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.

9 thoughts on “No joined up thinking on the railway

  1. “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..”

    It’s like the governance of Wales then – 4 layers of snouts in the trough and very little evidence of joined up thinking! Apparently it’s no way to run a railway either… Come back British Rail – all is forgiven!

  2. An administrative nightmare from beginning to end – or silo management and operation in workplace jargon. It’s clear that the message of joined up government, and “old fashioned” collaboration, has not trickled down into the organizations involved in this debacle.

    I thought, mistakenly perhaps, that the Welsh government had made its intentions clear in the Assembly. A law was passed to underscore sustainability as an operating principle in Wales.

    Time for this message to be reinforced at senior and middle management levels in the public services in Wales, and to centrally based departments that operate in Wales. Otherwise, Llandaff stations will proliferate as monuments to the inconvenience of all.

  3. Network Rail does not enjoy a good reputation for reliability in terms of delivery. Before leaving office, Edwina Hart made frequent public comments about her dissatisfaction with the organisation. The question is what would replace it.

    Railway development is likely to be somewhat confused over the coming years. The first item on the agenda is the franchise renewal and what criteria the Government intends to put into the franchise tender.

    However I find myself increasingly disillusioned with the idea that the Government has the slightest interest in what the public think. Railway development is one of the powers that the Assembly should be seeking to campaign for as there is a great deal of potential for such projects that should be made by a Welsh Government and not an English-based government company which Network Rail now is. Yet I see very little life in the man who has taken Edwina Hart’s place, namely Ken Skates. He shows all the signs of returning what was a dynamic department under Edwina back to the familiar territory of Labour managerialism. His department’s dismissive and unprofessional report on Wales’ bid to host the Commonwealth Games was indicative of this. It represents an “it’s all too much effort” that seems to emanate from the Civil Service in the Bay. I was left wondering who really runs that department; the report suggested the civil servants do and not the Secretary.

    There is also a great deal of secrecy surrounding this subject. Does anyone really know what the new Metro will look like? A pamphlet was recently published as part of a public consultation on the new Metro. There were lots of different ideas contained within it that suggested an exciting project. But after asking a few questions of the civil servants fronting the exercise, it became clear that it was just PR. There are no definite plans for anything. If you delve into the National Transport Plan, you will find the suggestion that the Valleys may be served by trams but Barry will continue to be served by heavy rail because it is a deviation route for the South Wales mainline. Has there been any public discussion on how these issues will be resolved? The different signals given off by the different bodies appears to suggest that these decisions will be taken behind closed doors by politicians and experts and success will be measured by how small the public contribution to this important project will be.

    The most recent example of this is that of the electrification of the Valleys. Since this project was announced, we have had the Brexit vote which will mean European no longer being available to Wales. Have we had any clarification from the Government as to how this project will go forward?

    Geraint’s networks may well mean that he knows that “knocking heads together” is what will solve the problem.

    But I see a Government that seems to be turning in on itself, now that the election is over, and is not interested in the engaged electorate that the IWA promised was the future of politics in Wales.

  4. A very good example of how NOT to proceed with any ‘development’. Did the works at Llandaf railway station not require full and detailed planning permission from Cardiff City Council??

  5. I don’t worry that the Metro will be ill-designed. I don’t think it will happen at all. Like the M4 relief road it will remain a distant prospect to beguile us for years to come. There will be a few disconnected railway improvements and these will be badged as part of a Metro scheme but the Welsh government does not have the courage or the capacity to design and build an integrated Metro, which would anyway require more money than they are willing to borrow. This scheme could be delivered only by a dedicated agency with expertise, legislative powers and cash. The Welsh government has no intention of setting up such a powerful body outside its immediate control. And despite Rhobat Bryn Jones’ rose-tinted memories of Mrs Hart, she, as a notorious control freak, was even less likely to delegate the necessary powers than her successor is.

  6. Again the wrong questions are being asked? Over £5 million of public money is being spent on tarting up just two railway stations close to Cardiff. Llandaff North to Cardiff Central is just a 14 minute trip. Why is it so expensive is an obvious question? Why do you need a ticket office for a start? In Europe the tickets would be on sale in any corner shop and stamped on the platform or as you entered the train/ tram. in most countries in the world Llandaff North would have just two basic platforms. It is also interesting to see £5.5 million spent on Llandaff North and Radyr when not one penny is being spent on lines such as the Llynfi Valley line to Maesteg. Llandaff North has 6 trains an hour to Cardiff when Maesteg has just one an hour and no trains on a Sunday. In order to have just two trains an hour the Maesteg line would only need the construction of a passing loop which would cost £15 million. Promised by the Assembly by 2014 and we are stil waiting. The Maesteg line also serves Pontyclun which was one of the stations that the Boss of Admiral pointed out needed an improved service when he was appointed to Edwina Hart’s task group on the Metro. What happened to those three wise men I wonder? One final point when the scheme for Llandaff North was announced in 2014 the Assembly PR spin was completion by the end of that year. But why should anyone complain at completion in 2016 when the sod was cut for the new Brackla station in 2001 by the then Assembly Minister for transport and there is still no sign of any progress.

  7. Is there anywhere in Wales with a train station where the words joined up thinking applies?
    It seems to me that after Beeching our Welsh transport infrastructure fell apart or rather was torn apart
    If there is an action that is necessary then it is a declaration of intent to secure full control of all Transport activity within our own borders.
    The Welsh Government could make an immediate commitment to reinstate the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line and the short link Carmarthen to Llandeilo

  8. The railways are currently a fragmented mess, where everyone blames each other in a big circle. There needs to be a single body with clear responisbility for everything, whether they subcontract is up to them, but ultimately they are the one to blame.

    With regard to your comments “Good design is nowhere”, “an insult to the memory of Brunel” and “there was never any real hope that public comment would affect the scheme”, I look down the line (metaphorically and phyiscally) to Control Period 6 and Cardiff Central station. Three different sets of artisit’s impressions have been produced for the area. One, from the Central Square developers, shows a covered walkway linking the railway station to the new bus station, the other two (from Network Rail) do not, but have other structures in the same area. None of the three visions show any consideration of sympathetic design, they all burry the station under huge glass and steel constructions. The Network Rail illustrations also suggest very significant demolistion of the grade II listed station buildings. Although the current station was built long after Brunel, it is nonetheless an impressive example of a GWR station; the listed documents indicating that it is the most complete post-1923 GWR major station. In my opinion, Cardiff Central does need improving but demolision of any part of the station is unacceptable and the extensions need to be designed to complment rather than compete with the original parts, and be sited where they do not interfer with the original architecture. Putting the vast majority of the extention on the south side, which already has a modern entrance, would be a good start. And give us a meaningful consultation with time to listen to comments and fully implement changes too.

    Rhobat Bryn Jones’ comment that the upper ValleyLines might be converted to tram lines is concerning. There are currently eight trains per hour (four from Penarth and four from Barry) coming up into Cardiff Central from the Vale Of Glamorgan Line, and there maybe more in future. They have to go somewhere, which probably means the central core of the ValleyLines through Queen Street have to be heavy-rail. Unless the rolling stock is to be tram-trains, cabable of operation on both heavy-rail and light-rail tracks, I cannot see trams working without building a new street-running central section, perhaps from Heath to Cardiff Bay via Cardiff Central.

    G Horton-Jones asked “is there anywhere in Wales with a train station where the words joined up thinking applies?” I’m not sure of anywhere it applies in full, however Fishguard Harbour is pretty damn good when it comes to connection between train and ferry. Unfortunately there are rumours (which thankfully don’t appear to be substantiated) that the station is to be closed when the marina development happens. Another problem at Fishguard Harbour is that the buses generally don’t connect with trains there.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy