Making the metro really work for the valleys and Cardiff

Professor Mark Barry reflects on plans for the South Wales Metro from KeolisAmey and shares new thoughts on how to maximise the opportunity

Disclaimer: This article is based on Mark Barry’s own ideas or those already in the public domain and not those of Transport for Wales, Welsh Government, Cardiff University or any other organisation.


So now we know a little more; the next phase of the South Wales Metro really will be a radically improved and innovative network for the core valley lines from Merthyr, Rhymney, Treherbert, Aberdare & Coryton to Cardiff City Centre, Penarth and Barry.

We will see four trains per hour (tph) from all points on the network periphery and many more on the core routes into Cardiff from Pontypridd, Barry and Caerphilly (I think the 2tph specified for the Coryton line will be quickly revised up to 4tph and the City line will probably require a little further infrastructure work to get to 4tph).  It will exploit new types of Heavy Rail (HR) rolling stock serving Vale of Glamorgan to Rhymney and on-street capability via a tram-train Light Rail Vehicle (LRV) on routes north of Cardiff via Pontypridd and to the Bay, delivering faster, more frequent services and more capacity; flexible extendibility is built-in via the tram-train capability and an initial tranche of new stations deliver greater accessibility.  The wider commitment to invest to upgrade every station across Wales is also impressive.

The new metro stations will be at Gabalfa, Crwys Rd, Loudon Square, the Flourish opposite the Millennium Centre in Cardiff and at Nantgarw (near Coleg Y Cymoedd and the planned DWP office). This is a significant increase in public transport accessibility.  I also expect to see more details in due course of how Ebbw Vale will be re-connected to Newport.

In due course I expect a few more stations to be added to this list; for example, Pontypridd bus station (inconceivable for the largest bus station in the mid valleys and next to the rail line not to be integrated) and at Herbert St (to take pressure off Cardiff Central) and Wedal Rd (see below), as originally set out in the Metro Impact Study commissioned by Welsh Government in 2013. I’d like to see the additional station works expanded and accelerated so they are all delivered by 2024.

So now let’s get behind Welsh Government, Transport for Wales (who have done a remarkable job in running this procurement) and KeolisAmey to build, deliver and operate this next phase of the South Wales Metro – it is vital that this essential foundation is completed successfully.  

There will be some finessing of the scheme and some adjustment during detailed design and implementation to tease out the maximum benefits, but if all goes well it will be operating in the early to mid-2020s; pretty much along the lines of the vision I originally developed, with the support of the Cardiff Business Partnership & published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, in 2011,  followed up in further studies in 2012/13 and developed later with Welsh Government.  I am pleased with how this is all turning out. Going further back, it really delivers Prof Marquand’s vision for an electrified commuter rail network across the valleys he published in, “South Wales Needs a Plan”, in 1936! Nor am I forgetting the work of groups like SEWTA and other local authority proposals going back to the work to reopen lines in Mid and South Glamorgan in the 1980s and later the Ebbw Valley and Vale of Glamorgan in the 2000s.


Options for the Future:  A Public Transport grid for Cardiff

In Cardiff, Metro presents a unique opportunity to develop a new integrated public transport grid right across the city (Figure 1).  Some further metro rail measures and new cross city express bus services east to west which interchange with the metro lines to Pontypridd at Gabalfa and the Rhymey line at Wedal Rd station (which also needs to be added to the scheme) will provide a real alternative to car use and the resulting congestion and air quality impacts.  In doing so, new public transport network planning capability, commercial arrangements and perhaps some bus franchising maybe needed.


Figure 1 Using Metro to develop a high quality public transport grid across Cardiff


An “on-street” extension from “The Flourish“, across the docks to tidal siding freight line via Splott/Tremorfa onto the main line at Rover way opens up huge development potential in the south of the city and provides a means to route some future tram-train services from say Ebbw Vale to the city centre via Cardiff Bay, freeing up capacity at Cardiff Central.  Similarly, the completion of the link between the bay line and Cardiff Central, probably to connect to the City Line, also presents a valuable extension opportunity linked with urban realm improvements all the way from Central to Cardiff Bay along the current bay line & Lloyd George Avenue. There is also the prospect of completing the Cardiff Circle Line at Radyr.


Options for the Future: Re-thinking the region

Now that we have the foundation of a South Wales Metro on the starting blocks, we can begin to seriously think about how we can “rebuild” the region.  The extendibility capability via tram-train is not just about on-street operations down into Cardiff Bay & city centre or extending the metro through the new Plas Dwyr housing in north west Cardiff onto Creigiau and Talbot Green. It’s also about re-imagining the whole of the region and using this new transport capability to enable a more equitable spread of economic activity across south east Wales. This also means developing a statutory and much more strategic capacity to undertake land use planning in south east Wales on a regional basis.

Given the application of tram-trains on much of the core valleys through Pontypridd – which enables more flexibility in developing new routes –  then those involved in local development planning, economic development, community regeneration, housing, etc should be tasked to explore ways better connectivity can help sustainably grow the regional economy (see my Metro economic impact article for the Bevan Foundation in 2016).  From “bricks and mortar” agglomeration through to local and community focused interventions (see my recent speech for Wales in London week for a flavour).  In doing so they should be thinking out to 2030 and beyond and developing ideas for future phases of the metro once the core is complete in the early to mid-2020s. Much of the work set out in the 2013 Metro Impact Study now has a new relevance.  The increasing importance of Pontypridd as a regional centre also demands that we consider how we can improve its accessibility even more than is provided by this next phase of Metro.  


Options for the Future: A Cross-Valley Tram-train service

So, if I may, here’s a crazy idea to kick around! A x-valley tram-train service using a combination of existing, new and reinstated lines. From Pontypool to Treherbert via Pontypridd, Nelson, Hengoed, Blackwood and Crumlin.


Figure 2 The old x-valley line from Crumlin to Treharris as shown on a map from the 1940s

This route could augment north-south tram-train operations on the core valleys via Pontypridd and reconnect the mid-valleys east-west for the first time since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, before which passenger services operated all the way from Pontypool to Aberdare and beyond (Figure 2).

With a total length of ~50KM from Treherbert to Pontypool it would utilise ~30Km of existing rail infrastructure and require ~20Km of new rail, some of which can use old alignments (Figure 3 ) .  There are clearly some challenges, for example the re-introduction of rail on the Hengoed viaduct and crossing the Ebbw Valley at Crumlin.  But we have done all this before….so it’s not so much an engineering challenge but an institutional and psychological challenge!

X-valley movement will become much easier, faster and more convenient.  High quality interchanges with frequent North – South services at place like Pontypool, Crumlin, Hengoed, Abercynon and Pontypridd north effectively delivers a high-quality, rail based, public transport grid covering the vast majority of the most densely populated parts of south east Wales.

Places like Blackwood, Pontypool and especially Pontypridd will have their accessibility dramatically enhanced, supporting more economic activity and helping both larger scale and local community focussed regeneration.  Such a scheme, or even the prospect of it, may enhance the potential of other extensions across the region: to Abertillery, north into Merthyr and to Hirwaun.



Figure 3 Potential x-valley Tram-train service from Pontypool to Treherbert

Yes, expensive – but now at least possible with tram-train capability able to operate on both the existing network, “on-street” or via alignments not possible with pure Heavy Rail (which some of this route may need).

Key Features and Benefits:

  • New high-quality 50Km x-valley rapid transit service for ~250,000 people (Figure 4  )
  • A total end to end journey time of perhaps one hour ten mins; Pontypridd to Blackwood in perhaps twenty-five minutes
  • Brings Blackwood & Pontllanfraith (pop. ~50k) onto the rail network, the largest population centre in the valleys without a direct rail service
  • Provides a real and sustainable alternative to the car
  • Increases the “net effective” population density of the central valleys area – so more people can get to more places, more easily & more quickly
  • Will support further economic development at key centres such as Pontypridd, Ystrad Mynach/Tredomen Business Park & Blackwood with increased employment catchments;
  • It could also help grow the tourist and visitor economy across the valleys especially if linked to the development of the “valleys regional park”
  • Help bring forward new “Transit Oriented Development” housing and mixed-use schemes; especially at/between Treharris and Ystrad Mynach
  • More options to better integrate with local bus services
  • Helps create a more balanced regional economy.


Figure 4 Overlay of route proposal with population distribution and density

Image Credit: Duncan Smith,  at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London


This is an expensive proposal (probably comparable with the cost of the Heads of the Valleys road) and may or may not have a good business case. And if there is a case, it may have to be delivered in phases or modified to ensure best value for money.  But in my view, it is worth exploring.

If we are serious about really changing the future of the valleys for the better, then this is the kind of transport scheme that we need to consider.  It’s taken 8 years to get Metro this far…I’d like to see this x-valley scheme operating by 2028!


A shortened version of this article first appeared on Wales Online

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


Mark Barry is Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning. Mark also has his own consulting business M&G Barry Consulting. He led South Wales Metro Development for Welsh Government from December 2013 to January 2016 following the publication of his Metro Impact Study in 2013.

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