Monday 16th December 2019
One of two brand new stations opened for business on the rail network yesterday, Warrington West; so I took a ride there today to take a look.
But just for fun I decided to go the long way round from London and sample GWR’s new speeded up timetable which also began yesterday on the electrified Great Western lines between Paddington and South Wales and towards the West Country to see how that’s settling in too (spoiler alert – not very well).
It’s been evident since their introduction over a year ago the Hitachi bi-mode/electric Class 800/802 trains can outperform the HSTs they’ve replaced by the extended dwell time at stations while the train waited for its scheduled depature time. That’s all in the past now with GWR’s new reduced journey times, new non-stop journeys or extra station calls as well as many completely new journeys added to the timetable.
For the first time for decades there are now trains which run fast between Bristol Parkway and London Paddington even missing out Reading, where every train previously stopped. Reading bound passengers at Paddington now need to take care they board the right train and not assume every journey stops in Berkshire. There are also new non-stop peak hour trains running between Chippenham and Paddington on the Bristol/Bath line.
The first departure from Paddington which runs non-stop to Bristol Parkway (and on to Temple Meads) is the 09:15. It’s scheduled to take just 68 minutes for the 112 mile journey arriving at 10:23. That’s pretty much spot on 100mph running.
Until last week the 09:15 stopped at Reading, Didcot Parkway and Swindon arriving into Bristol Parkway at 10:40 on its way to Cardiff Central so the new arrangements shave an impressive 17 minutes off the journey – a 20% reduction. Impressive.
Other westbound non-stoppers are at 12:45, 14:45, 15:45, 16:15, 17:15, 18:16 and 19:15 and I understand from May 2020 the plan is to run hourly westbound non-stoppers from 09:15 throughout the day.
There are nine eastbound non stoppers from Bristol Parkway to Paddington from 07:02 to 18:34 running approximately hourly.
Last week a Paddington to Cardiff journey took 2 hours and 8 minutes compared to this week’s speeded up 1 hour 47 minutes making for a 21 minutes (16.4%) saving. Another six minutes has also been shaved off the onward non-electrified journey to Swansea which now takes 51 minutes instead of 57 minutes.
London bound Bristol commuters benefit with the 07:00 from Temple Meads on the line via Bath running non-stop from Swindon arriving into Paddington at 08:29 compared to 08:44 last week while the 08:00 ex Bristol runs non-stop from Chippenham arriving Paddington at 09:28 against 09:43 last week.
Homebound the train at 17:00 from Paddington now arrives into Temple Meads at 18:27 (running non-stop to Chippenham) compared to an 18:46 arrival last week making for a 31 minute saving in journey time on both outward and homebound commutes added together. There are also homebound fast journeys to Chippenham at 18:00 and 19:00.
That non-stop journey at 07:02 from Bristol Parkway arrives Paddington at 08:14.
West Country passengers don’t fare quite so well on the journey time saving front perhaps reflecting the lack of overhead wires for much of the route. Last week the 10:03 Paddington to Penzance arrived at Cornwall’s western outpost at 15:12.
From this week, despite the better peforming Hitachi trains, the 10:04 departure pulls into Pezance at …. 15:10; a saving of just three minutes on a 5 hours and 6 minutes journey!
How can that be, you might be wondering? The answer lies in Taunton, where all Panzance bound trains now stop rather than whizzing through as the 10:03 and 12:03 from Paddington used to do. Another stop’s also been added at Totnes. So not so much a speeding up but an adding in of extra stations; which is great news for Taunton and Totnes West Country bounders but not so good for long distance travellers between London and Cornwall hoping for a quicker ride.
Anyway enough of the theory, how’s it doing out on the tracks?
I rolled up at Paddington this morning eager to try out the very first westbound journey to zoom through Reading, Didcot and Swindon en route to Bristol Parkway.
Except it wasn’t a very good inaugural weekday morning for GWR’s super new timetable at 09:15.
A signal problem between Reading and Paddington was causing delays to GWR’s eastbound trains with a knock on effect to trains leaving Paddington for their next journey and that very first non-stopper was inevitably one that succumbed to cancellation.
Let’s hope this isn’t a portent of things to come with the hyped up non-stoppers regarded as expendable. It’s good to have a 20% time saving, but the train’s got to run and be reliable to enjoy it; new passengers won’t be encouraged to travel if this journey becomes a regular cancellation to recover from any morning peak problems.
One other negative I experienced this morning – I think GWR have sneakily changed the start time for off-peak ticket validity between Paddington and Bristol – which I’m sure was previously valid after 09:00. It’s now changed to 09:16. Guess why!
I decided not to wait for the next non-stopper at 12:45, changed plans and headed over to Euston for my very first journey with the new Avanti West Coast franchise up to Warrington Bank Quay.
Unsurprisingly, bearing in mind it’s the same trains run by the same staff (including all the same big cheeses in charge) to the same timetable as Virgin, I didn’t really notice any difference. New livery though, which might grow on me!
And so to Warrington’s brand new station.
Warrington West Station has been in the pipeline since 2015 when the Borough Council applied for funding for its anticipated £9 million build cost to the Government’s New Stations fund. They’d hoped the opening ceremony would be before the end of 2016 so the Omega Development area north of the station and the adjacent Chapelford “urban village” on the 200 acres former RAF Burtonwood site could be conveniently served.
Unfortunately the bid was rejected but undaunted the Council pressed on with consultations and after Network Rail upped the cost by £4 million they applied again and this time the bid was successful; which just goes to show.
In the event it’s reported the station cost £14 million with funding from developers and the Local Enterprise Partnership as well as Government and the Council.
Although it looks like the developers’ contributions were almost forgotten!
But I’m wondering whether the swanky business park called Omega changed their mind as their logo is the one covered up in the credits.
The vision for Omega is ”to create a world class, sustainable, highly accessible mixed-use development providing quality, bespoke commercial premises, along with a range of new homes plus retail and leisure opportunities – all set within a huge network of green spaces and a 35 acres ‘green heart'”. It’s website boasts of its proximity to “M62 J8 Warrington” on the home page but deep within there is a mention of a ”new station”.
The original plan was for three trains an hour to serve the new Warrington West which as the name implies is situated two miles west of Warrington Central on one of the southern lines between Liverpool and Manchester. This would have included an hourly semi-fast (to Piccadilly and the Airport) and the half-hourly stopping trains (as far as Oxford Road). However, there’s some local consternation that Northern have declined to stop both stopping trains until the unreliability issues around the congested Castlefield corridor into Manchester Piccadilly via Deansgate and Oxford Road are sorted. Northern reckon it’ll be a case of “straw breaking camel’s back” if an extra stop is added at Warrington West.
However a local councillor, Steve Hall, who’s a former British Rail train planner reckons recovery time to ensure an on-time arrival into Manchester means trains from Liverpool, if on schedule, now wait three minutes at Warrington Central instead of making the extra stop at Warrington West as shown on the sample screenshot below from the Real Train Times website. This shows the 10:20 from Liverpool passing through Warrington West at 10:50 without stopping only to have three minutes dwell time at Warrington Central between 10:52 and 10:55.
It’s reported that Warrington Council are strongly pressing the train operators and Network Rail for three trains an hour but operators have opposed a further stop because of “the delays it could cause to other trains”. Northern are quoted as saying “we fully understand the frustration of customers. We absolutely want to deliver three services an hour from the station but we can only do this when the current capacity issues in Manchester are resolved.”
It’s even more frustrating for Warrington Central and Manchester bound passengers as the two new daytime departures per hour from Warrington West are at 30 and 40 minutes past each hour – not particularly evenly spaced – and therefore pretty much offering an hourly service.
It’s slightly better towards Liverpool with departures at 16 and 36 minutes past the hour although the 16 is a stopper taking 42 minutes arriving into Liverpool at 58 minutes past the hour, with the 36 a semi-fast taking 27 minutes arriving at 03; so if you’re heading to Liverpool, it’s pretty much an hourly service again.
Another change to coincide with Warrington West’s opening is the next station along the line towards Liverpool just half a mile west called ‘Sankey for Penketh’, has been downgraded from its previous hourly service to just one train in the morning and evening peak hours to/from Manchester (see above, at 08:20 – and below, as applied last week for comparison) – with a return at 17:57, as well as a journey to Liverpool at 07:45 returning at 17:52.
So, all in all, a bit of a disappointing start for this £14 million brand new station.
However let’s not talk down a brand new station; we need to celebrate such public transport improvements – I’m sure the new station will be much welcomed by residents of the nearby relatively new housing where its location is much more convenient than ‘Sankey for Penketh’.
£14 million buys some welcome some smart new facilities including a nice waiting area (albeit a bit spartan) with a staffed ticket office, toilets and two of those ginormous screen ticket machines and three departure tv type screens which aren’t working yet.
It’s also on ‘Warrington’s own buses’ half hourly route 13 with links the station to that fancy named ‘Omega Boulevard’ business park to the north as well as into Warrington town centre – a journey which takes just 13 minutes – which is a handy alternative to the train, especially with that unattractive bunched two-trains-per-hour frequency.
It was good to see a bus route map on the wall inside the station …
…. but there weren’t any bus timetables available and even more frustrating there were no Northern train timetables for the line either – I was told they’d run out, but that seems very short sighted at lunch time on the first weekday of opening.
There was a good supply down at Warrington Central – if I’d had time I’d have taken a supply up West!
It’s a shame there are no bus shelters for waiting passengers …
… although there’s a nice bin store ….
… and cycles get weather protection.
It was unfortunate the man from the Council who puts up bus stops flags and timetable cases put them up the wrong way round – just to confuse everyone …
… but at least it was spotted earlier this morning and during my visit a lady from the Council had been dispatched to put up a notice pointing out the error pending the bus stop man returning from sick leave to sort it properly.
I’m told there are 287 car parking spaces at Warrington West; I didn’t count them, and wondered if in an age of climate change concern they are really necessary if the station is designed for a local residential catchment area.
Even more alarming are the ridiculously cheap parking rates – just £1 a day!
One poster I didn’t spot anywhere is the ubiquitous Onward Journey one. Perhaps they’re no longer compulsory?
Down at track level (there’s a footbridge and accessible lifts to get you to the platforms) …
…. there’s a small nothing-to-write-home-about basic shelter and three seats on each platform.
I guess you don’t get much for £14 million these days.
It seems you also don’t get much in the way of a train service either. Never mind three minutes recovery time, some trains were running more than 15 minutes late across lunch time today.
Even worse the departure signs on the platforms were showing delays of 2-3 minutes; then the train would mysteriously disappear from the display yet it turned up about 15 minutes later – that happened twice – much to the consternation of waiting passengers who were naturally very unimpressed with the service.
It just goes to show you can have all the smart new stations you can afford (at £14 million a time) but if trains don’t run reliably and communications are poor, people will make alternative travel arrangements – now where’s that No 13 bus!