Storm Callum brought parts of the Welsh rail network to a halt last month, washing sections of track away and forcing damaged trains out of service. As passengers struggled with delays and overcrowding, the optimism of a few days earlier must have felt like a soggy memory.
KeolisAmey took over the Wales and Borders franchise from Arriva Trains Wales on 14 October, beginning a new 15-year contract during which £5 billion will be invested in new trains and infrastructure.
Four bidders were initially in contention for the contract: KeolisAmey, Arriva Rail Wales, MTR Corp (Cymru) Ltd and Abellio Rail Cymru. Arriva pulled out early in the process followed by Abellio, which had to withdraw when its infrastructure partner, Carillion, went into liquidation.
The new franchise represents a profound change in the way the railways are run in Wales. Rail franchising has been fully devolved to the Welsh Government and is now overseen by a new not-for-profit company, Transport for Wales (TfW).
The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, described the launch day as an important moment for devolution. In a statement, he said: “The opportunity to re-design and re-purpose our railway network in Wales is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and I am confident that by 2033 it can be the best passenger rail service in the UK.”
Following its first week in charge, some passengers would say the new operator has a long way to go, but it would be unfair to judge so soon. There may be a new website and fresh signage, but it is fundamentally the same railway and the improvements detailed in the franchise won’t be delivered overnight. Franchise handovers are often an exercise in managing passenger expectations and storms have a habit of not respecting train timetables.
But what exactly has been promised in the new Wales and Borders franchise and when will passengers start to see the benefits?
The list of committed obligations for KeolisAmey under the new franchise is extensive. More than £700 million will be spent electrifying and upgrading the valley lines to Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney and Coryton. The intention is to eventually power all overhead lines and stations across Wales with renewable energy, sourcing at least 50 per cent domestically.
Another £800 million will be invested in new trains – of which more than half will be assembled in Wales – and TfW has said that at least five new stations will be built over the next 15 years, with £194 million earmarked for station improvement schemes.
The franchise includes a general uplift in service frequencies around the network, including an extra 294 Sunday services by December 2019 (an increase of 61 per cent).
However, one of the main commitments is to create a new high-frequency Central Metro service in and around Cardiff, which will utilise tram-train technology. The franchise also talks about improving Shotton station and Wrexham General in the mid 2020s as a precursor to the launch of a North Wales Metro service.
In the Borders, KeolisAmey plans to create a ‘true intercity experience’ between the north and south of the country by introducing 12 refurbished Mark IV carriages on the route from Cardiff to Holyhead, via Shrewsbury and Chester.
While the bulk of the investment will be made over the next few years, KeolisAmey is looking for some “quick wins”, said the company’s people and engagement director Marie Daly (pictured below). Deep cleaning its stations and improving staff facilities are two projects currently underway.
KeolisAmey has committed to no compulsory redundancies during the life of the contract and has specifically assured workers at the Machynlleth depot on the Cambrian line that their jobs are safe. The new franchise will create 600 new jobs, plus an additional 30 apprentice starts a year. There will be more visible opportunities for professional development, said Marie, and funding is available for staff who want to learn Welsh.
Marie said they plan to recruit locally to address the demand for new skills that the franchise is creating. Ownership of the Core Valley Lines will transfer from Network Rail to the Welsh Government, with TfW assuming the responsibility for maintaining the lines and upgrading them in preparation for the new metro-style service. Network Rail staff affected will be offered the opportunity to transfer to TfW, said Marie, but the likelihood is that there will still need to be a significant recruitment and training programme in place to develop infrastructure management expertise within the business.
A team of 130 has been working behind the scenes over the last five months to prepare for the handover. Marie was previously the HR director at KeolisAmey Metrolink in Manchester. She was the incumbent HR director at Metrolink when KeolisAmey took over the concession last year and believes that experience has helped her appreciate the concerns felt by staff and the value of engaging them in the changes.
“Overridingly, the thing that I’m seeing is that people are excited about what this contract is going to bring to Wales and for the local communities in which they live,” said Marie.
“As much as we need to induct employees into the business, they need to induct us and, while we’ve got bid solutions, we’ve got to make sure we can operationalise them and implement them. And they’re part of that journey to shape that.”
She added: “You’ve got people who have been sat waiting for this opportunity and just can’t wait to deliver on the promise.”
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