No joined up thinking on the railway

Geraint Talfan Davies says the travails of a small suburban station raise much bigger questions

There are moments when a relatively small local matter tells you a lot more about how our affairs are managed than any great national debate. Once such was brought home to me last week at a public consultation into the upgrading of a small suburban rail station at Llandaff North.

The station – officially known as Llandaf – is on the old Taff Vale Railway and is one of those stations that sees six trains an hour taking people from three valleys into Cardiff. It needed an upgrade to take account of the planned electrification of the Valleys lines in south east Wales and to make it compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act by providing access for the disabled to the platform for southbound trains into Cardiff. Its car park also needs upgrading.

The first striking fact is that this simple matter has been complicated more than it need have been by having to be managed by four separate organisations – Network Rail tasked with building a new bridge across the twin tracks, demolishing an old footbridge and installing lifts on each platform, and a Welsh Government / Department of Transport programme of station improvement doing the rest – in this case refurbishing an old Victorian shelter, providing a new ticket office and upgrading the car park. In addition, Arriva Trains Wales were advising on passenger flows.

The outcome will, of course, represent an improvement on what was there, but the overall result could be so much better had the interests of users not been asked to play second fiddle to administrative convenience, and had there been a unified approach. It might even have cost less. It is a warning about what could happen to the delivery of the proposed Metro system for the whole south east Wales region.

Network Rail themselves carried out a public consultation on their plan for a new footbridge and lifts, although sadly it was held only a matter of weeks before the work was due to start, so there was never any real hope that public comment would affect the scheme. The bridge is now complete with its two staircases facing north and coming to ground about as far away from the pedestrian route with the highest footfall as could be managed.

The lifts, although installed some months ago are still not in operation, despite the fact that completion of the construction work was way behind schedule. It doesn’t say a lot for Network Rail’s coordination of the work.  

All in all it looks, feels like and is a modular structure that could be dropped on any station in the land, and massively heavy in its engineering for its likely light suburban load. Good design is nowhere, a comment that might also be made about Network Rail’s new Windsor Road rail bridge in Cardiff which is an insult to the memory of Brunel, not to mention the city’s cyclists for whom no provision is made.

But back to Llandaf. The initial proposal for the adjacent car park (part of the Welsh Government scheme) makes the same mistake of forgetting the user. It offers a pedestrian footpath around two sides of the car park perimeter that will certainly not be used by sensible walkers who, rain or shine (and rain is not unknown in these parts) will take the common sense diagonal route direct to the foot of the distant staircase. It is an elementary mistake that you would not expect from a first-year planning student.

But the change that will cause the most bemusement to passengers is that it is planned to move the ticket office from the platform that is used by more than 90 per cent of the station’s ticket-buying passengers – heading for Cardiff – to the other platform from which the very occasional passenger heads north for Pontypridd and Merthyr. Several who attended the consultation expressed disbelief that one reason given for this switch was that it would be easier to connect to a mains drain a toilet for the part-time ticket clerk. Did we not put a man on the moon nearly fifty years ago?

One could nit pick about other details, but these local defects have wider implications.  

Rail projects in Wales are funded and delivered in one of three ways:

  • funded and delivered by the Department of Transport (UK?) and Network Rail
  • funded by the Welsh Government (and ERDF) and delivered by Network Rail
  • funded by the Welsh Government (and ERDF) and delivered by the Welsh Government

Not ideal, but even so you might have thought that it would not be difficult for four organisations (who are in constant contact) to sit round the same table and plan a station improvement as one comprehensive exercise. Not so. With responsibility for the railway system remaining undevolved, these exercises fall within fragmented budgets and, in the case of Network Rail within different 5-year ‘Control Periods’. It seems this makes it difficult for all four of them to get to the starting line at the same time.

For Network Rail the upgrade at Llandaf is part of a £370m UK-wide Access for All scheme, primarily designed to provide up to date disabled access. This affects 15 stations in Wales: four of which are complete – Bridgend, Chirk, Prestatyn and Ystrad Mynach;  three of which are in progress – Llandaf, Machynlleth and Radyr; and eight of which are in future plans – Abergavenny, Barry Town, Cathays, Llanelli, Severn Tunnel Junction, Taffs Well, Trefforest and Treherbert.

If we look at south east Wales, 10 stations in the Network Rail’s Access for All programme are in the proposed area of the Metro system – Barry Town, Bridgend, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Severn Tunnel Junction, Taffs Well, Trefforest and Treherbert and Ystrad Mynach. The Welsh Government, in its current programme, is funding improvements at four of these – Llandaf, Radyr, Trefforest and Ystrad Myynach – plus another nine – Abercynon, Aberdare, Ebbw Vale, Merthyr Tydfil, Merthyr Vale, Pentrebach, Pontypridd, Pye Corner, and Troed-y-Rhiw.

Given the amount of investment in the local rail system in the coming years the current fragmented approach should be a matter of deep concern. The existence of two funding streams and the dictates of Network Rail’s Control Periods is not a sufficient excuse. The truth is that, for all the improvements that passengers will see at Llandaf station, we could have ended up with a better scheme at a lower cost had the whole upgrade been planned as one.

Looking further ahead a deeper concern is that while others are beavering away at creating a much-needed coherent delivery organisation for transport in Wales, including the specification and advertising of a new rail franchise, the existing set up will continue its programmes of work for the next 2-3 years delivering sub-optimal solutions that will not produce the visible unified transformational effect that everyone is hoping for from the Metro development – the biggest public expenditure scheme in the Assembly’s history. Ministers need to knock heads together now.

Geraint Talfan Davies is former Chair of the IWA.

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