Running our own railroad

With some caveats Stuart Cole welcomes this week’s devolution of Network Rail to a Welsh operation

This week’s announcement by Network Rail that its Welsh operation is to be devolved to single entity covering Wales and the borders, and run by a Cardiff-based managing director, is to be welcomed. It has the potential for giving the Welsh Government greater flexibility in planning an integrated public transport system for Wales. In particular, it holds out the prospect for a Welsh decision on electrifying the Great Western line to Swansea and also along the north Wales main line.

What we need now is a commitment to funding the Welsh railway system on an equal basis to England. This implies pro rata levels of expenditure for Wales following, for example, from the London Crossrail scheme which is worth £16 billion – an amount that is ten times the cost of electrifying the line from Cardiff to Swansea. From this scheme alone a 5 per cent allocation under the Barnett formula, would hand £800 million to Wales. So, potentially, the devolution of Network Rail to Wales is an extremely attractive proposition. However, the financial agreement and the investment level has to be higher than in the past and more transparent.

The new set up will cover the entire railway network in Wales, together with the line that connects north with south Wales which runs mainly through England. It will therefore cover:

  • The south Wales Main Line – Severn Tunnel to Carmarthen and onwards to Pembrokeshire;
  • The north Wales Main Line – Chester to Holyhead and branch lines;
  • The Cardiff–Newport Metro with all the Valley Lines and Vale of Glamorgan;
  • The Cambrian Line to Aberystwyth and Pwllheli.
  • The Marcher Line between Newport, Abergavenny, Shrewsbury, Wrexham and Chester.

This is not a new concept. When the argument for a Wales and Borders franchise was being made in the early 1990s, long before it was finally agreed to go ahead in 2001, the parallel argument was made for a Wales division of Railtrack, the predecessor of Network Rail. It was dismissed at the time by senior managers at Railtrack and the remnants of British Rail with the response –  how or even why would Wales want its own railway?

Later in 2005 when the Railways Act and the Transport (Wales) Act was going through the Westminster Parliament an offer was made by the Department for Transport to set up a Wales and Borders region. However, agreement on fair financial provision was not forthcoming from London and so the Welsh Government quite rightly rejected the offer.

There are many advantages however to this new move, quite apart from the leverage it gives the Welsh Government in arguing for a fair funding settlement. The underlying concept of an integrated transport policy has been the objective of the Welsh Government along with the local authorities and the transport consortia regional plans. However, this has been hampered by the absence of any statutory relationship between Network Rail and the Government in Cardiff.  Network Rail does have such a link with Whitehall’s Department for Transport. The link in Wales has been a financial one.

In Wales all roads are owned by a public authority – both national motorways and truck roads or local county and other roads. Local authorities are responsible for traffic management, cycling provision and on street or public car park charges.

Most buses are owned by private companies and many receive subsidies from local authorities. For non-commercial services county councils can have an impact on fares. And all bus companies accept the over 60s concessionary bus pass in exchange for a Welsh Government payment while the Flexipass has been a very successful marketing tool for both the bus and rail operations. Many of these multi-ride tickets have enabled integrated journeys on one ticket.

The rail franchise authority for the Wales and Borders franchise is the Welsh Government who pays the subsidy to the operating contractor – currently Arriva Trains Wales. There is a small DfT input but this is not significant.

An Integrated Transport Policy examines the transport provision integration within and between different types of transport – better and easier interchange between car, bus, and rail – with better information on services and availability of integrated tickets. Thus it is between public and private transport and between motorised and non-motorised (walking, cycling) transport.

Hitherto, the lack of a ‘proper’ rail infrastructure element in its portfolio has severely constrained the Welsh Government’s ability to balance investment between the best solutions to transport problems. For example, a paper I published in the IWA’s journal Agenda in 2000 compared the costs of the M4 investment proposals with a series of rail enhancement expenditures. Of course, at the time the Welsh Government was not in a position to make the investment choice. The operation of the national trains is now in the hands of the Welsh Government through the franchise. We shall now see how the rail infrastructure element will work.

The key objective of integrated transport is to provide for a split between accessible and affordable modes of travel which are both sustainable and become the preferred modes of travel in Wales. If we are to develop our own integrated transport policy best suited to our needs of Wales, certain key functions have to be transferred from UK institutions.

This week’s announcement gives us most of what is needed to ensure such a policy. It takes Wales one step further towards the point where control and finance, policy and service provision would be conducted by one national, and four associated regional bodies. But we are not there yet. Some key elements still remain with the Department for Transport in London, specfically regulation of busses and – crucially – decisions over Network Rail investment.

Stuart Cole is Emeritus Professor of Transport in the Wales Transport Research Centre at the University of Glamorgan

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