Key step in creating a modern rail service

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.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

7 thoughts on “Key step in creating a modern rail service

  1. Having read the consultation paper on aviation I can see no mention of a ‘direct rail link’ between South Wales and Heathrow. All that Greening announced is that a 3.72 mile rail spur will be constructed between the GWR line east of Langley and Heathrow sometime in the future. At the moment the bus from Reading station to Terminal 5 takes 38 minutes. Any train service will probably take the same time. Common sense would also suggest that any trainlink to Heathrow will probably be in the form of a western Heathrow Express from Reading. Today’s announcement is also another classic example of spin from a government in serious political trouble because it doesn’t involve any immediate capital expenditure. If the investment is so vitally important then why isn’t it being carried out asap and not after 2014? The money could easily be found if the vanity project of HS2 was pushed into the poltical sidings. The cost of getting the HS2 bill through Parliament alone will probably run into hundreds of millions. Money that could and should be spent on making a start on the capital projects needed to kick start the UK economy before the end of this Parliament. I can understand both the environmental and also the psychological benefits of rail electrification for those areas who felt that they might not be included but some of the comments regarding the economic benefits it might be argued have yet to be tested. After all the time from Cardiff to London will not be much different in 2020 to the time it used to take me in 1970 to travel to university in London in a good old steam train!

  2. It’s great to know the line will be electified to Swansea, and also I understand work down to Llanelli to reinstate the double track BUT what about the rest of us to the west? Are we to become Wales’s ‘Withered Arm’?

    There certainly seems little effort by the franchisee to improve passenger services beyond Carmarthen: the Goodwick Station improvements were down to PCC and a local group, and another local group is attempting to improve the wasteland that is St Clears. The main problem however remains chronic undermanning levels leading to difficulties in staffing on sickness/leave. With no cover built-in, the line past Carmarthen is a hostage to fortune. I have de-trained too often at Carmarthen because ‘we don’t have driver available to take the train to Milford’ and recently the 6pm out of Cardiff on a Saturday terminated there because there was no Guard! (The on board one returning to Swansea as he was not scheduled past Carmarthen, like the drivers). This late afternoon train carried 70 to 80 passengers with – because of it’s timing and no other trains for 2 hours either side – many having travelled all day from as far away as Sheffield, Edinburgh, Manchester, Cornwall, as well as holiday makers on what is a ‘change-over’ day, a Cub Group returning from camp, etc. All disgorged onto an empty, closing station in the growing dust, standing around in the road to await the arrival of two or three hired ‘school buses’ to achieve the completion of their journey, which didn’t themselves arrive until for nearly an hour! Yet again, three and a half hours plus from Cardiff to Haverfordwest, twice the time it takes by car…

    What has this to say to visitors about public transport in Wales in the Twenty First Century? Without train reliability, proper standards of care for passengers, and punctuality then why bother? (I won’t bother with the story of the morning train to Cardiff which missed the main connection to London because it was held outside the station because ‘the platforms were too busy’! And, to add insult to injury, when I complained to an Arriva staff member he said ‘We don’t have connections, we are separate companies’ which says it all really, doesn’t it?). Do you know, it was quicker to get from Fishguard to Paddington when Queen Victoria was alive than it is today?!

    By all means improve the main route network, but without equal attention to the feeder routes we are heading for a second Beeching, or is that the strategy? Come on Welsh Government, what are you doing? Are you closely monitoring franchise agreements and performance, and if so, what are you doing about the regular occurences I have instanced here and not just maintaining but improving passenger experience?

  3. Reading the article written for Justine Greening in today’s Western Mail by a civil servant in the DfT reminded me of the articles the German Ministry of Propaganda used to send to German newspapers in the 1930s. If electrification is the ‘economic game changer’ claimed by the civil servant then surely Tory and Liberal Democrat supporters of the UK Coalition in the West Country should be asking why the line to at least Plymouth has not been included in the plans. Electrification is to be welcomed if only because it now produces a more level playing field if you believe that the reduction in train times plays in vital part in business investment decisions. But even with electrification it will still be quicker for Ed Miliband to travel to his constituency in Yorkshire than to Cardiff. As for the nonsense in the article about a small rail spur to Heathrow which will not be operational until after 2020. Who is going to take seriously a Minister who refuses to make a decision on airport expansion in the South East of England and opposes a third runaway because she is frightened of losing her seat at the next election. In many ways it might be argued even the construction of the new electrified line from Paddington sums up the failure of successive governments to produce economic policies which will equip the UK to compete in the 21st century. The company which won the contract, Amey, is Spanish owned and the £35 million factory train was built by Windhoff in Germany.

  4. Mark, Just have a look at today’s unemployment figures for the Cardiff constituencies to see that we need more than the electrification of the Valley lines. Some of us are just not taken in by the spin from a government that is in serious political trouble and hasn’t got a plan B.

  5. Jeff, There is always spin with projects like this and I do not wish to underplay the poor state of the Welsh economy; I also recognise there are serious issues in parts of Cardiff.

    However, the fact of the matter is that Wales has been the poor relation of the UK rail industry for many years so this investment in electrification in S Wales really is very significant (and welcome) and will underpin the emerging Cardiff City Region concept. It could easily have not happened with money being spent elsewhere in England.

    You can’t underplay the importance of rail access to Heathrow to the prospects of securing inward investment to Wales. Talk to the Execs at Admiral whose organisation has become more geographically dispersed and needs a Corp HQ in a location that can be easily accessed from international locations. Cardiff is currently very poorly connected internationally…a 90min rail journey from T5 to Cardiff Central will really help.

  6. The rail link announcement has caused papers such as the FT to wonder if the Tories are going to do a U turn on a third runway at Heathrow. James Dyson also this week in the Times criticised the failure to make a decision on airport expansion. If the link is so important then surely questions should now be asked why isn’t it being progressd asap in the light of the improvements at Reading station and the development of Cross rail. It is only 3.72 miles long and requires one tunnel. But all Greening actually announced if you read the small print was a potential go ahead which depended on the business case and agreement with the aviation industry. Surely someone should be asking why 2021 when Crossrail will be completd by 2017? I would have thought that the construction of the rail link could run in parallel with the Cross rail development, after all they are now in the process of raising the bridges in West Berkshire on the GWR. As for the economic effects of reducing the time to Heathrow by a few minutes for those who now use the RailBus only time will tell. What would be useful would be to find out is why companies which in recent weeks in the business press have been highlighted as success stories decided to close down factories in South Wales in recent years whilst expanding their operations in England. Even Burberry which left the Rhondda is now it seems talking about bringing work back from China to Doncaster. What makes Doncaster different to Treorchy should be the question perhaps asked by policy makers? Answer that and we might start to get somewhere.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy