Last year was one of consolidation rather than spectacular progress. London Midland’s 10-year stewardship of our Cross-City and Trent Valley semi-fast services ended with a one-year direct award; they were followed in December by a consortium of Abellio and two Japanese companies known as West Midland Trains, trading on our two local services as West Midlands Railway and London Northwestern Railway respectively. New trains for the Cross-City will surprisingly retain the 3-car format despite the huge traffic growth since the 323s were delivered in the 1990s; they will have more standing room and fewer seats but will provide more frequent evening and Sunday services from 2021. The TV service will run direct from Stafford to Crewe from this December, good for connectivity from Lichfield northwards but adding a change for the Potteries.
The increased Virgin calls at Lichfield Trent Valley from May 2016 have attracted significant new business, though Virgin Trains failed to quantify and publicise these gains. The overall usage of this station reported by ORR increased yet again, to March 2017 by 3.4% over the previous year to just over 1.1 million; ten years earlier, before the hourly London service started, it was below 250,000. No more has been heard of possible stops by an open-access operator.
Work again failed to start on lifts to provide step-free access to all platforms at Trent Valley station, agreed by the government in April 2014, now for completion by March 2019. We will see. Two more modest improvements here which we have long sought were achieved at last and should be recorded: a pedestrian gate by the ticket office to reduce the walking distance to the town when the ticket office is closed; and non-scrolling of departure screens, so that passengers making connections can immediately see details of the next train forward.
We have totally failed so far to persuade either the old or new operators to keep waiting rooms at the two Lichfield stations open when trains are running, particularly important in the event of delays or inclement weather, or the desirability of staffing the stations throughout opening hours to provide support for passengers. They still seem to equate this with Ticket office opening, which is not what we are seeking. The toilets at Lichfield City have now remained closed for several years, with the alternative facilities over the road in the bus station due to close soon; we see little effort being made to resolve this.
Indeed, in their final year London Midland seemed little interested in positive change; one hopes the new companies will have more concern for their fare-paying passengers. (Ticketless travel appears as rife as ever). Sometimes it seems that TOCs are more devoted to running a punctual train set than in trying to make passengers feel welcome and their journeys a comfortable and convenient alternative to private car. One can partly understand this in view of the franchise rules, but it remains a poor approach to providing public passenger transport.
Responding to Department for Transport consultations is a big but important task for the Group. Following the West Midland and Inter City West Coast consultations in 2016, we proposed that the next East Midland franchise should include a new service from Nottingham/Derby to Lichfield via Burton, possibly continuing via Sutton to Birmingham International for the airport and NEC; the outcome is not yet known. The Inter City West Coast franchise is to be replaced by a West Coast Partnership incorporating HS2; so far there has been no opportunity to comment on post-HS2 services on the existing line.
We remain committed to restoration of the Lichfield-Walsall link. Despite meeting key players (including John Henderson, Chief Executive of Staffordshire County Council, our local transport authority), we have so far failed to get any real local enthusiasm for this (or for the passenger service north) from Councils or LEPs, despite severe congestion and resulting pollution on the existing road links along these two routes. It is becoming clear that greater efforts are needed, and we must decide whether we have at present the resources to undertake the campaign needed.
I reported last year on our first visit from Michael Fabricant MP, early in February 2017, and repeated early this year. Michael remains zealous in his interest in railway matters, and we continue to use his good offices through correspondence. He has been impressed during these visits by the great interest many of our members have in the future of rail services serving Lichfield.
We maintained our membership of relevant bodies – West Coast Rail 250 (whose June meeting was hosted by Lichfield City Council), Railfuture and Campaign for Rail – and continue to maintain contact with local Councils, partly through the Lichfield Rail Alliance. A presentation to Lichfield’s City Centre Partnership in March appeared to generate great interest but has so far led nowhere.
Since last year’s AGM our Secretary John Adams, Treasurer Ian Jackson, and Committee members David James and Tony Thompson have given me excellent support and are increasingly taking over some of the outside meetings we attend, as well as standing in when I am away. Richard Rathbone has recently been co-opted to handle in particular press matters. My own desire last year to step down from the Chair regrettably came to nought in the absence of a volunteer to succeed me; it is healthy for a body such as ours to refresh itself regularly.
I am most grateful to the Committee and to our members who have continued to attend meetings in good numbers. After a few months in Wade Street Church, we are back at the reopened King’s Head, now on the third Mondays of each month when the refurbished upper room is available to us.
David Dixon, Chairman, April 2018