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.