Bath Spa - Waterloo direct trains

Progress and discoveries

Here, you'll find: more on the decision to withdraw this train service. Read this if you need to know more about what people are hearing from the Department for Transport.

November 29th: Update

Concerning the Bristol to Waterloo trains, unless there's a late change of direction, SWR will cease to run the remaining through trains in just two weeks time. This follows on from a decision and directive to the train operating company from the Department for Transport in April '21 when rail use was low. Information provided to the public has been poor and it has been left to community groups to evaluate the impacts of the decision.

We'll have a further update shortly. We were offered an online meeting between the various groups supporting a campaign to retain the service and a representative from South Western Railway. The date for this, postponed once, is now tomorrow, 30th November 2021. It was requested that the DfT provide an attendee - they declined as they have 'Other commitments'.

It is not clear if there has been any attempt to mitigate the loss of the through trains. For evening services, the National Rail web site gives no connections at Salisbury between 17:50 and 21:20 - routing passengers via Southampton (but offering no fares for that route).

November 7th: correspondence received by Members of Parliament

We're aware that many people have written to their MPs in support of the service, that this has been raised with the Minister of State for Transport. The various responses received have been superficial.

This week, we're asking MPs to follow this up, with a view to moving the Department for Transport to actually engage with the issues and mitigate the problems that their decision will cause users of the service. We're very mindful that the decision was not informed by an equality assessment.

October 31st: Collision at Fisherton Tunnel, Salisbury.

Statement on the October 31st Salisbury Rail Accident:
Our thoughts are with the passengers and rail staff directly affected.

The Rail Accident Investigation Board will determine the cause and publish statements and a report of its findings in due course.

Rail passengers are rightly very confident in the inherent safety of rail travel. We will continue the campaign to retain and develop rail services between Bristol and London Waterloo, on the through trains that are well used and show the potential to enable further growth in passenger numbers.

October 20th: notes on the Public Meeting: Trowbridge.

We had a full house, and the same number again on Zoom. If you came along, thanks, it's appreciated and it helped, but the meeting was very disappointing as the spokespeople from the DfT and from SWR had no delegated powers to change the decision in any way.

We're well aware that members of the public will have left the meeting feeling that they were not listened to and the two people representing the railway and the Department for Transport respectively, regarded the decision as made, with no lead time to provide mitigation for December '21 when the trains cease running. Indeed, two people were sufficiently riled that when it became clear that the railway interests had nothing to bring to the table, they walked out.

Thanks for the several good observations from the floor, including that women are very aware of the value of a through train over a connection that forces a mid-evening hour long wait before onward travel. Also, if you're the person reading this who questioned whether an accessibility impact had been completed, we'd particularly welcome it if you could get in touch.

Graham Ellis is in course of providing a more in-depth analysis.

By the end of the meeting it was very clear that everyone can help, hence our list of actions. The petition now stands at over 3000. If you've signed it but can find just four others, this would amplify the message tenfold.

Also, it was stressed that various organisations had made very robust responses to the threat to the Bristol to Waterloo trains, particularly that from Wiltshire Council. We're hoping to be able to link to the document, at which point you can help by sending messages of support for the services to the Council's cabinet member for Transport, Cabinet Member for Transport Dr Mark McClelland.

October 17th: Freedom of Information Request.

Graham Ellis kindly submitted a request on the 19th August.

"May I request (under Freedom of Information) copies of reports, analyses and contracts internal and with South Western Railway and correspondence leading up to and including a directive to South Western Railway to cease providing train service between Bristol Temple Meads and Westbury as from December 2021."

He received a response on October 15th (documents here) at an extended deadline of 40 days. Here's an appraisal of the campaign from Graham, including a reference to the F.O.I response.

The set of documents returned are in part redacted to remove the names of staff save for senior civil servants, certain organisations and also costings. Some highlights:

The decision to axe the service from Bristol to Waterloo is the outcome of SWR being asked by the DfT for quick cost savings
After a discussion, on April 13th 2021, SWR were asked (by the DfT) to make a proposal to withdraw the "Bristol - Salisbury" services - a phrase that does not acknowledge that this actually concerns Bristol to Waterloo trains.
Are other services vulnerable? Is the popular Bristol - Waterloo service being cut in order to enable politically popular line reopenings elsewhere? Not ruled out...
The document pdf007 contains a redacted table lists up to five other services considered for withdrawal and 'Potential quick wins' and it's reasonable to assume that should the first succeed, others will follow.
Impact on users of the trains is misrepresented
In the authorisation paper for the service withdrawal, (PDF002) the DfT lists just four consultees - implying no representation of passenger interests, and just two options: withdraw or retain. They then authorise withdrawal, setting out the justification for the decision. Two of the justifications are vulnerable as they are based on poor data and misdirection.
The passenger data provided by South Western Railway (from a single week in May 2019) is a very thin sample from which to evaluate the passenger flow across Salisbury.
SWR states that "Very few journeys crossed Salisbury, with an average of 20 passengers undertaking a cross-Salisbury journey towards Bristol" and this is then used in the authorisation document. Unknown is whether this is 20 passengers per service, per day, or in the entire week - and in any case it's in a single direction. If per service, that represents a non-trivial passenger flow of almost 30000 per annum in just one direction. Moreover, the figure of 20 a day is rather less than numbers observed anecdotally from passengers using the service, who generally report around 75-90 per three carriage train through Salisbury.
We'd argue that this decision requires a robust impact assessment, and indeed, the papers touch on requests for additional data from South Western Railway, that owing to short timescales was not forthcoming.
In addition, there is misrepresentation of the forthcoming connections available at Salisbury
The authorisation paper repeats SWR's assertion that the alternative GWR services run at similar times to the SWR trains, ceasing the latter therefore having minimal impact. Omitted is the fact that in December '21 there can be no further alteration to the timetable, the loss of the through trains exposes through passengers to the very poor connection times of 50 minute to an hour at Salisbury. It's also unfortunate that forthcoming connections to stations east of Basingstoke will usually be into the hourly stopping service that imposes a second change of train for Waterloo. It is not valid for the authorisation document to state: "Good connections... (at Salisbury) are available for passengers" as without through trains and with the current timetable this is hardly ever the case.
Representation of passenger interests
The papers provide no evidence that the passengers that use the services have been offered representation of their interests - for example, by requesting the involvement of Transport Focus, the organisation... funded by the DfT... to represent rail passengers.
Communication of the decision
There has been little willingness to publicise the imminent withdrawal of this entire train service. PDF003 mentions the requirement for "a communications plan setting out how the Operator plans to handle the announcement of the withdrawal of services and engagement with relevant and impacted stakeholders both in advance of and following any public announcement, where it would be appropriate to do so."

Nine weeks before the service ceases, we have seen no evidence that this communications plan has been put in motion.

It's been said that while, with railway services, it's impossible to please everyone all of the time, it is vital that decisions are taken in accordance with a coherent overall strategy.

This decision appears very much at odds with what will hopefully be the strategy set by the forthcoming Great British Railways in the hands of Andrew Haines and Sir Peter Hendy, respectively the current chief executive and chair of Network Rail. If it stands, this decision may come to be seen as an early failure of governance at a time of transition.

October 10th: SWR and DfT fighting yesterday's battle?

There's now evidence that the decision was taken for the following reasons:

The emphasis has now shifted, as the railways now need to rebuild passenger numbers and therefore income.

Passenger counts indicate that while people travelling to work will not recover to previous levels for some time, other travel including leisure has bounced back strongly, and the Bristol to Waterloo direct services have shared in that growth to the extent that from June '21 there have been capacity issues on the trains.

South Western Railway together with the Department for Transport needs to fight todays battle and rebuild passenger numbers while looking to the imminent future structure of the railways.

Within two years, the system will be in the control of a new organisation 'Great British Railways' predisposed to look for passenger growth wherever it can find it. The Bristol to Waterloo direct trains, serving a series of destinations with strengths in tourism, higher education and technology hubs, offer a recipe for continued growth.

October 8th: Parliamentary Petition

Please sign the petition - and view a map of responses.

The aim is not to hit 10,000 signatures and receive a response, we've already seen several responses from the government, but those responses are not best for the railway, it's funding, or for people who use it to travel.

Update: we anticipated that the petition would top out at around 500 - 1000 signatures, by the end of October it was approaching 5000 flagging this as a significant issue for the constituents of MPs local to the route.

October 6th: South Western Railway withdraw Saturday services

SWR has announced that services to and from Bristol have ceased and from Saturday 9th October will no longer run.

By 'Announced', this news appears only on the company twitter feed. The majority of the people who use the popular Saturday trains will only discover this when they attempt to travel. This, after a summer in which the weekend service struggled, both with regards to staff provision and, anecdotally, the demand for seats.

This throws light on the poor quality of the connections at Salisbury, especially as one of the two trains an hour from Salisbury to London will now only run as far as Basingstoke. Unfortunately this is the train which serves as the onward connection from Bristol - the implication is that the three through trains to London are replaced with the need to change twice, at Salisbury and Bristol - allowing passengers to experience the service as it will be from December '21.

Public Meeting

Come to this public meeting - at which you can meet railway managers and show your support for the retention and development of the train service between Bristol and London Waterloo.

Wednesday 20th October
Bethesda Baptist Church, Trowbridge, BA14 0AA.
(5-10 minutes walk from Trowbridge Station)
Train services to the meeting
There are trains to Trowbridge Station from all directly affected stations - and also return trains or connections after it. Check with National Rail.
The meeting will be streamed using Zoom.
For use on the day, here's the code.
Organised by:
West Wiltshire Rail Group
In attendance
A regional manager will attend to represent South Western Railway and a spokesperson to represent the Department for Transport. Please revisit for updates.
Publicity flyer and more info
PDF with meeting information: the first page will print as a poster. (That's an invitation to print and display it.)

October 1st: Transport Focus

Transport Focus is the organisation set up to represent among other things the interests of rail passengers in the UK. The organisation has 43 staff and receives the greater part of its funding from the Department for Transport, including a grant in aid of £4,760,000 for passenger representation.

Find Transport Focus's 2020-21 annual report and accounts here.

The cut off date for submissions to South Western Railway's 2022 timetable consultation has now passed, newly published is Transport Focus's response. Note that expressed concern about December '21 proposals for the Waterloo - Bristol services both opens and closes the response, with a suggestion as to the best course of action.

September 26th: notes on letters to MPs and responses received

Members of Parliament have received correspondence from constituents about the issue, and some have responded by raising the concerns of their constituents with the ministers responsible for the Department for Transport. They've then received responses from either the Secretary of State for Transport, Roger Heaton-Harris, or the Minister for Transport, Grant Schapps. In my case, where I felt the initial response did not address my concerns, a further response was requested and received.

My request to my MP
"South Western Railways are consulting on their future rail network, and I see that the Department for Transport in a separate review has instructed the railway to discontinue the remainder of the five or so direct trains between Bath Spa and Waterloo as 'Duplicate services'.
I'd appreciate it if this decision could be reversed - this is not a duplicate service, as when these trains cease to run there will be no through services between London Waterloo, Bath Spa and Bristol. A through train offers qualities that a connection does not - not least for the less mobile or those travelling with young children or those who are wheelchair users - despite being decelerated in recent years, these services are well used and valued and it would be interesting to know if the decision simply assumed that passengers would continue to use a connecting service in place of the through train."

First response from DfT

What the response said
This stressed the subsidy needed to keep the railway functioning during the pandemic, and the forecasts that passengers will not return for some time - quoting South Western Railway's prediction that passenger flows would recover to 76% of their previous volumes. Therefore the DfT are looking to make savings and has identified areas 'where services are duplicated across operators' and had selected Bristol to Waterloo trains as only three stations would lose direct services to 'London'. The response further stated that as both SWR and GWR run hourly services to Salisbury, connections are available there. This ignores the fact that for many years the connection has, on passengers making the through journey, imposed an hour's wait on passengers. The response also stated that from December 2022 the GWR service will return to two trains per hour between Bristol and Salisbury. This is inaccurate. GWR has never provided a half hourly service between Bristol and Salisbury - and it's not stated if the service will be half hourly in the mid evening when most needed by many people travelling from Waterloo to Bristol. Finally, the December 2021 timetable, while it provides two trains and hour east of Salisbury, for much of the day, only one runs to Waterloo, the second train imposing, for people travelling Bristol to Waterloo, an additional change at Basingstoke. The response concluded by emphasising the benefits from reduced congestion and savings to the taxpayer.
What the response did not address...
I raised several points: that the services to Waterloo are not duplicates of the trains to Paddington which are destinations distinct from each other, the value placed on the services by people travelling with children, or who are less able to use the Underground, and that the services demonstrate their value by being well-used. A note: South Western Railways' prediction that passenger numbers are to recover to only 76% of previous levels is problematic. This prediction is global, made up of two components, commuting related travel and leisure. There's evidence that leisure travel is recovering far more strongly - and an overall figure of 76% disguises the leisure recovery to 104% previous levels. The Bristol and Waterloo trains primary users are those travelling for reasons that do not relate to work.
My response to the first letter was as follows
"Thanks for this and I appreciate that you've received a response on my behalf.
However, I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to reply, as the Minister frames this from the point of view that axing this service is reasonable as the Waterloo service duplicates the through trains to Paddington (you've agreed with me that this is not the case)
He also indicates that a return to the two trains per hour GWR service between Bristol and Salisbury is imminent. However, there has never been a two trains per hour service between Bristol and Salisbury - and there's no likelihood of a two trains per hour service being provided in the evening, when the most heavily used of the three through trains calls at Salisbury.
He also states that just three stations will lose their through services to London - not the case as it's overlooked that the London Waterloo trains call at Keynsham and this still ignores the fact that Paddington and Waterloo are separate destinations.
Having mentioned the heavy subsidy received by South Western Railway and the need to cut costs, we do not know whether the Bristol services are in profit or involve losses and if so to what extent. Neither do we know how many people are using the services and whether that number is trending up or down. (Anecdote suggests that the Bristol to Waterloo trains have outperformed other services as there are recent reports of them running full and standing, cutting the service may actually worsen the balance sheet)
The Minister mentions congestion. The current service has run in some form since the 1990s. To and from London it runs as part of a Waterloo to Exeter train which will continue to run - ceasing the service will not release train paths at Waterloo. Bathampton Junction to Bristol Temple Meads is not at capacity and Bristol Temple Meads, this summer, has received a substantial capacity upgrade for trains approaching from the east. It's reasonable to question that a three train per day service is an issue in terms of track capacity.
GIven the lead times on timetable changes and that the focus is on major changes in December '22 I suspect that South Western Railway has been instructed by the DfT that these trains cease to run - but without consultation with GWR whose trains will need to pick up the connection. It may be that the industry will not be in a position to recast the Portsmouth to Cardiff timetable to accommodate the loss of the through trains to Waterloo before the December 22 timetable change, and this will be to the detriment of people displaced from the through service. It may also be that the passenger representative body Transport Focus has not had the opportunity to respond to this issue.
There's much justification to retain and develop the Bristol to Waterloo trains, three current issues that come to mind
  • There is anecdotal evidence that their passenger numbers are recovering rather better than anticipated - the trains have been running as two carriages rather than three, and passengers report that this has resulted in them running full and standing on several occasions for their entire journey.
  • In April '21, 50% of Londoners reported that in the course of managing their risk exposure to Covid they were unwilling to use the underground. The Waterloo trains allow many people to avoid the Underground, as Waterloo connections are far less dependent on it.
  • Crossrail will open in 2022 and provide new links from Paddington to South East London. In the meantime, the Bristol to Waterloo through trains should not cease to run.
Finally, the lack of consultation. I have an enquiry open with Transport Focus - it may be the case that an entire train service ceases to run and they've not been consulted, which is a precedent that should not be allowed to stand.
I'd be really grateful if you'd consider this matter not closed."

Second response from DfT

What the response said
It addressed the matter of consultation by stating "MPs and Stakeholders were informed directly about the withdrawal of the Bristol services to London Waterloo in advance of the SWR December 2022 timetable consultation at the end of July." The letter went on to state that "key stakeholders... will be consulted by SWR as part of the December 2022 timetable consultation." This is not a satisfactory response as I've yet to find a stakeholder who was even informed in a manner that they would enable them to understand the implications of this cut in service - and the second statement is also unsatisfactory as it's not possible to consult retrospectively.
The second response acknowledged that the trains are 'Busy at certain times' and that the through service are 'Attractive' but then continued to state that there are capacity issues elsewhere on the West of England line west of Salisbury as leisure demand grows, which meant that the stock used for the Bristol service is needed there. (This is curious, as trains are also being cut from that line, and it rather appears that the minister is conceding that leisure traffic is recovering well and will continue to do so...)
The second response then stressed that the December 22 consultation will allow GWR and SWR to consider how to provide attractive connections at Salisbury. The minister acknowledged the importance of the connection at Salisbury.
What the response did not address
We're now in the position where the minister acknowledges the value of this rail service that's popular, is busy, and which, serving the leisure market, has capacity for growth - but which the industry is about to axe. Both responses ignore that it's planned that the trains will cease running a calendar year before provision is made for the travellers who use them.
From December 2021, for a year, passengers will be faced by waits at Salisbury of up to an hour, connecting trains that are perhaps already full. This is why we'd like to help the railway avoid reputational damage and loss of revenue by the simple expedient of ceasing to run these trains only when provision is made for the passengers who use them.

Mark Annand. Site updated 12th December 2021 • 

Two Tunnels: Made in Bath.