Tuesday 29th June 2021
Gerald of Wales was an Archdeacon of Brecon born in 1146 in Pembrokeshire who travelled extensively in his life, not least all over Wales. He’s given his name to a “Premier Service” train that runs once a day in each direction between Holyhead (leaving in the early morning) and Cardiff (returning northbound in the late afternoon).
Introduced in December 2008 the Gerald of Wales train was a political move to connect north and south Wales, albeit via England along the way. The train was originally hauled by Class 57 locomotives with three Mark 2 and one Mark 3 carriages with the latter providing culinary delights cooked on board by a travelling chef including a cooked breakfast southbound in the mornings and a full dinner menu on the evening return journey in the first class coach.
While on an All Line Rover a few years ago I took a morning ride south to Cardiff joining the train at Wrexham and found it a most civilised way to start the day.
In March 2012 Class 67s took over as well as Mark 3 carriages ousting the Mark 2s. Originally operated by Arriva Trains Wales it passed to Transport for Wales with the franchise change in October 2018.
The service was temporarily withdrawn at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Despite controversy over the years about the amount of subsidy the service consumes from the Welsh Government – reported to be over £1.7 million for the two Monday to Friday journeys – reports surfaced a few months ago of plans to extend the operation adding a further three return journeys a day. It’s not clear what the additional subsidy required will be, but the political objectives of linking north and south Wales in a high profile way shouldn’t be underestimated.
It would also provide relief for busy journeys on both the North Wales coast line and the line between Chester, Shrewsbury and Newport both of which are popular in summer.
To resource the expansion as well as updating the existing carriages, the Welsh Government have recently purchased 42 Mark 4 coaches from Eversholt (the rail leasing company) which previously ran on the East Coast Main Line and thirty of which had been refurbished for Grand Central’s planned Euston to Blackpool service now abandoned.
Some of these carriages will also upgrade journeys on the busy Milford Haven to Manchester route which will give a welcome capacity boost there too.
I saw news that Gerald of Wales had returned to the tracks this month after its Covid hibernation complete with its newly acquired Mark 4 carriages so decided to book a ride and take a look at what the new offer is like and how the future will look.
Except it wasn’t easy to book a ride as the service only appears in the rail database a few days before operation on a week by week basis. If you check on a Monday or Tuesday and for most of Wednesday the service isn’t listed in any database. For example, this week’s service was only uploaded late on Wednesday of last week, although I see next week’s is already loaded but not the week after that.
Bearing in mind the southbound journey starts as early as 05:34 from Holyhead I’m not sure what Transport for Wales think passengers who need to travel in the early morning will do when they are not sure the train is running from one week to another.
It seems a most peculiar way of running a train service, let alone one that’s supposed to be high profile and costing a fortune in subsidy to keep going.
So it was with a certain amount of intrigue that I found myself at Holyhead Station ready for the 05:34 departure this morning and see just who else would be travelling, bearing in mind the journey was only advertised as running last Thursday.
Holyhead Station has been shabby and down at heel for too many years now not least the various signs and now closed offices on platform 1.
The image this portrays to visitors arriving on the adjacent ferry really is a disgrace.
What an awful welcome.
But I was delighted to see the station is now undergoing a refurbishment with a maze of scaffolding currently hiding the work going on to restore the roof above platform 2.
This is most welcome and hopefully will mean a new lease of life for the whole station.
At the moment the only positive thing to say about Holyhead is it’s got a nice clock tower.
I arrived at the station this morning in good time to catch the 05:34 departure and was surprised to see it so busy with trains.
Two Avanti West Coast Voyagers, two Transport for Wales Class 175s and a Class 158 and the Class 67 locomotive heading up the Gerald of Wales on platform 1.
Although it was busy with trains, not so with passengers as I was the only one together with a myriad of staff booking on at the Holyhead crew base in the station.
The train has a standard class coach behind the locomotive, then a coach with half standard class seats and the other half the cafe bar and kitchen…
… followed by another standard class coach and finally a Driving Van Trailer – I believe that’s the correct term!
I’m not too au fait with railway carriage technical terms but I’m sure you get the idea especially as the coaches are still in their LNER livery, which is not a million shades different from that now being used by TfW so fits rather nicely.
We left spot on time from Holyhead with just me on board but I was soon joined by other passengers with around half a dozen boarding at both Bangor and Llandudno Junction and two or three at Colwyn Bay, Rhyl and Flint. I didn’t see how many alighted at each station but did a head count as we approached Chester at 07:15 and we had 15 on board, three of whom had joined me in the First Class carriage.
Well, I say First Class carriage but I noticed there were no markings to say it’s designated as such. When full catering was provided the old arrangement was food served to your table in First Class but as the chefs aren’t yet back from furlough I’m wondering if the coach has been declassified although I note the TfW website sells First Class tickets for the journey at premium prices. No one checked my ticket for the entire journey.
Like Avanti West Coast trains from Holyhead to Euston, Gerald only stops at the principal stations along the North Wales coast to Chester and then just Wrexham General, Shrewsbury, Hereford and Newport making for a very quick journey compared to TfW’s stopping services on both sections of line.
End to end journey time is 4 hours and 25 minutes.
Everything was going well as we crossed Anglesey this morning and I was pleased to clock the station with the longest name as we sped through …
… but shortly after that we came to a sudden stop just before the Menai Bridge and waited ominously for about three minutes before getting going again and passing over the Strait with the A55 above us and the Suspension Bridge in the distance.
We arrived into Bangor three minutes down and after a slightly prolonged stop left six minutes late at 06:09.
We continued to be about five minutes late for the rest of the journey along the coast leading to the most annoying prerecorded auto-announcements being triggered every five minutes telling us in both Welsh and English “please note this train is running xx minutes late”. Argh. Once or twice maybe, but not every few minutes. And not even an apology either.
A smart turn round at Chester where we changed direction got us back on time thankfully and our Class 67 locomotive spent the rest of the journey at the rear.
A welcome change also at Chester was the first human announcement welcoming us on board, something which had been distinctly lacking from Holyhead especially for such a “Premium Service”.
I did another onboard count after we’d left Chester and found 30 on board with about five having stayed on from the north coast section. After Wrexham we were down to 18 but there were still about five faces I recognised from boarding at Bangor and Llandudno. After Shrewsbury we were down to 12 on board.
We reached Hereford three minutes ahead of schedule at 08:53 so our planned four minutes dwell time was extended to a leisurely seven. Plenty of time for the four passengers boarding there to join us.
We arrived into Cardiff at 10:58, a minute early, with fifteen on board at least two of whom had boarded in Bangor and four or five others had boarded north of Shrewsbury.
If you’re thinking of travelling with Gerald in the next few weeks bring your own breakfast or evening meal with you as the train has returned but not the catering.
Kathryn is in the cafe bar for the whole journey but the selection of snacks is pretty limited. There’s a small selection of sandwiches.
Hot drinks are available from a machine.
Kathryn was telling me she works both the morning journey down to Cardiff and return at 17:12 arriving back into Holyhead at 21:44 making for a very long day. TfW do provide a hotel in Cardiff for her to use during the day but every so often she has to do two days consecutively which makes for a short overnight turnaround in Holyhead.
Never mind the catering, for me, the journey is all about the comfort of one of those luxury seats – you know the endanged species now extinct on England’s main lines thanks to DfT penny pinching train interior specifications …
… and the lovely views along this unique journey.
Including a castle…
… a superb coastline …
… the Shropshire hills …
… the Black Mountains …
… and of course a lovely signal box..
Once those extra daytime journeys are added into the schedule and the chefs return (hopefully in September I understand) it really will be a ‘must do’ journey and with proper marketing and promotion (and it really will need plenty of that) TfW could be on to a winner.