PHILIP HAIGH examines a prospectus from Welsh ministers detailing the investment they would like to see in the Welsh rail network, to aid connectivity and ‘levelling up’
“However sensible the reform and however great the benefits to a majority, a losing minority always shouts loudest and changes to fares frequently become what every
Transport Secretary wants to avoid - bad news.”
RAIL in Wales is suffering from decades of under-investment, and this must now be reversed as part of the UK Government’s moves towards ‘levelling up’.
That’s the claim from Welsh ministers, as they launched a prospectus for improved rail journeys across North and South Wales.
That prospectus points to improved line speeds, faster journeys and better connections to attract passengers from cars.
It notes: “The Welsh Government’s view is that genuine ‘levelling up’ cannot simply mean a sprinkling of new, ad hoc rail projects decided in Whitehall, it has to be part of a strategic approach to promoting growth in all parts of the UK.”
Welsh government advisers warn against investment models that favour spending in areas of high population, such as South East England where “success is piled on success” with projects such as Crossrail and HS2. In contrast, the Welsh rail investment prospectus calls for positive discrimination to “counter the inbuilt advantages of areas like the South East of England”.
Welsh Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales
Ken Skates said on November
23: “The UK Government has to demonstrate its sincerity to levelling up our country by addressing their failure to invest fairly in Wales’s rail, broadband and aviation connectivity.
“It has refused to devolve these powers and funding, while also failing to take our connectivity seriously.
“The Union Connectivity Review is an opportunity for the UK Government to reflect on historic underinvestment and to focus on putting things right.”
For Wales, its rail network is partially devolved. Ministers in Cardiff can shape train operations through the Wales and Borders franchise, which has just been nationalised from former operator AmeyKeolis ( RAIL 917), which itself only took over from Arriva in 2018.
They control the Cardiff Valleys network, having taken it over from Network Rail in March 2020, but they have no say in infrastructure investment on the rest of the
Welsh network. It remains in NR hands, with investment decisions and funding controlled in London by UK ministers.
The Welsh Government wants parity with Scotland, which controls its tracks and trains (although Scotland’s tracks remain wholly in NR’s hands). The Welsh Government’s lack of control of the lines to Swansea, Aberystwyth or Holyhead means that it can’t easily invest in improvements.
Its funding settlement from London allows no money for such spending, which means that if Welsh ministers allocated funds to rail investment, those funds would be denied to areas for which ministers are responsible, such as education.
This leaves Wales in a position similar to any third party wanting rail investment. They can pay NR on a cost basis for work, but they have little control over how it is delivered and must pay whatever NR’s bill eventually reaches, according to sources close to Welsh ministers.
They remember the late delivery and budget-busting costs of improving the north-south route a few years ago. Not only was this work late and over-budget, it also (according to those sources) delivered less than was wanted.
That experience prompted the move to take over the lines radiating from Cardiff up the valleys, because this allowed ministers more control over their destiny. It has led to the call for proper devolution and adequate funding for the rest of Wales’s rail network. And adequate funding means closing the investment gap that Welsh ministers estimate as being between £2.4 billion and £5.1bn over the period from 2001 to 2029.
RAIL understands that the Welsh Government is particularly indignant about UK ministers classifying HS2 as a project for England and Wales. It acknowledges that HS2 will benefit North Wales, but argues that this benefit is dwarfed by the damage it says that HS2 does to South Wales. And its classification as a Welsh project means that Wales receives no consequential funding from the UK Government’s spending in England.
Scotland receives consequential funding and also receives journey time benefits, according to
government sources in Wales. In other words, for Scotland HS2 is a ‘win, win’, while for Wales it’s a ‘lose, lose’.
Closing the gap
Welsh ministers’ prospectus for rail in North and South Wales contrasts the speed of main lines in England with those in Wales.
It labels Cardiff as the “worst rail-connected major city in the UK”, and compares unfavourably the South Wales Main Line’s speeds of 90mph or less with the 125mph route east of Bristol. In
North Wales, the main line from Chester to Holyhead has similarly low speeds.
The prospectus complains of low service frequencies and overcrowding, and compares Cardiff-Bristol unfavourably with Leeds-Manchester. By 2043, it suggests (using NR route studies) that both corridors will have similar demand for rail travel, yet CardiffBristol has two trains per hour
(tph) while Leeds-Manchester has 6tph and a coming £3bn upgrade.
For South Wales, Welsh ministers prescribe upgrades that deliver improved journey times and more services. They want more trains between West Wales, Swansea and Cardiff to London and Bristol Temple Meads, plus more local services to link interchanges such as Magor, Llanwern, Cardiff Parkway, Cockett and St Clears, as well as Junction 34 on the M4.
From Cardiff, ministers want to see journey times of 85 minutes to London (today 110 minutes), 30 minutes to Swansea (today 55 minutes), 30 minutes to Bristol Temple Meads (today 50 minutes), and 75 minutes to Carmarthen (today 105 minutes).
On the Ebbw Valley corridor, the prospectus calls for “significant investment” to bring 4tph services and the reopening of the line to Abertillery, which lost its passenger service in 1962 (the line lingered to serve a colliery until 1984).
On the Marches line, it calls for metro frequencies as far as Abergavenny and new stations for places such as Caerleon.
Around Swansea, it notes that Transport for Wales is looking at using the Swansea District Line to host an urban metro service, with new stations and direct local services to Swansea and Neath.
For the North Wales Main Line, the ambition again features faster journeys. Llandudno-Crewe and Holyhead-Chester should be 60 minutes rather than today’s 100 and 90 minutes respectively. The prospectus calls for more through services to Manchester and Leeds and new stations at Holywell and Broughton.
It also calls for double track between Chester and Shrewsbury via Wrexham, new stations at Wrexham North and South, and for levels crossings to be removed. It describes Wrexham-Liverpool as “the poor relation of the Welsh rail network” which needs upgrading to better serve existing stations and a new one to serve Deeside Industrial Estate.
It notes that enhancement
“will include speed and capacity upgrades of [the] entire line and more importantly integration of Merseyrail [services] south of Bidston to deliver 4tph and direct services into Liverpool”.
RAIL understands that ministers in Wales attach less importance to expanding the rail network, except for a few miles of new line needed to serve Abertillery and reopening the disused line to Amlwch, which closed in 1993 but lost passenger services in 1964.
This means that the missing links from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth ( RAIL 793) and Bangor-CaernarfonPwllheli sit lower while ministers argue for more to be made of existing tracks. Both lines lost their services in the mid-1960s, with their loss reducing the Welsh network to essentially three lines running west from England in the north to Holyhead, in Central Wales to Aberystwyth/Pwllheli, and in South Wales to Pembroke Dock/Milford Haven/Fishguard via Carmarthen.
Nevertheless, there appears to be a gulf between Welsh ministers’ ambitions for their country’s rail network and the improvements seen from London. Aside from
HS2, UK ministers appear unwilling to invest much in rail, as shown by continued resistance to calls to electrify the Midland Main
Line to Sheffield and their forcing Transport for London to mothball work on Crossrail 2.
Even if UK ministers can be persuaded to transfer rail network investment responsibility to Cardiff, it’s by no means certain that the transfer would come with funding anywhere near enough to satisfy Welsh investment wishes. More likely is a transfer with funding sufficient to force Welsh ministers into difficult decisions between, for example, North and South Wales.
The prospectus admits the difficulties that Welsh ministers face when it notes: “Without significant change very few of the emerging proposals set out here are likely to proceed.”
If nothing else, the prospectus and Ken Skates’ comments about what he sees as UK government failures put considerable pressure on the connectivity review ordered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The review is due to publish its interim report in January 2021 and final recommendations next summer.
“Even if UK ministers can be persuaded to transfer rail network investment responsibility to Cardiff, it’s by no means certain that the transfer would come with funding anywhere near enough to satisfy Welsh investment wishes.”