Monday, 26 January 2015

Four years ago this week - the demise of the Wrexham & Shropshire

Four years ago, Adrian Shooter - Chairman of the Wrexham and Shropshire - was preparing to travel to Wrexham to break the news to the staff of the company that the service was to cease. The end was mercifully quick: by Friday the last train had left London Marylebone for Wrexham and a brief but glorious episode in Britain's idiosyncratic railway history was brought to a close.

I can still remember the shock of the announcement that became public on the Wednesday, and my surprise at the seeming ruthlessness that was applied in closing down the service, I had been a champion of the company: indeed, it was its existence that first started me blogging on rail journeys between Birmingham and the Capital. So I felt the loss personally and wondered if we, the travelling public, would ever know the reasons behind the closure decision.

Well, three and a half years on, Richard Harper and Gordon Rushton wrote 'Wrexham & Shropshire: open access - the one that got away' (Adlestrop Press 2014 9780957145610 £33) and, having got a copy in my Christmas stocking, some of my questions have been answered.

The authors were both intimately involved with the company at various stages of its existence so the book is hardly a dispassionate account of its history. Having said that, they bend over backwards (perhaps too far?) to try to give a balanced view of the successes and the failures of the service. Thus, the 'killer' Moderation of Competition clause that Virgin Trains invoked for the Wolverhampton stop is treated even-handedly, as is Network Rail's seeming reluctance to give access to the Stour Valley Line from there to Birmingham. Even the Department of Transport - often a scapegoat for railway anger - gets off lightly!

So what killed the company? 'Events, dear boy, events' as Harold Macmillan probably didn't say. The company was launched just as Britain was about to enter recession; the planned rolling stock didn't materialise and the replacement dedicated rolling stock was delayed; the route timings were tortuous; Virgin launched its Very High Frequency timetable with new faster trains from the West Midlands; Tame Bridge Parkway failed to deliver patronage from north Birmingham; passengers turned out to prefer speed to comfort; the list goes on...

Despite all of the above - and the feeling that runs through the book that the service should never have been launched in the first place - there is real warmth for the achievements of the dedicated staff who worked so hard to make a go of it. Every member of staff has a well-deserved potted biography and key players are given space to explain their contribution. Wonderful photographs of the trains both inside and out show the real pride that the railway generated. Innovations such as the integrated web site / social media presence with print branding along with imaginative marketing material are given proper treatment, and, of course, the meals and on-board service are lovingly described.

So, if you ever travelled on the Wrexham & Shropshire this book is a must. If you weren't so fortunate, then perhaps the book will give you a flavour of why the service was always rated so highly in the Passenger Satisfaction Surveys. Buy it and enjoy!

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