Swansea Bay Metro & City Deal

This is the transcript of the speech I gave at a Policy Form Wales, Swansea Bay City Deal Conference in April 2019

Thank you, Suzy.   

I spent about a week, preparing a brilliant presentation for you, really top quality, but it’s not working so you can’t see it! That’s just the way it goes, so I’m going to wing it.   

I’m really glad to come back to Swansea again today to talk about transport and opportunities and relevance or not to the City Deal. Those of you who know me and some of you have probably heard this presentation before, know I like to keep repeating things because that’s the way sometimes things happen, you keep saying the same thing over and over again.  

I was working on the South Wales Metro for 10 years from when that was a crazy heretical project to something that’s actually being built.  And so things that seem implausible, unlikely and undeliverable, actually can happen if you are focused enough on progressing them.

Well I first want to talk to you about the region and about the work I was doing with Welsh Government last year, and there’s this little example.  If you get a train from London, from Paddington, these new lovely shiny green IET trains, quite firm backs as well as I recall. They tootle down the Great Western Line to Bristol at 125 miles an hour, which is great, so you get to Bristol in a pretty good time.  It then goes through the Severn Tunnel and then goes back about 100 years in time, because the South Wales Mainline is actually no better in terms of its capacity, line speed and capability than it was pretty much 50 years ago, or probably 100 years ago.  And for me, that’s a kind of a glaring issue.  We call it a mainline, but it does not have the same capability as mainlines elsewhere in the UK, like the West Coast Mainline or the East Coast Mainline.  We have similar issue in North Wales.  

So that’s important because journey times and connectivity between cities and agglomeration benefits are linked to how quickly and easily you can move between places.  There are no direct services between Swansea and Bristol Temple Meads; there’s only two Temple Meads to Cardiff services an hour.  Between Leeds and Manchester there are six trains an hour, with a very similar demand to that which exists between Cardiff and Bristol; and between Leeds and Manchester there is also £3 billion upgrade in progress!  

So I think we’ve got an issue with our South Wales Mainline; if Swansea and the region wants to grow and build on its City Deal, it’s going to need to unlock new innovation in skills and technologies.  However, the underlying infrastructure, I would argue, is not actually in a condition to maximise the benefits that you’re trying to secure. 

Secondly, if you look at Swansea Bay there’s the political dimensions from Pembroke, Milford Haven all the way to Port Talbot;  then you look at the urban area between Llanelli and Port Talbot, that’s where a lot of people live, 300,000 people from just west of Llanelli to just east of Port Talbot including Neath, Northern Swansea.  There’s no dedicated commuter rail network for that area, that’s a big place without a dedicated commuter rail network.  And what tends to happen is, the long-distance trains from say Manchester full of people, maybe heading for Swansea or West Wales stop at Skewen and they say, “where the hell are we”?  Right.  And they sometimes stop at Briton Ferry or Baglan.  So, you’re trying to serve these local stations by stopping long-distance trains, maybe twice in 3 hours. So you’re slowing down the long-distance trains that should be fast inter-city and delivering a less than optimal local commuter service for people in Swansea Bay.  So people generally don’t use rail for short-distance commuting in Swansea Bay because there isn’t an effective turn up and go service like you’d experience, for example, on the Valley lines.  

So two big issues.  The long-distance capability of the mainline is not good enough, and for an urban area, 300,000 people, with sufficient density of population to support higher frequency services, you don’t have a dedicated rail service, that is commensurate with the status and ambition of this region.  And I think they’re two big issues and they need to be resolved.  

We then look around the UK and again, playing on my work last year, we’ve got, you know, High Speed 2, and I agree we need more capacity on the UK rail network; Northern Powerhouse rail, Crossrail 1, (and 2 maybe), there’s bazillions of pounds being spent on transport projects around the UK.  And it frustrates me, and I’ve done the work, looked at the numbers, and you know that rail infrastructure is not a devolved matter, it’s a responsibility on an England and Wales basis from the DfT – we are not getting a fair deal.   

Wales, or the Wales route which is 11% of the UK route, has probably averaged 1.3, 1.4% of enhancements over the last 10 years at best, and enhancements are things that increase the speed and/or the capacity of the rail network. That is different from  maintaining/renewing a network which is what you do to keep it ticking over.  I’ve looked back at documentation over 20 years, there’s been really very little spent on enhancing the rail network in Wales.    

So the capacity, capability in Wales has stayed the same, elsewhere in the UK it’s been improved    

This is important: more capacity, more capability, drives more passengers, drives more demand, and so less subsidy per passenger, making the case for more investment.  You’re on a conveyor belt.  If you’re not on that conveyor belt, it gets harder and harder to justify capital investment that enhances the capability of the network. Wales has a major issue that goes back a long time, our rail network has become depreciated versus what’s the average now on an England and Wales basis, and we’ve got to fix that.    

So the Cabinet Secretary asked me to explore whether there is case for investing in Welsh railways, my gut feel was of course there is, but can we do some work to make that obvious.    

So we look at the Swansea area, say 300,000 people, you’ve got probably a lot less demand than is possible because of the nature of the services.  From West Wales in particular, there’s quite low demand west of Swansea, there’s more demand at Swansea Station than pretty much every station combined west of Swansea, that’s a function of poor service and demographics.  The poor service we can fix, the demographics perhaps not!  So I think there’s an opportunity there.     

We also looked at comparing stations in the Swansea area in terms of the current demand at stations relative to the frequency of services.  And we compared them to similar stations in the South Wales Valleys with similar demographics and similar socioeconomic characteristics, with higher frequency services.  And typically, if you offer a higher frequency service you get two, three, four times more passengers.  So that tells us if we do provide the right kind of service to places like Briton Ferry, Baglan, Skewen, Felindre, Morriston, Penllergaer, Llandarcy, etc, in future, you will get the kind of demand profiles typically experienced on even a depreciated South Wales Valley lines (which will get better post the investment in the South Wales Metro).    

So the evidence suggests if we invest in the right schemes you can do something that will deliver a network for Swansea Bay.  

And getting back to Swansea Bay and the conversation about Felindre and the Swansea District Line, the one big failing of the Swansea District Line, which is great piece of railway, is that there are no passenger trains on it.  It doesn’t actually connect to Swansea High Street or to Neath.  And for me it’s,  how do we make that more useful for the region, because all it does is bypass the big populated areas.  If you go from Port Talbot to Llanelli, fantastic, you know, but I mean there’s more to the region than that!  

So we’ve got to fix and make better use of the existing infrastructure which is again part of the work we looked at last year.  

So what is it we can do?  And let’s not be shocked by this, because, 100 years ago this place was covered in railways, we had them all, we had railways, we had trams.  So we’re not doing anything that we haven’t done before.  It seems a lot harder now and it’s the hubris of the car from the 1950s onwards that kind of got us in this mess.  

So what could we do?    

So, I think in the first case and the work I’m doing with Welsh Government is saying to UK Government, either devolve responsibility and give us the funding so we can do it ourselves, or pick up the responsibility on this;  we need to look at the whole South Wales Mainline, upgrade the line speeds, upgrade the capacity, so we can run more and faster services, so we can have express services and stopper services.  When that’s done we can look at places like Felindre.  To us, the Felindre question needs to follow the more strategic question related to more and faster services.    

So we’ve got to make the case for upgrading the SWML and SDL so we have more services going fast to West Wales, faster to Cardiff.  And I was in Cardiff Central this morning, there was I think one train an hour coming west, you know, that’s not good enough.  And when you consider the agglomeration potential between Swansea Bay, Cardiff and Bristol, you’ve got over a million people in Bristol, 1.5 million people in Cardiff region, and three-quarters of a million here.  That’s over 3 million people within 45, 50 miles with a really antiquated Victorian rail network. 

And again, if we believe in the Western Powerhouse, rebalancing the UK economy, and associated rhetoric; well it doesn’t manifest itself in how we invest on our infrastructure.  We’ve got to sort that out.  

So I’m really keen that, we focus on the big pictures and the strategic projects and identify the real infrastructure needs for this part of the world.   

The other thing we looked at is, can we do a Metro in Swansea?  I threw out some interesting ideas a couple of years ago which created some interest in the press!  You know, I work in two ways, I throw stones in the water to get a conversation going, and then when I’m working with officials and transport consultants you then get into the hard yards of properly analysing what’s possible.  

I don’t think we’re going to get a new line down the coast, unlikely, but there’s lots of other things we can do to reduce journey times.  And I think there’s an opportunity to develop a Metro for Swansea Bay, a commuting Metro, building upon what’s happening on the Valley lines with the tram-train.  On the face of it the tram-train technology, which allows you more flexibility on alignments, tighter curvatures, lower capital costs for extensions, etc could play a role in Swansea Bay. 

And one thing we’re looking at is how can you connect the Swansea District Line to the Mainline so that you could have a service from Morriston or Felindre, and get to Swansea High Street.  That would be a far more useful thing to do.  And that piece of work is just about to start.  I fully expect we’ll come up with a number of proposals.  We’ll have a capital profile that people might kind of baulk at, but not huge, not ridiculous compared to what’s happening in the rest of the UK, for a project which can have a very fundamental impact on how people choose to move around this region.  

And the model I want to focus on is, what is the most sensible scheme to start with, what’s the one with the least risk, the least capital profile, delivers the most benefits, that provides the building block for what we can do over the next 30 years.  Well, that’s how the Metrolink in Manchester started, it began with a simple system and they’ve been expanding that for 30 years.  The South Wales Metro will follow the same model – once we have the basis in place lets develop a programme that expands over time.  

And our obligations to the environment, to reduce car usage, to sustainable movement, to how we live, demands that we actually implement much more effective transport networks for our region.  

And just as a ball park, we looked at what might the economic benefits be of these schemes?  And this is proper transport appraisal looking at value of time, the kind of stuff, that generated billions of value for High Speed 2. In South Wales alone, if we achieve the same kind of journey times and capacities that currently exist in other places around the UK, we can secure over £1 billion of defendable transport user benefits.  That tells me our ambition for capital programme should be commensurate with that amount.  It’s not about a little project here, a little project there, let’s step back.  What is the strategic investment programme that begins to unlock those benefits and enables the wider agglomeration benefits and maximises the benefits of a Swansea Bay City Deal, which would otherwise in my view be constrained by poor connectivity.  

So that’s the Metro and that’s Swansea and I think… I personally think, you know, it’s not currently in the City Deal, but I think it’s a massive opportunity.  And you look around the UK, I think one of the issues we have, especially outside London, is a lack of investment in our intra-city/region connectivity over many, many years, and if our regional economies are going to be successful, we have to fix that. 

One final point I want to make as well, I don’t know how much time I’ve got, but I think it’s really important, because it’s not been discussed this morning.    

Skills are important, innovation’s important, energy’s important, but we actually need to think about how we live, where we live.   I was in Malaga a few weeks ago, and it strikes me most old European city centres have got six, seven, eight storeys, people live in apartments, they rent them, they come downstairs, they go to the boulangerie or wherever, they can get to the hospital, school, without having to get in their cars.  They design and live in a way that’s more sustainable.   

Over the last 40, 50 years I would argue that the volume housebuilders have been selling us this idea of housing, the 3, 4 bedroom house with a drive plonked out on a greenfield site, miles from anywhere that requires us to drive, requires us to move in unstainable ways that don’t lend themselves to investment in public transport.  And we all think we want that because that’s what we’ve been sold, because that’s what all the adverts say…3 bedroom, 4 bedroom, drive, etc.  I would argue very few people in Malaga would swap a fourth floor apartment with a balcony for a 4 bedroom house 20 miles out of the city; they would say, oh I don’t want to live there, miles from anywhere, where do I go?   

And we don’t think about how we’re going to live, and going back to an earlier point  about the city centres,  with better transport connectivity, we need to build around our transport networks more densely, we need a mix of tenures and a mix of types, multi-generational living.  And I think, the opportunity of Swansea city centre, and the key centres like Neath, etc is getting more people living around those centres, but in a way that they get to other places more easily and more quickly.    

And I think these are hygiene factors, these are not rocket science ideas, this is how to live sensibly and sustainably, investing in public transport networks, put the connectivity in place, and then think seriously about how we live and the kind of buildings we live in.  If we get those two right, and I see more innovation around the housing conversation in this part of the world, you can do something I think which will lend to a much more sustainable future.     

So to close this little opening, you know, this is not my call, I’ve just come down from Cardiff just to throw some ideas around, but they’re the same questions that apply in that city region.  How do we leverage massive investment in transport to generate new ways of living, and can we stop building thousands of houses in the middle of nowhere that need a car to get to!  

And I’ll leave it there.  Thanks very much.

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