Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Vision - Melksham Train Service
We're coming up to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our improved train service in Melksham at the end of this year. So that's the first decade gone - how should we start the next decade?
A decade go we had 2 trains scheduled each way per day, and around 5 people a day arriving and 5 leaving by train. In the latest figures, around 150 journeys are made, with another 300 on trains that call at Melksham, carrying passengers from Chippenham and beyond to and from Trowbridge and beyond, on 8 trains per day. That's much better - but for the size of the town, passenger numbers remain low. That's largely because the service is infrequent and unreliable. On a reliable hourly service, we would have 500 journeys a day to and from Melksham, and an addition 500 through.
Illustration - The very first new service on 8th December 2013. In those first years it was a single carriage platform and a single carriage train ... very different now!
So - a huge success in the first decade - 30 times the passenger numbers on 4 times the trains - but a job that is not complete; it should be 100 times the passenger numbers on 8 times the trains.
In the current economic environment, the goverment is looking to save money, and is in a bitter dispute with the unions over pay and conditions. So it will be a campaigning success if we start 2024 with a reliable Melksham train service comprising about the number of trains we have at present.
What are the issues that can be addressed at current service volume?
* Our train service at Melksham is unreliable. Three timetables are published each year (December, May and September) and the idea is that the service in them runs for the duration of that timetable, subject to changes while there engineering works going on (notice well ahead) and occasional hiccoughs, all of which are to be covered by altenatives such as rail replacement buses. Industry targets are to run over 98% of trains, but they are being missed by a very long way indeed.
* Passenger numbers have recovered quite well from Covid, but there is a need to efficient with the number of trains and staff in use. The Swindon to Westbury line has a complex interworking with other lines, and four different trains operate on the line at different times of day. Goodness only knows how many different crews and staff are involved
* The current service suffers from some poor connections, and has significant gaps at times where there is demand. It also differs depending on the day of the week.
* An increase in the number of services on the single line with reliability and clock face operation will require either additional infrastructure (such as a passing loop) or the introduction of a second train to double the service and a third one on a less efficient timetable to ensure that the trains passed each other on double existing double track. Not something for 2024, but certainly beyond
* Melksham Station is just a 10 minute walk from the Town Bridge, but much further from the main residential and business areas. Bus services do not yet call at the station, but plans to introcuce them during 2024 are at feasibiity (business, operational, social, environmental and financial) stages. Such service would be required to make a reliable connection to and from trains.
We could soldier on as we are - but we can also suggest that savings could be made with some simplification that would actually give us a better tuned service. There is a massive complexity to this, looking from the railway operating viewpoint at paths on the tracks, platform availability, staff shift lengths and break needs, and so forth. On the community side, there is a balance between providing the trains at the very best times and providing trains as close to current times as practical, with a desire for a regular "clock face" service that people can easily remember.
Here is a suggestion:
|What could be done with a single train operating Westbury <-> Swindon|
|- Two Staff shifts, self contained, both including a personal needs break|
|- times are good connections onwards from and to Salisbury and Weymouth|
|- * indictes that a much less good (wait just over 30 minutes) is available|
|Connection times (dangerously) assume curent (1.23) timetables unchanged for other lines|
Let's compare that to the present:
* Melksham to Swindon
- suggested: 05:33, 07:33, 09:33, 12:03, 14:33, 17:03, 19:38, 22:03
- current M-F: 05:33, 07:21, 07:53, 10:02, 12:33, 14:32, 16:41, 18:50, 20:22
- current Sat: 08:00, 08:40, 10:23, 12:21, 14:23, 15:22, 16:52, 18:51
- current Sun: 08:37, 11:00, 13:01, 14:56, 17:08, 18:51, 20:40
Westbury to Melksham - about 17 minutes before Melksham to Swindon times
* Melksham to Westbury
- suggested: 06:34, 08:43, 10:43, 13:13, 15:43, 18:13, 20:42, 23:02
- current M-F: 06:36, 09:10, 11:31, 13:40, 15:39, 18:03, 19:17, 21:10
- current Sat: 09:06, 10:00, 11:30, 13:39, 15:39, 16:30, 18:00, 20:00, 21:32
- current Sun: 09:40, 12:05, 14:05, 16:09, 18:09, 19:54, 21:50
Swindon to Melksham - about 22 minutes before the Melksham to Westbury times
Features of that proposal and what they mean
* Services per day - numbers little changed
* Different trains on the line - 3 or 4 down to 1 each day
* Efficient crew use - two shifts per day on the line
* Lack of late evening service - FIXED
* Lack of Saturday evening northbound service - FIXED
* Lack of commuter service to Trowbridge / Westbury - FIXED
* Lack of early morning connection to Frome / Yeovil / Weymouth - FIXED
* Poor return connections from Weymouth / Yeovil / Frome - FIXED
* Commuter service in and out of Swindon - MAINTAINED
* Mid afternoon (timing important) train from Swindon - MAINTAINED
* Still no train circa 16:30 from Swindon
* Gap from 09:33 to 12:03 northbound (same gap length but shifted)
* Loss of 18:45 from Swindon and combination of 07:05 and 07:33 from Westbury
For the record, this was the service on offer 10 years ago
Melksham to Swindon:
Monday to Friday - 07:20 and 19:47
Saturday - 09:10 and 15:22
Sunday - 18:50 and 20:40
Melksham to Westbury:
Monday to Friday - 06:40 and 19:18
Saturday - 15:39 and 21:32
Sunday - 19:54
Published Thursday, 5th January 2023
Looking forward - 2023, Melksham TownOn 31st December, I posted my blog summarising 2022 with one story per month. Today, on the last day of the long Christmas break (2nd January 2023), I'm going to look ahead through 2023. I can't do it all by diary - I don't know what may happen when, so there are some other big-ticket items below this diary.
In January, the Town Council will set its budget for the year from April 2023 to March 2024
In January and February, Town Council tenders for necessary repairs to the Assembly Hall roof, and to run the cafe in King George V will be open and answered, and I look forward to hearing of good responses that will help us progress both of these projects to implementation by the summer
On 21st January, it's the grand opening of the new Berryfield Village Hall. It's in the neighbouring parish - Melksham Without rather than Melksham Town, and I have visited already ... but it's interesting to see because people from the Town will go to events there, and because it's a template for the planned new hall to be built (as a cost of around £850,000 before inflation) using Developer's funding (Community Infrastructure Levy) behind The Spa medical centre, accessed through the new housing under construction there. With a new Melksham House being "surplus to requirements" from Wiltshire Council and looking for a use, I find myself wondering how this additional meeting / event capacity will be used - I have not identified a shortage of meeting places in Melksham / people saying they cannot find suitable venues. Obviously, as both the "East of Melksham" Hall and Melksham House are significantly smaller than the Assembly Hall, and do not have the same facilities, they cannot directly replace the Assembly Hall but should rather complement it. The East of Melksham hall in particular will be accessed through a residential area and will have limited parking and very limited public transport so by nature will be for smaller and quieter events for those living nearby.
At half term in February, facilitates such as the zip wire and slide in KGV Park should be available; they are closed through midwinter to allow the grass to settle rather than being destroyed prior to the main season.
For the months of January to March, single tickets on buses are capped at £2 - a substantial saving on many journeys from Melksham, and senior bus passes are accepted all day every day rather than starting at 09:30. But then come the start of April these schemes are slated to end, as is much of the support money from central government to the bus operators, and there are significant worries right across England about major service reductions.
Lisa and I will be away from Melksham throughout March - a cruise which was planned for May 2022 but cancelled when St Petersburg went off limits. We will still be accessible online and by email, but due to local government rules I am not permitted to attend council meetings as a councillor, even if the public are watching a Facebook feed or interacting on Zoom.
Plans are that by April, progress will be made / will be being made at King George V Park - openings for the summer such as a cafe. With the demolition of the old maintenance shed, lighting around the circle and the sensory garden overlooking the main road, most of the earmarked budget from the plans of the previous council will have been spent ... I have given April as a "key date" but I would suspect that works will carry on into early summer.
If past years are a precedent, the Maker's Market will return in late April 2023.
Our mayor is appointed or re-appointed in May, and it's an open secret that I think that the mayor should really serve for two years unless there are major issues. Quite the reverse - very impressed by Simon and Sue as his deputy and would love them to carry on to at least May 2024. Also at this meeting, committee memberships and chairmanships will be reviewed.
Melksham's train service performance is currently poor. Although our timetable has done well to survive Covid intact and still be at around 94% of the level it was at in 2019, a very large number of trains have been cancelled in the last 9 months - so much so that the Melksham Transport User Group is not at present marketing the service to new users. A new timetable starts on May 21st 2023 and in the weeks prior to that we'll need to review whether the service is likely to be reliable enough to market through the summer.
In late June / early July, I am tempted to take another Interrail pass and visit the north of Scandinavia; a number of lines on my "bucket list" and I need the long days. The 2023 council meeting diary is already published, and so this can be worked around my responsibilities as a councillor; it does not, though, allow for late changes which were, unfortunatly, a feature of 2022.
In August 2022, I ran a web site that correlated all the various opening hours of facilities through the summer holidays - Splashpad, Town Hall, TIC, Campus, Animal Trail, Church, Friends Garden, Assembly Hall Events, and also included the planned running hours of public transport and the children's events in KGV arranged by the Town Council, and a weather and news feed from the Wiltshire Times. There was some daily work to be done on such a system, though much can be automated from live feeds and in time the individual facilities featured may be persuaded to do their own updates. This was very much a demonstration - the "Virtual Hub" Town Council project which started in January last year was supposed to be specified by March and be live for ClimateFest in September, but has not been progressed as it should. A proposal for £12,000 in the budget for this for the year from March was reduced at the full council meeting in December to £1,000 and I find it difficult to see how the council will take this project forward under their wing. There is a need, though, for the Town Council to crispen up on the provision of correct and current information that's easily accessible to the public, and a single portal would be a good start. I will not be repeating my summer 2022 exercise in summer 2023 if it would be done in spite of, rather than with the support of, staff and other councillors. With that support it could be done; bear in mind that I have personal experience of running an updating news and information site (on a different topic) and could help - BUT it needs a dynamic ability to re-act and not to be tied down by the conventional tape of local government.
Likely dates in my diary (things the public can attend unbooked):
27th January and monthly - Assembly Hall quiz night
1st March - West Wilts Rail User Group AGM
8th March - Meeting of Melksham Area Board of Wiltshire Council (+)
13th March - Annual Town Meeting (*)
6th May - Coronation of King Charles
31st May - West Wilts Rail User Group
14th June - Meeting of Melksham Area Board of Wiltshire Council
24th June - Melksham Carnival
15th July - Party in the Park
2nd and 3rd September - Melksham Food and River Festival
16th September - ClimateFest
30th September - West Wilts Rail User Group
29th November - West Wilts Rail User Group
2nd December - Turning on of Christmas lights
Every 6 weeks until May, then every month - full council meeting, Mondays
About every 3 weeks until May - Economic Planning and Development, Mondays
4 or 5 times a year - Assets and Amenities Committee, Mondays
4 or 5 times a year - Community Development Committee, Mondays
Invites / prior booking needed:
24th March - Mayor's Reception (x)
8th July - Day trip by train to Weymouth
* - In my diary - however, I will be sending apologies (email only day)
x - In my diary - I will be sending apologies (or could be there on Zoom?)
+ - Unable to attend in person; no need to send apologies as I would just be public member
I really enjoyed Southern Europe last autumn - looking at doing similar this year, but this year taking Lisa and basing us perhaps in Italy or Portugal. Shall we say October?
The life of this council is 4 years - May 2021 to May 2025, but things move slowly in local government. And by November 2023 we'll be just 18 months short of an election. Already, nearly a year ahead of that, I'm seeing a change in the character and self-promotion of some of your councillors, being in the photo-frame of popular projects which they are only tenuously linked to. Such is one of the characteristics of the cycle of democracy.
And so, by December, I'll be writing up the year just gone and looking forward to 2024.
There are some big things that I know will be happening in 2023 ... i just don't know when.
The Homes for Ukraine program and the various phases of it continues. Signups peaked last spring, arrivals peaked last summer with few possessions, but guest support and guests moving on from their initial host continues now. Further guests are arriving or applying too as the war in Ukraine continues its ugly course; in Wiltshire we have soaked up the supply of willing hosts with spare rooms (which was far more than HMG expected) and have a long tail of continuing support as guests who had, perhaps, hoped to be in the UK only for a few months realise that they're here for years, and need or wish to move on to a more long-lasting situation. In Melksham, this is not helped by a lack of suitable accommodation - many here complain about all the new housing been built near them, and yet those houses sell quickly enough confirming the housing shortage for everyone.
We need a Vision and Strategy for the Melksham Area. We have the first version of the Neighbourhood Plan in place, which gives us an element of influence as to where and what new housing is provided, but NOT in the quantity nor whether any more doctors and dentists move to Melksham! But the plan's powers start to expire in July and a new plan is needed. A massive amount of work has gone into that already, and the work continues. I was appointed onto the steering group last summer as the second (junior) member to represent the Town Council. The process is complex and detailed and a huge thanks are due to Teresa taking the lead from Melksham Without and Linda for Melksham Town on this very technical work that does let us help guide the area forward.
But we are missing a vision and strategy from the Town Council as a whole. And that makes the business of setting a budget for next year rather difficult - if we don't know where we are going overall, we can't make the financial plans properly. Councillor training (yes, there is such a thing, though I feel undertrained) says that you start your budget planning by starting with your long term goals; we can't and are bumbling along making individual decisions (or indecisions) on items out of an overall context, and so inconsistent and probably wasteful. A visioning day was held in summer of 2021, but that like much else the council's looking at seems to have been parked without the resource to complete the work.
A Town Centre Master Plan is under preparation as part of the Neighbourhood Plan and will be consulted on in coming weeks. It has been expanded to take account of the impending release of the Copper Tires / Avon Rubber site, and consideration is also needed for Melksham House, the Blue Pool and the Library / Lowbourne Car Park sites just released by Wiltshire Council. But the strategy needs to go wider - looking at the whole Melksham area. And we have neither the strategy, nor the business development manager (redundant, 2021) nor the consultant on priority for people (obfuscated out of role, 2022), nor the clerk's time (too busy on other things) to take us forward. As chair of the Economic Development and Planning Committee, which is now designated to be proactive and not just reactive to planning applications, it's my role to help councillors create more of a vision; perhaps I should push my own views very much harder on this rather than taking the position of the chair as being first among equals. But I am not personally fond of being a steam roller with my voice doing the majority of the talking at a meeting of perhaps half a dozen, where 25% would be appropriate for the chair.
Although mentioned above in the dated section, the Assembly Hall is likely to be a significant concern all year. Further Public Transport issues arise too, as does helping make effective use of council staff time. When I ran a business, we really appreciated our staff, made sure they knew that, and helped them do their job with responsibilities well define, understood and enjoyed. Our Human Resource bill was low, and a big complement I paid nearly everyone on our team was that they were "low maintenance". Our savings on HR could be re-invested in their training, in providing them with better tools for their jobs, and in making their work more enjoyable. Of necessity, individual HR issues are not public, but the more observant of readers may have noticed that the council's spending on HR consultants in the current financial year is already two and a half times the (generous) budget we had, and I won't be breaking any confidences if I tell you that I spent more volunteer time on staffing matters in December than on all other council matter put together. One of my hopes for 2023 is that the council staff team can be moved towards that "low maintenance" standard in the best possible way; not my call, though - that's with the Staffing Committee, which unlike other committees is unchanging throughout the term of the council, save for the mayor and deputy mayor seats which change as the major / deputy change.
I ... remain ... committed to the Environment and Climate, to Equality and opportunities for all, and to providing information and working openly. You may not see much mention of those above, but they are guiding priciples - my strategy if you like, even if the town is short on strategy. Some of the comments and data will not make my life easier, nor help me get re-elected should I run in 2025. That is not my priority - my priority is Melksham and the region around, and its people.
Ooops - Melksham Bypass. Wilts and Berks Canal. Not forgotten, but not current highlights
I have seen a number of my fellow councillors over the past 10 days, and am looking forward to working with them, and other councillors and the staff team as they return – mostly this week, and with the full team back a week from today.
Published Monday, 2nd January 2023
Train and Bus - Melksham, for early 2023Writing the following on behalf of the officer of the group, where I am acting chair:
An update from the Melksham Transport User Group
The Rail Industry is in utter chaos this 1st January, with cancellations galore and "do not travel" advice. The entire service at Melksham has been cancelled. And the chaos and the disproportionate cancellations a Melksham is not just today - it's ongoing.
The Melksham service has always been one of the more difficult operationally to run reliably with big junctions at both ends where things can go wrong. It's also a very easy service to cancel because there is only very limited interworking with other lines, and if it gets cancelled, knock on effects onto other lines are few. Furthermore, it's not considered an "important" intercity service that people will complain about over a wide area and in London if it's pulled, and the fares in the region are much lower than long distance fares, so the financial "hit" on the train operator is limited. A perfect storm, I'm afraid.
The Melksham [Rail / Transport] User Group and its predecessors have partnered with the train operators over the years to promote growth of services and their use. However, we are embarrassed to promote the current service with its awful reliability record. For regular users who are robust to the issues it is still useful - for newcomers there's a significant risk of their first planned use going wrong, quite apart from the worry beforehand of not knowing if it will run.
Four officers of the group met last month, and we have decided on a hiatus until the spring. We'll maintain insurance and CRN membership; our annual Zoom account runs until mid-year and I will occasionally feed online media and deal with correspondence from it. As a group, we've some funding left over from events like Santa trains, and from grants from both Melksham Town and Melksham Without councils in past years; I'm letting those organisations know of the suspension.
Through the winter, we'll work with / recommend the West Wilts Rail User Group which covers the five towns (Trowbridge, Warminster, Westbury and Bradford-on-Avon) and also Avoncliff and Dilton Marsh; they have a newsletter in preparation now, a committee meeting in February, and a public meeting and AGM in March to which guests from Melksham will be welcome (and lifts back available as it will be after the last train). On the bus "front", the Option 24/7 team has local representation in each community area including Melksham (I am the local co-ordinator) with an active online presence and monthly or more meetings with Wiltshire Council - and that's the route to us picking up the bus mantle. See https://www.wwrug.org.uk and http://option247.uk
On the topic of buses - we do not have the same reliability issues on the services between our towns, and I am delighted to remind Melksham residents of the following Faresaver ( https://www.faresaver.co.uk ) services:
* Services 271, 272 and 273 to Bath - 7 days a week including all evenings except Sundays
* Services 272 and 273 to Devizes - 7 days a week including all evenings except Sundays
* Service x34 to Chippenham, and to Trowbridge and Frome - daytime, Mondays to Saturdays
* Services 68 and 69 to Corsham, and to Holt and Trowbridge - daytime, Mondays to Saturdays
* Service 69 to Bradford-on-Avon - limited service, daytime, Mondays to Saturdays
All timetables on the Faresaver web site - proven reliable, and their tracking app is helpful
From January to the end of March (2023), single bus fares are capped at £2.00 per person per journey, giving significantly lower fares for many. Bear in mind if you're going somewhere like the Royal United Hospital in Bath, which involves a change of bus in Bath, your best value ticket may still be an Avon Rider.
For holders of ENCTS cards ("senior bus passes"), your pass is valid all day, every day on local bus journeys staring in Wiltshire - also until the end of March 2023, so no payment will be required on any of the services listed above on presentation of your card, even before 09:30 in the morning or after 23:00 at night.
Published Sunday, 1st January 2023
What happened in 2022?2022 in pictures - a story for each month that have affected Lisa and I living here in Melksham, and the community around us. Most of these stories ran for far longer than a month ...
January - Shortages on the shelves. Although we've got more used to shortages on the shelves and rising prices through 2022, this phenomenon was going on all year (I saw similar a few days ago). Blame Brexit, the war in Ukraine, people changing to cheaper products that then run out, shops keeping a tighter inventory. But yet we are not overall short of food; you will not starve if you are prepared to try something new, and our foodbank and community larder are providing real help to those for whom the cost of food is a barrier.
February - Goodbye to Billy. A hard parting; Billy was a special dog. He adopted us a decade ago, and we lost him to Osteosarcoma in February. Loyal yet everyone's friend - a dog who had been to hell and back before he arrived with us, literally draping himself around Lisa's shoulders the very first time we met him.
March - Reopening of travel. 2022 dawned hopeful that we could once again promote rail travel within the UK and continue to rebuild traffic decimated by the Covid restrictions.
Early journeys for publicity pictures to Weston-super-Mare and Weymouth and a good summer timetable tuned for the new normal were, alas, stillborn due to an awful reliability of services which made them - and continue to make them to this day - unmarketable to newcomers to rail (though those of us who are aware of the issues and make allowances continue to travel).
April - Cruise to Greece. A lovely trip on "Aurora" - though much of our time on board was spend working with database and helping match applications from guests looking to come to Wiltshire from Ukraine to hosts wishing to take them. Athens, and I have now seen the Acropolis and Pireas, Santorini and Corfu. An enjoyable trip.
May - Election of new mayor. On 16th May, we (the town council) elected Simon Crundell as our new mayor, and Sue Mortimer as his deputy in a hard-fought election with an intrigue and emotion fit for national level.
Simon and Sue have taken over many significant ongoing issues (for nothing happens fast in local government) and are doing an impressive job of taking us forward and into 2023. I don't always agree with them, but we have a lead councillor team dedicated to the town and very effective, and I look forward to working with them through 2023.
June - Settling of guests from Ukraine. Our really big story though 2022 has been guests from Ukraine - starting in March when Lisa and I signed up to offer accommodation through "Homes for Ukraine" and carrying on to this day, now with an extended family living with us and into next year, and perhaps beyond. The picture is a Christmas one, with our guests and their friends sharing a Ukrainian Christmas feast, while Lisa and I ate a traditional Christmas dinner and they sampled it.
June, under which I have posted this picture, was perhaps our busiest month. Our guests arrived in May and then we had to get them sorted out for life in the UK - National Insurance numbers, registered with the Job Centre, Jobs, Doctors, Dentists, Bank Accounts, Biometric Residence Permits, more clothing that what they arrived in or was in a single small suitcase. Help with learning the customs of the UK, and English, establish contacts and friends here and welcome them to our community. Helping resolve issues as they arose, both "actual" issues and ones where emotional support was the best description. Remembering that these are people torn from their established lives, and in most cases from their extended families and sometimes from close relatives.
We have also been helping support hosts in the area; it's a very different thing to have someone come and stay in your spare room for a few days to taking in people who will be living with you and sharing your home, and looking on you to help them, for a number of months. And there's a big difference between having known people coming and random strangers who may be war-damaged. We (Lisa and I) have fallen on our feet, but others have needed significant help and support, and some relationships haven't worked out through no fault of either party. This is a personal writeup, but I MUST mention Stuart, John and Sharon, Martin, and Adrienne for Melksham help and so many others in nearby towns with whom we have worked.
July - Assembly Hall promotion. Melksham's Assembly Hall is a local institution with a marvellous history - but that history doesn't fill the hall for events, it doesn't promote the hall, it doesn't keep it maintained, and it doesn't pay the bills. Its use was seriously dented by Covid, and one of the first actions of your newly elected council in 2021 was to declare its manager redundant; not an action I supported, but it was rare to see any councillors in the hall and most of them considered it to be a run-away expense - that voters would be happier to save £1 a month on their council tax than to have a vibrant hall. I acknowledge that some raising of hire rates was necessary (they hadn't been touched for years) and indeed a revised set of standards to ensure the hall being best used for the most appropriate meetings.
Things have moved forward since the summer - although there is spilled milk and there has been a lot of heart ache; some hires have been lost that really should not have been, and the question of the divided loyalties of our (unremunerated) Town Councillors who are also (remunerated) Unitary Councillors and have a responsibility for Melksham House still gives me grave concern. However, things have moved on with the formation of an informal - to become formal, perhaps, friends group, and more willingness to take volunteer help from outside the council staff team on things like promotion and bar work. Management has been lacking - the work of the "redundant" staff member being piled onto others not recruited for that role, and already overloaded with a great deal else. Approaching Christmas, the Town Council's "need survey" looking at what the community needs is drawing to a conclusion and we look forward to seeing results in the New Year. I won't pre-empt the outcome, but it has been good to see the hall filled at the Christmas Lights event (so busy we had crowd control), at the showing of "Polar Express" in the lead up to Christmas, and indeed a vibrant hall of people who would otherwise have been alone on Christmas Day sharing Dinner there.
August - Plastic Animals. You either loved or hated these. Presented (thank goodness) to the Town Council funded from above as "you can have this or nothing", we were still criticised for how the £10,000 was spent. And yet - they did, vey much, encourage people out locally into their local parks and walkways, and they did generate a great deal of discussion and thought about artificial grass, our effect in our environment on wildlife, and how our councils work.
Together with playgrounds, splash-pad, and an ice cream van often in the park it was lovely to see the town so busy in the hottest of weathers.
September - Electric Bus. The centre is all the more clogged with cars looping around the Market Place to get to the Central short term car park, and with private vehicles accessing the newly opened Community Campus also off the Market Place. The Town Bus service, because of staffing problems at the operator, is reduced and providing a service that only looks after customers as they were a decade ago. These customers still need to be looked after, but things have changed so much that the second service needs to come back fit for the future, and not sitting in the rut of the past. And we should be moving towards a community supported service, and moving from fossil fuel to sustainable energy.
Thus it was that we ran a demonstration of what could be done one Saturday in September. From the Railway Station, connecting with trains; there was no point in serving the station a decade ago because there were no daytime trains, but trains are up 4-fold and passenger numbers up 20-fold and it now makes sense. Through the Town Centre to new housing areas; there was no point in running buses to the fields there a decade ago, but now that there are house, shops, a pub, a school, it's a different story. Past the new Rugby and football clubs. Up Pathfinder way, with newly occupied housing, some still under construction, and through the Bowerhill Industry area - serving recent factories and facilities such as Knorr Bremse, Gompels, and Herman Miller - on via the new Portal Way link road to further employment at Great Bear, Dick Lovatt, Avon Protection, G Plan via the Travelodge (biggest hotel in Melksham) to the Police station - onward connections to Trowbridge and Berryfield with its expanding housing.
The demonstration and test day was a huge success; at that point, the company we were working with (the big lemon) were Brighton based but recently - and working with / encouraged by our "Option 24/7" group they have started operations in Bristol and - very significantly - in Bath. That is especially significant because it will allow a depot / complete operation in the area to be practical, with half a dozen or more routes based there and the benefit of a single set of management, support staff, and a spare vehicle to allow services to be maintained when the normal vehicle is being serviced or require unscheduled attention.
October - ClimateFest, 2nd October, delayed from September due to the passing of her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. An excellent day and big thanks to all the organisers. Personally I was somewhat on the fringes, extolling the case for public transport and for the Assembly Hall - why go out of town when you have a good local offering?
November - Interail. This was the fiftieth anniversary of Interail, and they were offering 50% off European Rail Passes. I took a two month pass, and within that period spent about 4 weeks away. I enjoyed, and learning first hand, about public transport in Europe. These days, I was online and "virtually" in Melksham every day, and I returned between weeks for key pre-schedued meetings.
A wonderful set of trips, and I come back not only with a theoretic view of how some things are done elsewhere, but also having at least sampled them first hand too.
December - Town Council The picture is of the Market Place of the light switch on that all the community has been so much involved in - a great day. The big memory of December, though, is of "Town Council Internals" which must remain confidential. I have been "working" (should I use that word when we are not paid, even expenses) with a couple of other councillors and thank them for being very much part of the team. I very much hope that the issues we have been dealing with will not be issues in the same way in 2023, and we can all - councillors and staff - concentrate on working for the positive good of Melksham in a far more effective way than has been possible this year.
I do need to add here my appreciation of ALL of the staff who work or have worked in 2022 for the Town Council; you are all gems, and may of you are real diamonds. That is perhaps said less that it should be by councillors. I know that I get frustrated at times at all the rules of local government, and that at times it's not my role as a councillor to be accepting but rather to politely challenge, and I apologise if that may make others feel uncomfortable. Our team is a team of fantastic people - however, jobs have changed for many so dramatically with covid, staffing changes and other councillor initiatives, and we sometimes find that a square peg recruited for a square hole has had that hole redrilled and it's now round, to some discomfort. It's my hope (but not within my remit, as I'm not on 'staffing') that we can adjust where we are so that our existing pegs will all be comfortable in where they fit, and a vacancy that we have can be filled with a peg to fit the remaining hole and pull the whole thing together.
After my review of 2022, things you will find me stepping back from in 2023.
* I have been a director of TravelWatch SouthWest for six years, but stood down at their AGM. I do not have the technical expertise or industry experience of the rest of the board, and I have no longer got the stamina or concentration to be able to throw myself into projects / reports for them. I have been something of (and literally!) a passenger where they know what they are doing. I'm also aware that the board has been concerned for many years at being unrepresentative of the community it serves - and being an old white able-bodied straight male living in Wiltshire and more "train" than "bus", I have not helped that. I am delighted to see that my seat has been taken by a very experienced person from Somerset, and I'm seeing lots of activity of the sort I wasn't able to deliver on the buses ...
* I have not been more than a member (one of thousands) of Railfuture for a number of years. However, with a loss of members in the Severside branch as an old organisation gets even older and member pass on, I have provided some limited assistance to the remaining local officers. That needs to remain limited; a younger and more vigorous team is needed than I can help provide, and indeed I am at odds with the strap line of "a bigger better railway". I agree the "better"; not so sure that "bigger" is more than an impractical dream at the moment, and it should be based on benefits for passengers and freight, and not on features such as size.
* Rather than spread myself thinly, I am limiting myself to the Coffee Shop Forum, Facebook, option 24/7, my personal Blog and West Wilts Rail User Group activities where something is not mentioned above. That means that am consolidating away from Twitter. Neighbourhood plan, Cooper Tires, and vision for Melksham Town are still very much present under my councillor banner
* I have been one of the designated signatories of cheques and payment schedules for the Town Council. I have also scheduled my times away to ensure I am around for scheduled council meetings. Rather sadly, I have missed more meetings than I would like because so many have been moved or added at short notice, and the existing signatories have been criticised for their lack of availability. I'm relived that the meeting schedule for the next year is out already so I can mostly work around that (though I am away for all of March), and I am stepping down as a signatory in favour of someone who's indicated she's more available than I am.
Positive development - I'll be posting in the New Year to take stories forward
We said "Goodbye" to rail campaigners Nigel Bray, Peter Blackburn and Julie Boston. All three of them are sadly missed for their friendship and support and selfless knowledge. Three funerals too many, but three celebrations of lives lived to the full, and in the knowledge that each of them has changed the course of things for the better, and will be remembered for many years to come.
Finally, I owe a HUGE Thank You to Lisa for her help and support through all of this - couldn't have done a quarter without her. And to friends and colleagues alongside whom I have worked in just about all of these projects - far too many to name and there's always the question of where to draw a line. If YOU are reading this and we work togther on anything, this is my message to thank YOU.
On the national front, we have had two Monarchs, three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors of the Exchequer and I look forward to much more stability of people in 2023.
Published Saturday, 31st December 2022
Melksham Town Council - budget and precept for 2023/4Proposed Melksham Town Council budget coming before the full council tonight (19th December 2022). Worked on by the "Budget Working Group" last week - 13 of 15 councillors invited (*) and I understand it was well attended. Meeting was an extra one at short notice and I could not have attended anyway, no online option offered, and apart from the raw budget proposal figures, no notes or minutes as yet.
Here are the highlighted increases I noted - no huge surprises:
* Salaries 225k to 300k
* Building repairs 0 to 70k
* Insurance 10k to 38k
* Grasscutting 18k to 30k
* Virtual Hub 1.2k to 12k
* Art project 2k to 10k
* Highway projects 7.5k to 12.5k
* Street Furniture 10k to 15k
* Legal 0.5k to 7k
* HR Consultancy 5k to 7.5k
* Switch on event 1.5k to 6.5k
* Service Contracts 7.2k to 12k
* Environmental Projects 1k to 5k
* Software / licenses 4.5k to 7k
* East of Melksham Hall legal 1k to 5k
* Reduced Assembly Hall income 82k to 55k (needs to be made up)
* Assembly Hall expenditure on events REDUCED by around £40k
* Many other rises for inflation, etc, especially things like utilities
* Many, many figures more or less the same from 2022/3 to 2023/4
Precept £966,204 to £1,248,000 - so that's up from around £170 to around £210 pounds for a band D home. Which is still less than other town councils THIS year. Allow 10% of the rise for inflation, and perhaps the biggest change is the £70k added for some catching up on the backlog of maintenance on the Town Hall, Assembly Hall, Pavillion in the park, etc; this is necessary overdue work. There has been a modest increase in housing in Melksham Town during the year, so the increase per houshold is a couple of percentage points below the headline precept increase.
I DO have background on most of these line items - better informed than I make out above - and happy to answer questions / discuss. I doubt this will go to a final decision tonight! In general terms, I can and will support most of the above, and if they all go through I can work with them.
"Earmarked Reserves", "General Reserves", CIL, Solar Dividend, etc - not listed above. Things like £250k for a maintenace shed, £80k for the sensory garden, £80k for lighting, £800k for the east of Melksham communuty Hall are all potentially funded / planned from outside the precept.
(*) - I understand that the inclusion of only those councillors elected on "Together for Melksham" and Conservative platforms to the budget working group was an error, and I have received an apology for being missed off.
Published Monday, 19th December 2022
Light Switch on - THANK YOU and commentsWhat at event! What a delight to see so many people in the Market Place and Assembly Hall yesterday - enjoying themselves - people from Melksham Town, the wider Melksham Area and indeed further afield coming to see our lights turned on - but, much more than that, to enjoy this whole event in the lead up to the festive season.
THANK YOU - to the town council staff team, to the tree and lighting team, to the volunteers who came along to help (and that majorly includes your Town Councillors and mayor, who are volunteers), to the stall holders and their teams, to artists and performers, and to the contractors and professionals who came along to help too. Picking out individual names is so difficult - but I am going to mention Miriam Zaccarelli and Paul Weymouth as team leaders and figureheads; both of them have spent many weeks planning and leading up to the event and were so much there, and supporting their teams with such verve and enthusiasm on the day. Raise a glass too to their lieutenants who were so much there before and during the event (or both), and front of house or behind the scenes (or both).
A great time had by (almost) all. And that includes the people there on the team too. I may have been bloomin cold standing on the edge of the event directing people to alternative bus stops, but I enjoyed the music, the atmosphere and talking to people who for the most part were thoroughly enjoying themselves, some willingly and wantingly stopping to chat about Melksham now and into the future. A handful of engagements on that - but the quality of the discussions was key and some of the questions and ideas are significant - stones thrown into a pond that may cause ripples long into the future.
I confess that there were not many people for me to re-direct to other bus stops. A few dozen all afternoon across some 48 diverted services. But I think that's largely because of the excellent information and preparation work done, and also because it's not the first time the Market Place has been closed and regular users know where to go. So ironically the low numbers were a success. Certainly the last bus before the closure (the 11:54 to Bath) had crowds joining it, and left - on time - full and standing. I have no reason to doubt that the next Bath service, across from Bud's Bar, The Bear, and Avonside would not have been equally busy, and helper reports from team members arriving on the bus confirmed that the wider arrangements were working.
I - and the event leaders - are aware that it's almost all who had a good time. They / we are aware of the strain this event puts on the normal lives of a relative few, and every effort is made to minimise that strain, and inform you well ahead. It can never be perfect, but notes taken, and measured considerations and adjustments each year. Sometimes a small change can make a big difference, and Thank You for your forbearance.
And - finally - how good to see the Assembly Hall so packed that we had to have "flow control" ensuring it didn't overcrowd, so much food being eaten that we had rubbish runs all day, and a tree and firework display that's just amazing. Doubts about the tree chosen melted away at the great switch on ... as the event wound down, and I personally got past the point of being able to help further, I joined groups walking home down Spa Road - happily chatting in friends and family clusters after a great afternoon and early evening.
Published Sunday, 4th December 2022
Melksham Station - passenger numbers and prognosis
Rail passenger numbers (station entries and exits) from the year April 2021 to March 2022 have just been published. Here is a table of the estimated numbers for all railway station in Wiltshire, and also for nearby stations which people commonly use as railheads for Wiltshire.
Raw numbers tell us little - they need to be put into context. So I have added columns of numbers for
- number of journeys 25 years ago (1997) - the earliest for which stats are available
- number of journeys ten years ago (2012) - to give a comparison over that last ten years
- number of journeys to March 2020 - to give the latest (often peak) figure before Covid
- number of journeys to March 2021 - showing how numbers fell during Covid lockdowns
- number of journeys to March 2022 - showing some recovery, but it will be noted that these numbers are now over six months old and there have been considerable travel and national events which may mean that things have changed again in the last six months!!
A good measure of the success, or otherwise, of the promotion of appropriate train services is to look at how passenger numbers have grown over the years, or have withstood national events. The following three columns look at growth (or otherwise) over the last 25, 10 and 2 years. So taking the Melksham example which I have highlighted on the chart, we have grown to 1353% of our 1997 figure - 13.5 passengers for every one we had a quarter of a century ago. 4.5 times what we had a decade ago, but only 69% of what we were two years ago pre-covid.
The final two columns show journeys per person per annum - the number of passenger journeys taken per head of population each year. It's a measure of how much the railway has become / is an integral part of the town's life. So on average a Trowbridge resident will make 17 journeys by train a year, but a Melksham resident will makes just two (and even that's 4 times what it was a decade ago!)
What does the data reveal?
1. Passenger numbers were back up to about two thirds of their preCovid level in the year to March 2022. But in almost every case, that number is considerably more than it was 25 years ago.
2. Covid recovery has been noticeably slower at stations with major London commuter flows - Grateley, Swindon, Pewsey, Bedwyn, Chippenham. Recovery has been best at Frome, Warminster and Westbury which are perhaps not the traditional commuter stations; I also note Avoncliff and Dean up there, where the numbers are small and the traffic is strongly leisure
3. Journeys per head of population per annum remain in excess of 10 journeys right across the county - a number are in excess of 30 journeys indicating perhaps a town heavily reliant on its railways. Only Frome (just outside the county, included as a railhead) and Melksham have significantly lower figures, and I note that these are the only two towns for which this statistic is provided that have infrequent and erratic trains - all the others have a pattern that runs at least once an hour.
4. Growth at Melksham has been massive compared to any other station over the years - now at 452% of what it was a decade ago which is nearly 4 times the growth of anywhere else. However, it started from such a low point that passenger number remain truly appalling. Previous work suggests that the numbers would grow to a similar level as (say) Warminster - that's 5 times the current numbers / quarter of a million journeys a year should a reliable hourly train service, from early morning to late evening 7 days a week.
Here is the timetable for trains calling at Melksham from 11th December 2022 to May 2023.
Service prior to 10th December virtually identical.
See below for holiday, engineering and industrial action notes.
Trains noted "A" and "B" and in green are seasonal - one OR other runs every Sunday.
Trains schedules may vary around public holidays
Planned strike days - service is reduced or totally cancelled on those days. When there are engineering works, rail replacment buses will be provided; these will take longer and often involve a change in Chippenham, sometimes bus to train.
Published Wednesday, 30th November 2022
Security issues in Melksham - lighting and CCTV
Two excellent debates last night at Town Council - a security theme looking forward with regard lighting in the East Ward and at CCTV for the town.
Lighting - East Ward
The new(ish) housing areas to the North of Snarelton Lane, (Skylark Road), Cranesbill Road (Verdana Court and the Water Meadow) and the Blueberry Road area are separated by green space with paths which are very dark indeed at night. And that includes the early evening, even at the time the children are walking home from school.
The lack of lighting provision from when the houses were built was regretted, and the need for lighting was agreed. Further work is to be done by a professional adviser to work out more closely what's needed, with regard such issues as providing a safe environment rather than an area which encourages anti-social behaviour, avoiding disturbing wildlife by Clackers Brook, and working out how it will be done, what it will cost to do, and who will maintain it at who's expense. The suggestion is that the work would be funded from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) - a pot of money set aside when houses are built for community facilities of benefit to the new residents. Excellent preliminary work by town councillor Louisa Lewis, Unitary Councillor Mike Sankey and a member of the public. The council also passes a resolution authorising the Town Clerk to work with Melksham Without to consider lighting the direct route from these new housing areas to the Melksham Oak school, which runs across the boundary of the two parishes.
CCTV - Town Centre
A proposal for Melksham to join with Warminster, Westbury and the West Wilts Trading Estate in a modern, real time monitored CCTV system was brought by councillor Goodhind. Our current system is old, low quality and not monitored in the same way, and there is a feeling that a more modern system that's monitored more could/should help reduce various crimes, and assist the police in their work.
Two gentlemen from Warminster, where a new control room and equipment is to be installed, answered councillor's questions and some concerns. Without expert input on where and how many cameras would be needed for the new system, Councillor Goodhind proposed that we agree in principle to joining the scheme, and spend a few thousand pounds getting such advice. Total scheme cost over four years, though, likely to be around £150,000. I suggested that we might to ahead with commissioning the expert input, but not agreeing to join "in principle" as the whole point of expert advise is to help answer the question "is this right for us". However, the proposal even to get expert advise was rejected in a vote.
So - what now on the future of CCTV for the town? I don't know ...
There were 16 numbered items on the agenda. The Mayor, early in the meeting, switched things around to discuss the two items above, for which members of the public were present. We then started to discuss the budget for next year, but very little time was left and at 10 p.m. that discussion was suspended, and all the other items on the agenda were lost or deferred to a later meeting.
It was really good to see all fifteen councillors in the chamber last night, and to hear interaction and inputs from everyone. That is exactly how it should be - and it happened because this meeting was put into all of our diaries for the year, and we're a conscientious lot. But with unfinished business there's a call for an extra meeting and there seems no suitable date for everyone - 14th December chosen as the least worst date - however, I will need to send my apologies as I have already planned to be away that week, plans made secure in the knowledge that there were no vital council meetings. There may be exceptional circumstances that extra meetings are needed, but I can't help feeling that the exception has turned into the norm.
Published Tuesday, 29th November 2022
Learning for Melksham - and notes on the Town CouncilI have only been around in Melksham around a half of the time during October and November, spending the rest of the time travelling around Europe by public transport (mostly train) with the intent of being better informed as I campaign for the UK - learning what is good and we could adopt for the future, and what we should be careful to avoid. It's not only public transport I've seen - I've seen river frontages, markets, tourism promotion, street scene, electric transport (private and public) and much more. And I will admit to having chosen some things to see and do for personal pleasure too - a.k.a. a bit of a holiday.
And so, back to Melksham - and council stuff. Three more members of our staff team have just finished or are finishing in the next week or so. All of them have made major contributions to the town and council, and I thank the for all they have done for the town and wish them well for significantly different new lives.
We have already (in my opinion) been short of staff time for our team to effectively do all the tasks laid upon them. A great deal of time and money has been spent on human resource issues - I am not privy to all of that as I'm not on the staffing committee for whom much work is in confidence, but I see evidence of issues. One of my return visits to the UK in the midst of my travels around Europe was for three meetings, but only one took place as planned - one was cancelled because there was no staff member to run it, and for another the staff member did not show up. I think we have work to do to put our own house in order - longstanding issues which, however, have been coming to a head.
The need to put our own house in order extends to us councillors too - I hear of meetings which were not quorate, and further for which apoligies for absence were not received. I can understand that the frequent missing and late cancellation of meetings by staff sets up an environment where councillors, who are unpaid volunteers, themselves can feel they don't need to put themselves out to attend .
The Town Hall is now open to the public on just four days a week; a sensible though regrettable decision as the five-day hours had proven to be unsustainable with reliability. I personally supported a full council meeting which voted to reduce the opening from 5 days to four, but to include an evening up to 7 p.m. so that people in normal full time employment could come in and speak with the team in person without having to make special arrangements with work. Sadly, and extraordinarily, it appears that the new hours implemented are NOT what the councillors voted for, and it does feel at times that staff make their own decisions which are contrary to what their councillors voted for. In answer to my question on this example, I understand that there is an issue with requiring staff to work into the evening, but that really does not seem right when as part of their roles they support evening meetings and evening and weekend events anyway. It really should have come back to full council if the full council's decision could not be implemented for some reason.
Having written somewhat critically of what's going on, I really must add my appreciation of staff who are doing a magnificnent job in the difficult environment they find themselves in. Criticism of the whole is not criticism of the individuals who do so much good within it - quite the opposite; a big THANK YOU to those individuals. And a welcome to newcomers to the team too - although we have been at something of an awkward situation, we have a great opportunity now - for the town - to rebuild. With two and a half years to the next local elections, this is likely to be the time that those councillors looking for re-election start looking more towards building for the future than perhaps they have done in some cases for the last 18 months.
Published Sunday, 27th November 2022
Taxi - charges and (no) surchargesIf you take a taxi in Wiltshire, the fare you pay should be what's on the meter; there is no "fuel surcharge" or extra payment required if you are taken into the Bath clean air zone. There have been suggestions that some passengers have been asked for additional payments - that should not be, and if what's suggested is true, it's illegal. Further, many taxi passengers are vulnerable people, and the licensing authority (Wiltshire Council) would take a very dim view indeed of taxi drivers asking for extra money from passengers. If you are asked for an additional payment, please let Wiltshire Council know (here) so they can help ensure that the same thing doesn't happen to other customers who are less informed.
OK - 99% of the time, no problem, and I'm not even sure how much my report is Melksham related. We have good excellent taxi services in the town ... though at certain times of day, not enough of them and sometimes it can be hard to find one available. On the Melksham Transport User Group site, I have a list of local taxi numbers - (here) - call that up on your smart phone and it's click and dial! Please let me know of any updates - taxi firms come and go. The criteria for listing are that a taxi firm must typically be available for journeys to and from Melksham Station, and it must be licensed by Wiltshire Council. I do not recommend any one firm over another, and indeed the list on that web page comes up in a different order each day so ensure no favouratism.
P.S. Not really a Town Council matter - but brought to your attention at the request to the council by a local driver who's worried that some of his colleagues may be getting them all a bad name!
Published Tuesday, 15th November 2022