Wales takes the slow train

Gareth Clubb says that if we stick with diesel we will be stuck in the past

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. Even if we receive London’s blessing and the decision is taken to electrify the line as far as Swansea, we would do well to remember that this will still leave between 75 and 90 per cent of passenger tonnage being carried on diesel trains on the lines between Newport and Swansea[1]. The time has come for decisions on railway infrastructure in Wales to be devolved to Welsh Ministers.

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 please click here.

Historical background

The Surrey Iron Railway was the first railway to open in the UK, using horse power for propulsion[2]. Coal-fired steam trains became the dominant form of rail travel before being overtaken by diesel and then electric trains[3]. The first electric mainline in the world was the 106km Valtellina line in Italy[4], which was opened in September 1902[5]. Electrification of railways in England began in the 1930s on commuter routes into London[6].

In 1955 the British Transport Commission’s report Modernisation and re-equipment of British railways noted the following:

“In many ways electricity is the ideal, since it meets the requirements of reliability, good acceleration, cleanliness and (where traffic is sufficiently heavy) economy in operation.”


“It is not so much a question of whether the nation can afford to undertake the new investment in its railway system here proposed, as whether it can afford not to do so and thereby continue to carry the economic burden of a public transport system that lags far behind the standard of efficiency technically possible”[7]

Currently, 60 per cent[8] of passenger journeys in the UK are made on trains propelled by electricity[9]; about 40 per cent of the British rail network is electrified[10].

The case for electrification in Wales

Electrification of railways provides certain benefits. For a start, there are lower running costs, including fuel cost savings of 45 per cent over diesel trains and maintenance cost savings of 33 per cent[11]. Capital costs are also reduced. Although the initial infrastructure (overhead lines) is expensive, overall costs are much less[12]. And electric engines are cheaper to buy or lease than diesel (approximately 20 per cent cheaper)[13], with this trend set to accelerate as diesel emissions standards tighten[14]. This European environmental legislation, due for implementation in 2012 and beyond, will likely make redundant specific types of diesel units; which will have a particular impact on “regional and rural markets”[15].

Electric trains have less infrastructure impact. Electric trains are lighter and do less damage to tracks, leading to a 14 per cent saving on wear and tear[16]. Electric engines require less maintenance than diesel engines[17]; electric vehicles are typically available 91 per cent of the time; the figure for diesels is 88 per cent[18]. The passenger experience is therefore improved, and there are further benefits for both the passenger and trackside communities: electric trains run quieter than their diesel counterparts[19].

Finally, electric trains provide superior environmental performance and are more resilient to the onset of peak oil[20]. Electrification is described by Network Rail as “the only means, with currently available technology, of achieving a step change in the carbon emissions of rail services”[21]. Even with the current energy mix, electric trains emit an average of 20 per cent less carbon than diesel[22], and as electricity generation becomes decreasingly carbon intensive, this benefit will become greater. Electric trains are also 20-40 per cent more energy efficient than their diesel counterparts[23]. Trackside emissions are zero, which provides considerable air quality benefits in the busiest stations. Dependence on oil-based fuel increases the exposure to the risk of future scarcity and the volatility of oil prices[24]. With no domestic source of oil, all our diesel is imported. However, Wales is a net exporter of electricity and has a stated aim of generating double our current consumption of electricity entirely from renewable sources by 2025[25].

Network Rail has already conducted an in-depth study of the prospects for electrification of Britain’s railways. It identified every major Welsh line[26] as being “a candidate for electrification in the short or medium term”[27]. Even though all the following lines met the critical determining criterion of “providing high value for money”[28],only the latter two lines made the shortlist of more than 30 lines[29].

  • Cardiff to north Wales, Birmingham, Nottingham, Portsmouth and Bristol
  • Gloucester to Severn Tunnel Junction
  • Newport to Crewe
  • Swansea to Milford Haven
  • Chester to Holyhead and Llandudno
  • all Valleys Lines (including Vale of Glamorgan through to Maesteg)
  • Wrexham Central to Bidston
  • Cardiff to Taunton
  • Paddington to Swansea[30]

Notably, electrifying lines means that journey time savings can be “particularly significant on suburban services with frequent station calls where improved acceleration and deceleration give proportionately large decreases in journey time”[31]. This improvement is gained principally as a result of the (roughly) 15 seconds per station stop time saving for typical suburban services[32]. And because the power to weight ratio is better, electric trains are faster than diesel trains on routes with steep gradients[33]. In some cases these time savings may allow an increase in service frequency[34].

Electric commuter trains run for well over twice as far as diesel trains before suffering from a failure causing a 5-minute delay or cancellation[35]. Electric trains are more reliable than diesel trains.

Electric trains have more seats than diesel loco hauled trains, making a greater contribution to accommodating anticipated growth in demand[36]. On routes where there are constraints on the maximum train length, electrification can delay the point at which platforms need to be extended to accommodate longer (or more) trains[37]. Electric trains ease overcrowding better than diesel trains.

Do we know anywhere that might fit the bill? A train network with lots of stops and overcrowded carriages? A train network with steep inclines and that frequently[38] suffers from delayed trains and cancellations? Although this description could apply to many Welsh lines, it seems particularly pertinent to the Valleys Lines feeding Cardiff.

Most of the Valleys Lines have an annual tonnage of more than 2 million tonnes[39], which is the equivalent of many existing electrified lines in both Scotland and England[40]. Network Rail regards lines with more than 2 million tonnes as having a traffic level sufficient for electric traction to be an efficient form of operation for passenger traffic, with a benefit to cost ratio of 2 or more[41].

“Diwedd y gan yw’r geiniog” – as is so often the case, the critical issue is funding.


The costs of installing electrified track from new are in the range of £500k to £650k per kilometre[42]. The costs of electrification are funded by Network Rail and supported by government[43].

So who pays for railway electrification? The UK government spells out that:

“As with other rail investments, the cost of electrification will be funded by Network Rail and supported by the Government. Over the medium term this £1.1bn investment in electrification will be self-financing, paying for itself through lower train maintenance, leasing and operating costs. This means that this investment can take place without reducing already planned infrastructure enhancement work”[44].

I’ll just re-read that: “the cost of electrification… will be self-financing, paying for itself”. This beggars the question – why hasn’t it already been done? The important conclusion of this statement is that not only is electrifying railway lines entirely rational and logical (after all, 100 per cent of Swiss railways are electrified), it makes economic sense too.

Further cost savings could be gained if Welsh lines were electrified, because fuel and diesel maintenance costs would be obviated from depots[45]. Eliminating liquid fuel reduces the cost of transporting the fuel in the first place[46].

Network Rail has repeatedly refused to supply me with information on expenditure in Wales; it is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, and as a result is “under no obligation to provide the information you require”. It should be noted that one of Network Rail’s governance principles is communication[47], while the Chief Executive has a stated commitment to ‘community relations’[48]. It would appear that the people of Wales are a community to which this commitment does not apply. The only Wales-related financial information in the public domain is that the total indicative ‘workbank’ for the Wales and Borders franchise in 2009-10 was £209m[49]. However because this expenditure relates to the geographical area covered by the entire franchise (and is itself an estimated figure), its utility in calculating Welsh expenditure is nil.

Network Rail has a good record of underinvestment in Wales. Take the £85 million it proudly announced it would be spent upgrading 120 Welsh railway stations[50] in November 2009, while at the same time trumpeting the £3.25bn it planned to spend across Great Britain[51]. Wales’ share of the total investment was therefore 2.6% of the British expenditure. Meanwhile in Scotland, Network Rail is spending £130 million upgrading one station alone as part of the same £3.25bn package[52]. Railfuture has noted that it is “obvious that Wales has not had its full proportion of funding compared with England and Scotland”[53]. And the National Assembly for Wales Committee examining ‘Future railway infrastructure in Wales’ 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”[54].

The UK Department for Transport (DfT) is responsible for determining Network Rail’s investment programme, including electrification, in Wales and England[55]. The funding follows the power.

The political situation

There are only three[56] countries in Europe which are entirely dependent on diesel for powering trains[57]. One of these is a country with GDP per capita 26 per cent of the EU average[58], in one of them the average gross monthly salary is £70[59], and the other is Wales.

Evidently Wales’ interests are poorly served by the DfT, which for rail strategy covers both Wales and England. Conveniently, this approach also enables Wales’ embarrassing electrification statistics to be hidden under a veneer of England and Wales respectability[60]. So it is unsurprising to see that Network Rail’s prioritisation exercise for electrification was undertaken with Wales lumped in with England, while Scotland enjoyed separate attention[61].

The DfT’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”. Given this approach, on an England and Wales basis it probably makes sense for the biggest centres of population to be served first by electrification. However, the natural corollary is that Wales will never be considered a priority under the current system, and it is doubtful whether electrification beyond the south Wales main line would ever occur given the approach of successive UK governments to Wales over the past half century and more.

The absence of electric lines in Wales counts further against us: because the practise of diesel trains running on electrified routes is inefficient, Network Rail notes that this “presents an opportunity for any extension of the electrified network to convert more services to electric traction than may have been expected”[62]. The implicit suggestion – that lines at the ends of already electrified routes along with ‘connecting routes’ should be first in line for electrification – once again relegates the overwhelming majority of Welsh lines to a non-electrified fate for the foreseeable future under the existing England and Wales arrangement.

This lack of prioritisation also speaks rather poorly of those within Cardiff Bay and Cathays Park attempting to influence the DfT’s High Level Output Specification, particularly given the Deputy First Minister’s clear 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”[63]

Small wonder then that the DfT believes its relationship with the Welsh Assembly Government to be “very good and closer now than it has ever been”[64]. The Welsh Assembly Government appears to have rolled over for its Whitehall counterpart.

At the time of the Railways Act 2005, the UK government considered it ‘unacceptable’ to devolve responsibility for specifying the outputs from Network Rail in the Wales and Borders franchise area because of the mix of services sharing the infrastructure, although it devolved this same responsibility to Scotland.

Devolution of rail policy strategy is clearly crucial if we are to enjoy a 21st Century railway, for without it our needs are destined to be permanently subsumed by those of large centres of population in England. Transport Scotland’s opinion is that a range of projects undertaken since 2006 (when responsibility for specifying Network Rail’s Scotland outputs was devolved) may not have been taken forward in Scotland if they had been competing for funds with larger UK cities[65].

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 or so, and it has been 55 years since the government determined that the UK could ‘not afford’ to keep the railways from being electrified. The fact that Wales occupies the bottom rung of European rail electrification along with Albania and Moldova, with 0% electrified in comparison with Switzerland’s 100%, is a national embarrassment. The fact that the UK government and Network Rail have conscientiously and systematically deprived Wales of the investment to remedy the situation is a national disgrace.

A summary of this essay can be found here.


[1] Network Rail, October 2009, Network Route Utilisation Strategy: Electrification p.94

[2] UK Department for Transport, July 2009, Britain’s transport infrastructure: Rail electrification, p.6

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hungarian Patent Office, Kalman Kando (1869-1931)

[5] International Electrotechnical Commission, Invention of three-phase induction motor

[6] UK Department for Transport, Op cit., p.15

[7] Quoted in UK Department for Transport, Op cit. p.15

[8] As measured by passenger miles

[9] UK Department for Transport, July 2009. Ibid., p.6

[10] Network Rail, October 2009. Op.cit., p.4

[11] Network Rail. October 2009. Op.cit., p.31

[12] UK Department for Transport. Op.cit., p.7

[13] Network Rail, October 2009. Op.cit., p.31

[14] UK Department for Transport, Op.cit., p.8

[15] Network Rail, October 2009. Op.cit., p.41

[16] Ibid., p.31

[17] UK Department for Transport, Op.cit., p.8

[18] Network Rail, October 2009, Op.cit., p.31

[19] Ibid., p.40

[20] See Calvin Jones, November 2009, Wales in the energy crunch for more details

[21] Network Rail, Op.cit., p.40

[22] 2,100g per vehicle mile for diesel trains, 1,664g for electric – see Network Rail, Op.cit., p.31

[23] Network Rail, Op.cit., p.32

[24] Ibid., p.41

[25] Welsh Assembly Government, March 2010, A low carbon revolution: The Welsh Assembly Government energy policy statement, p.6

[26] See map on page 44 of Network Rail, Op.cit. 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

[27] Ibid., p.43

[28] Ibid., p.52

[29] See Tables 6.5, 6.6 and 6.7 in Network Rail, Op.cit.

[30] Network Rail, October 2009. Op. cit, pp.53, 55, 56, 58

[31] Ibid., p.38

[32] Ibid., p.31

[33] Ibid., p.38

[34] Ibid.

[35] UK Department for Transport, Op.cit., p.9

[36] Network Rail, October 2009. Op.cit ., p.5

[37] Ibid., p.39

[38] Nearly one in 20 trains on the Wales and Borders franchise fails to arrive at its destination within 10 minutes of the scheduled arrival time (Office of Rail Regulation, 7 October 2010, Rail performance up to and including 2010-11 Q1)

[39] Network Rail, October 2009. Op.cit., p.25

[40] Ibid., p.24

[41] Ibid., p.42

[42] Ibid., p.30

[43] UK Department for Transport. Op.cit., p.26

[44] Ibid., p.5

[45] Network Rail, October 2009. Op.cit., p.40

[46] Ibid.

[47] Network Rail, undated, Annual report and accounts 2010, p.55

[48] Ibid., p.76

[49] Network Rail, Supplementary evidence to the National Assembly for Wales Enterprise and Learning Committee

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

[51] Network Rail, 12 November 2009, £3.25bn to be invested in Britain’s train stations

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

[53] Railfuture, 21 October 2009, Evidence to the National Assembly for Wales Enterprise and Learning Committee

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

[55] UK Department for Transport, Op.cit., p.15

[56] Depending on your constitutional opinion on Northern Ireland – which itself has only 213 miles of railway line (see cell M71 in Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer, 2007, Railway statistics – synopsis)

[57] Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer, 2007, Railway statistics – synopsis

[58] Eurostat, December 2009, GDP per capita, consumption per capita and relative price levels

[59] OECD, May 2006, Summary of key macroeconomic indicators in south east Europe, p.13

[60] See for example Table 8.6, Network Rail, Op.cit., p.95

[61] Network Rail, October 2009. Op.cit., pp.63-65, 81

[62] Ibid., p.27

[63] National Assembly for Wales, January 2010. Op.cit., p.5

[64] National Assembly for Wales, 18 November 2009, Enterprise and Learning Committee Record of Proceedings, p.14

[65] Transport Scotland, 18 November 2009, Evidence to the National Assembly for Wales Enterprise and Learning Committee

Gareth Clubb is an environmental researcher and campaigner

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