CONVENIENCE of the train operating company, without overriding regard to when the service specified by the Department for Transport would draw most passengers and be the most benefit to the people and passenger flows for whom they should be provided.
When the First group took over the franchise, trains were scheduled to leave Swindon for Westbury (and some beyond) at 06:20, 08:45, 14:25, 17:46 and 22:10. Return trains from Westbury were scheduled at 05:35, 07:30, 13:20, 16:45 and 21:20. Not a brilliant timetable, poorly advertised, and with a shocking local reputation for cancellation / running late / not turning up. But growing (and by a lot more than the 0.8% on which the 2006 franchise was based) and having a real economic effect on the places served. Taking our own business, where I have detailed records, around 45% or our customers arrived in our town by train on the TransWilts line.
In December 2006, First cut the schedule back to two trains each way per day, leaving Swindon at 06:15 and 18:45. Services from Westbury are scheduled at 07:05 and 19:35. Not only is that schedule just 40% of what was an already sparse service, but it's also inappropiate for the needs of the flow, and certainly for our customers. In this timetable, commuters into Swindon had their length of day there increased from 9.5 hours to 11 hours, killing it as a commuter service even for those who could choose to work flexibly. In this timetable, connections from London were reduced from 4 a day to just 1, as the first train leaves Swindon so early that there is no connection from London. And as a result of this timetable, the cost of going by train from Melksham (where I live) to London for a daytime meeting rocketed from under 50 pounds to over 100 pounds, as the only train to run with a London connection was designated "peak" even though there were plenty of seats ... when it ran ... and there's a further story.
We had complained previously about reliability. But it turned out that we didn't know what the word meant. Not only did the December 2006 timetable result in a loss of trains that made round trips / existing single journeys at sensible times of day almost impossible, but it also brought a new standard in failure to deliver. We used to keep graphs of how the trains were doing, and had to extend the axes to cover 30% and 40% cancellation rate averages that happened for weeks on end. The new timetable was to be run with dramatically fewer trains across the South West of England, and in the event of a failure of a train, or the lack of crew, there wasn't enough slack in the system. It was made 10 times worse by the policy of cancelling the TransWilts service in priority to cancelling anything else, rather than sharing out the misery.
The TransWilts wan't unique in having a much lower service level after December 2006 than it had prior to that date, but it probably was just about the severest of cuts. Since then, many of the other lines that were cut and which became very unreliable have greatly improved both in terms of services scheduled and services actually run. TransWilts schedules, however, remain appalling. The services still seem to be run at times designed more for the operational conveninence of the train operating company, and still fail to provide a sensible commuter, leisure trip (weekday or weekend), or long distance option for the vast majority of journey requirements. Reliabilty has hugely improved, and First must be congratulated on this. Although there's still a tendency to cancel the TransWilts service in extreme winter weather when all other lines seem to still be running, it's now far better from a reliability standpoint than it was under National Express / Wessex Trains.
Alas - no matter how reliable a train service is ... if the trains aren't scheduled to run when they're needed, the service remains useless for those who need them. From 45% of our customers using the train to get to / from our business via our town's station in the summer of 2006, the figure dropped to around 3% for the following year. It's only crept back up to around 6% since then - partly due to the better reliability that lets us recommend the service, partly due to the fact that far more people are using and wanting to use rail (road congestion, peak oil, global warming, rail is 'cool' again, more relaxing by rail than road, cost of petrol), and partly due to First adding one extra train per week over and above the DfT specification, and at a time that's useful to our customers too.
The post above is to help fill in newcomers - now that we have over 1,000 members and over 100,000 posts, there may be many members, and guests too, who would like to read about our history.
I'm going to follow up with a couple of other major posts over the next week to 10 days - looking at TransWilts and wider connected journey issues, objectives, some of the reasons why whe have achieved so precious little when other rail improvments have been dramatic in the last years, and looking forward to the next franchise and other changes in the next few years. Those other follow ups will be elsewhere on the forum (not on this intro and chat thread) but I will add in links.