Railway passengers are driving 21 miles from Shaftesbury for a better train service. Now our town’s residents, unhappy with rail reliability from Gillingham, are being urged to complain.
The Salisbury to Exeter Rail User Group provides a voice for North Dorset’s train passengers. They have been monitoring services on the route through Gillingham and Tisbury. Taking disruption caused by the December strikes into account, the group says that there’s a 75% chance that passengers will travel on a day when SWR fail to meet their punctuality target.
Shaftesbury resident Roy Mitchell represents our town’s railway users as the Gillingham representative on the Salisbury to Exeter Rail User Group. He is concerned that Shaftesbury travellers might give up on the railway because of the issues, which have plagued the line lately.
Whilst buses connect Shaftesbury for the 5-mile journey to Gillingham station, some residents who depend on train travel to reach the capital are being forced to use their cars to drive further. “What is apparent to me, when talking to people, is more are driving to Salisbury to pick up the train to London from there. That’s particularly during the strike time. The service from Salisbury is twice as good as it is from Gillingham. It also tends to be less crowded because every alternate train starts in Salisbury, so you can get a seat on it when it starts,” explained Roy.
He says the frequency of trains has increased over the years, but Shaftesbury locals say that they can’t depend on the service now. “They are generally not too happy with it. Going back forty years, the service was eight trains a day. Now we have over twenty trains a day. The problem is that reliability is suffering. We’ve had the strikes over the last month and that has reduced the service down to a two-hourly link to Salisbury. There has been a problem with the trains, which are increasingly older and breaking down. There are problems with staff availability. The service is struggling,” Roy said.
The infrastructure, which is Railtrack’s responsibility, is an issue. “Because more trains come over the line it puts more pressure on the single-track sections. One train delayed at Tisbury, where it is single track, can throw the whole service out to Exeter.”
Roy’s group is lobbying the government, councils, Network Rail and the South Western Railway to make improvements. The Rail User Group believe that if four new passing loops with double-track were installed – at Whimple, Yeovil, Gillingham and Tisbury – a step-change in performance would be achieved. They say the investment will bring better timetable resilience and faster journey times.
The Rail User Group believe that the locomotives and carriages on our local train line are the oldest in mainline service in the country, but there are still no plans to replace this rolling stock. The group now intend to draw up a train specification and lobby for cleaner and more reliable trains to replace the 30-year-old diesel units.
Roy believes the service has got worse since First Bus took over the franchise as South Western Railway in 2018. “There has been, unquestionably, a decline. Stagecoach won lots of awards when they ran the franchise. First group haven’t,” said Roy.
The Transport Secretary has announced that Northern Rail’s operations will be reviewed at the end of this month and that provider could lose its franchise. Roy believes South Western Railway is in a similarly precarious position and could be replaced.
“South Western Railway recorded a loss of £137 million in the last financial year. This must be a possibility. But I’m not saying it would do any good. The main problem is still train availability, track and signalling. That won’t change, no matter who runs the rolling stock. If Northern Rail has to go into government ownership and then South Western Railway, where are other people to manage these new franchises? The answer is the same people who run them now.”
SWR has recently announced a new managing director and the Rail User Group says he is experienced. They believe his role is to turn the franchise into an efficient passenger-focussed railway. The say they wish him success but add that their scepticism might be understood.
Fares rose again at the beginning of January and the RMT union is now considering further strike action in February or March over who closes the doors. Roy would encourage Shaftesbury rail users who are dissatisfied to make formal complaints.
“It’s a case of continuing to support the service and make their feelings known, when things are wrong. Ultimately, the service is an essential piece of North Dorset life. It needs to get back to the standard it was just three years ago,” said Roy.
We offered South Western Railway a chance to respond. They replied the next day to say that they disputed the figures. They were unable to offer more information within our 24-hour response deadline.