Thank you for your patience.
Over much of the last year we have been striving to recover from the longer-lasting “baked in” impacts of the pandemic, particularly relating to staff shortages where recruitment and training was disrupted by lockdown and social distancing rules. We have undertaken more than 50 individual projects to tackle these issues on the route, including increasing capacity in our driver academy with extra instructors; working with Network Rail to address repeat signaling faults and collaborating with other train operators to best share the available fleet of trains, while the industry awaits new to be built.
The delayed delivery of new trains across the industry is something we are still contending with. Not only did factory closures halt manufacturing for many months, but social distancing restrictions also significantly slowed down the safety testing process and crew training for our new fleets is now years behind the schedule we had initially laid out when taking over the region’s network in 2017.
We have also committed to being open and transparent about the development of our recovery plan, via this blog and also through face-to-face drop-in sessions with our local management teams (as Covid public health guidance has allowed). As referenced in previous updates, we are also keen to measure progress by assessing train service performance, customer feedback and lots of other data streams to understand if the measures we are taking are having the right effect. In that vein, one of the areas we haven’t discussed before is our customer sentiment monitoring, and how the feedback you give us is used to help shape the strategy at each stage.
In this month’s update, we’ll look back at some of the topics that you have raised via our “live feedback” tool over the last year and try to answer as many of the common themes as we can.
Your questions answered.
Why did some of our trains run with fewer carriages than they should over the last year?
You said …
“I would really like to know the excuse for the recent service? Its September, the pingdemic is over now, but you still put 2 carriages on in rush hour”
“How can you put a two-carriage train when the following service is cancelled. This made the train really crowded. So I now have to wait 30 minutes for the next service”
“Two carriages, which are both packed. Not very good when we're all trying to avoid covid with world opening up again, shall be staying home to work for the time being.”
“The 16:30 & 17:30 trains only had 2 carriages yesterday, it meant that people at Moor St couldn’t get on the train after its came from Snow Hill. The morning trains are fine you seem to have 6 carriages then, but on returning home you seem to run out of carriages???”
“Rush hour trains in the morning cancelled from Cradley to Snow Hill. Then when one did turn up, it had reduced carriages. If you haven’t got people who can drive the trains, surely there are extra carriages that can be distributed?”
Our response: As we covered in some of our earlier blog updates , availability of our Snow Hill fleet was particularly affected by the so-called “pingdemic” during the summer of 2021. The generally high levels of colleague absence within our maintenance depots, as was mirrored across society, led to train maintenance and inspection cycles being interrupted. This left a backlog of overdue work to be carried out on our Tyseley-based fleet well into the autumn, after close contact restrictions were relaxed. Unfortunately, this issue was further exaggerated by our previously discussed shortage of drivers, as we didn’t always have enough traincrew available to shunt trains on and off engineering depots overnight at times.
At certain points, this left up to a third of our fleet stopped in sidings awaiting maintenance, which caused many services to run with fewer carriages than they should. Given the track layout and location of the principal route depots at Tyseley and Worcester Shrub Hill, it is also often not possible to “add extra carriages” to a train during the day. This is because individual two and three-carriage trains are joined together overnight into fixed sets and allocated to certain circuits on the route, covering specific services in the timetable. The current Snow Hill route timetable is based on 13 circuits every day, with a planned train of three, four, five or six carriages allocated to each one. Some of these circuits cannot accommodate our longer six-carriage formations due to short platforms at certain stations, or the length of sidings that they need to shunt in and out of during the course of the day. With the complexity of the overall network, as well as other operator, as well as Hereford to New Street services knitted in between our own, there is often no flexibility in the timetable, or ‘pathing’, to allow us to change which trains are allocated to each service.
We understand there was a perfect storm of trains running with fewer carriages than they should have while many customers were coming back to the railway for the first time in 18 months and were looking to spread out on board, which wasn’t always possible. We acknowledge this may have put some people off travelling again over the last year, but hope you understand that we always operated the longest trains we were able to. We are also pleased to say that in May, just 0.9% of services on the route were “short formed,” which is a significant step forward compared to last year.
Why can’t we timetable more services and longer trains?
You said …
“7.56 Stourbridge to Snow Hill only has 4 carriages. I just missed the 7.30 train (not your fault) and had to wait 26 minutes for the next one. Please run more services and/or run services with more carriages on them at this time.”
“WMR strike again, 3 carriages on what I recall used to be a 6-carriage train before Covid???”
“Why are you now running 3 carriage trains in busy periods, 6 should be the minimum”
“The 16.24 to Kidderminster is now 3 carriages. It's the busiest service of the afternoon as far as I can see and always a squeeze to get on. Why not increase the carriages to this service and reduce the amount of carriages for the next service?”
Our response: Our current Snow Hill lines base timetable is designed to deliver four trains per hour (tph) through the core section in each direction on weekdays. With 2tph to/from Stratford upon Avon and one each at Dorridge & Whitlocks End in the east, and then 2tph to/from Worcester and 2tph to/from Kidderminster on the western leg of the route. As detailed above, each of these services is covered by 13 actual trainsets which run back and forth each day like a pinball from one end to another. However, the base concept of this timetable is based on is our pre-covid 6tph operation. Effectively, as customer numbers dropped and crew shortages began to bite during the early stages of the pandemic, we had to strip back services by removing circuits and from the existing 6tph / 10-minute frequency core timetable. We were not able to unilaterally redesign our timetable as our services are interwoven around other long-distance express and freight trains. In effect, we are currently running a 6tph timetable, with 2 services removed, rather than a timetable which was designed for 4tph.
We have also been sharing the remaining available train carriages with other operators while various new train fleets have met with manufacturing delays. With fewer carriages to play with, traincrew availability challenges and changes to commuting patterns, this has meant that for much of the last year we have operated a 4tph service, but within the constraints of the old timeslots – or paths – being designed for a 6tph operation.
This leaves some 20/40 minute gap in frequencies where they used to be 10/20 minute. Again, we understand this is not ideal and can dissuade customers from coming back to travel by train. With a better understanding of the returning commuter patterns, as well as timescales for our new trains coming online over the next year, our timetable strategy team have been working on a complete overhaul of the base route timetable alongside Network Rail and Chiltern Railways. The current improved concept is to maintain a 4tph base timetable in the medium to long term but rebalance it to a 15 minute service frequency alongside other operators. Fundamentally, this allows us to implement a consistent five-carriage allocation for all services, rather than the current mix of train lengths. It also means more resilience can be built into the operation, such as increased turnaround times at places like Kidderminster, which means any slight delays in one direction are less likely to impact the return journey. The new timetable is still in the design phase and will go through an industry validation process, which involves checking there are no conflicting train paths or calling patterns. We will also consult customers and stakeholders before introducing any changes to make sure that they work for as many people as possible.
How does poor “rail adhesion” or “slippery rails” affect our trains and what are we doing about it?
You said …
“Another slight delay this morning! From Stourbridge Junction to Droitwich Spa. Slippery rails is today’s excuse! Come on now? Are you running steam engines or modern-day trains?”
Our response: We understand that “leaves on the line” might sound like a bit of an old cliché when it comes to train delays, but it remains a big challenge across the country. Network Rail, which looks after the track, signals and wider infrastructure have produced a handy video guide to explain the issue and what we are doing as an industry to address it. Leaves - Network Rail .
How does the heating and air conditioning system work on our trains?
You said …
“A few times I’ve made this journey recently your trains have been really hot, and it is very uncomfortable even for a short journey. Today, is fairly mild outside, but the temp on train is 30 degrees (or so it feels like), how about some fresh air for a change?”
“Boiling hot train environment. No air conditioning or opening windows on a day with temperatures reaching 28*C”
Our response: Our Snow Hill fleet is primarily composed of Class 172 trains which were built back in 2010 as an ultra-modern replacement for the previous trains which had been in service since the days of British Rail. Due to upgraded safety regulations, the Class 172s could not have opening windows in passenger areas, unlike the trains that they replaced. Instead, they were built with what, at the time, were state-of-the-art “HVAC” (heating, ventilation & air conditioning) systems to regulate the temperature on board. Despite only being 12 years ago, at the time it was not deemed necessary to have the controls for the HVAC equipment accessible to onboard crew. The system was designed to work a bit more like domestic central heating of the time, with adjustments made less frequently based on seasonal average temperatures. Unfortunately, this can mean that the unit settings can become out of step with atmospheric outside temperatures, particularly in spring / autumn.
When disruption occurs, why do we skip certain station stops?
You said …
“Train was delayed, when it arrived the conductor announced the train was not stopping between Birmingham & Dorridge - the next train to my station was nearly an hour later, yet when trying to take an alternative route, the train sat outside my station for 5 minutes so that a faster train could pass.”
Our response: Despite our best efforts, disruption to train services does sometimes occur. Over the last year, the Snow Hill route has been more vulnerable to short notice issues with a general shortage of staff meaning we sometimes don’t have crews sitting on standby to help keep things moving. The Snow Hill route is also vulnerable to the impact of disruption spreading more rapidly than some others, as much of the route has a single track going in each direction with no passing loops. This means any blockage can soon lead to trains queuing back right across the route.
In order to recover the timetable when something goes wrong, one of the quickest ways to get services back on the move is to release the trains at the front the queues to get to the end of the line and turnaround without stopping. This creates extra space on the tracks behind them to release the other trains too. While it is usually the quickest way to recover services on the wider network, we understand that for customers on the trains which will no longer call at the stations which they wanted to get on or off at, it can be very annoying. It may also appear to be unnecessary, as the train which has skipped stations can then end up queuing for a platform later down the line. Our control team will always try to ensure that if a train can call at a station in these circumstances, it will, but sometimes there are other considerations, such as access over certain junctions or the layout of the signals which dictate train movements.
What’s happened to the £1bn investment plan we advertised back in 2017 when we launched West Midlands Railway?
You said …
“I get the train one day a week and have experienced delays recently. We were promised a better service than London Midland, but I am afraid it doesn’t feel much better. Please sort it out!”
Our response: When we launched West Midlands Railway in December 2017, we had been awarded a franchise contract by the Department for Transport which would see us invest £1bn in new trains, stations, staff training, depot upgrades and technology over eight years We were just over two years into this major investment programme when the pandemic hit in early 2020. With the lockdown periods having a devastating impact on passenger numbers and ticket revenue, but with some key workers relying on trains to get to work, the government enacted emergency provision in the contract to effectively take temporary control and subsidise essential services.
This emergency agreement remained in place for much of the pandemic which safeguarded services but meant that investment programmes and spending plans were reviewed across the country. The Department for Transport instructed West Midlands Railway to keep progressing with various plans such as our new fleet introduction and refurbishment projects, and station rebuilds at Kidderminster and Wolverhampton. As well as these new station facilities, which were successfully completed during the Covid era, we remain committed to delivering many of the improvements that we set out back in 2017. Many major projects remain impacted by supply chain issues in the post pandemic era and could meet further challenges, we are hopeful that we will be able to introduce our new train fleets later this year.
There is a busy summer of sport in the West Midlands with the Commonwealth Games arriving in Birmingham in July. We have been working with the organising committee and Transport for West Midlands to plan our services during the games and specifically on the route look after spectators at The Hawthorns, Smethwick Galton Bridge and Snow Hill which are close to sporting venues.
Unfortunately, we have also been notified of impending strike action which will impact services in the week commencing 20th June. At the moment, we are still working out what trains we may be able to run on the affected days and in the longer term it may also affect progress with our previously stated training recovery plan timescales. Travel advice for affected dates will be published here when available.
Thanks again to those of you who take time to read this blog. We remain absolutely committed to the Snow Hill lines and making them a success for the region post-pandemic - thank you once again for your patience.
If you’d like to speak to a member of the management team in person, we run a series of Whistle Stop Tour events throughout the year that allows you to ‘meet the manager’.
We run an online passenger panel, called Customer Panel , to give you the chance to feed back your experiences and shape the future of your local rail service.
To claim Delay Repay compensation for any journey where you are delayed by 15 minutes or more, please apply online or pick up a Freepost Delay Repay form at your station.