A Swansea Bay Parkway… …but where and why?

This is a more comprehensive version of the story that appeared in the Western Mail on 6th February

PS August 2020 – for an update on proposals and work in Swansea Bay and West Wales pls see my February 2022 update on Metro in Wales

There has been a lot discussion of late about a “Swansea Parkway”, perhaps at Felindre near the M4.  I’d like to shine some light on that question and perhaps set out briefly, some strategic considerations to help us develop the right solution.

Firstly, what is the problem we are trying to solve?

  • Is it getting better access to rail services from west of Swansea (from Carmarthen and Pembroke) to the east (Cardiff, Bristol and London)?
  • Is it about encouraging Swansea commuters out of their cars?
  • Is it to support local station based economic development?

If we conflate these and perhaps other requirements, we may not get the answer we want.

For example, do we really want to encourage people in their cars from West Wales to drive into Swansea to catch a train?  Surely it would be better to capture that demand closer to its source by providing more and faster trains, to serve Carmarthen and points further west.  If we want to provide a P&R for Swansea commuters, we would want to have a station that could support services to Swansea High Street, Neath etc.  If we want to support economic development, we also need to be mindful of abstraction impacts on existing locations – esp. Swansea High Street and Neath.

So, some facts to help us analyse the options…

The most likely candidates for a Parkway Figure 1 in the Swansea/Neath area are probably Felindre and Llandarcy on the Swansea District Line (SDL) and Llansamlet (on the manline); there are others.

Figure 1 Potential Parkway Station Locations in Swansea Bay

The most important consideration is that the Swansea District Line (SDL), by-passes Swansea High Street and Neath and currently has no regular passenger services.  Any train operating on that line would therefore need significant extra funding for additional services (rolling stock and operational costs) that run from Port Talbot to Llanelli and on to Carmarthen and Pembroke or else current services would need to be diverted away from Swansea and Neath. No-one wants to see reduced service levels as an output from new infrastructure investment. 

To be clear a new Felindre station on its own does not serve Swansea High Street or Neath.

The reality today is that most of the demand from west of Swansea for rail services is local or to go into Swansea Figure 3 – less than half of demand is for trips further east.  Swansea is also, by far the most used station in the region Figure 2 with passenger numbers that exceed the total for all the stations to the west of it combined.

 A focus on such a narrow scheme perhaps misses the bigger picture. As I set out in my work for WG, “The Case for Investment in Wales’ Rail Network”, we need a much more strategic approach and in SW Wales this means an upgraded main line for more and faster service and a new dedicated Swansea Bay urban area rail metro. There is still some considerable work to do before we can say where a Felindre Parkway falls within this strategy and to secure acceptance by the UK Government to acknowledge its obligation to address decades of underfunding of Wales’ rail network.

Figure 2 2016/17 Station Usage in SW Wales

Figure 3 Demand profile from stations in SW Wales

Without wishing to prejudice the further work that is required, I believe there is pragmatic proposal that supports the longer-term ambitions and provides short term benefits.

The easier solution in the short term is to continue to use Neath station as the parkway and perhaps upgrade the existing Llansamlet station as a Parkway and stop more of the existing train services which already pass through that station.  It is near the M4 and offers a parkway options without the need for additional trains and rolling stock. It would serve local Swansea commuters best (for journeys across the region and into Swansea itself) but is perhaps less attractive to those from Carmarthen and West Wales – although it would still offer some journey time and reliability benefits.

Crucially for Carmarthen, Pembroke and West Wales we should, in parallel, explore the potential to operate new additional services from Cardiff, Bristol or London to Carmarthen and onto to Pembroke or Milford Haven, using the SDL by-passing Swansea High Street and Neath to reduce journey times.  This could in effect make Carmarthen the main parkway station for West Wales.  Unlike Felindre it would prevent excess car journeys toward Swansea from the west and as Carmarthen is already served by other services and would not, as would be the case at Felindre, struggle to attract demand, which would be the case at Felindre if it was only served by one train per hour.  By running via the SDL (without stops at Swansea and Neath) better journey times would be achieved whilst those needing to travel to Swansea/Neath could interchange at Llanelli or Port Talbot.

These are the tough choices…

The more ambitious and strategic solution and which is best suited to a Felindre station and its role as a local parkway, is the development of a Swansea Bay Urban Area commuter rail Metro Figure 4  (part of the wider Swansea Bay Metro), perhaps using tram-train, for the 300k people between Llanelli and Port Talbot and serving all the existing and new stations on the main lines and SDL. 

This, crucially, requires a new connection between the SDL and main line near Llansamlet to allow trains serving Felindre and further stations at perhaps Morriston and Penllargaer to actually serve both Neath and Swansea High Street.

If a rail-based metro network is developed, then the medium term option for a regional parkway is probably at Llandarcy which could develop to be a hub on such a network by ensuring some local metro services route through that station (by modifying the services illustrated in Figure 4). In advance of that, when combined with a new link between the main line and SDL additional services could still serve Swansea High Street or skip it and run fast to Carmarthen.

Figure 4 A potential “Swansea Bay Urban Area Commuter Rail Metro” from “Case for Investment”

As I think I have set out, transport planning is complex and has many influencing factors and decisions are dictated by your priorities and available funding.  There is phased solution here that starts with Llansamlet and ends up with Felindre as part of a Swansea Bay Metro and Llandarcy as  a key Metro hub/interchange.  However, further work is needed to really determine if/how a parkway fits into a broader and more strategic rail investment programme for Swansea Bay.

UK Government can help by supporting WG to develop strategic schemes like the Swansea Bay Metro and upgrade the entire SWML for more and faster services.  This is a better approach than prematurely pursuing tactical projects that do not respond to the strategic opportunity and which  do not adequately address the problems faced by commuters in West Wales or the congestion problems on the M4 which local authorities are having to grapple with.

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