Only three weeks after its re-opening following a four-month closure to repair extensive flood damage, a week in North Wales working on the Ffestiniog Railway gave me an opportunity to sample summer Sunday services on the picturesque Conwy Valley line from Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
But things did not go according to plan and my depressing experience, along with a number of similar experiences on the equally spectacular Cambrian Coast Line, has convinced me that new franchisee Transport for Wales (TfW) is not fit for purpose and that the Welsh Government should be urgently reviewing its tenure of the franchise
Taking the opportunity of a day off from working as a volunteer buffet car steward on the Ffestiniog Railway, my idea was to travel by FR from Minffordd to Blaenau Ffestiniog on Sunday (25 August) and then take the 11.45 TfW service as far as North Llanrwst, in order to see and photograph its surviving semaphores and signal box.
Unlike the weekday timetables, it was pleasing to note that all three of the Sunday services on the Conwy Valley Line seemed timed to connect at Blaenau Ffestiniog with Ffestiniog Railway services to and from Porthmadog Harbour, although the first arrival from Llandudno required a very tight three-minute connection into the 11.35 FR service.
Things started to go wrong when I arrived at Blaenau Ffestiniog, only to discover that TfW had cancelled the 11.45 to Llandudno, due to “crew shortage” and so my journey to North Llanrwst was aboard a bus, ironically operated by former Welsh franchisee Arriva – seen below and above as FR Merddin Emrys waits to depart for Porthmadog Harbour.
The great thing about replacement buses is that they don’t have a member of railway staff on board, so are effectively free, as the handful of passengers travelling with me from Blaenau and the 30 or so joiners en route at Pont-y-Pant, Betws-y-Coed and Llanrwst soon discovered.
Since opening of a new station closer to the town centre 30 years ago, the former main station in Llanrwst has been one of the Conwy Valley Line’s eight request stops, but usefully retains a passing loop to allow for occasional special traffic on the line, with no regular services scheduled to cross here.
Despite its status as an unstaffed halt, the station is extremely well cared for by local adopters, with numerous colourful flower tubs along the platforms and new paintwork and bunting providing a reminder that it had come to life for a week earlier in the month as destination for rail-borne visitors to the National Eisteddfod.
The 1880-vintage London & North Western Railway signal box stands some way north of the remarkably attractive, but boarded-up, Grade II-Listed station buildings and boasts a 20-lever frame installed in 1954, although only four remain in use, and comprise home and starting signals in each direction.
Since completion of the North Wales Main Line re-signalling project, the only remaining semaphores in the area are these four, along with those at Deganwy and Llandudno, which I featured in this July 2018 blog: https://railwayworld.net/2018/08/04/favourite-photo-spots-llandudno-deganwy/#more-2215 and those on Anglesey at Gaerwen, Ty Croes, Valley and Holyhead.
After my arrival on the Arriva bus, it was reassuring to see that the subsequent two round trips would run as advertised, although my day deteriorated badly when unit 150264 developed engine problems on my journey back to Blaenau at 16.35, arriving some 13 minutes late (17.25), and the connecting FR train at 17.20 was not held, despite efforts by the TfW guard on my train from Llanrwst to hold its departure.
Given that this was the last FR train of the day, it was very disappointing for a first-time working volunteer to discover that there is no co-ordination of timetables and that connections between the two railways are no longer guaranteed, as was once the case.
The Conwy Valley line is a fabulous journey to make, as I had been telling many FR customers who I was serving refreshments to during the week, so after all the time and money spent getting it re-opened, it seems a massively wasted opportunity when train journeys are cancelled and connections missed.
My experience of TfW in the Conwy Valley was matched by my experience of its lamentable efforts on the wonderful Cambrian Coast Line, where there seemed a regular series of heavily delayed or cancelled trains, due to a mixture of crew shortage and lack of rolling stock.
Travelling to the area on Monday, 19 August, my service from Birmingham International was two coaches in place of four, was rammed all the way, was terminated at Machynlleth, where passengers for Aberystwyth had to continue by bus, while those of us heading towards Pwllheli were put on a replacement train that ran 30 minutes late.
I noted numerous cancelations of the two-hourly service on subsequent days, notably on Bank Holiday Monday (26 August), when both the 11.37 and 15.37 ex-Pwllheli were cancelled, while on Saturday night (24 August) I and fellow travellers were stuck on the final up train of the day from Porthmadog (20.56) for around 40 minutes while waiting to pass a heavily-delayed Pwllheli-bound service.
For a new franchise, this performance is simply not acceptable.
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