John Osmond reports on a conference convinced that upgrading our railways is vital for Wales’ economic future
Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan was yesterday told to resign if electrification of the Great Western Main Line stops at Bristol. The call came at an End of the Line conference organised jointly by the IWA, the Cardiff Business Partnership, and the marketing organisation Cardiff and Co, on rail connectivity and economic regeneration in south Wales.
“The Secretary of State should be battling ferociously on this vital issue for our country,” said Roy J. Thomas, a Director of the Cardiff Business Partnership. Pressing the case for electrification to extend through south Wales to Swansea, he declared. “If she fails she will have to resign.”
A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region
This conference marked the launch of Mark Barry’s report on a new transport vision for the Capital city region. To purchase a copy, or access it as a download, click here.
The decision is expected to be announced in the coming weeks, possibly at the joint meeting of the Welsh Conservatives Spring conference and the UK party’s Spring Forum being held in Cardiff over the weekend of 5-6 March. The event, which will be addressed by Prime Minister Cameron, is being seen as a springboard for the Conservatives’ Assembly election campaign.
At yesterday’s conference Maria Eagle, Shadow Minister for Transport at Westminster, warned that the Treasury would be urging the Department for Transport to save money by stopping electrification of the Great Western Line at Bristol. Querying why the decision was being delayed she said she was certain that the Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Transport, was being given this advice.
“But when we were in government and committed to electrification of the whole line we were assured by the Treasury that there was a good business case. If the government adopts a stop and start approach to electrifying the line in sections then it will add at least 20 per cent to the costs. Made now a commitment to electrifying the line through to Swansea will signal that we have a strategy for growth that the country needs. A failure to make this decision will have a downside for south Wales that will last for decades.”
Urging business interests in south Wales to lobby the government she said she had taunted Hammond in the Commons that Wales was the only European country apart from Albania and Moldovia that didn’t have a single kilometre of electrified rail track.
David Stevens, Operations Manager with the Cardiff-based Admiral Insurance and a Director of the Cardiff Business Partnership, said electrification was crucial not only to attract investment but to keep businesses in Wales. He said there was a ‘two hour rule’ in terms if the time it took for investors to get to locations from Heathrow and London. Looking ahead 20 years he said his company might be questioning where it should be placing its headquarters if Welsh rail connectivity had not improved.
Pressing the case for electrification of the Valley lines to create a Metro for south-east Wales centred on Cardiff and Newport he said this would determine whether future major developments took place at intersections along the M4 or around rail hubs at city centres. “It would be easier to choose the rail option if we knew there was an ongoing programme for investment,” he said.
Mike Gallop, Network Rail’s Enhancement Manager, said a feasibility study was being undertaken to examine the costs of electrifying the Valley lines from Rhymney, Merthyr Tydfil, Aberdare and Treherbert to Barry and Penarth via Cardiff Queen Street and Cardiff Central. This was aimed at the investment period between 2014 and 2019. At the end of this period there will be a need to replace the ageing Sprinter and Pacer trains currently in use on the Valley lines. A decision on what will replace them and whether the lines should be electrified would need to be taken at the same time.
The economic benefits of electrification will need to outweigh the costs by a factor of at least two to one if they are to meet Treasury rules. However, this may not be a major hurdle since electrification can pay for itself when the while-life costs of both train and track are taken into account.
Yesterday’s conference also heard from Cardiff’ County Council’s new chief executive, Jon House, who argued that electrification of the Valley lines was a regional issue and not just a matter for the capital. He pointed out that while the populations of other local authorities in south east Wales authorities, such as Rhondda Cynon Taf, Caerphilly, Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen were projected to grow by around 4 per cent between 2008 and 2033, the Welsh Government’s projection for Cardiff was 42 per cent. He said that, from the point of view of housing alone, the city would not be able to handle such an increase on its own. He said improved rail connectivity in the region was urgently needed to relieve housing pressures and reduce congestion as part of a holistic approach to economic development.