Let’s Not Strain for the Train

Rhys David says Wales will be setting itself up for disappointment if it joins demands for a share of high speed rail

High speed rail lines are popular items. Politicians love them because, after all, who does not like playing with a new train set. The train operating companies love them because someone else – the taxpayer – is paying for the £15bn new track proposed for the route between London and Birmingham. Britain’s rail engineering companies will get to work on the carriages but as we no longer have the capacity to build the locomotives those orders will go to Hitachi of Japan, Siemens of Germany, GE of the US, or Alstom of France. Whichever one wins will be delighted, too at the prospect of busy factories for years to come.

Of course, before the project gets under way, there will be years of wrangling over the route. Should it go via Heathrow, and will it ruin the Chiltern villages? What should be the timetable for extending it beyond the Midlands, and which destinations should benefit?

Politicians and business people from Wales (and other remoter parts of the UK) will be shouting their area’s case from the sidelines and warning of the dangers of a two-speed Britain if they are not on the masterplan for a nationwide high speed rail grid.

Yet, in all this the first law of transport infrastructure investment is being forgotten. When two centres are linked more efficiently, wealth drains from the smaller to the bigger. And there is a second law: the bigger the difference in size between the centres, the greater the effect.

We should have learnt this in Wales, having seen the impact big schemes have had in the past. After all, if just building better transport links really worked, Anglesey would have reached new heights of prosperity once the A55 was completed instead of being one of the poorest regions in Europe, now bidding to replace its lost industrial base with a prison. Carmarthenshire was supposed to prosper from the M4, and Merthyr Tydfil from the A470 but it has not happened. High hopes now rest on the dualling of the Heads of the Valleys road being the last piece in the jigsaw that will bring prosperity to the area.

When new infrastructure is put in place – unless accompanied by a strong package of other people-centred measures – businesses that previously found it necessary to maintain a strong presence in both the bigger and smaller centres find it easier to provide the same services from the bigger (and almost never from the smaller) place. Think of Cardiff, which has scooped the pool in south Wales for office, retail, entertainment, accommodation, sporting and professional services.

The same phenomenon will happen if and when the High Speed Rail line reaches Birmingham, though because of its much greater size as a city it will be in a better position to defend itself. The likelihood, however, is that big professional services firms – accountants, solicitors, and consultants – will be able to send executives in not much more than 40 minutes from Euston to Birmingham. Ass a result they will increasingly service the top end of that market from the South East, which Birmingham will effectively be joining. Catching the train in the other direction will be the individuals attracted to live in the Midlands because of lower house prices and a quick commute to the highly-paid jobs in the south east.

None of this, of course, is to suggest we should not invest in transport infrastructure. We should, but in a way that is appropriate for the smallish territory the UK is and which will not further exacerbate the current severe imbalance between London, the South East and the other UK regions and nations.

It is also important that we in Wales do not allow ourselves to be distracted into a vain effort to secure our own bit of the high speed line at the expense of other more important transport priorities. We have been promised by the current Government a modern electrified line between Paddington and Swansea, which should improve both the reliability and speed of journeys. We need to make sure this does not get lost in the excitement over high speed rail. Vast planning and other resources will be needed for a London to Birmingham line and this could present a real threat to other rail projects in Britain for years to come.

There are other rail transport needs that should be addressed in Wales that lie outside the obsession with faster connections to London. The lives of far more people in Wales would benefit if greater levels of investment were made into the stretch of track between Carmarthen and Bristol, with for example new stations at Landore, St. Mellons, Tredegar Park and possibly elsewhere so that people could commute easily for work and pleasure along this stretch.

The Valley Lines, including the routes to Barry and Penarth, need to be electrified with new carriages and turn-up and go 15 minute timetables at peak periods and half hourly services during the day. Cardiff’s retail and entertainment attractions need better services from its wider catchment area as far as Gloucester, Cheltenham, Hereford, and even Shrewsbury.

Developments of this sort would be much more important for the economic health of Wales than a costly high speed link that would benefit comparatively few people and only increase dependence on South East England.

Rhys David is a writer and editor on economic and business issues. He is a trustee of the IWA and a former senior editor at the Financial Times

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