Business leaders warn North Wales economy ‘at risk’ without promised rail services

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A group of influential business leaders are calling for direct rail services between North Wales and London to be urgently restored.

The call came from the North Wales Mersey Dee Business Council as well as some of the biggest names in the tourism industry who fear the upcoming summer season could be a “major lost opportunity” due to lack of services.

Among those leading the campaign are two of the region’s biggest tour operators, Zip World chairman and co-founder Sean Taylor and Adam Williams, owner of Llandudno Pier, Tir Prince Raceway in Kinmel Bay and a series of holiday parks and playrooms.

North Wales Tourism, a private organization which represents almost 2,000 businesses in the region’s six counties and is a founding member of the Business Council, is also playing a central role in this campaign.

The sector employs more than 43,000 people and before coronavirus hit it was generating around £3.6billion a year, giving a massive boost to the regional economy.

There was big promise from Avanti when they took over the West Coast franchise from Virgin Trains in December 2019.

Avanti pledged to maintain and increase existing services linking North Wales, Chester and London, saying passengers would benefit from more trains, more seats, simplified fares and more frequent services.

But the UK’s transport infrastructure came to a virtual standstill when the lockdown was imposed.

As a result, the number of direct trains between North Wales and London has been reduced to three return journeys per day.

Earlier this month, Avanti introduced two more direct services per day, bringing the number to five and in September the number is expected to increase to at least 10 daily services in both directions.

But that’s still well below the 14 daily return services that were operating before the pandemic.

The Business Council has been lobbying Avanti and the UK government to reinstate the full original schedule by December at the latest.

According to Sean Taylor, having first class rail connections to London was crucial for Zip World which already employs over 500 people.

As well as branching out into other parts of the UK, the fast-growing adrenaline-fueled adventure company is unveiling two new attractions in North Wales this summer, with underground golf at Llechwedd Slave Caverns at Blaenau Ffestiniog and the SkyFlyer airship at Rhyl. which will take thrill seekers 400 feet in the air.

Mr Taylor said:

“It is hugely important to us and everyone else in North Wales to have proper direct train services for many different reasons.

“One is perception, because symbolically having a great rail service indicates that North Wales is open for business and that we are not a sleeping backwater.

“On a practical level, if people want to come here for business or vacation, having limited direct services puts them off – it’s a real barrier for travellers.

“When Virgin had the franchise it was a fantastic service and we want that service back because it’s not just important to Zip World, it’s important to hotels, retailers and other businesses involved in the sector because these customers will also be doing other things while they are here.

It was a sentiment shared by Adam Williams whose growing businesses employ around 320 people.

He said:

“Stations like Rhyl, Towyn, Kinmel Bay and Llandudno rely on trains and with the climate change issue looming, it is more important than ever to encourage people to travel by train.

“The problem is that by not having a proper direct train service we send the message that people who want to come should drive here in their cars.

“Surely, on that basis alone, we should be running a lot more trains to get cars off the road.

“It’s a bit shocking to hear where things stand. It’s scary for our investment and it’s scary for all our staff and something has to be done ASAP.

“Not having full train service means this summer season is going to be a totally wasted opportunity. We will lose a big enough percentage to make a big difference.

“It is extremely important that the Business Council smacks the drum on our behalf and champions the call for improved rail services.

“Getting to where we were is not the goal. We need to improve this and have even more direct trains. It’s the only way for us to prosper – otherwise we’re going to be in trouble.

Jim Jones, the chief executive of North Wales Tourism, also has fears for the future without a ‘fit for purpose’ train service.

He said:

“Transport connectivity is hugely important in terms of tourism and the flow of visitors in and out of North Wales, particularly this link between London and Holyhead.

“This is long overdue as this is a vitally important strategic route and tourism is at the heart of the economic recovery here in North Wales.

“I use the route quite frequently and there is nothing more infuriating than having to change trains at Crewe and/or Chester.

“It was even part of the franchise agreement that Avanti would improve on what we had before because it’s such an important route.

“I know there are resource challenges due to a shortage of drivers and the time it takes to train new ones, but North Wales is such an important destination.”

The campaign is coordinated by Ashley Rogers, chief executive of the Business Council and board member of Growth Track 360, a cross-border alliance of business, political and public sector leaders from North Wales and Cheshire which has launched to secure £1 billion worth of rail improvements.

Ashley Rogers said:

“The increase in services in May and planned for September is a welcome step in the right direction and a testament to the positive work between the Department of Transport and Avanti.

“However, direct services to and from North Wales and Chester are essential to the regional economy, whether it is tourism attracting our visitors or business travel, and all that is less than 14 return services a day means 20th century service in a 21st century world.

“Without a full restoration of the full schedule, there are real long-term risks of major damage to the economy of North Wales, as it is such a crucial part of our connectivity with London and other key areas of the UK.”

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