Wales left at end of the line on electrification

Gareth Clubb makes the case for devolving the railways

The repeated delays of an announcement of the on-again off-again electrification of the Great Western track into Wales should come as no surprise. Between them, the UK government and Network Rail have consistently under-invested in the Welsh railway network to the detriment of the Welsh economy and environment. Electrification of railways provides a multitude of benefits, including:

  • Lower running costs, with fuel cost savings of 45 per cent.
  • A 14 per cent saving on wear and tear.[1]
  • Electric vehicles are more reliable (less failures) and in operation more of the time (less maintenance).
  • Electric trains emit an average of 20 per cent less carbon than diesel and are 20-40 per cent more energy efficient than their diesel counterparts.[2]
  • Trackside emissions are zero, and electric trains are quieter.
  • Electric trains are faster than diesel trains, and particularly so on routes with steep gradients.[3]
  • Electric trains have more seats than diesel loco hauled trains, helping ease overcrowding.[4]

End of the Line

Economic regeneration and rail connectivity in southern Wales

This major conference is being organised in Cardiff on 10 February 2011 by the IWA in association with Cardiff & Co and the Cardiff Business Partnership.

Topline speakers include: Terry Morgan, Chair Crossrail; Mike Gallop, Route Enhancement Manager, Network Rail; Mark Hopwood, Chief Executive First Great Western; Mike Bagshaw, Commercial Director Arriva Trains Wales; David Stevens, Chief Operating Officer, Admiral Insurance; Jim Steer, Greengauge 21 high speed rail consultancy; Mark Barry, Cardiff Business Partnership Advisor on Transport and the Economy; and Professor Stuart Cole, University of Glamorgan. For more details and to book click here.

Network Rail has identified every major Welsh line as being “a candidate for electrification in the short or medium term”.[5] So why are there no electrified lines in Wales? As is so often the case, the critical issue is funding.

Network Rail has an impressive record of underinvestment in Wales. Take the £85 million it proudly announced would be spent upgrading 120 Welsh railway stations in November 2009.[6] In Scotland, Network Rail is spending £130 million upgrading one station alone as part of the same £3.25 billion package.[7] Wales’ share of the total investment was just 2.6 per cent of the British expenditure.  The National Assembly Committee examining railway infrastructure was left with:

“The distinct impression that Wales is not getting its fair share of investment in rail infrastructure, or getting it fast enough: programmes to electrify track, to improve stations and to upgrade rolling stock seem destined to reach Wales well behind other parts of the UK”.[8]

Wales’ interests are poorly served by Whitehall’s Department of Transport, which has responsibility for both Wales and England for rail strategy. Merging us with England for this purpose allows Wales’ embarrassing electrification statistics to be hidden under a veneer of England and Wales respectability.[9] The Department’s approach is to make decisions about expenditure based on a combination of factors such as value for money, levels of crowding and so on. This raises three points.

  1. Because Wales is a relatively low-productivity area, electrification of the railways wouldn’t contribute as much to the economy of ‘England and Wales’ as electrification elsewhere. Wales can hardly be expected to pull itself up by the bootstraps if organisations like Network Rail continue to prioritise on an England and Wales basis.
  2. It is hardly surprising that overcrowding is more problematic in parts of England where electrification has provided an improved service for the passenger.
  3. If decisions on infrastructure were taken on a Wales basis, electrification of the Valleys Lines would have happened a long time ago.

So isn’t it time we demanded Network Rail work for the people of Wales, rather than continuing to constantly prioritise the English routes it sees as of strategic importance. We are also entitled to ask what influence the Welsh Government is bringing to bear, especially given the Deputy First Minister’s view that once electrification of the Great Western mainline is complete there should be:

“A further rolling programme to electrify all rail lines into and within Wales, with the Valleys network into Cardiff being a high priority.”[10]

Small wonder then that the Department of Transport believes its relationship with the Welsh Government to be “very good and closer now than it has ever been”.[11] The Welsh Government appears to have rolled over in front of  Whitehall’s neglect.

Devolution of rail policy strategy is crucial if we are to enjoy a 21st Century railway. Unless this happens our needs are destined to be permanently subsumed by those of large centres of population in England. The time has come for decisions on Wales’s railway infrastructure to be devolved to Welsh Ministers.

It is now more than a century since the first European mainline was electrified. The UK government has been electrifying lines in England for 80 years. Indeed, it has been 55 years since the government determined that the UK could ‘not afford’ to keep the railways from being electrified. Electrification of the line to Swansea would still leave a paltry 10 to 25 per cent of trains running on electricity. The fact that Wales occupies the bottom rung of European rail electrification along with Albania and Moldova, with no electrified trains,  in comparison with Switzerland’s 100 per cent, is a national embarrassment. The UK government and Network Rail have systematically deprived Wales of the investment to remedy this situation.


[1] Network Rail, Network Route Utilisation Strategy: Electrification, October 2009, page 31.

[2] Ibid., pages 31 and 32.

[3] Ibid. page 38.

[4] Ibid., page 5.

[5] Ibid. page 43 and map on page 44. The exceptions are the Heart of Wales, Mid Wales, Conwy Valley, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock lines along with a few of the upper Valleys Lines.

[6] BBC, 13 November 2009, £85m plan to revamp rail stations.

[7] Network Rail, Clear improvement for Waverley as Network Rail begins station upgrade, 12 April 2010.

[8] National Assembly, Future railway infrastructure in Wales, January 2010, p.27.

[9] See for example Table 8.6 in Network Route Utilisation Strategy: Electrification, Network Rail, October 2009 p.95

[10] National Assembly,  Future railway infrastructure in Wales, January 2010, p.5

[11] National Assembly Enterprise and Learning Committee Record of Proceedings, 18 November 2009, page 14.

Gareth Clubb is an environmental researcher and campaigner.

One thought on “Wales left at end of the line on electrification

  1. There are a couple of issues which we need to be wary of ahead of the announcement on the extent of electrification along the Great Western mainline in the New Year. The hints that it could only go as far as Bristol have not, as far as I can tell, made it clear whether this is Bristol Temple Meads, or both Bristol Temple Meads and Parkway. The former seems much more likely as the Government presumably would not want to duplicate the electrified line beyond Swindon (where the line forks to Bristol and South Wales) in order to serve both Bristol stations. We know from Transport Secretary Philip Hammond that two possible locomotive options are being considered for Wales if electrification is not brought this far – new diesels to take over at the end of the electrified route or hybrid trains. If the former, the question arises where the hand-over to diesel would take place. The options would be Swindon or Temple Meads. If Swindon it would mean electrified travel would only extend half way to Wales (roughly 75 miles out of London) and if Bristol it would mean there would be little or no time gain on travel to Wales (though Bristol would of course get an even better service as it would receive all Welsh trains). If hybrid trains are ordered the existing arrangements with two trains an hour to south Wales through Bristol Parkway could remain but this looks likely to be the less attractive because more expensive of the two options given the technical issues involved in creating a relatively small number of bespoke locomotives of this kind.
    We should also be aware of the arguments that will be raised about the age of the now very old and potentially unreliable Severn Tunnel and the problems involved in electrifying the mainline to south Wales through the tunnel without a rebuild or replacement. Perhaps we should be asking for this too.
    All the evidence suggests we are going to secure much less than we want and need in Wales so we seem to have made a crucial mistake in only campaigning for electrification to Swanea (with the likelihood that at best it would not go beyond Cardiff). It would have made more sense to make Carmarthen our desired medium-term terminus where the economy is badly in need of a boost, with the fast through line across the top of Swansea included in this case. At least that could then have become our aspiration and plea rather than Swansea, or as might now be the case even Cardiff.

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