A Metro for Wales’ capital city region

Stuart Cole welcomes this week’s launch by the IWA and Cardiff Business Partnership of their report calling for light rail links between Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys

Unfortunately, the days of jobs on their doorstep for many people in Wales has been long gone. The change in large-scale employment from coal and steel to manufacturing and service industries has more often than not resulted in a need to travel long distances to work. One consequence has been the increased number of people travelling into the centre of Cardiff, Cardiff Gate, Newport, Llantrisant and other M4-related locations. The impact can be seen each morning and evening with slow moving traffic on the primary routes between Newport, Bridgend and Pontypridd.

The IWA and Cardiff Business Partnership’s report A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region, published earlier this week, covers a range of investments from long distance and capital city region heavy rail to new tram or bus rapid transit. These should be regarded as basic tools in the efficient operation of the economy. A high quality network improves personal productivity by reducing journey times and giving a more comfortable experience, with higher punctuality, reliability and ease of access.

Rail Conference

End of the Line: economic regeneration and rail connectivity in southern Wales

Stuart Cole will be one of the speakers at this major conference being held next week on Thursday 10 February at Cardiff’s City Hall. The Metro report author Mark Barry, Advisor on Transport and the Economy to Cardiff’s Business Partnership, will be presenting its main findings. Other speakers include David Stevens, of the Cardiff Business Partnership, Terry Morgan, Chair of Crossrail, Mike Gallop, Route Enhancement Manager with Network Rail, Mark Hopwood, Chief Executive, First Great Western, and Mike Bagshaw, Commercial Director Arriva Trains Wales. For full details of the conference and to book to attend, click here.

To purchase a copy of the report or access it as a download, click here.

For manufacturers the reduction in congestion of our main arteries guarantees delivery times – ‘just in time’ freight operations reduce capital tied up in stock and components. The evidence in successive Government transport reports is not conclusive in guaranteeing a link between improved transport and more efficiency but does set down transport’s role as a pre-requisite to regeneration and growth. Referring to low income / low economic activity areas in Wales, the European Commission’s City of Tomorrow research says transport is an important element in regenerating under invested areas of the industrial Valleys and rural Wales.

The Metro report very successfully brings together many ideas already put forward– electrification of heavy rail, improved track and signaling, new, faster, and higher capacity, and more efficient rolling stock and some extensions of the existing network. In addition the introduction and of new tram, tram/train and rapid bus transit routes are set alongside the heavy rail operations. Trams would take over on the south side of the central business district with services to Penarth, Barry and the Vale of Glamorgan and the proposed new Gateway Wales – Airport station. This implies a ten minute frequency to each of those locations. If the success of the Newcastle Metro is an indicator then up to 25 per cent of Cardiff Airport passengers would be attracted to travel by Metro.

The use of fast trains from, for example from Trefforest to Cardiff Central along spare capacity on the City Line would reduce journey times from the upper Valleys and light rail could be the commuting mainstay of most urban areas within five miles of Cardiff Centre.

The cost of the Cardiff Metro development estimated by Mark Barry is not dissimilar to my own figures:

Electrification of 130 mile rail network £  400m
New track or enhanced rail for tram £1,000m
Heavy Rail extensions £    50m
Rolling stock £   150m

This funding will largely come from the public sector as most of the impacts are economic. One might argue that there are private companies in central Cardiff, which will benefit, but it is society as a whole which have to put up with the inefficiencies of traffic jams and it is for them that Government funds investment on an economic rather than a financial basis.

There has been some commentary following the launch of the plan suggesting it is only a means of moving people into and out of the central business district of Cardiff. While this is a key element of the expenditure new routes are proposed, for example across the Heads of the Valleys and from Bridgend to Pontypool via Llantrisant, Pontypridd and Newbridge. The fact that Cardiff Central Station is the hub of the operation does not preclude the travel opportunities within the Valley communities and over a wide area of south east Wales

An essential aspect of the plan is to increase park and ride facilities at key railway and tram stations. This will encourage commuters to drive to the nearest car park and make the journey along the most congested section of their route by new public transport.

For these new facilities to be attractive to the traveller in terms of cost, journey time, convenience and comfort they must come near to the motor car. Let us not kid ourselves that the environment is a real factor in influencing modal split. For the vast majority it is about perception of quality and price. For that reason alone this has to be a state of the art development reflecting Cardiff’s place as our capital city and our economic power house

Much of the plan set out in this report is rail-based. The primary reason is the sheer number of commuters. With a population of 1.4 million people living within a 20-mile radius of Cardiff and with 100,000 travelling into the city every morning, the only form of mass transit able to move that number efficiently in an hour is rail.

At present we still have to persuade many people out of their cars. This will become an even more urgent necessity as the number of daily commuters into Cardiff climb inexorably towards to 150,000 or even 200,000.  Somewhere on this trajectory only public transport will be able to meet the demand.

The comparative results of projects using the UK Government’s own common appraisal technique indicate that in areas of high traffic / people flows, rail provides the best solution. The impact of ‘parkway’ stations has been to reduce traffic flows, especially along more heavily congested urban routes.  This transfer of traffic from road to higher speed rail is confirmed by the modal split effects of the TGV in France and its consequence on motorway flows.

On a local scale the service improvements to Cardiff rail services and long distance rail services have seen an 8 per cent increase a year in passenger flows. Rail investment is therefore able to justify its funding through increases in demand from service improvements, changes in modal split (road to rail) and consequently, reductions in road traffic.

The network was designed for coal movements from the Valleys to the docks in Cardiff, Penarth and Barry. Fortunately the routes have also proved suitable for passenger movement. But the infrastructure and some of the rolling stock is now as much as 40 years old. It  was simply not built to carry large numbers of commuters. It requires replacing and the power source cannot be diesel, particularly if the new rolling stock has to last a further 40 years.

The electrification of the Valley Lines (which is what they will always be called despite a move to Cardiff Metro) has to be a priority for the next Network Rail financial period from 2015 – 2019. Whether this is a UK Network Rail or a devolved organisation as suggested by the UK Government (so long as it is adequately funded), the investment proposed in this report has to be carried out

Of course, this report has been financed by business interests in Cardiff and as such the capital is their main concern. However, there is also a major need for investment along the east–west main railway line and M4 corridor, as the report acknowledges. Regrettably, in the short term the M4 will never be emptied. But most research shows that if urban traffic flows can be reduced by 20 per cent then the main cause of congestion, a far free flow of traffic at junctions, will result.

That same logic can therefore be applied to the extension of the electrification project from the Great Western Mail Line’s Didcot terminal to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. If the electrification of the Line was to end at Didcot then the construction further west would incur new set up costs. This can account for up to 20 per cent of a project’s total capital costs and includes planning, supply chain management and establishment of the construction team and consortia.

Electrification will increase the track capacity on the Great Western Mail Line and on the Cardiff Metro lines. Passengers on the railways to from and in Wales are increasing in number by 8 per cent a year on average , and have doubled over the last ten years. If this growth rate continues then more and longer trains travelling at higher speeds and using less track length per train will be the only way to accommodate the increased demand

Wales is on the periphery of the European Union. We cannot hope to balance our higher labour costs compared with eastern Europe unless we reduce other costs such as transport. The movement of goods and efficient logistics require an electrified railway. It is essential if we are  to regenerate the Welsh economy.

One might also ask what will a lack of investment in major infrastructure look like to potential inward investors. Might they ask the question, “If the British Government does not invest in Wales what’s the problem and why should we invest?”

This connectivity is linked directly to our competitiveness as a country. Cardiff is the economic powerhouse of Wales and must therefore be efficiently linked to one of the world’s biggest economic powerhouses – London. That is a connectivity opportunity we should not throw away. South Wales is already in direct competition with Bristol. If Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester have journey times of around an hour to London while Cardiff remains at two hours, our competitiveness will fall markedly. Even at 1 hour 40 minutes we will have to fight our economic corner, though Cardiff’s status as a capital city might take us through. Large London headquartered corporations have found Cardiff a positive place to locate back offices, and for some even to move head offices. So long as we sustain a ‘there and back in a day’ train facility – and electrification is essential for that – our capital city will remain an attractive location.

Stuart Cole is Professor of Transport at the Wales Transport Research Centre, University of Glamorgan Business School.

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