A regular theme on some of the Somerset focused Public Transport groups on social media is that bus connections to and from railway services at Castle Cary. For a week on most years, the station becomes a vital part of the network as tens of thousands of passengers pass through the station heading to or from the Glastonbury Festival at Pilton. But for the remaining 51 weeks of the year, it is a rather quieter interchange.
The station lies to the north of Castle Cary town at the junction of the London – Taunton via Westbury and the Bristol – Weymouth lines in a part of mid Somerset that was harshly affected both before and during the Beeching rationalistaion of the railways in the 1960s and that chip on the shoulder felt by many in the region has been very slow to heal, particularly when combined with a distinct lack of any meaningful highway infrastructure investment since.
As a result, a common demand made by transport campaigners in the area is for rail link buses to Castle Cary from nearby towns and the city of Wells.
In a moment of insanity, i decided to investigate what resources would actually be required to provide meaningful bus interchanges at Castle Cary in order to serve Shepton Mallet (approx seven miles to the North) and Wells (a further five miles west from Shepton).
In order to set myself a reasonable window in which to work, i set myself some rules:
1. Each bus to Castle Cary is required to arrive at least ten minutes prior to the scheduled departure of the train (rounded to the nearest five minutes), with a similar connection window being provided from train to bus.
2. There are only two scheduled stops at Shepton Mallet town centre and Wells Bus Station. There is no allowance made for diverting buses via other villages en route.
3. Every train in each scenario requires a connecting bus and where there are multiple trains to connect with, the wait must be no longer than 35 minutes from the earliest arrival (originally this had been 20 minutes, but the spread of arrivals of multiple routes in the evenings would have required an unrealistic number of vehicles).
4. The running time between each point is kept at a constant throughout the day (not unrealistic, given the mostly rural nature of the roads). 15 mins between Cary and Shepton, and a further 15 to Wells. These timings are achievable with small vehicles.
5. We’re not worrying about how to set the bus duties up for drivers hours or breaks at the moment.
Each scenario is based on weekday train times from the current timetable (the actual date used was Tuesday 19th July 2022).
Scenario One: Connections to and from direct London Paddington trains.
There are nine daily trains from Castle Cary towards London and 11 from. The first departure is 0641 and the final arrival at 2241.
Even with this relatively small number of connections, if each of these trains is to have connections, there will be a requirement of two vehicles as some of the trains run fairly close together. In these timetables, each colour is a vehicle which continues to run until there is no logical following journey to continue upon. The top timetable shows train connections, the bottom one below the line shows the bus workings in isolation.
Although there will be some dead running between Wells and the station, this isn’t an unreasonable prospect. It has the benefit of one of the vehicles also being available at school hours morning and afternoon which could bring economies to the operational costs.
Scenario Two: Additional connections to Taunton trains.
So if we’re connecting with London trains, why not those to Somerset’s County Town as well? This effectively means we will be connecting with the Paddington trains in both directions, as they all continue to Taunton, Exeter and the deep south west.
Surprisingly, this requirement doesn’t increase the overall number of vehicles required. As long as we’re willing to put up with some slightly longer connections, two vehicles remains possible, although we no longer have the availability in the morning peak for the bus to do anything else. The two vehicles are also working considerably harder and well in to the evening on both diagrams.
One benefit of this approach is that we lose any dead running between Wells and Cary, rising only slightly from 13 round trips (with dead running in the first scenario) to 14.
Scenario Three: Yeovil trains too
The final logical step in this is to add in the trains to/from Yeovil. This brings around some interesting complications as the route between Westbury and Yeovil Pen Mill is something of a feast or famine line. As well as the GWR service to/from Weymouth, there are also a few isolated SWR journeys running in a loop from Salisbury via Yeovil and Westbury in each direction as some form of replacement for the Temple Meads Waterloo services. Because these all share line space with the Paddington services, they are obviously some distance apart, which is cumbersome when you’re trying to make them all connect with the same bus.
We are now up to three vehicles, running 19 round trips (if we assume the black duty will return to Wells during the day, 18 if not). Some of the connections are also becoming a little lengthy, particularly the 1816 and 2018 arrivals from Paddington. Even these have only been achieved by reducing some ten minute connections down to nine.
So that will be three buses on the road by 0700 and none tucked up in bed before 2000. Mechanical support cover from 0530 until midnight. On costings received recently by neighbouring local authorities, you’re probably looking at a minimum of £2,000 a day if the service is provided by a PSV operator, which will need a lot of people catching trains to make it remotely sustainable. Even the simpler two bus workings are likely to have a cost well in to four figures each day.
Of course, there is the possibility it could be provided by some permit operation, which then brings up all sorts of questions regarding reliability, passenger confidence and integration in to the wider network. I would struggle to see the costs being reduced dramatically given the hours that such a service would be required to work. The core costs of staff, fuel and looking after vehicles aren’t going to be wildly different. Even if such a service were implemented as a Demand Responsive model, the number of vehicles, hours of operation and having staff available will still result in similar costs.
It should also be remembered that the overall journey times from Wells are negligibly different to catching a 376 to Bristol Temple Meads and a London service from there (or vice versa), so would this really be the great investment of public funds that many campaigners believe it would? We also need to remember that these connections are only being offered from two settlements and there are several other candidates in the catchment for Castle Cary which might warrant a similar level of service. Once everyone has their demands in for similar services and they are extended to cover weekends as well, the cost of such provision could be truly astonishing.