Shropshire Star

Axing of Shrewsbury-to-London train is latest example of our capital link being messed up

Question: What lonely and embarrassing club will Shropshire join after June 2?

The Wrexham & Shropshire Railway train service to London lasted less than three years

The answer is that it will become one of just two English counties not to have any direct train service to London. The other is Rutland, a county so small it only has one station and a population of 41,000 people, just over half of Shrewsbury's.

Avanti West Coast's once-a-day weekday service is being scrapped this summer. The Department for Transport (DfT) has said "very low" passenger numbers means the service is now losing £1.4 million a year, and it's not prepared to stump up the money to keep the service going.

Let's just look at the DfT's claims for a minute.

Passenger numbers on the Avanti service to Shrewsbury were said to be around 40-60. The DfT says it can't ask taxpayer to "maintain the historically high level of financial support for the industry indefinitely" as "changing travel patterns mean our railways aren’t generating the same revenues as they were before the pandemic".

But passenger numbers are going back up.

Figures released by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) show that in July to September 2023 (the most recent data available), there were 397 million passenger journeys in the UK. That's 14 per cent up on the same quarteri n 2022, and at 88 per cent of the 448 million trips made the same quarter in 2019. Total passenger revenue from July to September last year was £2.6bn, 10 per cent up on the £2.4bn recorded in the same period in 2022 when adjusted for inflation.

Avanti's passenger numbers in that period stood at eight million, up 25 per cent from the same quarter in 2022, with people also travelling further. The ORR also says that passenger journeys have increased in eight of the last 10 quarters.

So, it's hardly fading away as the Government and DfT repeatedly suggest. Passenger numbers and revenue are on course to get back to where they were pre-pandemic.

But railways are also supposed to be a public service. We all still fund the network to an extent through taxes, so it's surely not unreasonable for part of the service to include a direct London train that's protected by the franchise contract so the DfT cannot pull the plug just by looking at a spreadsheet, leaving the operator with no choice but to stop the service with no government subsidy to support it.

From June anyone in Shropshire wanting to travel into the capital by train will have to change mid-journey or drive to a station that has a direct service. Admittedly, changing at Wolverhampton is relatively simple - often easier than Birmingham New Street - but is it fair on the county to be without any form of direct London link? Even a change as simple as one at Wolverhampton is more hassle than no change at all.

The DfT is looking at a balance sheet and made a decision that seemingly fails to consider any other political, business and social perspectives that allow the county to punch its weight. With one train a day, at such an early hour, is it really a surprise that people didn't know it existed or never used it?

Regular services

The Cambrian Coast Express was a daily sight in the days of steam. Photo: Russell Mulford

Shropshire's London connection over the past 60 years has often been hindered by decisions made by rail bosses, politicians and civil servants.

Decades ago, back when steam locomotives were a daily occurrence, there were several trains a day running between London Paddington and Birkenhead that served towns such as Wellington (there was no Telford Central back then), Shrewsbury, Gobowen and Chirk. These services ended in early 1967 when Dr Richard Beeching's Re-shaping of Britain's Railways report deemed that the Birkenhead route was effectively a duplicate of the London Euston to Liverpool service that ran via Crewe, curtailing most of the six a day trains running between London and the Wirral at Wolverhampton.