Better rail services for NE Wales

I have not written or blogged specifically on north east Wales.  So, let me make up for that oversight and address some real issues and opportunities, especially given the commitment to extend HS2 to Crewe as part of phase 2a.

A relativity small capital investment of £200-300M will enable significant economic and environmental benefits through more frequent and faster rail services in NE Wales and to/from Chester/Crewe and Merseyside.

Also worth noting that in January 2021, I submitted and presented oral evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee’s investigation of Rail Infrastructure and Investment in Wales[1].   I have also provided an addendum re HS2 and its impact on Wales – esp NE Wales.

As was set out in My Case for Investment, prepared for Welsh Government in 2018[2], there are major issues and challenges in North East Wales.  These include but are not limited to:

  • Low public transport use with very high car mode share – exacerbated by many origin and destination points on both sides of the border leading to significant cross border movement in both directions
  • Rail services are constrained by low  line speeds, capacity bottlenecks, old signalling, single track sections (between Wrexham and Chester) and operational constraints (at Chester for example)
  • On the NWML services are caught between trying to  deliver all stop local connectivity and faster express services to places like London, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff – ultimately providing a sub optimal service to both those key markets
  • Bus networks are typically local and fragmented – and unconnected to rail services
  • Rail infrastructure powers and funding are not devolved and are the responsibility of  the UK Government and Department of Transport.  Welsh Government is responsible for  the operational subsidy but does not have the powers to enhance the underlying infrastructure which could help reduce the subsidy per passenger
  • We also have to seriously engage with the climate emergency and the need to decarbonise our economy; we have to acknowledge  that part of the solution is a step change mode shift from car to public transport and active travel.  That means more investment in public transport (including rail) and much less on roads.

I also want to restate the limitations of HS2 in respect of  its impact on Wales.  Yes, it will deliver benefits to Crewe and NW England but there are no direct transport user benefits to North Wales. HS2 Ltd’s own FBC[3] made the point that capacity and constraints between Crewe and Chester are a blocker on services.  In fact, no NWML classic compatibles have been modelled in the FBC, nor are there any additional NWML –  WCML services anticipated.

In addition, North Wales also runs the risk of losing its current direct service to Manchester  Piccadilly and Manchester Airport. I set out the HS2 issues for Wales [4] in previous blog.

Today, TfW, even within the constraint of the current rail ecosystem is working to develop the schemes out in The Case for Investment, to bring forward a range of major rail enhancements.  These are being  integrated with measures across bus and active travel.

This work is being led by TfW whose very capable multidisciplinary team is really getting to grips with the  kind of solutions required – rail, bus and active travel– to really provide a viable alternative to car use in North Wales.  It is stymied by the current constitutional arrangements for rail in Wales; this is important as delivering enhanced rail services is fundamental to TfWs emerging programme.

The priorities for North WalesFigure 2 set out in Welsh Government’s Mainline railway enhancement requirements in Wales (gov.wales) (2020), include:

  • A substantive upgrade of the NWML (line speeds, capacity & electrification) to enable a mix of intercity express and all stop local commuter services. Again, the local commuter services would enable new stations and provide interchanges to local bus networks at key hubs along the entire NWML. 
  • The issues related to capacity through Chester and the long-term plans for HS2 and NPR vis-à-vis operation into NWML also need to be considered
  • The vital opportunity to enhance the local cross border economy and reduce car dependency can be assisted through a strategic upgrade of the Borderlands line to deliver direct services from the Wrexham-Bidston line into Liverpool.

Figure 2 NWML Corridor Priorities (from WG “Rail Enhancement Priorities”)

Given  the £108Bn envelope for HS2 and I don’t know how much for Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the recently announced proposals from Growth Track 360 and others, for a £200m package of rail enhancements for North East Wales, Merseyside and Chester is small beer and should be a “no brainer” for HM Treasury.  

If UK Government is serious about levelling up, the package proposed should be grabbed, expanded and implemented well before HS2 arrives in Crewe.  WG would have no doubt committed to do this already had it had the powers and funding to do so.

These important tactical measures provide the foundation for WG’s longer term plans and will deliver more network reliability and capacity  between Crew-Chester and to the NWML to:

  • Allow new all stop commuter services in NE Wales (eg from Llandudno to Crewe)
  • Recast and reduced stop faster express services
  • New stations at places like Broughton and Holywell

The package also sets out measure to enhance to the Chester-Wrexham-Shrewsbury  corridor and upgrades to  Borderlands – first to enable  2tph then full integration with the Merseyrail network with new stations at places like Deeside and upgrades to Shotton interchange.

I oft here the view of we need better connectivity within Wales – yes, we do. However, I am a realist and a pragmatist and prefer to deal with the world we face and the opportunities we can realise.  The known failings of the rail eco system in respect of funding in Wales are well known and have politicised me to some extent.  But I am still prepared to roll my sleeves up to get stuff done and work with whoever to make stuff happen.

In North East Wales there is huge stakeholder support through groups like Growth Track 360, Mersey Dee Alliance, Welsh Government, Network Rail, Local Authorities, Liverpool City Region, major employers, academia, as well as cross-party support,  for the measures outlined.  I want to lend my voice to that effort and hope that UK Government will step up to provide the funding and remit, and work with TfW to make them happen. 


[1]        Railway Infrastructure in Wales – Committees – UK Parliament

[2]        The Rail Network in Wales (gov.wales)

[3]        Full business case High Speed 2 Phase One (publishing.service.gov.uk)

[4]        Welsh Rail Infrastructure Investment – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

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