Can trains drive economic growth?
HE new rail franchise will launch in Wales this autumn – with business leaders hoping it can give the economy a major boost. KeolisAmey will start to operate the Wales and Borders rail service from October, with £5bn of investment promised over the 15-year franchise term.
North Wales has been promised more services – including direct routes from Liverpool to Llandudno and Bangor to Manchester Airport – as well as investment in rolling stock and stations.
Long-distance North-South services will be operated by the “high-quality” Mark IV coaching stock, and regular North Wales coast services served by newly-built CAF Civity Diesel Multiple Units. Services for Wrexham to Bidston, Conwy Valley, and Chester to Crewe will be operated initially through the Viva Rail “Class 230 D” trains.
The ambition is for the improved services to make it easier for commuters to travel for work as well as encouraging more people to the region by train. This should help ease congestion on busy roads like the A55 and A483, which would be good news for the regional economy.
But many believe this should be just the start of the investment in rail services, with demands for electrification of the North Wales main line, as well as better connectivity with HS2. chairman of the Deeside Business Forum, Askar Sheibani, says he is very positive about the potential impact of the new franchise.
He said: “It cannot be any worse than the current Arriva services and, from the sound of what is being promised, this will bring positive benefits to the North Wales economy.
“There will be more services, particularly direct services to places like Liverpool and on upgraded trains, with cleaner stations. This sounds very positive but, of course, we will have to see how it is delivered.”
CEO of the West Cheshire & North Wales Chamber of Commerce, Colin Brew, said: “These announcements are most welcome, as we have been campaigning for improved rail infrastructure for some time.
“Having a transport system that meets the needs of business is essential for the growth of North Wales’ economy. The new rolling stock and improved services will lead to less cars on the road and better connections between businesses and people, which in turn can help boost the region’s productivity.
“With HS2 on the horizon, it is now essential that plans are put in place so that North Wales can take advantage of this major project. If we do not have sufficient connections to a Hub at Crewe station, North Wales risks being left behind by this £56bn investment.”
CBI Wales director, Ian Price, said: “The awarding of the Wales and Borders Franchise to KeolisAmey looks like it will be great news for Wales and its commuters. The £5bn 15-year franchise will see the entire fleet of trains replaced by 2023 with air conditioning, wifi and smart ticketing.
“In addition, there will be a 29% increase in services during the week and almost £200m invested in modernising all 247 stations.
“This is the result of a new type of procurement process that placed passengers’ priorities centre stage. We hope this model will be followed for future major procurement projects.
“But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so the Welsh Government must work across government to maximise the economic potential of this project and ensure political promises become everyday reality.”
Chair of the rail campaign group Growth Track 360, Cllr Samantha Dixon, said: “The proposals go some way to realising the ambition for our network that was set out in the Growth Track 360 prospectus. We especially welcome the commitments for direct trains to Liverpool from North Wales, the proposals for new and improved rolling stock with increased capacity, the long-awaited confirmation of additional services between Wrexham and Bidston, accelerated journey times and the ambitious programme of station improvements.
“The good news on the franchise builds on commitments from the Department for Transport to prepare and consider business cases for improved line speeds on the North Wales Coast and Wrexham to Bidston lines.”
But she said Growth Track 360 will continue to push for:
Better connectivity with Manchester and its airport, in particular;
Better connectivity with Crewe and HS2;
Electrification of the Holyhead to Crewe line, with classic compatible services running from North Wales onto the HS2 line to London.
Chair of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board and Leader of Flintshire County Council, Cllr Aaron Shotton, said: “The franchise proposals give us a platform to work on ideas in the North Wales Growth Bid to create integrated transport hubs around our principal stations and link rail services with major centres of population, employment, retail and health service delivery.
“Proposed fare reductions in North Wales are a significant opportunity to make rail services support the economy along with investment in stations (eg, more parking places) and transport hubs at Deeside, Shotton and Wrexham.”
Clwyd West MP David Jones said: “It’s to be hoped that the current substandard Arriva rolling stock will be replaced as soon as possible. It’s disappointing, however, that parts of North Wales will have to make do with 30-year-old former District Line trains, in contrast with South Wales, which will be having brand new rolling stock.”
Economy Secretary, Ken Skates, said: “Our Economic Action Plan commits us to public investment with a social purpose, and this is something that is right at the heart of our new approach to rail.
“The new contract will better connect communities and people to employment opportunities in order to stimulate increased economic activity, while the improved services will allow passengers to travel more efficiently and work while they commute.
“It will also see our delivery partner, Transport for Wales, directly creating 600 additional employment opportunities along with 450 apprenticeships, as well as opening a new North Wales office to support the management and delivery of the new rail services in the region.”
Viva Rail trains will be used on the Chester to Crewe, Wrexham to Bidston and Conwy Valley lines