Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Take these broken wings, and learn to fly again

Posted in Business, Customer service, Great Britain by Chairman Pip on 7 February 2011

The demise of Wrexham & Shropshire got me thinking about exactly how such a well regarded operation could collapse so spectacularly, and I’ve come up with a few ideas. See what you think:

  •  Route: Of course new operators have to pretty much take what they can get in terms of the route they’re permitted to operate on, but I think it’s fair to say that WSMR got dealt a pretty crap hand when it came to the circuitous route their services had to take. Was there any section of it that allowed the train to put in a sustained stretch of 100mph running? Not just that, but its route was shared by the services of three different local operators (Chiltern Railways, London Midland and Arriva Trains Wales). Is it any wonder that WSMR trains took close to 4 hours to get from London Marylebone to Wrexham General? This compares unfavourably with the Virgin Trains service to London Euston (via Chester and the WCML) that takes two and a half hours.
  • Competition: I’ve noted before that Sir Beardy has not been fond of competition for Virgin Trains, with the price war that they’ve been undertaking against Chiltern over services to Birmingham. The moderation of competition written into Virgin’s franchise agreement that to all intents and purposes stymied WSMR’s efforts to gain access to the major West Midlands market via Wolverhampton; it should be noted that (as far as I know) no such moderation of competition was in GNER’s franchise agreement, which is presumably why they fought such an intense legal battle to stop Grand Central. However, WSMR, being an open access operator, had no such legal protection when Virgin stated their intention to run trains to Wrexham.
  • Rolling stock: While WSMR should be commended for introducing locomotive hauled trains, which undoubtedly give a better ride for passengers over long journeys, the fact that they were operating what were essentially five car trains with only three passenger vehicles (thus hauling two empty vehicles with no financial return on them) could well be viewed as a mistake. Indeed, the plan initially was to use DMUs (most likely either Turbostars or Sprinters), with the use of a loco hauled set for the trial run only a matter of expediency. Had they been able to obtain some three car Class 158s rather than having to use the big Class 67 locomotive, could they have been able to reduce their operating costs to a managable level?
  • Corporate support: When WSMR was acquired by Deutsche Bahn, I imagine that everyone would have thought this would have given them a degree of financial stability, while allowing DB to put a toe into the British intercity market that they are so keen to grab a share of (if their designs on both the East Coast and West Coast franchises are anything to go by). So, when Arriva Trains Wales submitted their proposal to run trains from Aberystwyth to London, the announcement that, were this successful, DB would stop funding WSMR was something of a surprise. Of course DB is a business, as was WSMR, with the primary aim of making money. But it takes money to make money, and investing in a small operation like WSMR could well have given DB the experience of running an intercity service in Britain in a way that ensured they were well received when it came to larger operations.
  • General niceness: In their attempt to run a quality service, WSMR probably went too far. They offered a quality product for a small price, something that passengers love, but finance departments hate. In their efforts to run a “real railway service”, they probably became too enamoured of the golden age and thus ended up having to cut back their operation in order to preserve their service. This is laudable, and got them record passenger satisfaction figures, but realistically (as we’ve seen) is unsustainable. Had they made the effort to run merely a good service, one that receives praise and steady growth (much as Grand Central appear to have done), rather than the excellent service they started with, then they may well have been able to survive. Had they gotten through to 2012 and the start of the new West Coast franchise, with no moderation of comeptition and thus access to Wolverhampton, who knows what might have been.

So what now? Virgin have suggested to passengers in Shrewsbury dismayed by the loss of the direct service to London that WSMR offered that they write to the DfT and ask for this to be written into the new franchise requirement for the West Coast. Meanwhile, WSMR’s track access agreement runs through until 2014, so the paths are there should someone decide that there is something to be made from the WSMR adventure. Given that DB own both Chiltern and Arriva Trains Wales, what price is there for one of them, properly backed by the financial muscle of Germany’s publically owned private rail operator, to perhaps have a go? Or will we see an expansion of Virgin’s trains to Wrexham? Perhaps (just perhaps) we could see CrossCountry (also owned by DB) serving a London terminus. Who knows?

Would using DMUs rather than hauled sets have made things easier for WSMR?

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