A tale of two journeys: the need for connectivity between north and south Wales

Peter Daniels compares his experience of the roads in Switzerland to the roads in north and south Wales

My summer vacations last year took in a coach trip through France & Switzerland to Italy, and a week’s golfing in Anglesey, reached from Cardiff by Wales’s ‘major’ internal trunk road, the A470.


Travelling through Switzerland I was utterly transfixed by the high standard of roads in such mountainous terrain, completely disproving for me the myth that Wales lacks decent road and rail infrastructure because of its inhospitable geography.


Switzerland’s topography considerably dwarfs that of Wales. Nearly two thirds of its land area is dominated by the Alps, where the average height is 1700 metres, compared to our highest mountain, Snowdon, which is only just over 1000 metres.   


Yet Switzerland has one of the highest motorway densities in the world, with a total network of over 1000 miles, incorporating 200 tunnels. These tunnels alone cover 140 miles, whilst Wales has only 88 miles of motorway in total.


And Switzerland is only about 2½ times the size of Wales, about half the size of Scotland, with a population of around 8.5 million compared to our 3.1million.


But Switzerland is also very independent, not even being a member state of the European Union.


Not unlike Wales, it incorporates, within its boundaries, distinctive cultural and linguistic regions, probably far more contrasting than north and south Wales, based on 4 separate languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh.


But all are recognised by the constitution, which also, since 1874, guarantees full religious liberty. Switzerland, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘has forged strength from all these (multicultural) differences, (with) individual rights carefully balanced against community and national interests.’ This feels a million miles away from the situation in the UK, where the 1847 Government Report on the State of Education in Wales discouraged the use of the Welsh language in schools, where a campaign to disestablish the Church of England in Wales took until 1920 to reach fruition, sapping generations of Welsh political leaders in the process, and where Wales’ road and rail infrastructure is markedly inferior to that of England.  


My wife and I travelled by coach from the Swiss capital Berne, down the A2 highway, through the Gotthard Pass to Lake Lugano, before entering Italy. The Gotthard Pass is 2000 metres above sea level, with a road tunnel 17 kilometres (10.5 miles) in length. An adjacent rail tunnel is also 14 kilometres in length, but the new Gotthard Base Rail Tunnel, opened in 2016, is a staggering 57 kilometres (35 miles) long, the longest rail tunnel in the world.  


A slightly different travel experience was to be had driving from Cardiff to Anglesey, mainly via Wales’ north-south primary artery, the A470, with the journey not helped by poor and limited road signage, being sent up single vehicle mountain tracks by ‘Dora the Explorer’ (the GPS system), or by an almost complete lack of any roadside service facilities to provide sustenance or desperately needed toilet breaks.  Weight of traffic was however not a problem, and the scenery was indeed lovely, dramatic even in the rain, with my wife claiming that it would be far less spectacular if viewed from the safety of a dual carriageway.


Our holiday companions for this Anglesey golf break hailed from Essex. The website, Driving-Distances.com, estimates that a journey from London to say Holyhead, of 287 miles, would have taken them 5 hours 12 minutes at an average speed of 55.17 mph, compared to our 200 mile drive from Cardiff to Holyhead believed to  take 4 hours and 32 minutes at an average speed of only 46.43mph. We actually took 5½ hours to travel from the Vale of Glamorgan to Beaumaris, with our return trip taking longer than those driving home to Essex.


These journey times and speeds have to be a consequence of the generally poorer standard of roads to be found in Wales in comparison to England. Wales, an area covering 8.5% of Great Britain, incorporates just 6.1% of available dual carriageway roads, and only 3.8% of motorways. Expressed as a proportion of each country’s major roads, only 3.3% of Welsh roads are motorways (compared to 8.7% of England’s roads), and 16.4% are dual carriageways (compared to 27.5% of England’s roads).  This despite the fact that a considerable proportion of England’s roads are unclassified urban roads in its many big cities.


The actual number of miles involved makes even more depressing reading, with England accounting for 1917 motorway miles compared to Wales’ meagre 88, and for 6061 miles of dual carriageway compared to 443 miles in Wales.


Contemplating rail as an alternative to road transport for our journey to north Wales doesn’t even bear thinking about. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. The Welsh railway network map has to be the perfect example, illustrating as it does how Welsh railways are divided into 2 clearly separate systems for north and south Wales with a thin sliver of rail through Shrewsbury as the only link between the two.  Wales has to be the only European country whose length cannot be traversed by train without a diversion into an adjacent country.


As the crow flies, the journey from Cardiff to Holyhead involves only 62% of the mileage from London to Holyhead, yet, according to Trainline, the average time of such a train journey is 4 hours 56 minutes, compared to an average of 3 hours 45 minutes to reach Holyhead from London Euston.  


American author, Pamela Petro, wrote in her 1997 book ‘Travels in an Old Tongue’, about her travels around the world in search of Welsh speakers, that ‘an independent research economist in London (unnamed) recently found Wales to be the least democratic country in Western Europe, so little were its elected representatives able to influence the [ ………] government’s policy towards the principality. If the Welsh were French they would be on the streets’.   Even in devolved areas such as road transport, Wales has had to look to Europe for investment support.


Based on my Switzerland experience, Wales’s inadequate road and rail networks cannot solely be explained by Wales’s more mountainous terrain. It also has to be as a consequence of the long term neglect of Wales’s infrastructure by Westminster governments across the centuries.


Even today the main item currently on the transport agenda is a M4 Relief Road. It seems ludicrous to behold that with only 88 miles of motorway across the whole of Wales, this single motorway is still not fit for purpose.


But the lack of infrastructure in Wales must also be a reflection of an overall economic and social strategy which has focussed on maximising the interaction between Wales and English regions along a west to east axis rather than encouraging interaction and therefore economic activity internally within Wales via its longer north to south axis.


Clearly the major M4 artery linking Wales to the larger market of England, and the continent of Europe beyond, has to operate smoothly, but we must also recognise that focussing on it to the exclusion of the rest of the country means we are in danger of continuing to be a pimple on the backside of England as opposed to a fully integrated economy.


And one also cannot possibly envisage an independent or even devolved Wales where one has to travel on English railways through Shrewsbury to reach the separate regions of our country.


The new Wales cannot hope to have a heartbeat without any arteries.


Photo by Johannes Hofmann on Unsplash

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Peter Daniels is a retired market research consultant and author of 2 books written in praise of Welshness. ‘In Search of Welshness’ explores how London Welsh exiles attempt to hang on to their Welsh identity, and his latest book, ‘Finding Wales’, delves into the reasons why exiles like himself are motivated to return to Wales

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