Wales’ connectivity challenge

John Osmond says improving Welsh communication links will define our economic future

Tolstoy’s famous opening to his novel Anna Karenina “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” could equally apply to the lives of nations. “All successful economies are alike but an unsuccessful economy is unsuccessful after its own fashion,” we might say. The modern Welsh economy is certainly unsuccessful. Not only are we the worst performing economic region within the UK in terms of GVA per head, but we are close to the bottom of the EU prosperity league tables. What is distinctive about us that can provide an explanation?

A number of reasons come to mind. Nearly 200 years ago we were at the cutting edge of the world’s first industrial revolution and in a profound sense have never got over it. The inheritance of that pioneering growth of coal mining and iron and steelmaking is still with us, but in largely negative ways. The wealth was removed and all we have left, apart from Port Talbot, are a few heritage sites, albeit that some are world-class. The zenith of Welsh prosperity occurred a century ago in the Edwardian years leading to World War I. It is no coincidence that the period also saw the creation of Cathays Park and our first era of nation building, with the founding of the National Museum, National Library, and the University of Wales.

What was also distinctive about Wales in those times was how connected it was, both internally and with the wider world. In 1913 it was possible to travel from any substantial settlement within Wales to any other by the most important mode of travel of the day, the railways. As far as the outside word was concerned Cardiff was linked to every other major coastal city in the world by ships that carried Welsh steam coal across the globe.

Since then, however, the decline in our communications has been so steep that we can make claim to be the most disconnected part of the British Isles. It takes four hours to travel from north to south Wales by a train that passes through England for much of the journey. By road it takes nearer five hours. As for our links to the outside world they are precarious. Our main railway in the south passes through a tunnel that is prone to flooding. Our main motorway passes through a pinch point at the Brynglas tunnels where in recent years we have more than once experienced an incident that has brought the entire southern economy to a shuddering halt. As for air travel, most of us have no option but to travel to far flung Heathrow and Gatwick for our long haul connections.

It is apposite, therefore, that the current issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda highlights two schemes being promoted by the IWA that have the potential to transform this picture of a languishing back water. At first sight both might seem so big and ambitious as to be unattainable. Our latest offering is for a new international airport to serve the whole of southwest Britain, but located along the Severn between Newport and Chepstow. It might seem churlish to be putting forward such a notion at the very time the Welsh Government is in the process of acquiring ownership of Cardiff airport. Yet, as the authors of the proposal point out, the two are perfectly compatible. Indeed, public ownership of Cardiff airport makes a new airport on Severnside more feasible.

the welsh agenda also devotes a good deal of attention to another scheme which has the potential to transform the prospects of the Welsh economy, a Metro for the Cardiff City region. We first published detailed proposals for this enterprise two years ago and it is remarkable how swiftly it has entered mainstream thinking. It is the subject of a task force that will shortly report to Economics Minister Edwina Hart who has recently, and appropriately, had transport responsibilities added to her portfolio. At Welsh Labour’s Spring conference in Llandudno she pronounced that the scheme was receiving her positive attention.

In our featured articles on this topic Professor Calvin Jones, of Cardiff Business School, says that achieving a Cardiff Metro will not be a panacea for the Welsh economy. But as he also says, “If we build it, and build it well, we will tell the world we care about things. About the climate, yes, but also about the importance of distinctive place, about our less advantaged residents and about actively planning for a positive future.”

John Osmond is editor of the welsh agenda and ClickonWales. This is the editorial in the current Spring 2013 issue whose contents can be reviewed here

15 thoughts on “Wales’ connectivity challenge

  1. An article about the census and the Welsh language in the current issue of the welsh agenda contains an error which occurred, inadvertently, during transmission. As published, the article, by Professor Harold Carter and Professor John Aitchison, contains the sentence,’There are now more Welsh speakers in Cardiff than in the whole of Ceredigion, Gwynedd, and Ynys Mon’. This, of course, is incorrect. The sentence should be as follows: ‘There are now more Welsh speakers in Cardiff than in the whole of Ceredigion. Gwynedd and Ynys Mon showed more resilience but even in those authorities losses were recorded’. The actual numbers of Welsh speakers recorded in the 2011 census in the four authorities were: Cardiff, 36,375; Ceredigion, 34,964; Gwynedd, 77,000; and Ynys Mon 38,568. We shall be republishing this important analysis of the census, which argues that economics rather than rights is now the most critical factor for language survival, on ClickonWales later this week.

  2. I think we have a chicken and egg situation here. Because Wales had so much to offer everyone came here and the incentive to build communications was there. Now that there is little on offer the communications have, in the case of the railways, died away, or simply not developed in the case of road and air. It is difficult to see how that will improve in the foreseeable future given the state of the world economy. And ideas of Wales going it alone seem very fanciful.

    My experience of the local initiatives in public transport has also left me with the impression – well it is a little difficult to be polite. Not well thought out, not properly followed through, a tendency to set up talk-shop committees rather than taking action, money wasted….

    And yes, economics rather than rights as the most critical factor for language survival – plus a proper assessment and realisation of the state of the language and the effect it is having on education.

  3. I am encouraged that John is keeping the flame alive regarding improved connectivity in Wales. A few weeks ago I set myself the task of traveling by public transport from Dolgellau to Salisbury by using secondary railway routes. Overall purpose of travel: historical research at the National Library of Wales and at Archives Offices.

    Dr Beeching made it impossible to get out of Dolgellau by train in 1965, so it had to be by bus to a rail connection either at Machynlleth, Blaenau Ffestiniog or Ruabon. I selected Machynlleth because of the ‘fast and convenient’ connection there to Shrewsbury. The connection worked well, but the seat that I reserved a few days beforehand was not available because “scheduled track work delayed the turn around time for the train”. If it was scheduled, then something could have been done about reservations in advance.

    A break in Shrewsbury for lunch before traveling on? Forget about it if you have luggage. The left luggage facility was closed, even though the National Rail website promised availability, but not Arriva apparently. So much for making things convenient for stop-over passengers!

    Shrewsbury to Newport and Newport to Salisbury. I wondered about the reservation that the booking agent at Aberystwyth station worked so hard to sort out for me. Otherwise fast and convenient, even if part of the journey included a view of Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills in Shropshire. John, surely that part is worth a detour into England!

    I also traveled from Llangollen to Aberystwyth as part of the same visit. Bus to Wrexham takes best part of an hour. Shrewsbury again. Faded glories from the Victorian age of steam, but the trains were running on time.

    Overall impression. The connections work, but facilities for business travellers are sadly lacking. As a researcher with extensive experience of business travel, I would have welcomed a designated business area on the trains with facilities to catch up on work. In this respect, if seats are reserveable, the railway companies should be able to deliver. Food and drinks? Pack your own, or stop off along the way if facilities exist to leave one’s luggage in a secure environment.

    Public transport with business in mind? The railway companies have lost sight of what it means when it comes to the secondary rail routes in Wales. Thomas Brassey and Henry Roberston would not have been amused.

  4. You started off your piece so well John but somehow reverted to the Wales = Greater Cardiff position which I’m getting sick of hearing about. Is the IWA in the future going to argue for a better connectivity within Wales ie betweeen north and south and not just better transportation links within Greater Cardiff and it’s connections to the outside world?

  5. Another article about SOUTH Wales!

    Meanwhile up in the frozen North more and more organisations are co-operating ‘x-border’ with Amnesty International, through the Police, to the Chamber of Commerce (to name but a few…) recognising in word and deed that the only lines of communication that actually work are the east-west links.

    It’s time to abandon the unworkable notion of a north-south connected Wales because it offers us absolutely nothing of substance. Let’s break Wales up into 3 administrative areas (North, Mid, South Wales) all having a border with the relevant English Counties and let’s make the east-west co-operation work again as well as it did before legislative devolution started to impose artificial and unworkable constraints on where various operations should be head-quartered.

  6. In response to John R Walker: The primary issue is that so many people, especially around the Collaborators Cove of Cardiff Bay, don’t see Wales as a nation. They are British regionalists who are obsessed with linking our south east corner with the West Country of England. To allow this to occur they fanatically push the quixotic Cardiff City-Region idea, so that people in Bristol and Bath will show them some respect. The Barrage – Hain’s Folly – adds to this fantasy. Only when we get politicians, economists, academics, entrepreneurs and policy strategists who look at Wales as a unit, and relate it with other relevant nations, will we see some progress. Our first task, however, has to be the eschewing of this sycophantic fixation with all things English.

  7. “…decline in our communications has been so steep that we can make claim to be the most disconnected part of the British Isles. It takes four hours to travel from north to south Wales by a train that passes through England for much of the journey. By road it takes nearer five hours.”

    And a Greater Cardiff Metro and a southwest Britain airport is meant to remedy this? LOL!

  8. Good article, informative jaunt through Welsh transport history. Got a bit dismayed though when I saw the article zero-ing in on transport provision in South-east Wales.

    Regarding travel between North and South Wales – tough one to crack. The train doesn’t have any alternative other than to go through England for a vast chunk of it’s journey – that’s where the line is. I have an old rail map of Wales, and note that a number of lines through Wales were taken up post-Beeching. That said, given the topography of Wales, there’s no guarantee that if the lines were still there (or reinstated even) it would offer a vastly reduced journey time between North and South. The lines follow valleys by necessity, and the orientation of Welsh rivers doesn’t lend itself readily to North-South passage. Some pretty tortuous alignments were needed to negotiate a steep landscape as well. Pretty much the same deal for the highway network.

  9. David, In May 1999 the IWA put forward a plan – prepared by the consultants, W S Atkins – for developing north-south road links. This was an innovative and cost-effective plan that, when complete, could have cut an hour off the journey between north and south. It is a shame that it was not picked up by the Welsh Government in its very first term when the money might have been available to get it underway. In an admittedly more difficult financial climate it was not pursued, even under the Labour-Plaid coalition between 2007-11.

  10. Why don’t the movers and shakers in Wales look to Finland not just for answers in education matters but also transport:

    “As in France, passenger services are mostly connections from various parts of the country to the capital, Helsinki.”

    The capital must always be well linked to the rest of the country. It’s worth remembering that Finland is larger in terms of land mass than Wales. And in Wales’ case, the ‘rest of the country’ isn’t and has never been ‘Greater Cardiff’. Think big.

  11. Thank you for that Geraint. I bet that cutting off an hour still involved travelling through England. It’s not just about speed but also about the linking up of places in-between such as Swansea, Carmarthen and Aber for example.

  12. David
    No it didn’t entail going through England. Our report, published on the day of the first elections to the National Assembly in May 1999, looked at ways of upgrading the A470 Cardiff to LLandudno, the A483 Newtown to Wrexham, and the the A487 Maentwrog to Caernarfon. The main recommendation was to construct passing places at regular intervals along these routes, going both north and south – at approximately intervals of every 4 to 5 miles. Indeed we surveyed the whole route and came up with practical suggestions where the passing places could be placed, together with appropriate signage indicating the distances from the passing places. This would tackle a major problem on these roads, the lack of passing places and so lengthy queues constantly occurring behind lories, agricultural vehicles and caravans – especially in the summer months. This is what makes the journey times so long and, often, the roads dangerous. This practical proposal could still be implemented, at relatively modest cost so ling as it was spread over time. What is needed is a commitment to undertake a scheme over a number of years. It is a policy proposal that should be considered by all the parties for the Assembly manifestos in 2016.

  13. I haven’t heard of the Atkins report, interesting that sections of passing places were advocated as I think that these are an underused solution in the UK for rural highways. I have seen the use of signing the distance to the next passing section in the US.

    Were there any approximate costs associated with the work?

  14. The current thinking on railway development is centred on the electrification that will, hopefully, begin the regeneration of the SE Wales region. In a way this is easier to do as it takes the already established infrastructure created in Victorian times and gives it boost. Much harder to argue for is the building of new lines which would establish connections with the capital city from the different parts of the country.

    Yet I see no alternative to takng this path if we are to create a national railway network serving all parts of the country and, as David said, giving them access to their capital and the richest part of the Welsh economy. This is where one needs a different model to that of regional economic regeneration. I know too little of the plans being developed in Scotland but I believe they’re based on just that principle, citizens of a country having access to the capital and the economy.

    For example, let’s examine the idea of the North-South line. It would take in Brecon, Builth Wells, Llandrindod, Newtown, Welshpool, Oswestry, Wrexham and Flint. There are a number of issues of difficulties here. There is clearly no doubting the advantage of having a direct link to the capital, but what about the cost? The line between Merthyr and Brecon would have to be realigned and built through a National Park, and not on the original trackbed.

    In part the answer to the first question is combining the new line with economic development plans. If the railway reached Brecon, for example, in what way could that be used to help develop the town?

    And there is also the question of speed. We currently have a North-South line which passes mainly through England. If a N-S line were to be built in Wales, it could only really be justified on the basis of delivering significant reductions in journey times to make the investment worthwhile. Even the current network could benefit from this kind of attention. On the journey from Cardiff to Merthyr, it is envisaged that, with electrification, the time travelled will be reduced from 1 hour 4 minutes to 53 minutes, a saving of 11 minutes. But this is still 53 minutes for a journey of approximately 24 miles. In other words, the new electric rolling stock will be doing an average speed of 27 mph. Upgrading of the current network is essential if we are to consider further expansion.

    Therefore my conclusion is that, while re-investing in the current network is long overdue, we need a framework in which we can consider railway projects that are outside of that particular box. And yes, that does mean looking at the extension of the north Wales line to Caernarfon, the fact that Dolgellau is not on the rail network, the re-opening of the line from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen and the reopening of the Cardi Bach. Unfortunately, the current priorities of the Assembly do not permit this.

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