Why Cardiff can’t afford to be left on the slow train

High speed rail will bring substantial uplift to the economies of the regions it reaches, it is essential Wales is included, argues Rodney Berman.

Transport has been central to Cardiff’s development. In the 19th Century, the city’s growth from a small market town into the world’s largest coal port was made possible by the Glamorganshire Canal and later the arrival of the railways. In the latter half of the 20th century the development of the motorway network and Severn road crossings helped to transform Cardiff into a thriving European capital city.

Today, despite the capacity of IT to collapse barriers of time and distance, transport remains integral to the development of Cardiff’s economy and investment in rail is critical to the future.

As well as reducing journey times between cities, High Speed Rail (HSR) has the potential to help improve the UK’s economic performance and make a significant contribution to the UK Government’s carbon reduction objectives. By transferring long distance services to a new dedicated line, HSR will also release capacity on the existing rail network, which can then be used for commuter travel and freight.

The UK’s transport network as a whole faces major challenges. As traffic volumes on the motorways continue to rise, the national rail network is becoming increasingly overcrowded owing to rising passenger numbers and diminishing line capacity.

High Speed 2

In March 2010, the then Labour Government published its HSR Command Paper. The Paper set out proposals for the UK’s second HSR line – ‘High Speed 2’ – between London and Birmingham with connections to cities in the north of England and a link to Heathrow airport. The route to Birmingham could be delivered by 2026. This follows on from High Speed 1, the rail link between St Pancras in London and the Channel Tunnel, part of the international high speed routes between London and Paris, and London and Brussels.

The High Speed 2 proposals represent an important first step towards the creation of a national HSR network, clearly long overdue in the UK where only 70 miles of high speed line are currently in operation, compared with 3,500 in mainland Europe.

Development of High Speed 2 would dramatically reduce journey times between London and Birmingham and several UK core cities in the English East Midlands and the North of England. The rail journey time between Leeds and Central London, for example, would be reduced to around an hour while the journey between Leeds and Birmingham would take only 30 minutes.

In comparison, the journey between Cardiff and London Paddington, even after electrification of the Great Western Main Line (if this still happens), would be 1 hour 45 minutes, whilst the journey time between Cardiff and Birmingham would remain at 2 hours.

A partial ‘national’ network

These disparities would arise because as currently envisaged High Speed 2 would provide only a partial ‘national’ network. While providing HSR connections to most of the major cities and conurbations in the English Midlands, the North of England and Scotland, it would exclude the whole of South Wales and South West England – regions which contain two of the UK’s major cities (Cardiff and Bristol) and have a combined population of more than 4.5 million.

This exclusion would have potentially serious consequences for Cardiff and its near neighbours. Without a HSR connection, South West England and South Wales would become increasingly peripheral in relation to other parts of the UK served by HSR. Furthermore, the poor connectivity of both regions relative to other places would be likely to have significant adverse impacts on their future economic prospects

Uneven impacts

A report by KPMG in January 2010, commissioned by Greengauge 21, assessed the economic impacts of the HSR network proposed in the same organisation’s Fast Forward report (September 2010). The Fast Forward HSR network included full specification 320kph HSR links serving most of the UK, but only a 200 kph HSR line between London and Bristol and Cardiff.

KPMG estimated that this network could boost national annual GVA in 2040 by between £17bn and £29bn and contribute between 25,000 and 42,000 additional jobs in Britain, as more productive businesses offer higher wages and attract people into the labour market. These figures omit the benefits that South West England and South Wales would gain from a full specification 320kph HSR link, which as shown in other regions would have a significant positive impact on jobs and economic input.

The report indicates that with only a 200kph HSR link in place, South Wales and South West England could experience a loss of GVA growth in the range of between £2.0bn and £5.1bn per annum and a loss of between 49,000 to 149,000 jobs.

This clearly demonstrates how a partial ‘national’ HSR network is likely to lead to uneven economic development with some parts of the UK prospering at the expense of others. Such a scenario can be avoided by the development of a HSR network serving each UK core city and its surrounding region. This would ensure that the UK economy as a whole can remain globally competitive, and can develop in a sustainable and equitable way.

The Great Western Partnership

Cardiff’s response to these concerns has been to take a lead role in forming the Great Western Partnership (GWP), a HSR action group for the South Wales and South West England regions. The members of the Great Western Partnership are Bristol City Council, Cardiff Council, Swindon Borough Council, South East Wales Economic Forum, South West Regional Development Agency, the West of England Partnership, South West Wales Economic Forum and South East Wales Transport Alliance.

The partnership is developing a lobbying campaign through which it will seek to secure the UK Government’s commitment to investing in a ‘state of the art’ HSR route, serving South West England and South Wales as part of a future UK HSR development programme. Such a route could reduce journey times between Cardiff and London to 70 minutes.

As expected, the new Coalition Government is pressing ahead with the delivery of High Speed 2. A Hybrid Bill will be introduced in the current Parliament and preparatory work could start as early as 2015. Theresa Villiers, the new Coalition Government’s Minister of State for Transport, has recently emphasised the Coalition’s commitment to a ‘genuinely national‛ HSR network. This is good news for Cardiff and other cities which will not feature on the High Speed 2 map.

In the autumn the Coalition Government will publish its Comprehensive Spending Review. This is expected to include a decision on whether the Government will proceed with the electrification of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) to Cardiff and Swansea by 2017, promised by the previous government.

Electrification will provide a valuable 20 minute reduction in the journey between Cardiff and London. Crucially, it is also considered as a precursor to the development of a new HSR line. This is because an electrified GWML is essential to facilitate the phased development of HSR along the Great Western Corridor and the integration of HSR services with the classic rail network.

If it were left out of a future national High Speed Network, the economy of Cardiff and Wales  could suffer while other cities and regions served by the network would prosper. Conversely, if Wales were to see the same levels of benefit from High Speed Rail as are expected in the West Midlands, a substantial economic uplift with an increase in jobs can be expected.

Because of its concerns about the potentially adverse economic impacts of a partial High Speed Rail network Cardiff Council will continue to press the UK Government for the development of a High Speed Rail line along the Great Western Corridor.

HSR is coming and we simply cannot afford to be left behind.

Rodney Berman is leader of Cardiff county Council.

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