Heavy Rail in Herefordshire The Future. June 2022
1. Background There has been much talk of a new station at Pontrilas of late. However this is just one aspect of the future of the heavy rail network in Herefordshire and its potential development. In March 2014 the consultants W.S. Atkins completed a Marches Rail Study for the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership. The recommendations are interesting as it ranked the Hereford-Birmingham route as the highest in a prioritised list of schemes. The report stated:
Hereford to Birmingham Route: It is probable that the single track sections of route between Hereford and Worcester, particularly that between Hereford and Great Malvern, will become a major obstacle to increasing capacity. Therefore, it is recommended that a study is undertaken of this section, to understand how it can best be used in the future, and what infrastructure may be required to facilitate this – in particular double tracking the route from Shelwick Junction to Great Malvern. This study should include liaison with the TOCs who currently use the route. This proposal was ranked highest in the prioritised list of schemes.
It is a sad indictment of how badly Herefordshire is treated by organisations such as West Midlands Rail Executive and Network Rail in so far as this important project has consistently slipped in the investment programme and has been relegated to post 2030 with no definite future date.
2. Hereford to Worcester Route
Shelwick Junction (Hereford) to Malvern Wells
The two tunnels on this section of railway, Ledbury and Colwall, have always been single line. The line between Colwall and Ledbury North End and between Ledbury Station and Shelwick Junction was singled in 1967. The signal boxes at Colwall, Ledbury North End and Stoke Edith were closed leaving two single line sections Malvern Wells to Ledbury and Ledbury to Shelwick Junction. The sections are worked under the electric token-less block system.
The working timetable is designed to allow trains to cross at Ledbury station. However, any irregularity in the timetable means that trains are held at either Malvern Wells or Ledbury. Trains are not held at Shelwick Junction as this conflicts with the running of the Marches Line from Hereford to Shrewsbury. If a down train to Hereford is running late it is often the case that it is turned short at Ledbury in order to regain its up path to Worcester. Passengers are then advised to wait for the next train on the hourly interval service.
Under the existing arrangement the line is operating at capacity with an hourly Hereford-Birmingham service and a small number of Hereford-London trains squeezed in between. The potential for improving the frequency on the Birmingham service is therefore non-existent with the existing single lines.
The need for an improvement in track capacity is evident. Rather than a full scale re-doubling of the single sections, the opportunity should be taken to examine the installation of dynamic loops between Colwall and Ledbury North End and between Rhea Pitch (west end of viaduct) and Stoke Edith. Dynamic loops are described as:
If a crossing loop is several times the length of the trains using it, and is suitably signalled, then trains proceeding in opposite directions can pass (cross) each other without having to stop or even slow down. This greatly reduces the time lost by the first train to arrive at the crossing loop for the opposing train to go by. This system is referred to as a dynamic loop.
This allows for greater flexibility in crossing trains. In addition, the removal of the crossing point from Ledbury station to the dynamic loops could allow for all trains to be concentrated on the down platform at Ledbury. This would solve the problem that currently, there is no disabled access to the up platform at Ledbury and would eliminate the need for expensive lifts or ramps.
According to Atkins, Hereford-Birmingham future demand was expected to increase by 52% with 47% growth from Ledbury.
Recommendation: The improvement in track capacity between Malvern Wells and Shelwick Junction must be a priority in any heavy rail study for Herefordshire.
New Station at Withington
The station at Withington was closed in 1965 under the Beeching plan. It was situated just off the unclassified road connecting the villages of Bartestree and Withington. The site is now part of the Whitestone Business Park. The single line railway continues to run past the site.
Over the last decade both Bartestree and Withington have experienced considerable growth in housing. The Herefordshire Core Strategy (currently under review) identified seven Housing Market Areas for housing development. The area around Hereford including Bartestree and Withington were allocated 1,870 dwellings. The Golden Valley area which includes Pontrilas is allocated 304 dwellings. Bartestree and Withington are strong contenders for development on the east of the city.
Transport and traffic studies show that flows into the city from the east represent 20.8% of total external trips as opposed to 14.7% from south of the city.
The proximity of a new railway station on the east side of the city would therefore serve an increased demand from existing villages and a means of park and ride interception of external trips from the east on both the A438 Ledbury Road and A4103 Worcester Road.
A new station would be located in proximity to the unclassified road in the vicinity of the Business Park and would require one platform on the single line and adjacent parking. The Hereford-Birmingham train service is the lead candidate for serving such a station. Improvements in this service commensurate with the installation of dynamic loops in the Ledbury area as detailed earlier would permit the insertion of an additional stop in the working timetable.
Recommendation: The possibility of a new station at Withington be further examined.
3. The Marches Line (Newport to Shrewsbury)
The Atkins report concluded that:
The most favourable intervention on the Marches line was the option operate an additional ‘local’ service over the route, thus alleviating some of the overcrowding concerns noted and to provide capacity for the potential passenger growth identified earlier in this study. Liaison with ATW is encouraged to determine whether there is scope for additional trains to be operated in the future to cater for local journeys.
This is in line with the aims of the Marches Rail Users Alliance in that a two tier train service of limited stop long distance trains and all station trains is best to serve both existing and future passenger flows on the line. Atkins assessed that demand on the Marches line into Hereford is forecast to increase ranging from 41% from Church Stretton to 64% from Leominster. Such growth has already begun with the expansion of colleges at Hereford and is expected to continue with the creation of the new university at Hereford.
A service pattern to match demand requires investment in the Marches line to increase line capacity, especially considering its role as a second tier route in the future rail freight strategy. However, in 2019 any plans for re-signalling had been shelved :
Previous plans to re-signal the Marches line between Newport and Shrewsbury have been shelved. The spokeswoman said: "Signalling activity on the Newport to Shrewsbury line in CP6 will focus upon life extension work, with the majority of work in the Hereford area."
Re-signalling at Hereford Station
This infrastructure work is part of the extension work mentioned above. It has involved the re-signalling of the down Marches Line between Shelwick Junction and platforms 1 and 2 at Hereford station to permit two way operation. Trains from the Worcester line can now run into and depart from platforms 1 and 2. The Birmingham service has benefited as turn round times have been reduced.
Recommendation: That enquiries be made of Network Rail, the Welsh government and the Departments of Transport as to where the Marches Line now stands in the future rail investment programme.
4. Heavy Rail into Rotherwas
I quote here from the WS Atkins report:
"Introduction of local services between Leominster and Rotherwas / Holme Lacy In 2012 the Rotherwas Rail High Level Business Case Study was undertaken to consider the high level business case of providing a new local rail service from Leominster to Rotherwas, via, Hereford, with a potential extension on to Holme Lacy. This proposal would require the reinstating of abandoned rail track and the building of new stations at Rotherwas and Holme Lacy. The proposal for this was based on the opportunity to improve public transport provision to the Enterprise Zone at Rotherwas Industrial Estate. The study highlighted a number of operational and economic issues in achieving the proposed service level of a half hourly service between Leominster and Rotherwas, including:
There are a number of timetabling conflicts between the proposed Leominster-Rotherwas service and existing services on the Marches line that would need to be overcome;
Extending the service to Holme Lacy would add significant capital costs to the proposal and make a half hourly service very difficult to achieve;
Economic analysis showed the Leominster-Rotherwas option as having a relatively low BCR of 0.7- 1.8;
Potential wider economic benefits of providing better access to the Enterprise Zone would be unlikely to improve the business case for the proposals;
Under both options, significant levels of revenue support would be needed to subsidise the service. Given local authority resource constraints, the likelihood of receiving revenue support from the local authority is low, whilst central government would be unlikely to also support revenue funding; and Land ownership and acquisition were also found to be barriers to achieving the proposals.
Atkins has reviewed the proposals outlined in the Rotherwas Study and considered the merits of introducing the proposed services. The findings of this review suggest that the Rotherwas Study has been optimistic in forecasting a BCR in the range of 0.7 – 1.8, as the higher end of this range could only be achieved under a high demand scenario and by stripping out optimism bias. Given the limited resources available for local rail improvements, alternative schemes with higher BCRs should be considered as a greater priority for investment. As such, the Leominster to Rotherwas and Leominster to Holme Lacy scheme proposals have ranked eleventh and twelfth, respectively, in the scheme prioritisation list."
See also the potential for serving Rotherwas and associated Lower Bullingham housing development by an extension of light rail off the end of the Great Western Way scheme. (Sustainable Public Transport for Hereford: Herefordshire Sustainable Transport Group Report July 2019.)
5. Rail Freight
Rail freight over the Marches Line has decreased over the past decade with the elimination of coal traffic and the decline in the steel industry. However, stone and gravel traffic from Moreton-on Lugg has remained buoyant with two and three trains per week. Positive news is that major Herefordshire firm Pontrilas Sawmills has been engaged in a trial with Euroforest Ltd, a timber harvesting company, and Colas Rail to transport 400 tonnes of timber from Devon to Pontrilas by rail. If the trial is considered successful then it could well be extended to other timber sources and significantly reduce the number of heavy commercial timber lorries that use the roads through Herefordshire.
Colas Rail UK Freight Director commented: "This is a great opportunity to provide a sustainable alternative in operating on rail, especially as we lead the field in the transportation of timber by rail. We are acting to contribute to net zero targets, in line with the objectives of our group in promoting rail freight and in reducing the number of HGVs on the road, especially during the shortage of drivers. Working with the client and Network Rail, I'm convinced that we can move forward and build on the success of the trial."
Euroforest’s Director of Operations for England & Wales also commented: "Moving roundwood timber by rail is a great solution to this problem. Rail transport provides an efficient and environmentally friendly method of moving bulk loads to our customers."
The siding at Pontrilas, part of the old station goods yard, was last used in 2004 when Pontrilas Sawmills used rail. Since then it has greatly increased its heavy commercial vehicle fleet but transport costs are now significantly changing. Driver shortage and substantial increases in fuel costs are beginning to tip the balance in favour of rail for long haul of heavy bulk commodities such as timber. Timber trains already run through Hereford on their way to the wood proceeding plant of Kronospan at Chirk.
Throughout Britain there is also a shift to rail in the intermodal market. This relies on the use of containers to transport individual loads delivered to distribution rail-heads for onward transit by road. This sector should be built upon when there is a need to reduce road haulage and effect modal transfer of individual loads to rail. Such a move would clearly rely on a restructuring of the supply chain, the establishment of rail-heads and the onward transit by smaller road vehicles. This is very much in line with the de- carbonising transport.
The fact that a study ‘The Marches & Mid Wales Freight Strategy’ was commissioned by the Marches LEP, the Growing Mid Wales Partnership and the Welsh Government, shows there is a keen interest in the future pattern of freight movement. However, the report did not hold out much hope of a significant shift to rail and concluded that rail freight may be able to provide an opportunity to transfer some freight movements to rail but freight by road is likely to remain the dominant mode. This does not mean that rail has to be dismissed entirely but at present the structure of the manufacturing and food supply chains prohibits its use widely across the country and especially in the Marches.
W.S. Atkins: The Marches Rail Study March 2014: Marches LEP Network Rail Wales & Western Regional Strategic Plan CP6: 2019 West Midlands Rail Executive Investment Strategy Report: 2019 Marches LEP: Investing in strategic Transport Corridors in the Marches: May 2016 Marches LEP & Growing Mid Wales: The Marches & Mid Wales Freight Strategy: February 2018 Department for Transport: Restoring your Railway Fund (www.gov.uk>Transport>Rail>Community Rail) HSTG: The Role of Railways in the Future of Herefordshire: March 2020
©Herefordshire Sustainable Transport Group: HSTG/GCD 10-06-2022