On March 1st, 2011, I was interviewed live on BBC Wales Evening news from Swansea; the then Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, was also interviewed. The UK Government had just confirmed GWML electrification from Paddington to Cardiff[i]. Having been part of the campaign, I was asked my view on whether the electrification should or would be extended to Swansea…. I confidently predicted that electrification would be extended to Swansea.
On September 6th the same year, I presented my evidence for the Cardiff Business Partnership to the Westminster Transport Committee as part of their review of High Speed Rail[ii]. That submission set out the strategic need to upgrade the Great Western Line from Paddington to Swansea – beyond the electrification programme announced in March. At that session, I sat next to Scotland’s Transport Minster Keith Brown (who had a large team of advisors with him). It felt like I was the only person from Wales who knew about the review; no one from Welsh Government attended the committee (a committee none of whose member MPs represented Welsh seats) on a matter that has subsequently emerged as one of the UK Government’s largest capital projects.
Earlier the same day, I appeared on Radio Wales setting out how HS2 would negatively impact the economies of South Wales and South West England – and that in itself made that case for a major upgrade of the GWML beyond the then committed electrification to Cardiff. Furthermore, given the major connectivity dividends to places like Leeds and Manchester from HS2 (see Figure 1 below), it was imperative that plans were developed to improve the GWML so that: journeys to London from Cardiff could be completed in less than 90 minutes; direct services could link Cardiff and Heathrow; electrification was completed all the way to Swansea. I also presented a vision for a “Greater Great Western Line” in an article for Rail Technology Magazine[iii]. I was not alone, The Bow Group[iv] had recently published “On The Right Track” setting out its vision for High Speed rail in the UK – including the Great Western Line.
Then, in July 2012, the UK Government, seemingly in response to a broad consensus, committed to the electrification of the GWML to Swansea and “electrification” of the valley lines – all part of a major programme across the UK [v]
All seemed well in the world…. but now, oh dear, what a sorry tail.
Figure 1 Ambitions for GWML set out in “A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region in 2011[vi]
Figure 2 comparison of Cardiff-London and Manchester-London Journey times presented in “A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region” in 2011
Firstly, the whole GWML electrification programme from Paddington has been hampered by a series of problems – some self-inflicted – that has resulted in major delays and cost overruns. The original programme of ~£1Bn is now into the multiple £Bns. Whilst paling into insignificance Vs the £400M per mile estimated for HS2, it has caused officials and Ministers at the DfT to explore cost cutting measures. Before the decision to stop at Cardiff last week, Bristol Temple Meads had already been dropped…so this latest “pruning” is no surprise.
I was very impressed with the UK Government PR (well not very, actually not at all) with its attempt to dress up the bi-mode IEP (the new high speed Intercity Express Programme trains from Hitachi) as a technological innovation that will deliver the same passenger benefits without catenary. Remember, the IEPs for the GWML to Swansea were originally going to be all electric (so no carrying around heavier diesel kit) with a more “Well Being of Future Generations” friendly environmental profile (especially less carbon and air quality issues). The earlier delays with the main programme resulted in DfT’s 2016 decision to ditch the electric only IEPs for bi-modes [vii] that were originally intended for parts of the network where electrification had not been planned (e.g. Cheltenham, SW England, etc).
So really the decision on 20th June by the DfT had less to do with the “benefits” of bi-modes but more because of the escalating costs and delays to the wider electrification programme of which the Cardiff-Swansea section was not immune. I also think that some treasury mandated Brexit “contingency” funds are being assembled. Yes, I can see the argument, that once you wire to Cardiff and you have only bi-mode IEPs and given the maximum line speed on the section to Swansea is only 100 mph (and in most parts less than this), then a narrowly focussed decision like this was always likely.
I still think it’s wrong. It could make further line speed and route enhancements more difficult to justify and whatever anyone says, bi-mode IEP trains running on diesel do not perform as well as when running electric and they can’t reach the same top speed of 125 mph. They are also certainly not as efficient or environmentally friendly as electric only IEPs.
My primary objection though is the lack strategy. All the way back in 2011 at Westminster I called for a national high speed rail strategy; as did Jim Steer and Greengage whose helpful data from KPMG exposed the major economic disbenefits of HS2 to South Wales[viii]. Given the huge costs of HS2 (especially as Welsh Tax Payers are contributing), I think the UK Government should be looking to develop plans for the GWML beyond the current programme. This should lead to more capacity and further journey time reduction on the GWML.
More importantly we need a strategic plan for the UKs major rail routes (including to Swansea). What we have, as a result of uninspiring civil service tactical thinking, is a mismatch of policy, modes, standards technology and plans; and not surprisingly they do not form a coherent whole. For example, HS2 does not serve Heathrow, IEP trains on the GWML will not be able to operate on HS2 (if I am wrong someone please correct me); there are no plans for electrification from the Bristol/Cardiff area to Birmingham and there is no provision for trains from SW England & South Wales to access the HS2 sections north of Birmingham; furthermore the terminus of HS2 at Curzon St is half a mile from the Midlands major rail hub at New Street with no through running; there is no link between HS1 and HS2, etc. It’s a mismatch and reflects my observation, that whilst civil service bureaucracy can do tactical, it really struggles with long term, step change & strategic.
Other policy areas do not join up. For example, in respect of South Wales, the decision (welcomed by many) to get rid of Severn Bridge tolls will in the short term only add to congestion on the M4 (exacerbating carbon emission and air quality issues). Aside from addressing the M4 issue once and for all we also need much better public transport links between South Wales and Bristol.
I think we desperately need to see a more strategic vision for the UK rail network. We need to see the GWML western link to Heathrow completed, we need to see infrastructure to enable easier and faster journeys from South Wales to the English Midlands, North England and Scotland; North Wales needs to be connected. A route E-W across northern England is (in my view) more important than HS2 itself. On the back of a “High Speed” network across the UK, each of the key city regions should develop its own regional rapid transport network – Manchester has its Metrolink link, Birmingham is not far behind and we will have the South Wales Metro. There are major gaps though in places like Leeds, Bristol, Swansea Bay, etc
On Swansea, we need to refocus our efforts. So, here’s an idea (and I give some credit for this to Jim Steer) and it’s not rocket science (although it is a little expensive and not very well thought through at this stage!) – See Figure 3 below. Let’s upgrade and electrify the line from Cardiff to just west of Port Talbot with a focus on more capacity (including the application of moving block signalling) and higher line speeds (up to at least 125 mph). Then, let’s build a new section of track that spurs off the current line just west of Port Talbot, heads over the river Neath and approaches Swansea along the coast parallel to Fabian Way; it then elevates on the approach to and over, the River Tawe to a new station adjacent to the current one near The Strand (see in red on Figure 3 below). This would deliver a more direct route to Swansea about 10km shorter than the route that meanders via Neath. This could reduce journey times between Cardiff and Swansea (with stops at only Bridgend and Port Talbot) to perhaps 30 minutes.
This strategic “UK Scheme”, would also allow much of the existing line via Neath and the Swansea District Line to support new stations and more local services. For example, a Swansea Bay commuter circle line or even a figure of eight using the Swansea district line to Llanelli; new stations could serve the new student campus on Fabian Way, an M4 P&R, Liberty stadium, etc; if tram-train was eventually made to work then an “on-street” route along to the Mumbles could be considered.
Figure 3 Sketch of potential new direct rail route between Swansea & Port Talbot
To find space in policy development for a new route into Swansea, we need much more strategically focussed business case – that assesses the UKs major strategic rail links as a whole and in an economic context (and that must also include places like Nottingham, Plymouth, Leeds, Sheffield, etc) and a commensurate plan that can be delivered over the next twenty years. Slicing up and assessing strategic network components on a section by section basis does not, in my opinion, work and ends up concentrating transport investment in London and SE England. HS2 goes a little way to address this.
Post Brexit the UK government says it wants to invest in infrastructure and rebalance the UK economy– well it hasn’t made a very good start and in my opinion, needs more strategic capacity to do so.
Please note: This article is based entirely on the views of Prof Mark Barry based on his knowledge and material already in the public domain and does not represent in any way the views, thoughts, intentions, plans, policies or strategies of Welsh Government, Transport for Wales, Cardiff University or any other organisation.
[iii] M Barry, June 2011, “A Greater Great Western Line”, Rail Technology Magazine
[iv] Tony Lodge, 2010, “On The Right Track”, The Bow Group
[v] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-18828866 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18851907
[vi] M Barry, 2011, “A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region” Cardiff Business Partnership/Institute of Welsh Affairs