New era for Shropshire rail travel
As a new era dawns for rail travel in Shropshire and across Wales this week, one of those at the heart of community transport in the county says she is confident that there would be major improvements in the short and long term.
Sheila Dee is a community rail officer based at Gobowen station on the Shrewsbury to Chester line for almost 20 years.
Funded by a number of different grants and funding streams, Sheila's role is to make the most of the local railway promoting it among local people. Locally the community rail partnership helped create a new car park at Gobowen station and works with Derwen College which runs a cafe and bookshop on the platform.
She says there are exciting developments planned by KeolisAmey, which won the new franchise to run trains on the Wales and the Borders rail network, taking over from Arriva Trains Wales this week.
She says the difference for the railways became clear as soon as the model for the new franchise was announced by the Welsh Government.
While the franchise awarded to Arriva in 2003 was based on the cheapest bid won, the new one was very different.
"There was no specification. Bidders were asked, what can you deliver for us," she said.
"This is a breath of fresh air. When the 2003 franchise was announced it was based on no growth. People back then used the railway because they had to. But now railway travel is one of choice and growth has been unbelievably high.
"Unfortunately because of that lack of investment and no growth it led to crowded trains and a lack of rolling stock. There has been some investment from the Welsh Government but it has been on an ad hoc basis. The growth we have now been promised is very exciting."
Sheila said Shropshire would benefit. KeolisAmey has said there will be a new hourly Liverpool to Llandudno and Shrewsbury service from December 2022 and hourly trains on the Cambrian line from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth.
There will be an additional service every day on the Heart of Wales line from December 2022 and refurbished trains on the line.
She added: "Although this is a Welsh franchise the Welsh minister recognises the English connection and is looking for cross border benefits. Years ago no one appreciated those links. People live and work going back and to across the border.
"Manchester/Cardiff is a major rail artery and it goes through Shrewsbury. That is great news for Shropshire.
"There are exciting plans for Shrewsbury station and enhancing retail there. It is the only station I go into that doesn't have shops - It doesn't even have an ATM.
"But there are vast, unused spaces that can be used and plans for investment into those spaces, utilising Shrewsbury Station's full potential."
Community rail will also benefit, Sheila said.
"Community rail partnerships have been going since the 1990s and they prove that you can bypass bureaucracy and do a lot with a little.
"We are local and we know local consumers. We helped bring a 100 space car park to Gobowen for instance. Now community rail partnerships are being built into every franchise in UK, with a local, delivery model.
"The new franchise has told us that is is fully supportive of community rail partnerships being about to deliver projects and lead improvements."
"There is a big move to make stations community hubs and a network wide investment plan to support community projects at stations."
Some of the improvements will include free wifi to all stations by December 2020 and cycle storage facilities by 2023.
"The service will be run for the passenger - be very passenger focused. Next year will see more Sunday services introduced so that Sunday will become a normal operating day. And they are even talking about a half hourly service between Shrewsbury and Chester, when we only saw an hourly service introduced in 2000. That shows just how demand has grown."