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.