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 Driver's view of the line

Photo:- Robert Davies/ "Of Time and The Railway"


This page updated 12th March 2016

SARPA is the local rail users group for the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth line running from the English border through Montgomeryshire to the coast of North Ceredigion and ending up in the increasingly important University (and Assembly administration ) town of Aberystwyth. We exist to preserve and promote the line so that there is a more sustainable transport system for future generations. SARPA is one of the more active rail user groups in Wales and meets monthly. We are continually campaigning on various issues from train times and frequency to station maintenance and welcome any comments anybody has about the rail service in Mid Wales.

We are delighted with introduction of an augmented train service between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth, which began in May 2015.


Some time back we wrote to the Welsh Government asking what plans they had with regard to eventual replacement of the Class 158 diesel units used on the Cambrian. The trains will become life expired during the lifetime of the next Wales & Borders (or whatever its going to be called) franchise due to begin in 2018.

As many folk are aware, these vehicles have been expensively retro-fitted with ERTMS signalling equipment for the UK trial of this new system and which is taking place on the Cambrian, so we explored several options. These ranged from maintaining indefinitely the current fleet with increasing expense and difficulty, to new build diesel or even Cambrian electrification.

The response we had was garbled and confused. It was clear that those good people in the rail unit at the Welsh Government had not even considered the situation, let alone given thought to the hideous expense of retro-fitting another fleet of diesel trains cascaded to the line. In fact, we could be forgiven for thinking that rolling stock provision is something that not only the Welsh Government but administrations throughout the UK would rather forget about.

During the debates in Parliament for the 1993 Railways Bill, I well remember some Tory bigwig spouting off and saying that privatisation would be good for the taxpayer and good for the passenger. In reality, the 1993 Act destroyed the UK rolling stock industry and by taking out British Rail too, removed the advantages of centralised procurement which had been based on perceived need. In 1992, the government view was that rail was a declining industry, so no thought was put in at privatisation about the need to acquire additional vehicles to cater for growth,

Travelling around the network recently, I was struck by just how crowded trains are becoming. Put quite simply, there are not enough vehicles to cope with the demand. North of the Scottish Border, the new "Borders Railway" has caused something of a difficulty with its opening success. Severe overcrowding caused the operator to move extra trains to the line, resulting in a shortage of capacity elsewhere in Scotland.

On our own line, the absence of an 08.30 westbound departure from Shrewsbury is because there is nothing with which to run the service. This is a situation which threatens to wreck the resurgence of the rail industry. Increased demand without building new trains will only lead to more overcrowding and put people off.

The demise of British Rail has led to the Department for Transport (DfT) taking on some of the role of procurement. Their efforts thus far can only be described as a complete debacle. The jewel (if it can be called that) in the crown has been the "Intercity Express Project", or IEP. Dubbed the "Incredibly Expensive Project" by some of its critics it has been some eleven years in development from initial concept to its present state without a single passenger being carried. The trains actually exist, being assembled in a Hitachi owned facility in County Durham, though they are not expected to enter service until 2017.

Contrast this with the now ageing "Inter City 125s", which first entered full revenue service in 1976 and were developed from an initial concept put before the British Railways Board only six years previously in 1970!

A great deal hangs on both the IEP and a wide ranging electrification programme, the latter being thrown into disarray by the Westminster Government's decision to "Pause" several schemes. Some of these have now been "Un-paused" but the result is a delay in completion of around four years. Meanwhile, rail use continues to grow impressively but the number of coaches in which to put passengers has not kept pace and is now barely adequate. The intention was that the electrification programme would release diesel trains for use elsewhere on the network. Of course, this will not now happen but neither the Westminster government nor any of the regional administrations have done anything other than bury their heads in the sand. The train leasing companies are reluctant to do much about it either, having in the past ten years or so scrapped many perfectly good vehicles, which would have continued to perform well with upgrading and refurbishment.

In the meantime, there's a growing feeling that the infrastructure obsession of the current administration is crowding out other improvements. The hedge fund owners who finance the Tory party also have large stakes in the infrastructure companies bidding for George Osborne's bonanza.

Some sources believe that the growth in rail travel means that UK network will require between 13,000 and 19,000 extra vehicles over the next 30 years, on top of the present fleet. The UK has been acquiring new trains at the rate of about four vehicles per week over the past five years. In reality, to cope with continuing demand, that figure needs to be more like twelve per week for at least the next 25 years.

Here in Wales, the picture is no better with the franchise operator's fleet having remained broadly the same size since 2003, despite vast growth in passenger numbers. One may presume that the Welsh Government believes that on the whole, it is not its responsibility to become embroiled in the provision of railway vehicles and so fails to address the situation. In the absence of any other players in the field this is not a happy state of affairs. Our representatives in Cardiff need to explore imaginative ways to provide new trains for Wales so that rail use here may continue to grow unfettered. Having them built west of the English border would be a real coup too and go some way towards offsetting recent job losses in the steel industry.

Angus Eickhoff
Llidiart Wood,

February 2016

You can see what we said about the railway industry in the past by clicking on this link to our archive page. We have archived all the newsletters back to November 2001.

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Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth Rail Passengers Association (SARPA)
   Llidiart Wood,   Moel y Garth,  Welshpool,  Powys,  SY21 9JF,  Wales,  United Kingdom
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Website:- Angus Eickhoff