Ken Skates, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport
Following the difficult weather conditions experienced across Wales since Thursday last week, I want to put on record my sincere thanks to staff across the entire transport sector who have worked tirelessly over the weekend to support the travelling public and to re-open our public transport and road network. I am always impressed by the diligence and resourcefulness of those on our front lines and these last few days have again demonstrated the professionalism and commitment of those working in Welsh transport.
There were a number of locations where unfortunately our network became impassable and roads had to be shut. This is always a last resort, and any decisions to close roads were not taken lightly. Whilst reinstatement and rescue efforts were hampered in some locations by abandoned vehicles, all of our road network was re-opened by Sunday. Bus services across Wales are now operating normally, with some localised exceptions. Our teams have also been providing support to aid local authorities.
To put the scale of our response into perspective, whilst other parts of the UK saw occupants trapped in vehicles for up to 18 hours, no one was trapped on our network for comparable durations. Although there were a number of minor incidents on our road network, we are not aware of any fatal or serious injury accidents as a result of the extreme weather.
Last week I informed members of a number of challenges being faced by the railway in Wales. There were two issues. Firstly the very challenging weather conditions, combing heavy snow and a prolonged period of low temperatures, which caused significant disruption to services from Thursday onwards. Secondly, the issue of damage to the wheels of the trains used to provide long distance services in Wales. The poor weather has also had a major impact on road travel, including bus services across Wales.
Since I first became aware of the wheel issue on 28 February I have been receiving frequent updates from Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail Wales Route. I am grateful to them and to all their dedicated staff who have worked tirelessly in extreme weather conditions to restore services to normal as soon as possible and to keep the public up to date.
On 28 February, safety inspections prior to start of service revealed damage to the wheel sets on a number of our longer-distance trains which run from West Wales to Manchester, Cardiff to Holyhead and Holyhead to Birmingham. The damage seen had not been experienced anywhere on Britain’s railway.
As an immediate safety precaution affected vehicles were taken out of service, a joint Silver Command Control was established by ATW and Network Rail, normal services were truncated, and test trains were despatched to check all potential causes of wheel set damage along the routes where damage may have occurred - principally between Chester, Shrewsbury and Cardiff. These potential locations included points, level crossings, depot facilities and other infrastructure. Welsh Government received half-hourly updates. I have provided regular social media updates throughout.
At the same time, extreme weather forecasts and weather warnings necessitated the withdrawal of most of our South Wales services and those on Conwy Valley, West Wales and elsewhere, initially, on 1 and 2 March, with reduced longer distance services on main lines. The rail industry provided comprehensive public information on these issues as they arose, on their websites, social media and through frequent press updates. Outside Wales, rail services were also heavily impacted by weather.
Following improvements to the weather, extensive track clearance and route proving, there was a gradual improvement of services on 3 and 4 March and the infrastructure believed to have caused the wheel damage was located at Maindee West Junction, near Newport. Thanks to the efforts of the staff of both ATW and Network Rail, long distance train services are running as normal from 5 March, with just a few trains running in shorter formations than usual as a result of the wheel damage issue. Local services on the Heart of Wales and Conwy Valley lines were affected on 5 March by the after effects of the weather, so bus replacement services remained in operation on those routes, although the Conwy Valley line is scheduled to return to normal on 6 March.
I have today spoken again with Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail to understand the residual issues, and to pass my thanks on for the hard work of their teams in recovering so swiftly from both of these service affecting issues, and for keeping the public updated. Affected passengers are encouraged to make enquiries with ATW if they believe they should be compensated for disrupted travel. 24 of the 27 class 175 trains have sustained wheel damage, along with the wheels on the carriages of the Gerallt Gymro train and at least 7 of the 24 class 158 trains used for shorter services. Whilst the damage may take several months to completely resolve, I have been assured that there is no safety consequence to continuing to operate the trains in the interim. We may see some short formation trains for a while, but service cancellations are not anticipated, unless other circumstances dictate them.
I will continue to keep members updated of further developments.