Waking up on transport issues

Phil Parry says we need a strategic vision of transport policy in Wales.

Good transport links are vital for Wales and recent events have underlined how important they are.

The deal between Welsh government ministers and Westminster allows electrification of the valleys lines railways, shaving off a vital few minutes in journey times.

You will be able to get from Merthyr Tydfil and Treherbert to work in Cardiff in under 50 minutes. The hour figure is seen as significant because anything over that will deter passengers.

The UK government will provide £123 million of the estimated £500 million for electrifying the valleys lines and cover the whole cost of electrifying the main line to Swansea. Work is expected to begin in 2019.

Roads too need upgrading.

The Welsh economy minister, Edwina Hart, has chosen the most expensive and controversial ‘black route’ for the M4 relief road around Newport at a cost of £1 billion. This will avoid the bottle-neck of the Brynglas tunnels. Both of these schemes are highly contentious but, probably, necessary.

Transport is key to promoting economic growth.

Movement between north and south Wales is important politically but, statistically, nowhere near as vital as good links east to west.

The fly in the ointment remains Cardiff airport. It was bought last year by the Welsh government for £52 million, while critics have pointed out Glasgow Prestwick was purchased by the Scottish executive for a nominal £1.

There has been a slight upturn in passenger numbers recently but they are still low compared with Bristol. Cardiff airport has also been immersed in controversy. Of 80 recent trade missions, Welsh government ministers used Cardiff airport just five times, with Heathrow by far the most popular with ministers. This airport was used 49 times.

The newly unveiled National Transport Plan has been announced in the context of transport policy driving prosperity, a timely and necessary objective. It remains to be seen  whether this will work.

It is not simply on transport issues we need to wake up.

People in Wales are much poorer.

The Gross Value Added (GVA – a measure of wealth and how much is produced in the economy) per head of population is just £16898 per annum while in England it is over £7000 more.

Perhaps the two issues are linked.

Good links to a much larger neighbour (in this case England) are vital. Wales has a puny 3.4 per cent share of the UK’s GVA compared with 84.8 percent for England.

The economic benefits of strong links with centres which are a nexus for growth, whether England or areas along the M4 corridor, are vital.

It is a myth that the modern Welsh economy is based on manufacturing (although this is bigger than in other parts of Britain). Modern Wales, as with other parts of the UK, is dominated by the service sector. Even fourteen years ago it formed 66 per cent of GVA and it has increased since.

Even the concept historically, of Wales being based on manufacturing may be wrong – some commentators say extractive industry might be a better description.

But it is clear that in the modern economy, transport is critical and politicians must be aware of that fact, if they aren’t already.

They often talk of ‘evidence-based’ policy-making.

Here the evidence is overwhelming.

Phil Parry is the Editor of Wales Eye.

19 thoughts on “Waking up on transport issues

  1. “Movement between north and south Wales is important politically but, statistically, nowhere near as vital as good links east to west.”

    I agree with the author about the importance of transport links in Wales. But despite claiming that the evidence that east-west transport links should have priority is ‘overwhelming’, there’s nothing in the article to suggest that is the case.

    The north-east and south-east are shouldering economic the burden because it’s impossible to get anywhere else.

    Does making it easier for everyone to commute from Cardiff into London make Wales any richer, or does it further centralize power and wealth in London?

    As the author says, the Welsh economy was until recently based on ‘extractive industries’. Indeed, the economic gain was extracted along these east-west transport links out of the country.

    Most of Wales is underdeveloped economically because the transport links ar so poor. I travel between north and south Wales every week, and the roads are so terrible that it takes some four hours to travel 100 miles. I’ve had to make a 50 mile round trip through Powys on more than one occasion because of minor flooding.

    Could anyone point to one other developed country where the roads connecting one side of the country to the other are so terrible? And don’t say ‘it’s mountainous’. Other countries have far trickier topography to navigate and do so without any problems.

    Good transport links within Wales would release the economic potential of much of the country. Saying that these areas are poor and so that we shouldn’t bother improving the transport links to them is a vicious circle that dooms much of the country to perpetual poverty.

    The truth is that it is the emphasis on east-west links that is political. By increasing Wales’ economic dependency on England, and keeping north and south Wales divided, politicians believe that they can stop the growth of Welsh nationalism.

    I’m not a nationalist, but I do want what is best for the area in which I happen to live, which is at the moment the poorest in Western Europe – and that is developing the economy within the country, not spending billions on making it 15 mins faster to get from Cardiff to London.

  2. Ifan Morgan Jones, I agree with you. It is ludicrous that it takes 4 hours to drive from Cardiff to Wrexham industrial estate [ 2nd largest Industrial estate in the UK] and with Deeside next door and Liverpool and Manchester further afield. We have an economy dominated by the service sector that is true but the idea that the service sector doesn’t need transport links is ridiculous. You are either moving people or products – look at the logistics operations of Amazon or Tesco.

  3. One of the difficulties of the current situation regarding railway development is that, although the Assembly is to gain control of the Wales and Borders franchise in 2018, Network Rail will remain under Westminster control, therefore setting our own agenda will be hampered by having to apply to Westminster.

    I concur with Ifan Morgan Jones’ comments above. One of the difficulties for economic development within Wales is the poor connections that exist between the capital and the rest of the country beyond Merthyr. There is a great deal of discussion and action being taken on the South East Wales Metro and rightly so. However the rest of Wales will not benefit from this if its rail and road connections act as a barrier than a facilitator.

    Let me quote one example. An idea that has been floating around my mind is extending the railhead from Merthyr to Brecon. This is something that I will have to research in due course. It is a view held by Railfuture that for a line to be reopened, it needs to serve a population of about 20,000. Brecon’s is about half of that and so falls at the first hurdle. But if you combine the railway extension with plans to develop Brecon then other options become possible. Brecon could develop as a commuting town for those working in Cardiff and the Capital Region provided the journey time was under an hour. Brecon is a desirable place to live and could benefit from the growth that a railway line would bring. It would also, as importantly, provide a rail head for mid-Wales to the capital city. I was surprised talking to friends who live in the Brecon area that they tend to view Hereford as their city of choice with Abergavenny as a close second. What shapes this may in part be cultural, but I suspect that it is mainly due to the presence of the Brecon Beacons that looking eastwards becomes the natural choice. But as Ifan says, modern engineering technology today can easily overcome what were imposing difficulties in days gone by. You only have to look at Italy to see how road and rail development has helped to connect a country that has far more severe barriers than we do to see how it can be done

    As I said, I applaud the vision for the South East Wales Metro and recognise its necessity in providing an engine for growth for the region. If we are to raise wage levels and offer people a route out of poverty, then we need an economic region that is worth investing in. But this should not be the limit of our ambition for our capital city. Just as the North of England was described as beginning at Watford, so North Wales seems to start at Merthyr Tydfil. Properly researched and funded, road and rail development can overcome these limitations, just as they did in the nineteenth century.

  4. Come on now Ifan, if I set up a business I want to tap into the largest customer base and have the largest possible reservoir of potential high quality employees. Where in North West Wales does it make more sense to look South rather than East? Where in North East Wales would an employer or retailer consider that Cardiff, Newport or Swansea were more important to link with than Cheshire, Lancashire and the Midlands?

    It’s only the fact that we call ourselves “Wales” that fools people into thinking that we should look anywhere but East. When you call yourself Western Britain the illogicality of concentrating on anything but transport links Eastwards becomes evident.

  5. I concur with IFM above.

    Labour and Labour-led governments in Cardiff have had no vision for Wales &and we’re getting poorer by the day. Labour and Tory governments in London couldn’t give a fig about Wales. We urgently need real powers to generate the economy and politicians with vision to put Wales at the top of their agenda. Not one of the unionist parties with their Westminster agendas can deliver.

  6. I’m not sure I’d call Cardiff Airport the “fly in the ointment”. Personally I wouldn’t have nationalised it and there are issues over price paid and ability to access the airport; but the airport will be a success if the economy is a success: that is, if there are enough people with enough money to use it; and – importantly – enough businesses in south Wales that need to use it.

    In terms of east-west links, I had assumed that the author was referring to those within Wales, rather than out of (perhaps including Chester/Liverpool and Bristol) to London. That’s probably fair, but there is another question about how best to link mid-Wales into the rest of the economy.

    I look forward to a festive read of the draft National Transport Plan.

  7. I have not seen the debate of transportation in Wales evolve very much since the mid 2000’s. Same issues, same questions. Having traveled by public transport in Wales as a matter of choice, and not as a Michael Portillo, I can vouch for the difficulties that remain to be overcome if an automobile is not used.

    Data from timetables on Traveline Cymru expose the real situation. A journey from Monmouth to Cardiff to meet with government officials – an hour and a half with a change in mode at Newport. Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury – good timing, but no provision for business travelers even at a hub such as Shrewsbury. Sorry, it’s in England. Wrexham? I shudder. The “express” bus between Llangollen and Wrexham can take an hour if traffic is heavy. Overall accessibility by public transport in North Wales convenient for business? Forget about it. The car rules.

    Perhaps the transportation planners need a change in mindset so that alternative scenarios are brought into the picture. For example, an improvement in the journey to work from Monmouth to Cardiff as an incremental improvement in economic opportunity, or perhaps to think of hubs such as Wrexham as locations to establish business service centers on a fee for use basis. Think outside the box for a while and strive for innovative answers.

  8. The problem is not transportation – the problem is that Wales is an illogical uncompetitive inconvenient artificial administrative construct.

    When I came to Wales pre-devolution my ‘contact centres’, if they were not in N. Wales, were always conveniently directed east towards Chester and the North West. Now everything is directed towards Cardiff – I didn’t ask for this and I don’t want this because technically it makes my life more inefficient. This has caused me to ‘do less’ because I don’t want the hassle or the stress of going anywhere near Cardiff…

    From Gwynedd I can literally drive right across the country to Hull in less time than it takes me to get to Cardiff! For the sceptics Cardiff Bay is 187.3 miles and should take 4hr 34 min while Hull is 197.7 miles and should take 3hr 40 min. Cardiff often takes over 5 hours according to people who drive there regularly. I have better things to do with my life… On the way to Hull I have a choice of Manchester and Leeds – two world-class commercial cities with airports where I can get almost anything done entirely in English. Liverpool is a viable alternative. On a fast-ferry I can get to Dublin in the same time it takes to drive to Cardiff – some of the ferries do the trip in under 2 hours plus the obvious dead time.

    The real problem is therefore not transportation – the problem is once again overcoming the level of insanity which believes that North Wales can be administered efficiently from Cardiff…

  9. J Jones’ argument is to accept passively the economic model that has been developed over the Dyke and try to buy into it rather than to see the potential for developing our own economy and devise an infrastructure that services that objective. It is an economic version of the colonial cringe that used to prevail in Australia.

    The reality is that we have to try and tap into all markets, not just England, but the question is from what base do we operate? I think there is a great deal more that can be done to strengthen our internal economy. It is not a case of either/or. We can only strengthen our economy by trading but we are in a better position if we do so when there are more company headquarters and research being conducted here than not.

  10. But Rhobat the Welsh market is very small and very spread out. If it was a matter of 3 million people spread over a small area Wales could indeed be a power house but we are blighted with a geography that makes East West links relatively straight forward and North South links problematical. Add to this the ingrained parochialism that is evident in rural Wales and nurtured by Nationalism and it’s clear that cringe or no cringe we either look East or founder.

  11. JRW’s argument always seems to boil down to, “why didn’t people listen to me when I said devolution was a mistake?”

    Apparently no-one consulted him when they made Cardiff the capital city of Wales in 1955.

    The railway infrastructure was not always east-west. But it is true to say that the major routes were such that they reflected the major traffic flows which were. England was and remains a large market for Wales and the transport routes continue to reflect that. However that market was put in place by Westminster governments whose purpose was to enhance the wealth of that country. We only have to look at the amount of wealth generated in Wales from the coal industry and how little of that remained in Wales to see how that particular policy operated.

    It is just as valid therefore to seek to develop our own markets for our own benefit and have the necessary infrastructure in place to do just that. It makes perfect sense to start in a region that has inherited the greater legacy and seek to turn it into an engine of growth. But if we are to avoid the same problem as exists in England, i.e. over-concentration of wealth in the South East, then we will need to have a regional development plan that ties in to investment in the city regions, and that will need to include both road and rail development.

    On a news item last night, it was claimed that Mid-Wales was turning into a economic dust bowl. In the absence of a plan to connect economic growth to other regions, that is not surprising. In response to the reference to the £1 billion M4 in the South-East, the Welsh Government referred to the £8.8 million spent on the Aberystwyth regeneration, the 3.75 million given to Ceredigion, Powys and Pembrokeshire and not forgetting the £23,000 for the development of a Business Improvement District in Aberystwyth. To put that in context, that’s 1.26% of the money for the M4.

    Yet it should be possible to establish economic development areas based on Marcher Towns such as Brecon and Newtown (whatever did happen to that new town designation of 1967) as well as Wrexham in the North-East. In that context, road and railway development should be able to achieve a measurable outcome for the transport investment.

  12. Come on now Rhobat…perpetuating the victim status of Wales by asserting that it was a cunning plan to disadvantage Wales when East West links were put in place. You have to go back to pre industrial revolution times to find any different emphasis and even then you would find that all roads lead to the coastal ports where goods were transported….to England. When was Wales (as a whole) a major concentration of population in comparison to England?

    And before you assert that extractive industry in its hay-day was “the rape of our fair country” it was exactly the same exploitation of poor labour as happened all over Britain and all over the world. It was a capitalist class driven exploitation not a national (English) exploitation.

  13. @ J Jones – a brief response

    Why look only to England? May I also remind you that Luxembourg has a population of 524,853 (Wales 3,063,456), a land area of 2,586 sq km (Wales 8,022 sq km) and yet a GDP per capita (PPP) of $79,785 (Wales $30,546). If you think small, you will get small. A small population has not prevented Luxembourg from achieving big things.

  14. @ J Jones

    I think if we’re to have an intelligent discussion on economic development in Wales, a less patronising tone would go a long way to achieving that.

    I do not subscribe to the victim model of Wales as you suggest; quite the contrary as is evidenced by my postings. My point is simple, the English are very good at protecting and advancing their economic interests. Because they have done so, that is why Wales is in the position it finds itself. Now that we have proper political representation to represent our interests, we need to address, among other issues, how we strengthen our own economic base as a platform for international trade. The political question is how we distribute the wealth we earn. Do we keep it all to ourselves in the South-East as happens in England or do we use our intelligence to devise systems that enable all parts of Wales to benefit?

  15. Interestingly I think that one fundamental area missing from this discussion about transport is freight.
    The M4 from London to west Wales serves freight to and from Ireland as does the A55 in the north. The train lines the same. The trains from the valleys down to the ports also served freight. So the question is would better transport links in Wales from north to south or north west to south east / south west to north east better serve freight requirements. If I want to get goods from Bridgend to Birmingham or Manchester or Glasgow how exactly do I do this now without a dog leg along the m4/m5?

    Also, as Cardiff airport is as I understand it able to run 24 hours why not freight from there with a good road to the M4.

  16. Read J R Walker’s first sentence. Then read it again. He doesn’t want Wales to exist. It’s just a nuisance to him. I would like to apologise on behalf of my fellow countryment for inconveniencing him with our existence and our unforgivable patriotism. And I would like to thank him for continuing to live among us despite the pain our evident inferiority gives him. Merry Christmas.

  17. J.Jones’ remark about Western Britain recalls the book by I.Ffowc Ellis “Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd” ( a week in the Wales of the future). I wonder if Mr Jones has read it. In one future, Wales no longer exists and has become “western Britain” with no distinctive culture, language or identity. In an alternative future Wales endures and is bilingual. It is obvious which future Ffowc Ellis preferred. It is fairly obvious which one correspondents like J.Jones and J.R.Walker want. Unfortunately no compromise is possible between these preferences. You just have to line up and the future depends on who has the majority in the end.

  18. I think the IWA Constructive Comment of the Year Award should definitely go to John R Walker for “Wales is an illogical uncompetitive inconvenient artificial administrative construct”. As if all other nations and nation states were intelligently designed and handed down to Moses along with the stone tablets? Identity, history, culture, human life – these things ARE illogical, and that’s why they’re so great. To suggest that all of this should go out the window for a business case that, frankly, nobody but you is making seems much closer to insanity than the idea of a Welsh city being the seat of the Welsh government.

  19. No Ross, we had to study “Cysgod Y Cryman” when I was in school but my enthusiasm for FFowc Elis didn’t lead me to read any more of his work.

    I have to say that it’s a cheap trick to try and divert argument away from what I or John Walker actually say by just claiming that we are “Anti Wales” or “Anti Welsh language”.

    If you have rational argument which refutes my opinions then bring it out but it isn’t enough to say “I wish it was like this and I can’t stand it when HE says it’s quite different”.
    What I see repeatedly is a country in denial; unable to face the realities and just gazing wistfully into a mythical past while trying to construct an unlikely future which ignores reality.

    I would think that a majority in favour of the mythology is easily possible but it might find there are practical difficulties. By all means tunnel through the heart of Wales from Bangor to Cardiff but just who is going to come up with cash for a project with so little economic gain?

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