Yesterday I went on a trip to Shrewsbury with my Dad on the independent Wrexham and Shropshire service. This is an open access non franchised rail service. It is owned by Renaissance Trains (Including BR diehards and highly respected railway managers Mike Jones and John Nelson, both of whom I remember well from my management trainee days), and DB Regio – the German state railway – who now own Chiltern Trains / Laing Rail. So most of this private open access railway is actually a state owned company.
What we experienced was a glimpse of how rail travel should be. Mark 3 coaches, comfortable spacious seats, and excellent service throughout.
At Marylebone we showed the ticket which was a bar code on my mobile phone. We then found our train which consisted of 3 coaches, lead by a Driving Van Trailer and pushed by a powerful class 67 diesel locomotive. The coaches were chartered and were in classic British Rail InterCity blue and grey. Soon the W&S will be introducing their own fleet of refurbished Mark 3 coaches.
Our 11:24 departure was only a third full so we got a choice of seats with tables. The journey to Shrewsbury uses the Chiltern line through High Wycombe (we spotted 8 red kites in the Chilterns), then joins the Cross Country main line through Banbury before skirting round Birmingham via Leamington Spa, Coventry, Tame Parkway, Bescot, and Wolverhampton. This is very much a back street route and avoids the congested New Street Station. The W&S is severely limited in the stations it can serve due to rules brought in to protect the investment by Virgin and Network Rail in the West Coast Main Line upgrade. As a result the journey is not quick – 3h 18m to Shrewsbury – and that really explains why the train was not particularly busy.
We had about four hours in Shrewsbury. Enough for a bracing walk around the historic town and a few pints in the Three Fishes with my old chum and colleague Allen Marsden.
On the return journey we travelled first class. This is where the excellence of the Mark 3 coach really shows through. It also entitled us to a full freshly cooked meal. This was to a very high standard, and in my case was accompanied by a good bottle of locally brewed beer. It was the high quality of service that really stood out, with friendly and highly committed staff.
The W&S is cutting its daily services from 5 to 4 eaqch way this month. While his could be seen as a backward step for a new operator, it is probably a sensible reaction to the credit crunch hitting in their inaugural year. It is very hard for me to see how an operation using a modern loco and trailer to haul just three coaches can possibly be economic – let alone afford to offer meals and high quality service to its passengers. On the trip home there were only 23 passengers in standard class and 5 in first. And the crew were staying overnight in London to operate the morning train back to Shrewsbury.
But the guys running the W&S know what they are doing. And the main shareholder presumably has very big pockets and a long term view. The lesson from other independent operators seems to be that they can build profitable businesses, and the W&S seems to be doing everything right. But soon Virgin will start direct services to Wrexham which will be faster, if less frequent.
If you want to experience the railways as they once were, and as they should be, then I suggest you take a trip on the W&S. The cost, by the way, was £10 outbound in standard, and £55 back in first class. I think that’s a bargain.