ON THE EVE OF OUR NEW RAIL SERVICE – A HUGELY EXCITING NEW ERA OF TRAVEL FOR FISHGUARD – Fishguard Trains MAKES NO APOLOGY FOR RAISING SERIOUS QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT MAY PROVE ITS WEAKEST LINK:
CLARBESTON ROAD STATION
Since March when the Deputy First Minister surprised us with a u-turn on his previous rejection of a rail service for Fishguard, the surprises haven’t stopped coming. First came swift acceptance that the service needs a station in Fishguard to serve it, and that can only be a re-opened Goodwick Station. Then came the proposed timetable, which replaced the Fishguard-Carmarthen shuttle offered by the Minister, with through services as far as Swansea, Cardiff, even Manchester. And this week sees last-minute announcements of buses connecting with many of the new trains from day one.
With all this good news, most of it unexpected and highly welcome, why spoil the celebration by pointing up shortcomings?
In this report we show that Clarbeston Road station is simply unfit for its new purpose serving Fishguard travellers; but we also show how easily the shortcomings can be rectified; and we call on the transport authorities to act with the same speed that they have demonstrated up the line.
The strength of Fishguard’s new timetable is its through services – seven of our 14 daily services will run further than Carmarthen. On the other hand, four of the 14 services will run no further than Clarbeston Road. The first breakfast train out of Fishguard at 0653 terminates at Clarbeston Road with a 12 minute wait for the through service east. The 1900 out of Fishguard does likewise, with a 10 minute wait. The 2030 arrival in the evening is a shuttle, departing Clarbeston Road five minutes after the incoming train from the east. And the joker in this pack of four is the 0758 arrival in the morning, which involves a 1 hour 7 minute wait at Clarbeston Road if you are travelling from Carmarthen (though only a six minute wait if you are coming up from Haverfordwest and Milford). Fishguard Trains has objected previously to this 0758 service being included amongst our new incoming trains. It is likely to run near-empty, before it reverses at Fishguard to provide the very important 0804 though train to Manchester.
But this anomalous 0758 shuttle is not the problem at Clarbeston Road. It is the other three services. Why, you ask, are connecting services with only 5-12 minutes to wait a problem? Because if your connection fails to arrive, you will be left stranded at Clarbeston Road, without your car, in ignorance, with perhaps two hours to wait for the next chance of a train. No toilets, no benches, no information; no mobile reception; just two empty platforms, and a bus shelter.
As it stands today, Clarbeston Road Station is not fit for its new purpose.
This Tuesday, to celebrate the last week before Fishguard’s new service, the Fishguard Trains team drove to Clarbeston Road for the 1531 to Cardiff. 1540, 1545 came, but no train. Drivers who had parked in the village to meet passengers off the train, gave up one by one and drove off. We were left wandering and wondering on the platform. There is no train indicator at Clarbeston Road. No Help Point. No mobile phone signal. No information. Up at the roadside, there is a small blue box, at the top of the footpath to platform one. But to use the box, you have to leave the platform, walk completely out of sight of the tracks, and risk the train arriving in the meantime. By 1550, we had to take that risk.
The blue box is called an Information Point. Beside it, bilingual A4 posters give these instructions – with our experience in reality:
Information Points contain messages about the next trains from the station. So no live person, just a pre-recorded message. The message includes information for each direction of travel for which a train is expected. Half the information will be about trains going the opposite way. To hear the message, press the button. Don’t bother to press the button while cars, lorries and tractors are passing. The message will not be audible until all traffic noise has stopped. Wait while the Information Point contacts the control centre and plays the message to you. If you are not a Welsh speaker, wait some more while the entire message is first played in Welsh, then English. You will be told the time of the next train and where it is going. When a train is late or cancelled, or there is no train expected, then the message will tell you. As the message is pre-recorded, it can never give current information. Messages may also tell you other things about the train service. Such as how Clarbeston Road is a request stop, and passengers wishing to board the train should indicate their intentions clearly to the driver – if you are lucky this section will be played while tractors are passing; if not, this may be the only section you hear, and you will have to start again.
If you hear the engaged tone instead of the train information, wait until the Information Point is silent, then press the button again. Remember all this is happening while you are wondering whether your train has come and gone while you have been fiddling with this absurd blue box by the roadside.
If you need more information, please look at the timetable poster that is on display, or contact the National Rail Telephone Enquiry Service on 08457 48 49 50. But don’t bother to use your mobile – no signal. You could try the phone box up the road – but make sure you have the means to pay (you DO know how to use a phone box these days … don’t you?)
Should the Information Point not work at all, or if you have any other comments, please contact Customer Services on 0845 6061 660. The first helpful advice.
At this point, the Fishguard Trains team abandoned the attempt to get information, got back in the car and drove to Cardiff. We were fortunate. From next week, if you arrive at Clarbeston Road by shuttle from Fishguard to encounter a cancelled connection, there will no information and no escape.
Let’s be clear about the problem. On this occasion, the 1531 was obstructed by a fallen power line at Johnston. Neither Arriva nor Network Rail can be faulted for the cancellation. And if they have not yet prioritised real time information for travellers using Clarbeston Road, they can be forgiven for assuming that most if not all are local people or those arriving by road. All that changes on September 12th. Four times a day passengers will arrive by train at Clarbeston Road, whose only intention is to continue their journey by train in a few minutes. When that happens as planned, no one will think twice. But when it fails – as it is bound to – Clarbeston Road Station will be a very poor place to be stuck.
The remedies are obvious: provide a train indicator board; provide a telephone link to a live information provider – a person!; provide a mobile signal; any of these would be better than nothing.
And if all else fails, move the ridiculous blue box down to the platform (and another on the opposite side) so we can at least play back the bilingual instructions for hailing a train, within sight of the tracks and away from the tractors.