October marked five years since Transport for Wales (TfW) took over the Wales and Borders franchise. The then First Minister, Carwyn Jones said it would deliver “a first-rate railway system for Wales” yet recent news has been filled with stories of delays, cancellations and low passenger satisfactions levels.
With the Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee (CCEI Committee) set to undertake its annual scrutiny of TfW next week, here we explore whether recent rail performance is on the right track or coming off the rails.
Rail services are not performing well
TfW publishes data for a number of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) including for ‘passenger time lost’ (PTL). PTL measures the percentage of services arriving within three minutes of the scheduled arrival time, applying a weighting to locations based on passenger volume – delays at busy locations have a greater impact on PTL.
Figure 1 – Passenger Time Lost, 2022-23 and 2023-24 (to date)
Source: Transport for Wales
Note – Each financial year consists of 13 ‘railway periods’. These are all 28 days except period 1 (starts 1 April) and period 13 (ends 31 March).
Performance has improved on the Core Valleys Lines for the most recent performance periods. However across the whole Wales and Borders network, with the exception of period 5, performance in each period is worse in 2023-24 compared to the corresponding periods last year.
TfW publishes data for ‘on-the-day cancellations’. However the ORR has begun publishing cancellations data that also takes into account service changes due to lack of staff or rolling stock that have been included in a revised timetable – and therefore may not be appearing in operators’ cancellations scores.
The ORR uses this data to produce an adjusted cancellations score (percentage) incorporating services cancelled in advance. TfW’s adjusted cancellations score has been consistently higher than the England and Wales average since data recording began.
Figure 2 – Adjusted cancellations score data, TfW rail v England and Wales average
Source: Office of Rail and Road
Note –Period 6 2023-24 data is provisional.
Passenger satisfaction levels have declined
In the independent passenger watchdog, Transport Focus’s, most recent rail user survey TfW scored bottom (of all operators included) for overall passenger satisfaction. It also scored bottom for satisfaction with punctuality/reliability, frequency of services, cleanliness and for satisfaction with information provided during the journey. Satisfaction levels have, in the main, been steadily declining.
Figure 3 – Transport for Wales overall passenger satisfaction and satisfaction with punctuality/reliability and frequency of services
Figure 4 – Transport for Wales passenger satisfaction with value for money, cleanliness and information provided during the journey.
In April, Transport Focus called for TfW to “to urgently deliver a more reliable rail service after months of disruption for passengers”. It wrote to TfW expressing concern about performance, asking it to develop an action plan with timescales for restoring performance covering:
- information provision, including improved notice of timetable changes, ensuring consistent information is provided;
- monitoring and improving the experience of rail replacement services, with clear information and support for passengers; and
- greater focus on improving complaint handling.
TfW replied in detail setting out challenges it faced managing “cascaded” (i.e. second hand / refurbished) rolling stock and outlined actions being taken in the areas raised by Transport Focus.
It said it had “increased the size of [its] Customer Relations team, and [is] planning to increase resource to significantly improve complaint handling times”. ORR data for 2022-23 showed TfW came fourth bottom of 20 operators for satisfaction with complaints outcomes, it was also in the bottom half for satisfaction with complaints handling.
An August statement from Transport Focus said it was “still seeing examples of when information and support for passengers during disruption is falling way behind expected standards”. However it acknowledged “some clear improvements to rail replacement services”. There had been reports of rail replacement buses being inaccessible and unsafe due to overcrowding.
Issues with rail replacement buses were also highlighted in a May 2023 open letter from seven rail user groups. The letter suggested severe delays, frequent cancellations, overcrowding, and failure to provide accurate information “points to a complete failure by senior management”.
Poor performance attributed to rolling stock and staffing issues
During scrutiny of the First Minister in July, Mark Drakeford MS said recruitment issues were affecting “the whole of the transport industry”. ORR ‘P-Coded Cancellations’ data (see above) shows that for the most recent performance period available (period 6, 2023-24), more TfW trains were cancelled in advance due to staff availability than rolling stock shortages. This was the case across all operators for which data is available.
On rolling stock, the open letter from rail user groups suggested more effective management of assets by TfW could have avoided rolling stock shortages due to ‘thermal incidents’ (i.e. fires).
In March, the ORR issued an improvement notice to TfW as three fires occurred in a one month period while class 175 trains were in passenger service. It stated that TfW:
…have failed to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable that passengers and employees are not exposed to the risk of harm…The operator has failed to implement effective arrangements for the organisation, control and monitoring for the maintenance of the class 175 fleet…
James Price, told the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee services on the Marches line “have performed incredibly badly” primarily due to the issues with the class 175 fleet. The open letter suggests that if other classes of rolling stock had “been in service by now…(as per TfW’s original plan), the loss of 175s would not [have been] as critical”.
Rolling stock issues are reflected in TfW’s performance data on what are known as ‘short formations’. This refers to the percentage of services operating below the capacity that is required for the service in the timetable. Figure 5 shows this is consistently higher in 2023-24 compared to the same periods last year.
Figure 5 – Percentage of short formations
Source: Transport for Wales
Note – Data missing for period 13 2022-23. Recorded by TfW as N/A
In addition to issues with the class 175s, problems have also been reported with class 230 battery-hybrid trains (re-purposed from the London Underground) on the Wrexham-Bidston line.
Trains were withdrawn following a ‘soft-launch’ in April due to “minor technical issues” while issues with pollen clogging the engine filters were reported over the summer. TfW told the media the situation had been managed this year but it “will be looking for a more permanent fix to stop it reoccurring next year."
TfW set out a five point plan to improve Wrexham to Bidston line services in June.
Senedd Members are set to scrutinise
Reflecting on the past five years, TfW highlights it’s had to contend with “a global pandemic, extreme wet weather conditions and the war in Ukraine impacting our supply chain” plus “the recent cost-of-living crisis and inflation”.
Yet with rail performance issues clear, the CCEI Committee will undertake its annual scrutiny of TfW next week to understand how it’s responding.
You can watch the session live on Senedd TV. on 22 November from 9:30am.
Article by Francesca Howorth, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament