Author – Andrew Ardley, Regional Development Manager, South Western Railway.

A Bright Future for the West of England Line

 

It’s no secret that the last couple of years have been particularly challenging for the railway and everyone else. For the railway this has meant many short term adjustments to cope with the operational challenges of staff being sick or isolating, as well as other measures such as enhanced cleaning of stations and trains. There have been many iterations of temporary timetables over this period to manage staff availability and changing demand levels.

The Government has thankfully stepped in in and financially supported the railways nationally throughout the pandemic. Overall ridership levels are currently still some way down from where they were pre-Covid, especially on those routes which had a higher proportion of daily commuters or business travel.  This has had a significant impact on the railway’s revenue. All train operating companies (that are not ‘Open Access’) are now directly financially supported by Government through new contracts with the latter underwriting costs whilst taking the revenue.  Not surprisingly there are tough decisions to be made nationally about managing expenditure.

The West of England line between London Waterloo and Exeter via Salisbury has now returned to having a standard hourly through service between Waterloo and Exeter, following the end of the most recent emergency timetable last month. For the time being some additional services, and a number of those between Salisbury and Waterloo, are starting or terminating at Basingstoke.

At South Western Railway (SWR) we recognise the need to work with partners to build back usage of the railway as much as we possibly can whilst also having to manage costs effectively. Fortunately the West of England line is less reliant on typical commuter traffic than some others (with leisure use being particularly popular), although commuting is still very important on the eastern part of the line,. This gives us a strong base to build on but new and returning custom is still going to be hard won with wider economic pressures and competing options.

The quality of the offer is clearly key and has many aspects to it, from fares and planning the journey to facilities at the station and on the train to the options for onward travel at the destination station. SWR has already made a number of improvements in the last few years including providing Wi-Fi and carrying out interior refurbishment on trains, as well as repainting of many stations. Future investment and service patterns will be dependent on annual budget settlements with the Government. As noted above, railway budgets will be tight for the foreseeable future so we need to work effectively with local partners to continue to make improvements and market railway travel.

There is a long history of partnership working on the West of England line and this has continued to bear fruit. This includes local councils, community rail partnerships and station adoption groups and it would take many more words than available here to list the excellent work that has been, and continues to be, done. More information on our Community Rail Partnerships can be found at https://www.southwesternrailway.com/other/about-us/community-and-rail-station-adoption/our-community-rail-partnerships .

One of the most recent partnerships has been with Devon County Council, East Devon District Council, Co-bikes, East Devon Growth Point and the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership. SWR successfully bid for over £200,000 of Government funding for electric bikes at Cranbrook and Honiton stations, including local match funding contributions from several of the partners. Devon County Council also successfully bid for funding from SWR’s Customer and Communities Improvement Fund (CCIF) to help fund the creation of interchange facilities at Pinhoe station including e-bikes, an electric car club vehicle, bus stop, taxi bay and additional car parking. The plans also include a new bus shuttle to Exeter Airport via the growing employment area to the east of Exeter.

This partnership is a good demonstration of how we can work together to help adapt the railway to make it useful and relevant to local people, businesses and visitors as travel patterns and expectations change. Traditionally the railway didn’t need to bother too much how people got to and from the station but this is rapidly changing. The ‘first and last mile’ of the journey is crucial to making rail attractive for many journeys. Car parking will continue to be important for some, particularly when travelling on longer journeys or from areas where there is not public transport to get people to a station – we are fortunate to have a large free car park at Cranbrook station managed by Devon County Council which is accessible from a large area off the A30 / M5 corridor.

The new e-bikes at Honiton, Cranbrook and Pinhoe, together with bus link and car club vehicles, will make rail much more practical for a number of trip types. Until now the walk from Pinhoe or Cranbrook stations to places like Skypark , Exeter College’s training hub and Lidl (regional distribution hub) and Amazon’s sites was too far to walk for most, especially in the dark. Travel by rail to these jobs will now be much more practical now with an easy ride on one of Co-bikes excellent e-bikes. Likewise someone visiting relatives or a business such as the Met Office around Exeter for the day will be able to book and pick up the Co-cars car club vehicle at Pinhoe and leave it there when returning on the train.

Leisure has always important market for rail in the South West and the new e-bikes offer a great opportunity to encourage more exploration of the East Devon countryside including local businesses and attractions. We are working to develop promotional activity, including videos for social media, around suggested routes and destinations from the three stations which could include your local business.

Providing facilities is only part of the answer though. Together we need to make sure that staff, visitors and customers are aware of the opportunities and options for travel to many destinations available to them. It’s really important therefore that SWR and its partners can work with you as local businesses on tools such as travel plans which both help provide us with the data to understand travel patterns and requirements but also offer a channel to communicate news, opportunities and offers such as our new rewards offer – find out more at www.southwesternrailway.com/destinations-and-offers/rewards. We also need to ensure that the ability to get to your business or event by rail is clearly communicated to potential customers through your own marketing and publicity. We have already made good progress with this but there is much more to do with your help.

Looking ahead, we also want to work with you as the local business community to secure future improvements to rail infrastructure which will help to increase the frequency of rail services in East Devon, improve performance and potentially reduce journey times. SWR, GWR and Network Rail have developed a strategy for the West of England line with local partners such as Devon County Council. A good example of the kind of infrastructure investment we are promoting would be new and extended stretches of double track to overcome the major challenges presented by the extensive single line sections between Salisbury and Exeter, including the 14 miles between Honiton and Pinhoe.  This would provide the ability to run two trains per hour between Axminster and Exeter, part of the Devon Metro vision, including better spaced peak services. It is currently anticipated that one train each hour, in addition to the hourly Waterloo service, will be formed by extending a GWR Barnstaple – Exeter Central service through to Axminster, offering cross Exeter journey opportunities to employment sites east of Exeter from places such as Barnstaple and Crediton.

Work is underway to develop more accurate estimates of costs. We hope to be in a position to put forward specific proposals to Government for funding in the next few months which will secure funding for further development work. Competition for rail enhancement funding such as this is extremely competitive due both to the wider post covid financial challenges and the Government’s focus on the Midlands and North. It will therefore be essential for all local stakeholders including the wider business community and South West Business Council to get fully behind the proposals and work with local politicians to persuade Government of the business case – watch this space.

If you would like to work with us or just require more information, please do contact me at andrew.ardley@swrailway.com.