Debating how we connect north with south Wales
You know when you get a call from the BBC Wales only an hour or so before the programme they want you to participate in that you weren’t their first choice as pundit. So it was yesterday morning when a short time before Jason Mohammad’s midday Radio Wales phone in went on air, a researcher rang me to ask if I had any views about transport in Wales. Well, yes, of course.
The day’s topic was the plight of ‘Ieuan Air’, the Welsh Government’s subsidised air link between Anglesey and Cardiff that had been grounded as a result of its operator Highland Airways going into administration.
“Never flown on it,” I told the researcher. “But I could say a lot about the alternative, the A470”. She said she’d get back to me. An hour later I was driving up Cardiff’s Cathedral Road to BBC Wales in Llandaf.
Alongside me in the studio was Martin Evans, External Research Fellow with the University of Glamorgan’s Transport Research Centre, who knows almost everything there is to know about airports and air travel. So I was free to wax lyrical about my favourite road, the A470. As most readers will painfully know, this takes you the 168 miles from Cardiff Bay to (four-and-a-half hours later, if you’re lucky) to Llandudno.
Why is it my favourite road? Well, in a way I invented it. It was back in the mid-1970s when, sitting as Welsh Affairs Correspondent in the Western Mail newsroom, I listened to the editor, the late Duncan Gardner, announce that we were going to be a campaigning newspaper. “Think up campaigns,” he enjoined. “But remember, they mustn’t cost us anything.”
I came up with the perfect, cost-free campaign, which was to give a road which connected north and south Wales a number. There were, of course, lots of roads linking north and south, but not a single identified route. The roads which form what is now the A470 were originally trunked under the Trunk Roads Act 1946, except for the section between Caersws and Machynlleth. This became a trunk road in 1950. The 1946 Act designated the section between Cardiff and Llangurig as the A470. However, the north-south route was also served by eleven other trunk roads.
So for the best part of a year the Western Mail led a campaign for a road route between north and south to be given an identity. My own crowning moment came when, called into the Welsh Office Roads Division, then located in Newport Road in Cardiff, I was confronted with a plethora of maps and asked, “Which way do you think it should go?”
Eventually, the route we now know, and some of us love, became the A470 in 1979. Since then improvements – a dual carriage way here (especially from Cardiff to Merthyr) and a by-pass there – have resulted in what had been a six to seven hour journey cut back to a four to five hour journey – depending on time of year, weather and traffic.
Of course, for busy businessmen and Welsh Government civil servants it’s no substitute for the air service. But they will always be a minority. ‘Ieuan Air’ – named after the Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones whose constituency happens to be Anglesey – only operates a 20 seater plane (a larger one would involve more expensive landing fees) and, anyway, the location of the Valley airstrip makes it inaccessible for most people living in north Wales.
So that leaves us with the A470. Rail links between north and south are, of course, important, and it is good that the service is being improved. But for many people in large tracts of north and rural mid and west Wales the only option they have is to travel by road.
The problem with the A470 is the bends. Invariably, somewhere along its 168-mile length you get stuck behind a lorry, tractor or caravan, waiting for minute upon minute before you get a passing opportunity. That’s why, when we launched the IWA’s report on upgrading the road, on the day of the first elections to the National Assembly in 1999, we head-lined the press release Queue-busting down the A470.
What we came up with was an innovative cost-effective solution for building passing places every four or five miles along its length, going north and coming south. This, our consultants told us, could cut the journey time to around three hours and make the road much safer as well. At the time they costed the project at around £60 million.
As Transport Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones has committed significant extra resources to improving Wales’s internal road network, including the A470. But he has yet to come up with a comprehensive plan for the A470 as a whole along the lines of the IWA’s recommendation. There’s still time before the next election for him to do so, announcing a programme that may take a decade but could be seen as giving this very special road an iconic status in the life of the nation.
There is more to all of this than merely making the driving easier, quicker and safer. Upgrading Wales’ internal strategic road network is vital if our economy is to develop in a balanced way. It is vital, too, if people from all corners of Wales are to have reasonable access to key services and facilities that all too often are located in south-east Wales, whether it be Cardiff’s Heath Hospital or the Millennium Stadium.
Do I have anything to say about transport? Well, yes, of course.