Cabinet Secretary for Transport Ken Skates has blamed Arriva Trains Wales for the poor state of the railways, noting ‘full and proper access’ was not given before Transport for Wales takeover and criticised the prior maintenance of the train fleet.
In yesterdays plenary session of the Assembly there was an opportunity for Questions to the Cabinet Secretary Ken Skates, with the first unsurprisingly being based around Transport for Wales and the ongoing issues with railways. Questions were also posed on if Welsh Government took its eye off the ball on monitoring the state of the railways under Arriva Trains Wales if they were to blame.
The detailed question and answer session revealed more information to the possible causes of the current problems on the railways, with the answers given being critical of contracts signed 15 years ago.
Anglesey’s Rhun ap Iorwerth AM kicked off proceedings by saying: “I’m sure you don’t need me to update you on the situation on the railways in Wales this morning, but I’ll run through some of the latest problems of Transport for Wales lines: Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury trains cancelled again; Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno, all trains replaced by a bus; Wrexham Central to Bidston, services affected; Swansea services to Pembroke Dock, Milford Haven and Fishguard disrupted; continued reduced services on Cardiff-Valleys lines, and so on.
“It’s not acceptable. The first words on the statement on the front page of the Transport for Wales rail website today is, ‘We apologise’. We still haven’t heard that from Government. Would you like to take that opportunity now?”
Ken Skates AM replied: “Transport for Wales, as the managing and operator partner for Welsh Government, would like to apologise, but I think it also needs to be recognised that, in a very short space of time, Transport for Wales have worked incredibly hard to bring a number of trains back into use.
“Normally, we operate at about 80 per cent of the entire fleet. There are 127 trains in the fleet, so normally we’d be operating at around about 105, with the remaining trains in for servicing and maintenance. I can tell the Member that, as of this morning, the number was up to 96. We’re therefore operating at around about 76 per cent. It will return to normal—back to the 80 per cent—within a few weeks”
Mr Skates went on to previous provider Arriva Trains Wales as the cause of the issue, adding: “We inherited a fleet of trains that have been very poorly maintained, which we did not have full and proper access to ahead of inheriting them, and that, along with Storm Callum, and taking over the franchise in the autumn period, presented huge challenges for Transport for Wales and the operator and the delivery partner.”
“We’re also looking into the reasons why this issue affected Wales more than other parts of the UK. What we have found is that none of the rolling stock—none of the trains—on our franchise are operating with wheel-slide protection. This is significant because trains across the rest of the UK have been operating with that protection. What we have now learnt is that, potentially, the problems were worsened in Wales because in the absence of wheel-slide protection and as a consequence of a decision taken in 2016—and this is across the UK—to stop applying sand to rails, it meant that the traction on Welsh rail lines has been worse this autumn. So, that’s been another significant contributing factor.”
“I met this morning with Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of Network Rail, and I also met, again, for the third time, with the chief executive officer of Transport for Wales. I received the latest update on services and there have been significant improvements in the space of a week, with more than 10 per cent of the trains now having been brought back into use, but this remains a very challenging period due to the dreadful underinvestment in our rail network over the past 15 years.”
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM replied: “Let me ask you this question, though: as a partner in the delivery of rail services in Wales, when Arriva Trains Wales was the franchise holder, did Welsh Government take its eye off the ball in terms of not gauging and not monitoring properly the state of rail in Wales, if it’s as bad as you now say it is?”
Ken Skates AM answered: “First of all, the standards of the delivery of the services were too low, because the contract that was agreed 15 years ago was not fit for purpose, and so, essentially, Arriva Trains Wales had a lower bar to get over. We had no levers at our disposal, no powers and no way of compelling Arriva Trains Wales to up the bar to improve the standard of service, and that includes maintenance. So, in particular in the period leading up to the transfer of the franchise, there was no commercial incentive for Arriva Trains Wales to invest in maintenance over and above what was essential through law.
“If I can put it this way, it’s a bit like when you buy a used car. You buy a used car knowing that the previous owner may not have maintained it as well as you would have liked them to. And so, what you do is inspect it, and you will factor into it the possibility of having to get new brakes or new tyres, but you inspect it.”
“The problem with the transfer of the franchise was that Transport for Wales were not given full and proper access to the entire fleet to be able to gauge the condition of it. However, what they did do was make sure that there were enough wheel sets in place. This is part and parcel of the problem right now. The wheel sets were flattened as a consequence of the lack of traction. So, they ordered a sufficient number of wheel sets, but it still takes time to take the trains off the rails and apply the new wheel sets to them.”
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM carried on: “You do provide these reasons, and I’m no rail engineer, so I can’t question those details. What I can question though is: what monitoring, what scrutiny, was going on of what Arriva was doing when it was holding the franchise in Wales by Welsh Government? Will you be pursuing Arriva, for example, for the state of the trains as they were left to you as Transport for Wales? I want Transport for Wales Rail to succeed. We all want a better rail service for Wales. But can you answer this question: were you ready for the transfer?”
Ken Skates AM answered: “We were ready for the transfer as much as we could be ready. But I must press again the point that the contract that’s been operating for the last 15 years was a dreadful contract, with a very low base and a very low bar for them to get over. We have improved the contract considerably this time around.
“Let me put it this way as well: had we not proceeded with the new franchise agreement, we would have had an extension to the Arriva Trains Wales agreement, so there wouldn’t have been the commitment to £800 million of new rolling stock, of new trains; there wouldn’t have been the commitment of £200 million to station improvements; we wouldn’t be getting new trains in the next few years, and we wouldn’t be seeing the Pacers removed next year; we wouldn’t be seeing a huge increase in capacity in the coming years as well. Instead, what we would have had is that very low bar applied from the 2003 agreement.”
“Monitoring did take place, and Arriva Trains Wales, based on the performance matrix, was reaching an acceptable standard, but that standard, in our view, was too low. I’m on record time and time again saying that that contract dating back to 2003 was not fit for purpose. And now we are seeing the consequences of it. But, equally—equally—through the plans that are put in place, Transport for Wales, the operator and development partner, are addressing them at incredible speed, working 24/7 to make sure that as many trains get back on the rails as possible.”
Eight days ago Wrexham.com asked Transport for Wales if the views expressed by those in the industry to us that things have been left in perhaps a worse state than was expected, and therefore the current service issues are more of a result of Arriva Trains Wales than anything specifically wrong at TfW’s end, were correct. We had no answer.