Levelling Up, Working Together? A Transport Enhancement Programme for Wales

A challenge to UK & Welsh Governments…

A summary of this article appeared in the Western Mail on 28th June 20201

Most of you will know that I have written and spoken at length over the last few years on Welsh rail, the lack of enhancement funding and the constitutional and institutional anomalies  resulting from its non-devolved status. However, I think I am done with that…I stand by my work and analysis, and it is out there for the public record.

For example: Welsh Rail Infrastructure Investment – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

This video and my simplified explanation may help…and I do use approx. figures which does not detract from the fundamental point.

Postscript: It was also good to see the Welsh Affairs Select Committee endorse my work over the last ten years in calling for HS2 to be defined as an England only (rather than “England and Wales”) project so enabling a higher attribution factor for the Department for Transport in respect of Barnet consequential calculations. I would add though that the the case for full devolution of rail powers and funding is unanswerable!

Postscript August 2020: I also shared a presentation at a Westminster Forum Projects Event in August 2021 on these proposals

I am now more interested, from a Welsh Perspective, in how we agree,  fund and deliver a major programme of public transport enhancements, including rail,  to help us deliver our decarbonisation targets to 2030 and beyond.  This will require Welsh Government (WG) and UK Government to work together. 

Whilst in the past this has been difficult, and I am not underestimating the challenges, despite the frosty political  rhetoric  of late,  the relationships between officials in WG, Department for Transport (DfT), Network Rail (NR) and Transport for Wales (TfW)  are as good as I have ever known.  There does seem to be a commitment to try and work together, despite the constraints and limitations of the rail industry and government eco-system in Wales.

In doing so, I am not understating the challenge and the need for some political alignment and leadership especially from the UK Government; but there is an opportunity to bring together WG transport and economic policy with the UK Government’s stated aim to Level Up all within the context of our collective and urgent  need to decarbonise our mobility ecosystem.  In Wales, the targets set out by the Climate Change Committee are stark  – a 50% reduction in surface transport CO2 emissions  by 2030. Give the very high levels of car use – approx 80% for commuting on average in Wales – we will need to see at least 2-3 times more public transport (PT) use (and Active Travel) and a 30-40% reduction in car use to get us back to a mode share more typical of the 1950s before we become addicted to car use. For those thinking EVs will get us there….they wont! We need fewer, smaller and better utilised cars first, as I tried to set out here!

So, what I am going to set out are the bones of an emerging programme that begins to deliver against this broad policy agenda. In doing so, I am not divulging confidential details, data or information.  One can infer either directly or indirectly all I set out below from official public documents and/or statements  by WG, TfW or UK Gov. For example, including, but not limited to:

TfW Metro Update March 2021

WG The Rail Network in Wales – The Case for Investment 2018

WG A Railway for Wales, Meeting the Needs of Future Generations 2019

The South-East Wales Transport Commission (Burns Report) Final Recommendations 2020

WG Mainline Rail  Enhancement Priorities 2020

UK Gov Union Connectivity Review, Interim Report  2021

Wales Transport Strategy  Llwbyr Newydd 2021.

I’d also look back to my 2013 Metro Impact Study and the proposals I have set out in earlier blogs including A Public Transport Grid for the M4 Corridor, Rail Investment in North East Wales, A Cardiff Crossrail, A Metro for North West Wales , Swansea Bay MetroWales Rail Infrastructure Investment , Cars and Climate Change and Wales and HS2.

If one looks out to 2030, one also has to acknowledge that the bulk of rail network in Wales is non-devolved and still the responsibility of the UK Government. The only exception now is the Core Valley Lines (CVL) north of Cardiff,  which have been transferred to WG/TfW to support the implementation of the south  Wales Metro.

Given all the above and the political discourse, it is clear to me that there is recognition by many politicians and officials at both Westminster and Cardiff Bay that further investment is not only needed  but is absolutely necessary.

Given all the work that has been undertaken over the last ten years – and especially the last three years – It seems to me there is an opportunity for political leadership  to coalesce around and support a major package of public transport enhancement across Wales to 2030; with UK Gov and WG, each making contributions where they are the responsible government.  If both are prepared to be flexible in allocating funds to enable the broader package, then we can make progress.  Remember, the South  Wales Metro would not be happening without WG leadership and the application of pragmatism from the UK Government, on what was a non-devolved responsibility.

To start, let me set out (again) what the priority strategic enhancement might be. To note,  these are drawn  from publicly available papers, reports, etc from WG, UK Gov, TfW and others (including those set out above). 

I will keep this simple and at a high level.  These proposals can be delivered by 2030(ish) and collectively they will help provide a viable and necessary alternative to excessive car use which will be an essential component of a wider programme to reduce our carbon emissions. And to note – I still think we will need road pricing (or the reduction in the “car use discount” as I prefer to call it).

As important, this programme can also help post-covid economic development (and note I say development and not growth necessarily)– especially if combined with local regeneration measures; including major public sector relocations away from car based out of town facilities to town and city centres and PT connected places right across Wales.  This also plays well against  the UK Government’s  Levelling agenda which we can help make real through the development and delivery of these proposals.  However, we do have to acknowledge that whilst good connectivity is necessary… it is not a sufficient measure in this regard; we also have to consider what economic development is actually sustainable given the climate and environmental emergency we face.

The priority programmes in Wales…(no, its not HS2):

The South Wales Mainline (SWML) Upgrade

Covering  the main line from Milford Haven to Bristol Temple Meads.  This line (like Trans Pennine ) is a key piece of the UKs transport infrastructure and probably needs a 10-year enhancement programme of perhaps £1.5Bn.  This corridor connects over 3M people and is a major component of the UK economy.

The SWML connects over 3 millions people
WG SWML Rail Enhancement Priorities

This programme will cover:

  • Linespeed & capacity improvements to bring it up to approaching the same capability as the other “mainlines” in the UK (esp. WCML, ECML and GWML)

  • Additional express and all stopper services. Including faster services to Carmarthen and West Wales, and further  Bristol Temple Meads (BTM) – Cardiff services as recommended by Lord Burns’ South East Wales Transport Commission

  • Perhaps 10 new stations (inc those recommend by Burns and as set out in earlier work such as the Metro Impact Study) to support the new all stopper commuter services, including consideration of: Magor, Llanwern, Newport East, Newport West, Cardiff Parkway, Newport Rd/Rover Way, Rumney, Miskin, Landore, Cockett.

  • This combination of rail services and stations will deliver the essential public transport backbone across South Wales  and are vital to give improved local bus services and BRT in Newport and East Cardiff something to integrate with. They will also complement further enhancements  to the South Wales Metro and the introduction of a Metro in Swansea Bay -see below

  • We also need to deliver electrification to Swansea/Carmarthen from Cardiff, and into Bristol Temple Meads; this will help enable  all electric rolling stock options on some BTM-Swansea services and reduce the costs of the Swansea/Neath Urban area Metro (see below).

Swansea Bay & West Wales Rail Enhancement and Local Metro

There is an emerging package of measure of perhaps £500M that can be linked to interventions that enable the re-location of employment (eg the DVLA) and public services back to key transport hubs around the region; especially to Neath, Swansea, Carmarthen (which is the best location for a West Wales Parkway), Haverfordwest, etc.  The key interventions include:

  • Enhanced local rail services west of Swansea all the way to Milford Haven aligned to a range of tactical  infrastructure enhancement – these complements some of the SWML measures set out above

  • An initial phase of the Swansea/Neath/Llanelli urban area rail metro including perhaps 6 new stations on the SWML and SDL with services from: i)Pontarddulais via Neath to Swansea High Street and ii) Bury Port to Swansea high Street

  • A range of local bus prioritisation and segregation measures  – esp.  in the urban areas of Swansea, Neath and Llanelli.

Cardiff/Cardiff Capital Region: expansion of the South Wales Metro

There is likely a package of priority interventions of £1~1.5Bn covering NR’s rail asset (so the responsibly of the DfT and UK Government, CVL (so a WG responsibility), and bus measures. This programme which whilst a subset of, is consistent with, the recently published CCR Passenger Rail Vision which I helped prepare earlier this year which also set out a range of  transport enabled local economic development and regeneration opportunities including Cardiff Parkway, Newport City Centre, Cardiff Central/Bay, Bridgend Town Centre, Merthyr, Pontypridd, etc.

CCR Passenger Rail Vision

The major components include:

  • Some major BRT  and bus segregation/priority measure in Newport and Cardiff; an an opportunity for early intervention of the recommendations of the SEWTC

  • Frequency enhancement to Ebbw Valley (4tph) and Maesteg (2tph); like the City and Coryton lines in Cardiff need interventions to give passenger a more useful and appropriate service frequency

  • A package of CVL enhancement to follow the introduction of new electric tram-train and tri-mode services in 2023/4.  This will include 7 or 8 further stations to extend the reach of the network and measures to enable 4tph on the City and Coryton Lines in Cardiff. This will deliver much enhanced integrated public transport in the most populated part of Wales and will likely a major component of the CO2 reduction required. It also requires measure to address bottlenecks on NRs rail asset at Cardiff West (the rail nerds will know what that is!)

  • The Section of Cardiff Crossrail from Cardiff Central via the Bay to Splott/Tremorfa back to the SWML at Rover Way (with the potential for the tram-trains to operate onto  the SWML serving new local stations and so avoiding potential capacity constraints at Cardiff  Central).  The bay line and its extension as part of Crossrail is something I have made the case for on numerous occasions.  One might argue that this intervention is half CVL asset, and half NR asset and so should attract 50/50 funding from WG and UK Gov

  • The CVL extension from Aberdare  – to Hirwaun providing enhanced access to the Brecon Beacons and the A465

  • Some cross Valley rail and bus prioritisation measures to help build the regional strategic PT grid as set out in the CCR Passenger Rail Vision

  • NW Corridor (from Cardiff to lower RCT) bus and BRT measures in advance of a comprehensive tram-train solution

  • Electrification of the VoG to Barry/Penarth.

North Wales Metro Programme

There is already significant political and regional stakeholder support for an initial programme of perhaps £500M that will help reduce the primacy of car use,  especially in NE Wales and help support economic development and regeneration at places like Wrexham, Deeside Industrial Estate and Chester (yes even in England). Priority schemes include:

  • Introduce line speed capacity and reliability enhancements on the NWML  – esp. in around/Chester; 3 or 4 new stations and importantly the introduction of dedicated local all stop commuter services on the NWML

  • To complement the NWML a range of measure to enable the Borderlands line to support 2tph with new and upgraded station (inc. Shotton and Deeside). Later, the full ambition is for 4tph and eventual full integration with the Merseyrail network

  • In the medium/longer term NWML electrification and service integration with HS2 via Crewe and Northern Powerhouse Rail.
  • Like in the CCR and Swansea Bay a range of complementary bus prioritisation/segregation measures as part of a comprehensive rail/bus integration. Local Active Travel measures will also be required.

WG North Wales Rail Enhancement Priorities

Other Opportunities

I have also written  about the need to look at innovation and different rail standards to allow us revisit old routes  and/or new alignments where a traditional HR approach will not work, however much we might want it!  The need for comprehensive network interoperability is a constraint in places in the UK where the application of Mainline HR standards  is not the right solution. This is true in parts of West Wales and North West Wales and I suspect other parts  of the UK as well.

Who pays?

Well, any operational costs will clearly fall mainly to WG via TfW and its Rail Services operations,  and certainly all of the CVL and additional bus operations.  I really dont know what the details might be  – but we should probably be thinking of an additional opex requirement of  £50M pa.  For the capital,  then in principle the majority of costs for enhancing  the NR asset should fall to UK Gov, given WG will have to cover the CVL costs, bus measures, etc.  But I think we may need some “flexibility”!   I also think we will need to consider “road pricing” at some point.

The total cost of this 10-15 year programme in capex terms is perhaps £3~4Bn.  This is really small beer when compared to the other big rail enhancement schemes in development or delivery  around the UK. For example, the £108Bn for HS2, likely further £Bns for Clapham remodelling, Trans Pennine Upgrade, East-West Rail. In fact,  in just the 2019-29 period there are about £50Bn of committed rail enhancements in England vs  just £350m in Wales.  A more “Barnet” like allocation would see perhaps £2~3Bn being spent in Wales.

In essence, I am pitching this as a decarbonisation, sustainable economic development and levelling up programme. If WG can put £1~1.5Bn on the table for the above programme, then the UK Gov should be able to find £2~3Bn via a ring fenced Welsh rail enhancement fund perhaps, noting that a very significant portion of the  investment required is on rail asset which is the responsibility of UK Government.

If we can view this entire programme as a package, then why can’t the WG, UK Gov  (inc the Wales Office) work this up as a strategic 10-year programme that will tick boxes:  decarbonisation (important given the latest advice from the UK Climate Change Committee),  local economic development and regeneration enabled by these transport investments, and Numbers 10’s “levelling up” ambitions.

The current CCR City Deal and North Wales Growth Deal could be modified to formally include this all Wales programme; and the West Wales Swansea Bay Metro could be revised to include these proposals as it currently lacks a  transport component. This implies an important role for the UK Government’s Treasury  and the Chancellor of the Exchequer– who after all holds most of the purse strings. When one also considers some of these proposals align with the objectives of  Number 10s Union Connectivity Review (esp. the SWML Programme)  then really, there is an opportunity to secure win/wins all around.  

I’m done carping,  I want to help make stuff happen. If UK Government can work with Welsh Government on this, I’ll stop going on (and on) about the lack of UK Government rail investment in Wales, and HS2! (maybe!).  I’ll even help!

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