Substituting a Fast Track for the Slow Lane

Simon Nurse welcomes a call for a radical overhaul of Wales’s jaded rail links.

At the weekend, family in tow, I headed east from Cardiff, destined for the Camden offices of the Open University in London. I was there to attend a training course, whilst my wife and daughter were attracted to the Cetaceous animatronics and centuries old specimens of the Natural History Museum. We left just after 6am, tickets secured for the 6.55 Arriva trains service to London Paddington. With replacement bus services in place from Llandaff and Coryton (due to works at Central Station) the journey was not quite as simple as usual. On arrival at Paddington, I bid them farewell and headed for the tube, only to find there were no east bound tube services. With time at a premium, a taxi trip ensued.

For our return leg, I favoured a long walk, followed by a delayed train to Cardiff (no explanation given for the delay at Bristol Parkway) and a further replacement bus service home. Whilst the experience was far from dreadful, it was inconvenient, costly and any regular car user would be unlikely to be persuaded to leave the motor behind and opt for the lower environmental impact and enhanced sustainability of the rail network (as for me…I’m just a die hard, often at my own cost). As a frequent business traveller, this is an argument that I have regularly at work. The rail users (me) versus the car users (everyone else).

I wouldn’t pretend it’s easy to reduce our reliance on the combustion engine. As a frequent business traveller, it’s a real balancing act choosing between road or rail. On the one hand you have the advantage of a safer form of travel, the ability to work remotely whilst travelling, and the possible – and in some areas the probable – advantage of reduced travel time. Balancing these factors are the issues of increased cost (on last minute purchases) and the potential unreliability of the rail network.

So it was with great pleasure that I read the headline splashed across the front page of yesterday’s Western Mail: ‘£5bn vision to put Wales on track for rail revolution’. The report, issued  by the Assembly’s Enterprise and Learning Committee calls for a radical overhaul of the jaded rail network in Wales. The report calls for a high speed connection from south Wales to London (which will very much please the South Wales Chamber of Commerce) and for north Wales to the High Speed Line 2 link. It also calls for tram systems in the Welsh cities, upgrades on the Severn Tunnel, new trains on the tired Valley lines and a north to south connection, something which would benefit many rural commuters who live in and around the Brecon Beacons National Park, not to mention the probable cash injection from tourists and outdoor types arriving to the same area by rail. There is little doubt in my mind, that better rail services to beautiful mid Wales would be rewarded with big increases in the expenditure of the tourist pound.

Timing, of course, couldn’t be worse. With the spending deficit increasing even as I type, the landscape could barely be less amenable to massive cash injections. Yet to miss this opportunity would be folly. As a society we need to get more people out of their cars by providing viable alternatives. Undeniably, the motor car has its place and its uses. However, as our predominant mode of personal transit they are heavily polluting, rely on dwindling natural resources to run, are expensive to maintain (both the vehicles and the road network itself). On top of all that, cars are statistically a much more dangerous way to travel than any public transport system in the developed world (Australians for instance are much more afraid of spiders than cars, yet cars will kill over 1,000 people this year in Australia and spiders most probably none). Add the residual benefits such as meeting ambitious carbon reduction targets, reducing road spending and improved health benefits (reduction in respiratory complaints from improved air quality) and it is hard to see why we cling on to the automobile quite so tightly.

So I hope that we can dig very deep indeed, overcome the significant short term financial hurdles and the Welsh Government can lead us deep into the middle of this century with real direction and vision. This plan could ‘give Wales an opportunity to show leadership and ambition, and to learn from the past. It could give the opportunity to show how Wales is playing its full role as a global citizen, within the context set by the UN Millennium Development Goals’ (quoted from ‘One Wales: One Planet The Sustainable Development Scheme of the Welsh Assembly Government’).

In 1963 Dr Beeching’s infamous rail network recommendations led to slashed rail services across Wales and the UK, laying the groundwork for today’s reliance on road and ensuring that his name is remembered for all the wrong reasons. In 2010 an imaginative, far thinking and inventive Welsh Government could be remembered for all the right ones.

Simon Nurse is Head of Operations with Cardiff’s Capital Coated Steel and editor of the Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Business website

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