2022 AGM Report
SALRUA held its AGM on 17 May 2022 at Oddfellows Hall, Leamington. There was a slightly lower turnout than in previous years and only one industry presentation, from Charlotte Ritchie of West Midlands Railways. SALRUA Chairman Martin Lambert was unable to attend due to illness, his report was presented by Reg Banks.
Martin noted that since the last AGM in September 2021 rail services and passenger numbers were just starting to recover (this was before industrial action began in the summer, causing ongoing widespread disruption). A key issue was the poor performance of West Midlands Railways. Martin reported that SALRUA and other Rail User Groups had met with the West Midlands Combined Authority to voice dissatisfaction with WMR services. In particular it was noted that late night services were especially unreliable; passengers could get into Birmingham for the evening but could not rely on services to get them home. The situation was slightly alleviated by Chiltern adding extra stops on some of their services to cover for WMR. Since the pandemic Chiltern have managed to maintain about 80% of their services and were on track to continue increasing services. The total replacement of trains with buses on the Kenilworth line during the pandemic was also of great concern.
TRAIN OPERATOR NEWS
The present Chiltern franchise agreement ended in December 2021 and they have now been awarded a Direct Award by the Department for Transport (DfT) to continue to run the London to West Midlands services for 6 years starting in January 2022. The DfT will hold revenue and cost risk but Chiltern must continue to be a ‘Good and Efficient Operator’. A Business Plan for the next 15 months has been prepared which will commit Chiltern to a number of new and ongoing initiatives, including operational, environmental, performance, financial and customer satisfaction issues. This is good news for both staff and passengers alike. Their biggest challenge will be managing their all diesel fleet.
SALRUA attended Chiltern’s Stakeholder Conference in Leamington last November, a full report was in our November/December newsletter. Key points from the Conference were Chiltern’s ageing fleet of diesel trains; with the move to a low carbon environment this is a major issue for Chiltern. Chiltern will also have to retire its class 68 loco-hauled fleet before long. Trials were progressing with a new ‘hybridflex’ diesel/battery train.
There was still a significant funding gap between revenue and costs as passenger numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels. New working practices, especially working-from-home, were impacting passenger numbers. Also uncertainty over future franchise arrangements and government transport policy makes planning for the future difficult. On the staffing front it was noted that Chiltern has an older than average workforce so planning for managing large numbers of staff retiring was also an issue.
It is understood that Chiltern intend to restore a half-hourly service between London and Birmingham.
Chiltern continue to enjoy higher than average levels of customer satisfaction.
We are sorry to note the death of Adrian Shooter CBE who died in December. Adrian Shooter founded and led Chiltern from 1996 to 2011. A bust of Adrian Shooter was unveiled at Marylebone station and Chiltern have also named the first Clubman unit, 168001 after him.
West Midlands Railways
West Midlands Trains, East Midlands Railway, Greater Anglia, Merseyrail and Abellio Bus are now part of a new UK-owned and UK-managed company called Transport UK Group.
As we will all be only too well aware, West Midlands Railways has had significant issues over the last two years, mainly due to a shortage of drivers because of an almost total interruption to its driver training programme; WMR have said they lost 25,000 driver training days to the pandemic, with 8,000 days missed on the Snow Hill lines alone. This, coupled with higher than average retirements, meant that WMR have been struggling for drivers to meet what have subsequently been recognised as overly ambitious schedules introduced in May 2019.
WMR instigated a Snow Hill Lines Route Recovery Plan in late 2021. A dedicated director-led working group was established to develop and continually review the route recovery plan, focussing on catching up with the training backlog, improving fleet availability, developing better contingency plans for when disruption occurs as well as improving customer communications. This also included close collaboration with the West Midlands Rail Executive as well as across the industry with other train operating companies including Chiltern Railways, East Midlands Railway and Cross Country, as well as Network Rail, to reduce impacts to customers’ journeys wherever possible.
While it is good that WMR have made strenuous efforts to improve the situation it must be asked why they found themselves in a much worse situation than most other train operators. Whilst the need for extensive driver training was recognised before the pandemic that was done so against a background of what WMR at their Stakeholder Roundtable of 8th February 2023 admitted was “a commercially aggressive timetable”, “[the] Timetable was incredibly complex to operate” and “while passenger numbers increased, performance was degraded”. Much of the blame for the disastrous performance must therefore be laid at the door of WMR management.
WMR introduced some changes to their services from December 2022 although there were no major changes to the Snow Hill lines which will be altered from May 2023, highlights of these are:
Time will tell if this will be more successful.
SALRUA has been very sorry to lose two friends and stalwart supporters from West Midlands Railway. Brenda Lawrence, Station Manager WMR, who has retired, and Ian Taylor, Line Manager for Dorridge and Stratford Lines, who has moved to Worcester. We wish them both well and thank them for all their help, assistance and positive contributions over many years.
Cross Country services through Leamington continue on an hourly basis with no sign of a return to the 30 minute schedules of pre-pandemic times. On the plus side this means some trains are formed of two units rather than one offering a greater chance of getting a seat.
March will see another price rise for rail users with an average increase of 5.9%. For off-peak travel a Super off-peak return valid for 1 month from Leamington to London Marylebone rises from £34.40 to £36.40 (£22.70 to £24.00 with a railcard) while a day return by Chiltern from Leamington to Birmingham Moor Street is now £12.30 (£8.10 with a railcard).
For longer journeys we would highly recommend looking at split-ticketing, splitting a journey into sections with separate tickets for each section. As long as a train stops at the end of each section then multiple tickets for one journey can be used, and often the savings can be significant. Websites such as Split My Fare (https://www.splitmyfare.co.uk) will search for ticket combinations and all tickets can be bought in one transaction.
Both Chiltern and WMR now operate Delay-repay for delays of 15 minutes or more. More details can be found on their websites. Cross Country compensation is available for delays of 30 minutes or more.
Stratford To Honeybourne Re-Opening
In June 2021 SALRUA, along with other Local Rail User Groups and interested parties submitted a report to the Department for Transport in support of re-opening the Stratford to Honeybourne line, as part of the Restoring Rail Lines scheme. We were hopeful of a positive response from the DfT which would give hope to an early restoration of a crucial rail-link from the West Midlands to Oxfordshire and Worcestershire and beyond. Sadly the DfT announced on 17 June 2022 that the next stages, including a full business case, would not be progressed. This is very disappointing and a lost opportunity. SALRUA still strongly supports re-opening.
Plans have been revealed for the redevelopment of Solihull Station, the design was out for public consultation. It is hoped that work will start in 2024 and be complete by 2026.The only disappointment is that additional rail capacity and the reopening of the disused island platform is not proposed at this time and is for consideration in the future.
For the Commonwealth Games the Leamington Station forecourt and underpass was remodelled. Whilst an improvement, especially the underpass, the forecourt remains essentially a large and drab car park, a rather expensive lost opportunity to do something special. Leamington now has catering facilities on both up and own platforms.
On a less positive note it is sad that Kenilworth Station has not lived up to its potential, due mainly to a significant reduction in train services and poor reliability and the private Ticket Office operator closed on 24th September 2021. WMR have just announced a return of some services but it will inevitably take some time for passengers to return.
At Warwick Network Rail will finally be installing two new lifts in the existing subway as part of the Government’s Access for All scheme, providing step-free access for passengers using platforms 1 and 2 for the first time. Work will start in January 2023 and is expected to be complete by the end of the year. While no train services will be affected by the station improvements, the subway between platforms 1 and 2 will have to be closed for the lifts to be installed, requiring a six-minute diversionary route will be in place for passengers moving between each platform.
The station’s customer toilets will also be temporarily relocated and several car park spaces will also be lost for a compound for engineers.
The scheme is budgeted to cost £6.8million, a phenomenal sum for just two lifts even in a difficult location. Looking back the November 1969 Railway Magazine reported that major alterations and refurbishment would take place at four West Midlands stations – Hatton, Solihull, Knowle & Dorridge and Olton, including demolition and removal of platform buildings, new or modernised ticket offices, renewal of lighting, repairing and repainting – all for £37,250!
Bordesley station was recently flooded causing damage. Bordesley has an extremely limited service of just one train a week, Saturdays only and only in the northbound direction towards Birmingham (at 13.56). However, extra trains will call at Bordesley for football fans when Birmingham City are playing at St. Andrew's ground and these additional trains will be shown on the National Rail Journey Planner when available.
Some good news for Lapworth. The station has been adopted by the Parish Council and has had some repainting and renovation work done. From May 2023 the Stratford to Birmingham via Solihull service will call at the station, giving an hourly service to Birmingham and Stratford.
It should be acknowledged the all the Stations on our Line are now adopted, with the aid of the Heart of England Community Rail Partnership. As of November 2019 Julia Singleton-Tasker was appointed Community Rail Partnership Officer and is based at Shire Hall Warwick, although presently operating remotely. Her contact details are e mail email@example.com, telephone number 07827 954 022. Members can contact her directly if required. The Partnership covers 36 stations over 3 train lines operating between Birmingham, Coventry, Nuneaton, Leamington Spa, Warwick, and Stratford-Upon-Avon and serves a diverse range of stations, from rural request stops to larger urban stations. Their website is https://heartcommunityrail.org.uk/.
A newsletter is planned for later in the year.
2023 ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING
The 2023 AGM will be held on Tuesday 16 May, from 7pm. This will be at the same venue, Leamington Oddfellows Hall, 22 New Street Leamington CV31 1HP.
Subscriptions are £5 per annum and are due from April. If you have yet to renew or would like to join please could you send cheques (payable to Solihull & Leamington Rail Users Association), not cash, to our Membership Secretary Reg Banks, 49 Shelsley Way, SOLIHULL B91 3UZ. For those who would prefer an electronic transfer option please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Committee who like to thank all members for their continued support in these challenging times and we wish you all well.