Fourth term special 3: Priorities on the railways

Stuart Cole says we should electrify the Great Western and Valley lines

The most challenging transport priorities confronting the new Welsh Government is to ensure that electrification of the South Wales Main Line extends to Swansea. Following that it should be aiming to electrify the Valleys Metro network. This means the lines from Ebbw Vale to Maesteg via Bridgend, Cardiff and Newport, creating a south east Wales high frequency train service – the south Wales Metro. The estimated total track cost will be £500 million plus reasonably priced refurbished cascaded trains.

For the UK Government to be persuaded to fund this high level of investment the Welsh Government has to provide a robust business case. This analysis has to be completed by October if it is to be included in the Office of Rail Regulation investment plan for the 2014 – 2019 Network Rail financial period and funded by the UK Department for Transport. The business case for Swansea is just as urgent to justify a cost of £64 million, though convergence funding would reduce the capital cost and give a better rate of return.


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The current Welsh rail franchise that was agreed in 2003 was for a no growth, low investment railway operating over a fifteen year period. That would not have satisfied a growth of demand over 8 per cent per annum without considerable additional financial input from the Welsh Government. Now preparation of the specification for a new franchise (or not-for-dividend company) has to begin soon to be on time for a 2018 start. But this time we need to ensure that the planned track and rolling stock investment matches the anticipated growth in demand.

In other parts of Wales, the Cambrian coast line now has capacity for an hourly train service – rolling stock is therefore awaited. Doubling the tracks between Llanelli and Gowerton and Wrexham and Chester (the latter reduces north–south journey times by 20 minutes) has been agreed by the Welsh Government and Network Rail. Rail electrification from Wrexham to Bidston linking into the Merseyrail service would attract more commuters into Liverpool and thus reduce the road capacity increases once planned for the A55 / A494 near Ewloe.

The new Network Rail–Cymru Wales will be an attractive proposition but it must be adequately funded.

The Government’s national roads forward programme has more, but lower cost, schemes along the A470 north-west to south-east trunk road. Thought also should be given to the other A483 national trunk north-south road link from Wrexham to Newtown. These two roads provide a key link into central Wales from the A55 in the north, and the M4 in the south.

However, spending has to be prioritised on the east-west strategic road connections between Wales and our manufacturing and tourism customers which are keys to economic regeneration. Improvements to the A 465 Heads of the Valleys road at Hirwaun and Clydach George will be expensive but necessary. The A55 Expressway at Ewloe and an imaginative development of the existing A48 south of Newport to double the capacity of the M4 are also key route improvements. But, of course, these have to be prioritised in the context of the need for significant expenditure to resurface roads badly damaged by two periods of freezing conditions in 2010.

This emphasises the importance of following an integrated transport plan where it may not be road solutions that are required to reduce road congestion. The development of rail or bus (with traffic priority) Park and Ride around Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Wrexham will have a significant impact and the integrated public transport hub will help facilitate the Cardiff Sustainability City plan.

On the buses, Ceredigion and north Carmarthenshire have benefited from the introduction of Bwcabus, a radical method of rural bus service improvement in Britain, has transformed travel opportunities and service quality. These will be further improved by integrating the new Traws Cymru coach service into the national rail network later in 2011.

Cerdyn Cymru, the All Wales Public Transport Entitlement Card referred to in the 2009 National Transport Plan will provide multi ride travel for all. Some cards will be free (for those over 60) and some will be paid for; they can be local regional or national and will be smart cards similar to the London Oyster and Cardiff Iff cards.

A new direct rail link to Cardiff Airport will give it a more attractive land side connection than Bristol. However, this investment has to be included in the Network Rail 2014–19 investment plan alongside a considerable increase in destinations and point of origin for inward travellers, especially tourists and those attending major sport and conference events.

Wales’ ports have also a considerable potential. The development at Blackbridge pier, Milford Haven will result in containers loaded with biofuel being moved by eight trains per day. Although not obvious at first, this requires  integrated transport planning for train paths at Cardiff.

The potential to transfer cruise business away from the Baltic Sea to the Celtic Sea is not moving anything like fast enough. As we have two deep water ports for big cruise ships and tidal ports for the smaller, often more exclusive (that is, more expensive) ships, the development of piers at Milford haven and Holyhead should be seen as vital tools for economic regeneration. The economic benefits to north west Wales and to Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire would be significant. As cruise lines have a four year lead time in planning their destinations these should have already been built and no further delay should occur.

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

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