The announcement that the UK government’s planned rail electrification project in south Wales will now extend to Swansea is certainly good news. It was inconceivable, even before the business case was constructed by the Welsh Government, that electrification would be stopped at Cardiff. Its continuation to Wales’ second city is a major boost for passengers and businesses alike. But what next for north Wales?
With the big recent developments we have seen in rail the question becomes a much more urgent and pressing one. As we progress with plans for High Speed Rail through central England, another welcome move, it does mean that cross-border transport improvements now need to be given a much bigger priority by both the UK and Welsh Government in order to boost the regional economy of north Wales.
If completed, the HS2 scheme will mean passengers being able to travel from London to Birmingham in just 49 minutes, inevitably making the Midlands a more attractive place to do business. The southern Wales electrification developments mean the average journey time from Paddington to Swansea will soon be cut by 20 minutes. In addition, the vast majority of the south Wales valleys population will also be able to access the new fleets of electric trains with a 20 per cent improvement expected on timetable journey time between the Valleys and Cardiff.
As well as the boost to passenger and freight capacity and the new £500 million investment into the western link to Heathrow, it’s a direct and indirect investment of almost £2 billion to modernise the rail network for south Wales which will inevitably help generate many jobs for the regional economy and almost as importantly change the perception of south Wales as a place to invest.
This all means infrastructure improvements to the road and rail network in north Wales are vital to ensuring the region is not left behind. After all the stakes are huge. The Mersey Dee region of north Wales, Cheshire and the Wirral is a linked-in economy comprising of 380,000 jobs, 27,000 registered companies (700 of which have a turnover of over £1 million) and which make an estimated contribution of over £15 billion to the wider economy, one quarter of this coming from manufacturing giants such as Airbus, Vauxhall and Toyota. The prospect of putting this at risk if north Wales has, in perception or reality, fallen behind its south Wales or Midlands partners is a concerning.
An important first step would be for the UK Government to guarantee that the rail company that operates the new franchise for the West Coast main line should have to ensure a direct link between Wrexham and London as part of the agreement. Electrification of the North Wales mainline is another major project we should look carefully at. In the last Assembly the Enterprise and Learning Committee suggested the route could be directly connected to the proposed High Speed line from London to the North West and Scotland. However, that hasn’t had the same profile as electrification of the south Wales line. Alongside other infrastructure improvements, this should be looked at to ensure that north Wales’ economy has the transport system it needs to stay competitive. The recent opening of the £30million access road for the Wrexham Industrial Estate was a very good start, but north Wales needs a more strategic vision.
Of course, there is only a limited amount of money to go around, but there is also an equally small window of opportunity if other areas get a head start on us. With the recent rejection of an idea of a city-region for north east Wales, we must ensure other areas of the UK don’t become more attractive places to invest. We need a coordinated plan to grow the north Wales economy. It will require a major strategic vision. The Welsh Government should work with Westminster colleagues to ensure our economy moves forward so companies have the confidence to invest. The clock is ticking.