Geraint Talfan Davies reviews the announcement on the electrification of rail services to south Wales and says we must build on it
The announcement on the electrification of rail services to Cardiff and Swansea and the Valleys lines is the most encouraging announcement that Wales has seen in decades. It is good news on several counts.
First, this is the most important development in the Welsh transport infrastructure since the opening of the first Severn Bridge in 1966. The IWA has always argued that the electrification of the Great Western Main line, and particularly its extension to the suburban rail network in the Valleys, would have a transformational potential for south Wales, and it should. But we must remember that even two Severn Bridges have not proved a panacea for the ills of the Welsh economy. The rail electrification scheme is an essential element in the policy mix, but it is only one element. This is no reason to mute any rejoicing today.
Second, the decision not to stop short at Cardiff is particularly welcome, not only because it was always essential that Swansea be included in the electrified network, but because it means the scheme has avoided the usual bugbear of Treasury pressure for compromises designed to produce nominal short-term savings.
Third, it will connect south Wales to Heathrow, a pre-eminent international hub airport, through a direct rail spur. This is vitally important, especially as it is unlikely that the Government will take the radical action to encourage regional airports that might give Cardiff airport the fillip we would all like to see.
Fourth, the scheme has a perfect fit with last week’s report advocating the adoption of the city region approach in both south east Wales and the greater Swansea area. Efficient transport networks will be crucial in making these city regions work. Swansea does not enjoy the same suburban rail network as Cardiff and will be more reliant on bus networks. The Cardiff City Region, on the other hand, can take advantage of a remarkably comprehensive network of rail lines that is in desperate need of modernisation.
Whether in the south-east or south-west, we need an integration of bus and rail not only in terms of services but also in ticketing systems. London’s Oyster card system is the benchmark. Some such system in Wales is overdue and need not wait on the completion of electrification.
Fifth, after a slow start Wales has mobilised well at all levels to make its case. The Secretary of State for Wales, the Welsh Government and its officials, local government, private interests and civil society (including the IWA) have all been aligned in supporting the project. While consultants that included Arup Associates and the Welsh transport expert, Stuart Cole, concentrated on getting the numbers right, another consultant, Mark Barry, worked on focusing the vision and the public mind through his report A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region for the Cardiff Business Partnership and the IWA. That is an important lesson in itself. Some will say that this coalition of support was simply backing a common sense case. However, that would be to underestimate the intense competition for scarce funds for infrastructure investment. If the business case had not been thorough and well-presented it might easily have fallen victim to competing lobbies.
This is not a day to dwell on caveats, but they need to be registered so that we can continue to build on today’s announcement.
Many are surprised that this scale of investment will produce a relatively small reduction in journey times between London and south Wales. It is not comparable to the gains claimed for the HS2 service through England. On the Great Western Mainline, it should not beyond the wit of man to produce further reductions in journey times for selected services at key periods of day. There should be some services, at least, that get closer to a 90-minute target for London to Cardiff.
We must also ensure in the implementation phase that attention is paid to giving the Valleys rail network, including its stations, the added high quality sheen of an integrated design policy such as once distinguished the London Underground. Swansea has recently seen a substantial upgrading of its station. Cardiff needs a wholesale upgrading of its central station, which is, after all, a gateway to a country and a capital. Schemes mooted so far by Network Rail fall well short of the standards we should expect.
We must now turn our attention to north Wales. The rail line across north Wales to Holyhead is part of a Trans European Network route from Minsk to Galway. There is a case to be made for its electrification too. But stakeholders in north Wales will need to absorb the lessons of the southern campaign: get the numbers right and ensure vigorous and disciplined lobbying. It is also an issue on which the Welsh Government will need to engage the Irish Government.
The arguments are as interconnected as the railways themselves. The issue of north Wales inevitably raises the question of service between north and south Wales. There seems little prospect of major investment to improve the road system between north and south Wales, all the more reason why we should improve the rail service.
Lastly, now that we know what kind of rail system we shall be getting, and when, we need a better system of managing the railways: a better franchising system, a reform of the system of procuring rolling stock, and the reconsideration of the separation of train operation and tracks ownership and maintenance.