Rail (UK)

Chris­tian Wol­mar

- Chris­tian Wol­mar Trans­port writer & broad­caster Write to Chris­tian Wol­mar c/o rail@bauer­me­dia.co.uk. Chris­tian Wol­mar can be con­tacted via his web­site Transportation · Industries · United Kingdom Department for Transport · Department for Transport · South Wales · Cardiff · United States of America · Welsh Labour · Arbeidersparty · House of Lords · United Kingdom · Welsh Assembly Government · Newport, NC · Newport, Wakulla County, Florida · Transport for Wales · Magor

Welsh trans­port in­te­gra­tion.

EVER since the cre­ation of a Min­istry of Trans­port, just over a cen­tury ago, there has been a pre­sump­tion of favour­ing mo­tor trans­port over other modes. The de­fault po­si­tion of vir­tu­ally ev­ery trans­port min­is­ter has been to re­spond to in­creased de­mand for travel by ar­gu­ing the case for more road­build­ing.

The cur­rent govern­ment is no ex­cep­tion. While much pub­lic­ity is given to fatu­ous ‘re­vers­ing Beech­ing’ ideas, the re­al­ity is that the real in­vest­ment is fo­cused on ex­pand­ing the road net­work - mainly through im­prov­ing ex­ist­ing routes, as to­tally new roads have be­come po­lit­i­cally too con­tro­ver­sial.

Yes, of course there is HS2, which will ab­sorb a lot of money, but the thrust of the Govern­ment’s pol­icy is its fo­cus on roads (with its £27 bil­lion pro­gramme).

The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem with trans­port pol­icy is that there is no co­her­ent strat­egy. Min­is­ters have tended to en­cour­age greater use of mo­tor ve­hi­cles through both trans­port and (par­tic­u­larly) plan­ning poli­cies, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously warn­ing of the ter­ri­ble con­se­quences of un­fet­tered growth of road use.

One of the con­sis­tent fail­ings of trans­port pol­icy has been the com­part­men­tal­i­sa­tion of both think­ing around the is­sue and pol­icy im­ple­men­ta­tion. Very rarely has any pol­icy been based on a clear ex­am­i­na­tion of the al­ter­na­tives to (for ex­am­ple) build­ing a road.

But I have seen what should be the fu­ture method for de­vel­op­ing trans­port pol­icy. I have been given ex­clu­sive ad­vance sight of a rad­i­cal re­port pro­duced for the Welsh Govern­ment,

Fi­nal Re­port of the South East Wales Trans­port

Com­mis­sion, which points the way to a more ra­tio­nal fu­ture.

Let’s re­cap. The M4 around New­port in South Wales is a no­to­ri­ous bot­tle­neck. Longdis­tance traf­fic us­ing the Sev­ern Tun­nel mixes with large num­bers of com­muters between New­port (which houses sev­eral ma­jor of­fice de­vel­op­ments) and Cardiff (the Welsh cap­i­tal and the largest conur­ba­tion).

A widen­ing of the M4 had long been mooted, and the Welsh Govern­ment had even ear­marked most of the re­quired £1.6bn fund­ing for a new 14-mile, six-lane sec­tion around New­port. Then, in the face of op­po­si­tion from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, came a re­al­i­sa­tion that sim­i­lar road schemes across the world tend merely to en­cour­age greater car use and there­fore soon prove in­ef­fec­tive in solv­ing the orig­i­nal prob­lem. There are count­less ex­am­ples in the US of new lanes on high­ways fill­ing up within a few years, re­sult­ing in the same traf­fic jams that had ex­isted prior to widen­ing.

There­fore, in June 2019, Welsh First Min­is­ter Mark Drake­ford took the rad­i­cal step of scrap­ping the plan. It was a brave de­ci­sion, given that the scheme had been promised by the rul­ing Welsh Labour party in its man­i­festo and ap­proved by a plan­ning in­spec­tor who had said that “there was a com­pelling case for the scheme to be im­ple­mented”.

While ques­tion­ing whether the scheme was af­ford­able, Drake­ford stressed it was not money that led him to scrap the plan, but the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age it would have caused to the Gwent Lev­els, a unique coastal plain.

Even more rad­i­cally, Drake­ford did not leave it there. In­stead, he set up a com­mis­sion to ex­am­ine al­ter­na­tives to widen­ing the road - headed by Lord (Terry) Burns, a for­mer Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary at the Trea­sury and now a Con­ser­va­tive mem­ber of the House of Lords. This demon­strated se­ri­ous in­tent, and the re­sult is a re­port that should be a blue­print for sub­se­quent as­sess­ments when road schemes are be­ing put for­ward.

The Fi­nal Re­port of the South East Wales Trans­port Com­mis­sion has come up with a com­plete pro­gramme of how to im­prove trans­port in a con­gested vi­tal cor­ri­dor.

At the core of the plan is im­prov­ing the ex­ist­ing rail­way between the mouth of the Sev­ern Tun­nel and Cardiff, and var­i­ous places be­yond on branch lines. This is al­ready four­track, but there are very few lo­cal ser­vices and com­mut­ing is lim­ited by the fact that there are only three sta­tions on that sec­tion.

The plan is there­fore to build six new sta­tions, mostly us­ing ex­ist­ing avail­able sites, and to re­ar­range the tracks so that those on the north side can be used for stop­ping ser­vices and the other two for ex­press trains.

Lord Burns told me that since prepara­tory work had taken place at some of the sta­tions (Cardiff Park­way, Magor and Llan­wern had long been sug­gested as pos­si­ble ad­di­tions), it was mov­ing the tracks around that was likely to be the most dif­fi­cult as­pect of the scheme.

The whole idea is to pro­vide trans­port ca­pac­ity as an al­ter­na­tive to peo­ple jump­ing in their cars. With those six new sta­tions, over 90% of peo­ple liv­ing in Cardiff and New­port would live within one mile of a rail sta­tion or a rapid bus cor­ri­dor (the cre­ation of which was another part of the re­port’s rec­om­men­da­tion, run­ning in parts of the re­gion not served by rail­ways, but with many con­nec­tions to the sta­tions).

Tellingly, the re­port said that im­ple­ment­ing the con­cept would re­quire a de­gree of co­op­er­a­tion between bus and rail­way com­pa­nies that cur­rently is banned by the Com­pe­ti­tion and Mar­kets Author­ity. The re­port says: “In gen­eral, a cor­ri­dor need not be served by both rapid bus and train, as this may un­der­mine the busi­ness case for in­vest­ing in ei­ther in­fra­struc­ture.”

This un­nec­es­sary com­pe­ti­tion oc­curs else­where - no­tably on Ty­ne­side where, de­spite years of ef­fort by the lo­cal trans­port or­gan­i­sa­tion that have ended up with fail­ures in court, buses still op­er­ate on routes well served by the lo­cal metro sys­tem.

That is the key. Re­mem­ber the words ‘in­te­grated trans­port’, which are lit­tle heard about to­day? Usu­ally, this was lit­tle more than a com­mit­ment to en­sur­ing a few buses ran from the lo­cal rail­way sta­tion, but this re­port shows what it re­ally means. Cy­cling has not been for­got­ten, with a com­mit­ment to cre­at­ing a se­ries of safe routes, and cru­cially there is an em­pha­sis on hav­ing a tick­et­ing sys­tem that will work across modes.

For this plan to suc­ceed, a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to trans­port is needed, where it is seen as a so­cial good rather than as a busi­ness. This has long been at the heart of con­flicts over trans­port is­sues in the UK, but in fact in many Euro­pean coun­tries the need for good public trans­port is recog­nised by par­ties of both Left and Right.

And oddly, the con­se­quences of COVID-19 of­fer an op­por­tu­nity here. Bus trans­port, like the rail­ways, has be­come wholly un­eco­nomic and the com­pa­nies need to be bailed out by the Govern­ment. That gives min­is­ters in the Welsh Govern­ment the op­por­tu­nity to re­quire com­pa­nies who are in re­ceipt of sub­sidy to act in a co-or­di­nated way, to pro­vide the best ser­vice with­out un­nec­es­sary ex­pen­sive com­pe­ti­tion. After all, the mo­tor car is al­ways go­ing to be the main form of com­pe­ti­tion.

Ah, I can hear the ob­jec­tors say, all this is pie in the sky and too ex­pen­sive. In fact, ac­cord­ing to Lord Burns, “this is all per­fectly fea­si­ble at a rea­son­able cost”. Much of the money that had been ear­marked for the road is avail­able. And the cost­ing in the re­port sug­gests a need for mod­est sums, given that the road was go­ing to cost £1.6bn - the cap­i­tal cost is es­ti­mated at between £590m and £840m, while the rev­enue im­pli­ca­tions are between £15m and £35m, de­pend­ing on take-up.

The time frame is also achiev­able. The cy­cling and bus ini­tia­tives can be in­tro­duced within five years, while the rest is achiev­able in a decade, pro­vided Trans­port for Wales has both the pow­ers and the fi­nance to push through the plan.

In a way, the Com­mis­sion­ers were for­tu­nate. The ex­ist­ing rail­way is al­ready four-tracked and rather un­der­used. And while sep­a­rat­ing out the two sep­a­rate fast and slower tracks will be com­pli­cated, it is by no means im­pos­si­ble - or even that ex­pen­sive.

The main line in South Wales is an un­der­used as­set. And while not ev­ery other route in the coun­try will have such an ob­vi­ous way of im­prov­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion, there are lots of places where the rail­way could, with the right in­vest­ment, be put to far more in­ten­sive use.

The key is to ap­proach trans­port in­vest­ment in a holis­tic and strate­gic way. Wales has clearly done that. It is up to other ar­eas to fol­low this ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple.

 ?? PAUL BIGLAND/ RAIL. ?? Trans­port for Wales 142069 stands at Cardiff Queen Street with a lo­cal stop­ping ser­vice from Aber­dare on Septem­ber 12. Wol­mar praises the brav­ery of Welsh Govern­ment in re­ject­ing £1.6bn plans to widen a 14-mile sec­tion of the M4, in favour of im­prov­ing the area’s rail net­work in­stead.
PAUL BIGLAND/ RAIL. Trans­port for Wales 142069 stands at Cardiff Queen Street with a lo­cal stop­ping ser­vice from Aber­dare on Septem­ber 12. Wol­mar praises the brav­ery of Welsh Govern­ment in re­ject­ing £1.6bn plans to widen a 14-mile sec­tion of the M4, in favour of im­prov­ing the area’s rail net­work in­stead.
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