Rhun ap Iorwerth AM argues that the £1.4bn allocated to the M4 black route should be used as part of a pan-Wales sustainable transport and infrastructure investment, which must include addressing the Newport/M4 issue.
Improving the M4 has been a matter of debate for decades. It was first proposed in 1981 by the Welsh Office, and 27 years later we are still discussing it.
Don’t get me wrong – rejecting the proposed black route on the grounds of cost and the environment was certainly the correct decision. To spend the equivalent of 10 per cent of the Welsh Government’s annual budget on one stretch of road that would have destroyed the Gwent levels was not an acceptable course of action – particularly after we became the first Parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency. After all, upgrading roads alone simply leads to more cars using these roads.
However, people living in Newport are still desperately waiting for a solution to the congestion and pollution that too often spills onto their streets when accidents at the Brynglas tunnels mean that traffic is redirected. It can’t be allowed to just get worse.
And it’s not just Newport. There are examples of weak infrastructure and failing public transport throughout Wales. But if Newport currently grabs the headlines in terms of Wales’ transport woes it could also be the catalyst to providing a solution.
Why not re-invest the £1.4bn intended for the scrapped M4 relief road towards the development of a long overdue smarter, greener, sustainable and affordable pan-Wales transport network?
Currently, Transport in Wales accounts for 14 per cent of our current carbon emissions. Roughly 43 per cent of journeys made on the congested section of the M4 are under 20 miles – and considered to be local journeys.
If we in Wales are serious about achieving our goal of a multimodal, high-quality, integrated and low-carbon public transport system, then now is the opportunity to make a meaningful and significant step towards achieving that.
So, what alternatives are there, so we can become a green, sustainable nation, fit for the twenty-first century?
Securing full devolution of all transport powers is a good place to start. After all, how can we design a suitable transportation system for Wales if we don’t have full control over the levers to achieve it?
Secondly, we must get people out of their cars for short local journeys. That means creating a modern public transport system. Can we blame people for opting to use their own cars over public transport when public transport is expensive and in decline? We can’t even guarantee toilets on certain rail services anymore.
Investment in public transport also has the added benefit of making society more equal. A car-dependent transport system is cutting many of Wales’s poorest people away from employment, from education, from community and social activities. Welsh Government’s own data shows that 23 per cent of households in Wales do not own a private car, and that, no doubt, correlates with low income or deprivation.
Investing in an integrated transport system that is affordable and accessible would mitigate transport poverty, as well as increase local economic investment. It’s something that can be done and other nations across Europe provide great examples.
For example, Luxembourg provides high-quality public transport, and is now going to provide free transport for its citizens. With high commuter numbers, and serious congestion problems, the Government there plans to invest in transport infrastructure, and its new mobility strategy, Modu 2.0, envisages a public transport network that carries 20 per cent more people by 2025, with reduced rush hour congestion. The plan includes rail network modernisation, better cross-border connections and the new train-tram-bus exchange hubs, as well as road-related initiatives, with state investment of €2.2 billion by 2023. If it can be done there, then it can be done here.
Why couldn’t we, for example, consider providing a free bus service on selected routes for a designated period? It took just four months to set up the free weekend travel on all TrawsCymru services, which raised passenger numbers.
We should be redesigning our urban bus services so they can be utilised as a network with efficient interchanges with all other modes and routes alongside on-demand bus services in rural areas.
We could be improving public transport from areas like Monmouth and Newport to Cardiff to decrease the pressure on the M4, and bringing forward upgrades to the Ebbw Vale line. One train per hour in lots of areas just is not good enough. We could even look at setting local rail fares.
We desperately need to build low-cost Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) and deploy them rapidly on-street in Cardiff, Newport and other large centres and their environs with efficient interchanges with other modes.
Let’s also get the South Wales Metro up-and-running and reopen our railways, such as the Carmerthen-Aberystwyth line and Lein Amlwch in my constituency, in order to create a north to south train system that is carbon neutral and runs on renewable electricity or hydrogen.
Electrifying the railways is crucial if we want to revolutionise trains in Wales alongside utilising simplified overhead and low-profile track, and phasing out dual and triple mode power cars.
We could even have a green thread of transport through Wales – a cycle path and footpath that runs alongside the north-to-south train line, developed alongside the local nature and biodiversity of Wales.
‘Bike 2 Work’ schemes could also be rolled out across Wales, where employers could offer a bike at a reduced cost to employees who are able to pay this off incrementally through their monthly wage. This is offered by many employers already in many parts of Wales.
Priority should be given to lower carbon models of cars that reduce congestion, improve health and tackle inequalities. In any electric vehicle programme, priority should be given to schemes that promote shared ownership. And as we have seen with buses, the other fuel that offers the potential of zero emissions is hydrogen. Wales already has a stake in the development of hydrogen fuelled cars with the Riversimple project based in Llandrindod Wells, and there’s real economic opportunity through developing hydrogen infrastructure, too, including on Ynys Mon, where some exciting work is getting underway.
And what about revising the Highway Code to give absolute rights of way to pedestrians and people in wheelchairs in all shared space and pedestrianising urban and suburban centres?
We could also consider learning from the Scottish example of paying grants to companies that decide to transport freight via train. Innovative fast light rail freight options are in development, and government could also look at a programme of freight consolidation, where goods are transferred from smaller vehicles to larger HGVs in order to reduce the amount of vehicles on the road.
We need to be bold and radical and think of creative and innovative long term solutions for the congestion around Newport as part of a wider package of sustainable investment in Wales’s infrastructure. Because I genuinely believe that, by providing a response to an issue in Newport and the area, that city can be a pathfinder, a ground breaker, for the whole of Wales.
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