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Cutting inter-city WCML services to make commuting ‘almost impossible’

Restricting the amount of inter-city trains at key stations on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) would make it “almost impossible” to commute between major cities and would be “wholly unworkable” practically and economically, transport chiefs have said.

In its response to the government’s InterCity West Coast Rail Franchise consultation, which opened on 10 May, the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority (ITA) said proposals such as cutting the number of trains at stations like Wolverhampton and Coventry would make matters worse rather than open up capacity.

Reducing services at these two key stations was one of the proposals put forward in the consultation, which seeks views on the currently Virgin-operated franchise set to expire in 2018.

Other ideas included an option to limit the use of inter-city services in the region to strictly long distance passengers rather than prioritising short distance operators. But ITA argued that Virgin currently runs more than 40% of train services on the Birmingham to Coventry line, as well as provides over half the peak-time commuter capacity.

Yet the government’s consultation argued that there are often alternative services for short-distance journeys with competing TOCs – such as with the West Midlands franchise, due to expire in 2017 – whereas the WCML operator is the only one providing long-distance trips.

ITA, however, expressed concern that reductions and restrictions would hit both long-distance passengers wanting to start journeys from stations such as Wolverhampton and Coventry and local commuters travelling within the region.

Its chair, Cllr Roger Lawrence, said: “It is wholly unacceptable that non-Birmingham passengers could lose their direct services to London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, purely to save a few minutes on journey times.

“The inter-city West Coast services play a crucial role in supporting our regional economy so any move to restrict their use to purely long distance passengers would make it almost impossible to commute between Birmingham and Coventry and be wholly unworkable from both a practical and economic point of view.”

And while the authority recognised the challenge to meet growing demand until extra capacity is released when the first phase of HS2 opens, it argued the focus must be on replacing services currently running five to nine carriages with 11 or 12-car trains, rather than scaling back services at intermediate stations.

“If anything, the DfT needs to be looking at ways to improve services at key interchanges such as Wolverhampton and Birmingham International rather than seeking to reduce access to inter-city rail services,” Cllr Lawrence added.

“We will be writing to the government expressing our concerns but will also put forward our own suggestions on how best to provide the extra capacity needed before HS2 opens.”

Despite the need for more carriages, the DfT’s consultation had already warned that options for rolling out longer trains before HS2 is built “may be limited”.

“They also may not be affordable or operationally deliverable in all areas of crowding due to constraints such as platform lengths and space within timetables and at stations to fit extra trains in,” the department added.

(Top image c. mattbuck)


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Jake   03/06/2016 at 12:37

The idea of banning customers from Wolves or Coventry from using Virgin services into Birmingham is a farce. 'There are often alternative services for short-distance journeys'? Such as what? The half-hourly three-coach local? Or perhaps the hourly 2-coach Arriva Wales service? Or the hourly four-coach Cross Country which is already a sardine can? If the Wolverhampton-Coventry line had been quadroupled like it should have been back at the last upgrade, London Midland could run a 10-minute local service like the Cross City Line along the route, coupled with opening new stations in the long-gaps on the line to better serve local communities and improve connections for them, which would in turn allow long distance trains to perhaps eliminate stops or run as set-down/pick-up only, win win. But cutting those stops without a compensatory improvement in local services would be a massive worsening of an already shoddy service.

Paul Kimpton   03/06/2016 at 13:13

The problems with the WCML lie not in the fight for space on the fast but the massive demand for space on the local and that is often as a result of the very heavy freight load requirement. The channelling of so much freight onto such a busy route must be a direct result of planners ignoring the effects of that usage. How much use is made of the ECML or the four line route of the ex-Midland? Even the Southern train service, which is very useful to those needing to access West London, is prevented from offering anything better than an hourly service due to "overcrowding" - and that doesn't even serve Euston.

Hugh   03/06/2016 at 13:14

Jake is absolutely right. Not just here, but at all the locations where there are Virgin and local services they are part of an integrated offering. Demand is such that if one is removed the other would be overwhelmed. Off peak, perhaps, there is a genuine choice, but also plenty of capacity, so it doesn't matter. The problem on the Coventry-Birmingham route is the lack of capacity caused by the mixed traffic operation (slow and fast trains). In the short term another couple of passing places might help, but those need stopwatch precision in operation.

Stewart   03/06/2016 at 13:50

I'm surprised that the demand (commuter) is not well understood from the ticketing information. Utilising this information should permit sufficient planning and ticketing types to even the load on the network evenin the peak. Freight should be able to co-exist where moved mainly in the night.

Tom L   03/06/2016 at 13:59

I could not agree more with the previous comments assessments of the actual constraints. Peak capacity is te key! There might be some more lateral-thinking (or just simpler) options (just off the top of my head): lengthen W'ton-B'ham-Coventry locals to 6 or 8 cars, at least in the peaks? - yes, some longer platforms required at local stops, but that's not insurmountable. Route fast services W'ton-New St via Bescot & Soho ? Longer, but much less congested, and with some track improvements maybe speeds could be improved. Route some peak W'ton & beyond services to avoid B'ham & go via Aston/Bescot? The southbound exit from New St has already had attention to segregate slow cross-city services, but something would need to be done for the north approach of New Street. Of course, we are living with the legacy of keeping the restrictive LNWR alignment N of Birmingham, rather than the OWWR (GW) - 4 tracks are simply not viable on much of the the current alignment. But that's the past, we have to make it work for the future! Certainly, cutting capacity will not be a solution to getting more passengers on the train network here or anywhere else.

H. Trevor Jones   03/06/2016 at 14:22

It's quite common on the continent for faster and/or longer-distance trains to have premium fares or minimum distance fares, so while you can usually use them if you must, you are incentivised to use the local train for a short journey if possible. I commend this approach. Of course you still need enough trains/carriages (local and long-distance) for the paassengers!

Jak Jaye   03/06/2016 at 15:26

This proposed ban on commuters using Virgin Trains is already in use passengers who live in Milton Keynes are not allowed on WCML services in the rush hour that decision was made by a faceless DFt cvil servant who probably wanted a first class coach all to himself! The whole railway privatisation is a mess and we have one of the worst Transport Ministers...ever. The answer isn't building more trains that just means more people use them Guess this is the ongoing legacy of that railway vandal Dr Beeching,TOC s would kill for the main lines he(and the Labour Government) axed back in the 60s

Noam Bleicher   04/06/2016 at 11:27

COV-BHM is served by three 9/11-car pendolinos per hour, providing more capacity than all the other providers put together. Generally these services have spare capacity at the 'country' end so it makes no sense to bar local traffic from these. It makes far more sense to bar it from the generally hourly XC services which are ruined by local passengers. You can't physically stop people from boarding of course, but you can omit local stops from destination boards. If a train at Wolverhampton is showing first stop Leamington, with a warning that tickets to Leamington and beyond only are valid, it would help a bit.

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