A Circle Line for the Valleys

We have leapt from the 19th  to the 21st Century in a single bound. As well as being a huge shot in the arm for the Welsh economy, the decision to electrify the entire Valley lines network and the Great Western Main Line to Swansea represents the most significant investment in Welsh rail infrastructure since the Severn Tunnel was opened in 1886. The benefits are clear: an electrified rail network is less costly to operate and more environmentally friendly.  Furthermore, the enhanced connectivity between the region’s major towns and cities will help the economy of the whole Cardiff City Region.

This decision also allows us to consider more seriously how the core electrified Valleys rail network can be expanded in the 2020s to create the much-discussed South Wales Metro. This is a project that has the potential to make a further contribution to the economic regeneration of all of south east Wales. Whilst it will include better connections to Cardiff there are also opportunities to change the economic geography of the wider Cardiff City Region for the better. In doing so it will help alleviate some of the challenges of poor economic performance and low economic inactivity in the Valleys.

In particular, a Valley Circle Line could be an early project of a new Cardiff City Region transport authority that could augment the electrification of the core Valley lines. This transformative scheme would only require about 5 kilometres of the freight line from Ystrad Mynach to Treharris to be upgraded and electrified and a new 3 kilometre section built, on an old track bed, between Treharris and Quakers Yard on the Merthyr line.

This could deliver a dual track electrified ‘circle line’ linking Cardiff Central, Caerphilly, Ystrad Mynach, Treforest and Pontypridd at least four times an hour. A number of additional stations on the circle route – Heath and Crwys Rd in Cardiff, Energlyn, Upper Boat, Treharris, and so on – would maximise those able to benefit from this new service.

The development of integrated rail, bus, and cycle hubs at Cardiff Central, Pontypridd, Ystrad Mynach, Upper Boat, Caerphilly and perhaps Heath and Radyr stations, would allow the seamless integration of other transport modes. More especially, the further development of a South Wales Metro could include a Rapid Bus Transit system for the Upper Valleys to link directly with the Valley Circle service. This would vastly improve connectivity for those communities in the Valleys not currently served by rail.

We know better transport widens choice and accessibility and contributes to economic activity. Wales’ leading businesses reinforce this message. Connectivity matters, especially for employees, whose quality of life and productivity is influenced by their commuting experience. A Valleys Circle Line would help deliver this improved accessibility by increasing the travel to work area of Pontypridd, enabling it to grow and develop into a strong commercial, retail and cultural destination in its own right.  It is, after all, important that other locations play a complementary role to Cardiff in the wider city region economy.

This first phase of a South Wales Metro, can also help to address the issue of transport poverty in the region as set out in Access Denied – Transport Poverty in Wales, a recent report by Sustrans. It found that many people encounter significant difficulties in accessing work, education and healthcare because of lack of available, affordable transport. As the report states, “Transport is key to enabling people to find and sustain employment; two out of five jobseekers say lack of affordable transport is a barrier to getting a job.”

By linking the Taff and Rhymney Valleys so effectively, the new Circle Line would vastly improve accessibility and connectivity for a large number of people. For example, the Treforest Industrial Estate and Pontypridd itself would be more easily accessible via public transport, from places on the Rhymney Line – Rhymney, Bargoed, Caerphilly, North Cardiff, and Ystrad Mynach.

The Valley Circle would also help the Welsh Government and local authorities direct the development of major public projects such as hospitals and schools, to locations that are best served and accessed by the Metro network. For example, a New National Galley for Wales could be located in Pontypridd near the station, which is, after all, only about 20 minutes from Cardiff Central and ideally located for all the upper Valleys and the Rhymney Valley once the Valleys Circle is completed. Developers should also be encouraged to build higher quality and more sustainable houses close to Metro stations on the Circle Line and the wider Metro.

With Valleys Line Electrification now approved, the Welsh Government must seriously consider the Valley Circle scheme as the next phase of a South Wales Metro. Local Authorities must show also some vision. This scheme cuts across  four local authorities and demonstrates the need for a strategic city region approach to transport. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of such a scheme being progressed without a new regional body with the authority and financial resources to develop and deliver it.

Mark Barry is author of the IWA and Cardiff Business Partnership report A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region - Connecting Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys and Mick Antoniw is AM for Pontypridd.

12 thoughts on “A Circle Line for the Valleys

  1. Excellent idea, and throw in a Cardiff Circular line – which means extending the Coryton Line along old track bed to link up with Radyr and you have the making of an inner circle line. We need some visionary thinking about the rail system in Wales – an aspiration to plan to. Likewise reopening the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth Line.

  2. This sounds like a good idea, but it has to be extended throughout our country. However, please let us not get wrapped up in this City-Region chimera. If we do, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to really raise the stakes within our nation. Centralism is so Twentieth Century!

  3. The way this is set out makes perfect sense. How can investment be addressed though? This would require significant capital expenditure. Wales only receives 2-3% of the UK’s rail infrastructure spend per year, as things stand. Rail infrastructure funding has never been devolved, unlike in Scotland which has a much stronger political voice.

  4. “Mark Barry and Mick Antoniw argue for a first phase in building a Metro for the Cardiff city region”

    I didn’t know we had a ‘Cardiff city region’. Aren’t they jumping the gun by a little? Oh yes… there is actually a lot more to Wales than this much loved ‘Cardiff City Region’ by those in the Bay.

  5. We don’t have an official city region but we do have one in reality. But foget the terminology and focus on the benefits. Improving transport links like this can only improve peoples opportunities.

  6. Penddu,

    I don’t really have a problem with this circle line going ahead in future but what about other parts of Wales? As somebody already mentioned, how about the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line? And that would go a long way to linking the south with mid Wales and possibly the north eventually.

  7. If you look at past ‘regional’ schemes like this, they have all failed to produce sustainable economic growth. These ideas go back to the 1930s. City-regions are about large corporations top-slicing public funds for increased profits but without long-term benefits to the communities concerned. The consequence is continued emigration, the 21st Century version of “On Your Bike!” Disadvantaged communities in Cardiff will not gain either. They also deny democracy, taking major powers away from local government. City regions will be controlled by quangos, dominated by private sector beneficiaries. They also get the Welsh Government off the hook of devising a successful spacial policy. It is merely another example of neo-liberalism run riot with loads of our money, including EU funds.

    The alternative is economic regeneration based on existing communities, each with their unique strengths and characteristics, a vastly improved education system to equip our people, all within a National economic strategy which harnesses our natural resources which we currently give away. If nations like the Basque Country can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, why on Earth can’t we?

  8. This is an excellent proposal and I would love to see the full report. We are moving into the age of “Homo Mobilis” and this proposal moves us along that “route”.

    “George Amar, Head of prospective for the RATP in Paris takes up this theme in his most recent book, Homo Mobilis, le nouvel age de la mobilité:

    “Mobility has become a quasi social right, like healthcare or education, a public good, like water or electricity.” (my translation)”

    http://www.facebook.com/notes/alun-griffiths/mediating-here-there-and-relationships-in-the-contemporary-real-time-city/10150828347732292

  9. What about extending the railway line that serves the Fros y Fran Open Cast at Merthyr Tydfil?

    A short extension to Dowlais skirting the Open Cast along the Bogey Road would better serve that community and provide easy access to the Brecon Mountain Railway. This would approximate to the original railway link with Dowlais.

    The BMR already has track in place to extend to Torpantau and surely further extension towards Brecon would be feasible? It’s extension to Brecon was a policy proposed by the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority in the late 1990s.

    In addition a survey looking at the feasibility of a transport link between this new Dowlais Station and the Merthyr Tydfil line at Pentrebach. If land availability and incline would permit then a circle line would be created. It not, a bus link with Merthyr Tydfil station could be provided.

  10. This is an excellent, visionary idea and, dare I say it, there is a clue in the title. Such a scheme, added to the already approved electrification of the Valleys (a £350M investment), would enable a more strategic and JOINED-UP approach to a true city-region governance regime. One that aspires to the holy grail of polycentricity where (i) the existing functional economic area is harnessed to deliver strategic economic development & regeneration; housing; transport etc… leading to creativity, connectivity and sustainability and yet (ii) the uniqueness of each place / town is still recognised.

    For any doubters about the potential of city regions, see the following link which sets the context and highlights the benefits: http://www.rchapmanandco.com/topical_issues.asp?int_id=54

    I should add that as someone who hails originally from rural Mid-Wales, this is about ‘horses for courses’. In other words, a city-region approach in Wales is about harnessing the potential of urban economic growth centres. It does not exclude rural areas where a different sort of policy is required. For example, the Powys Growth Zone.

    But why am I a city-region advocate? The light bulb moment came to me in October 2010 as a result of two separate but ultimately linked events. It was these two events which helped me to understand the current status quo. It made me realise (as a regeneration practitioner) that something had to be done.

    First, I was reading an extant piece of research by a former M Sc student Mike Bessell entitled: Valleys town centre investment: a zero sum mentality? A succinct distillation of his research led me to four themes which are all interconnected: (i) Governance: Bessell’s primary research (2010) reveals a lack of coherence in governance with conflicting and misaligned priorities. The absence of a dominant strategic rationale and coherent investment approach is compromising the optimal use of scarce resources to achieve the greatest socio-economic benefits for the Valleys; (ii) Connectivity: Many of his interviewees considered this to be essential, especially by means of the creation of a light railway system which would impact more than just connectivity, as it “would [could] underwrite the concept of a city region” (Bessell, 2010: 66). Enhanced connectivity between areas of deprivation and areas of opportunity could facilitate the creation of areas of potential whilst meeting social needs thereby aiding the move from zero sum to positive sum mentality; (iii) Mindset: achieving a positive sum game is hampered by a zero sum mentality; (iv) Policy: Currently, there are two policy avenues, an efficiency driven policy aimed at prosperity, or an equity driven policy aimed at social cohesion. Bessell’s research showed clear emphasis on areas of need and not opportunity and he wondered whether the policy aspiration is to sustain poverty or to be transformational. Come what may, Bessell’s key policy point was that there must be a step change or transformational volte face towards a city region form of governance.

    Second, in October 2010 I attended an Innovation event held at Cardiff University. I posed a question about City Regions and one of panellists, Professor Kevin Morgan, concluded his response as follows:

    ‘Cities all over the world are the engines of their regions and it is just sad for me to see what has happened in South East Wales over the last twenty years where I have been struck by the parochialism of the mindset and the poverty of ambition, so we really need to raise our game in the city region because many other city regions are doing this around the world.’

    It was these events that led to my research: ‘The Role of a city-region as a territorial vehicle for innovative governance and economic development’.

    In conclusion, I agree that a circle line for the Valleys could make a tangible difference but it needs to be seen in the light of a true city region approach requiring leadership, excellent governance and funding. We need to start the journey and as the Minister for Business said recently ‘city regions in Wales should be embraced, not feared’.

  11. And please make the fare structure sensible! It would be great to be able to buy tickets on a “zone” basis rather than simply between 2 stations – so for example if your season ticket is from Pontypridd to Cardiff you could also use it between Cardiff and Caerphilly.

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