Government should now fund Welsh rail electrification

Mark Barry provides a route map to ensure Wales does not get left behind by yesterday’s HS2 decision

Yesterday Transport Secretary Justine Greening confirmed that HS2, the new high speed rail line from London to Birmingham, will follow pretty much the same route as previously announced, albeit with some additional tunnelling to soften the environmental impact in north west London and the Chilterns.

However, there will be no immediate link to Heathrow and no interchange with the Great Western Main Line at Heathrow – although the Department of Transport claim the proposed Old Oak Common interchange will deliver this functionality. The cost of the first phase to Birmingham is estimated at £17 billion, with another £15 billion required to take the line in a second phase to Leeds and Manchester. Phase 1 is expected to open in 2026 with construction to start in 2017.

So what is in this for Wales? Well not a lot really, apart from the opportunity of such a major investment in the south-east, together with enhancing the competitiveness of English cities. When complete, HS2 will make every major city in England, apart from Newcastle, closer to London than Cardiff in terms of rail travel time. Manchester will only be 1 hour and 13 minutes from Euston, whereas, even after the Great Western Main Line is electrified, Cardiff will still be 1 hour and 45 minutes from Paddington.

Does this matter? Of course it does. Over the next 20 years Cardiff wishes to develop a Central Business District based on financial services and will be dependent on a certain amount of foreign investment and relocation of companies from elsewhere in the UK, Europe and the World. If Cardiff, as it will be, is further away from London than its major competitor cities in England then it will be at a disadvantage.

What can we do to mitigate this situation? I have some suggestions:

Given that Welsh tax payers will contribute about £100 million a year for 15 years to build HS2, I suggest the UK government is obliged to fund the electrification of the entire south Wales rail network, which has a comparable and perhaps even better benefit-cost-ratio than HS2. Alternatively can we secure a Barnet consequential? This could be something for the Silk Commission to explore. To complete the job to electrify the Great Western Mail Line to Swansea and all the valley routes, will cost between £4-500 million. We must keep up the pressure to secure this outcome. After all, the UK government has a stated aim of rebalancing the UK economy – an economy that includes Wales and its transport infrastructure. With a fully electrified south Wales rail network the delivery of a more comprehensive South Wales Metro is much more likely.

Even though the HS2 route will not go via Heathrow, we need to push hard to see the proposed Heathrow Western Access scheme accelerated so that by 2020 it is possible to get a Heathrow Express train at Reading direct to Heathrow (Terminal 5). Whist not as strategically beneficial as the Heathrow Hub Ltd Scheme, nonetheless, it does provide for reduced journey times between Cardiff and Heathrow which will be of benefit to those “selling” the Cardiff central business district. Groups in support of this scheme include the Great Western Partnership which represents all the major local authorities,  transport consortia and business groups along the Great Western line, from  Slough to Swansea.

We must lobby hard and make the case for the economic importance of enhancing the services and capability of the Great Western Main Line, so that by the time the first phase of HS2 is open in 2026, it can deliver  a Cardiff to London journey of 1 hour 20 minutes. This is possible on the current alignment with some engineering interventions and reduced stopping patterns and without the eye watering £32 billion required to deliver high speed rail to the north of England.

Finally, the M4 is an issue that won’t go away. We should follow up George Osborne’s Autumn Statement commitment to explore ways of funding an upgrade to this vital corridor for the Welsh economy.

I am disappointed the Westminster government has not really announced a UK-wide high speed rail strategy and network as it claims to have done. However, yesterday’s decision does clarify where we need to focus our efforts to ensure Wales does not get left behind by HS2.

Mark Barry is the author of the paper, A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region – Connecting Cardiff, Newport and The Valleys, published by the Cardiff Business Partnership and the Institute of Welsh Affairs in February 2011. He can be contacted at [email protected] and via Twitter at @markdafyddbarry

7 thoughts on “Government should now fund Welsh rail electrification

  1. I have to question whether the IWA genuinely should be renamed institute for south wales affairs.
    Next to no mention of the North Wales Coast Mainline – electrified all the way from London to Chester – surely it is time for this to be electrified?

    Furthermore, I want the IWA to ask: why somebody from Bangor can get to London within 3.5 hrs yet to get to Cardiff (which is closer) it takes 4.25hrs!?

  2. The journey from Bangor to London is quick because it mostly follows the West Coast Main Line, the biggest and fastest rail route in the UK (with the exception of HS1). This is a coincidence as the line wasn’t built to connect London to North Wales; links between the north-west and Cardiff are poor, yes, but it’s hardly therefore appropriate to complain about the good links the north Wales coast enjoys!

  3. Jake, some of your comments are wrong.

    First, the London Euston to Holyhead and Bangor services run on electrified lines all the way from London to Crewe, not to Chester. The Euston to Chester services, as well as the Euston to Bangor and Holyhead ones, therefore are operated using class 221 Virgin SuperVoyager diesel trains.

    Second, while I must confess to not knowing the normal journey times between Bangor and Cardiff, the premier express from Holyhead to Cardiff takes 4hrs 26mins (in case you didn’t know, Holyhead is further from Cardiff than Bangor) and there’s a normal train which goes via Wrexham and does it even faster.

    On the face of it, the north Wales coast line does look like being almost as important a candidate for electrification as the Great Western Main Line. However, while extention of electrification from Crewe as far as Chester for the hourly trains from London is a must in my opinion, electrifying the north Wales coast line has some issues. The current service includes an hourly service from Manchester to Llandudno, which might be able to make use of electrification. However, apart from the occasional Holyhead and Bangor to Euston services trains between Holyhead and Llandudno Junction nearly all reverse at Chester and head south via Wrexham, to Cardiff on some services and Birmingham on others. Because the Cardiff and Birmingham to Chester lines are not electrified, these lines would also have to be electrified for these services to make use of north Wales coast line electrification.

    Many on the railway fourms that I frequent think there is too much provision of Holyhead – Cardiff services, given that neither Wrexham nor Bangor (and hence Holyhead) have regular direct services to Manchester, Liverpool or Crewe. I personally think that there should be two or three express services, similar to the current premier one but via Wrexham. Then I would suggest that the current stopping trains every two hours between Cardiff and Holyhead should be replaced by stoppers from Holyhead to Manchester or Crewe and from Cardiff, via Wrexham, to Manchester or Crewe (which probablly would require additional rolling stock, and of a different type).

    If it costs Welsh taxpayers 100 million a year for 15 years to build HS2, then electrification of the Great Western Mail Line to Swansea and all the valley routes at £500m is not enough, and they should also help us re-open lines, buy more rolling stock (to be owned by Welsh Government to avoid leasing charges) and/or electrify the Swansea to Manchester, Shrewsbury to Chester via Wrexham and north Wales coast lines.

  4. I hope to see the Welsh Government lobbying hard on the issue of the Barnett consequential. The precedent is there – Barnett consequentials were awarded for both Crossrail and the Olympics, despite both initially (and I believe in the case of the Olympics still (?)) being classed as non-identifiable expenditure, and I absolutely agree with the article that any money we are able to wrangle out of the UK government should go straight back into improving our transport network.

    I do, however, agree with Jake’s comment. While the future electrification of the valley lines seem to be getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere, the North Wales Coast line appears to have gone ignored, despite it being an arterial route that is critical to the region.

  5. It’s pleasing to see that an issue which is all about connecting about half the Welsh population to the ‘outside world’ has been turned into an internal bun-fight.

    Lift your heads from the sand.

  6. I hope we get 5% of the money spent on HS2 added to the U.K.government spend on railways in Wales or added to the Welsh Government Spend.

  7. I do not know the exact distances but the electrification of the Great Western mainline sounds a lot more reasonable and cost affective than HS2.
    Surly the money spent on HS2 would be better spent to completely electrify the UK and increase loading gauges (make bridges and tunnels higher) to allow double decker trains.
    This resulting in higher capacity without affecting train length. And generally updating the system in general, Wales, England, Scotland alike.
    Even if we disregard the loading gauge we will see the benefits of electrification a lot quicker. As there is less infrastructure to put up and it has more benefits (e.g. speed, better acceleration, less damaging to the lines (and more)), HS2 only has the benefit of extra speed.
    For High speed trains to be a benefit I feel they should go from the highest point in the UK to the lowest and then by extension maybe follow around the south coast.

    Another thing is that I think ‘High Speed’ sounds good – it has become a buzz word. Its one of these look at as look at our toys.
    In short our railway is pathetic. It used to be amazing and has the potential to reclaim that title. I think the government needs to be taken out of the picture somewhat and the rails need to be given to people who want to see the system thrive. The government only cares about profit margins. Get some good people involved make sure they get the funds they need to make the system work, make the changes that need to be changed NOW. It will be expensive but profits will come if the system is improved and made more reliable and practical compared to the alternative.

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