South Wales Metro & Devolution

This is the full version of the article that appeared in the December 2021 edition of Rail Technology Magazine and the February 2022 edition of Rail Professional.

As many will know, I have been involved in the South Wales Metro project in various roles  since my first report on the subject, “A Metro for Wales Capital Region – Connecting Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys”, was published by the Cardiff Business Partnership and Institute of Welsh Affairs in 2011[i]. This was followed up in 2013 with the Metro Impact Study[ii]

From those heretical calls, in what was (and still is) a non-devolved area, we have made remarkable progress in Wales. Transport for Wales (TfW) was set up in 2015 and is now leading the design and delivery  of the next major phase of the South Wales metro Figure 1. By 2024 the Core Valley Lines (CVL – which has been transferred from NR to WG) will see electrification, new tram-trains and tri-modes, offering more capacity and faster services. For example, there will be 4tph (vs at best 2tph today) from the Heads of the Valleys (Merthyr, Treherbert and Aberdare) with services to Cardiff via Pontypridd using new tram-trains with 10% or more reductions in journey times.

Figure 1 South Wales Metro Illustration

The programme has also introduced major innovations such as “smart electrification”, using non catenary and permanently earthed sections, and battery powered Stadler Tram-trains. Whilst not without risk[iii], it has significantly reduced the amount of civils work typically required for 25Kv OLE to lower track and/or raise/replace bridges. Seems to me there is now a major opportunity to extend the scope of the CVL OLE work to Network Rail’s Vale of Glamorgan Line and the South Wales Mainline (SWML) once the CVL work is complete. Similarly, in future I think the designation of new sections and some of the existing CVL network as “non-mainline” could help enable better use of capital. For example, it would be possible to operate to tramway standards on the Treherbert branch (as is planned for the Bay line) to avoid expensive overbridges and PRM compliant lifts at stations and instead use traditional tramway crossings (cf Manchester Metrolink). I also expect a few bumps in the road and anticipate supply chain impacts and inflation as a result of Brexit and Covid.

Nonetheless, from heresy to reality in just over 10 years is impressive given how long most UK transport projects take to gestate and deliver. For example, Crossrail was announced when I was living in London in 1987; the current incarnation initiated in 2009, with luck will be operating by 2023, five years later than originally planned and its costs have gone from £14Bn to over £20Bn[iv]; there were also major cost and time overruns on the Great Western Electrification Programme[v]. In Wales we have also seen delays and costs balloon to over £1Bn[vi] for the improvements to the Heads of the Valleys road between Hirwaun to Abergavenny.

So, even now the public are perhaps still cynical, and many don’t believe the current South Wales Metro programme will happen. Not surprising given how little rail enhancement funding Wales has received over the last 30 years[vii]. I have presented evidence to Westminster Committees on multiple occasions over the last ten years on this subject[viii],  and am adamant that rail powers and funding need to be devolved to WG if we want to see more investment in Wales’ rail network.

The perversity of HS2 (let alone NR Enhancements) being defined by HM Treasury as an “England and Wales” scheme[ix] Figure 2 really pains me. Some argue that it benefits Wales. I am clear (as is the data and evidence) that in totality it does not[x], except perhaps in the margins. So, perhaps 0.5% (being generous) of the transport user benefits do benefit Wales; but 5% of the costs are in effect allocated to Wales; that’s a 10:1 ratio of costs to benefits! And we know from the DfT’s own analysis, HS2 (even the now reduced scope version via the Integrated Rail Plan[xi]) will negatively impact Wales’ economy.

Figure 2 Barnet DfT attribution factors from UK Gov Budget 2021 – Statement of Funding Policy
Statement of Funding Policy 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk)

Despite this devolution dysfunction, WG via TfW has set up Metro Development Teams to help bring forward further enhancements across not only South Wales – but in Swansea Bay and northern Wales. These programmes also incorporate the work of Lord Burns and the South East Wales Transport Commission[xii]  which set out the need for a programme of major rail enhancements on the SWML from Milford Haven to Bristol Temple Meads.  This includes several new stations in SE Wales (Magor, Llanwern, Newport Rd etc) and further SWML services from Swansea to Bristol Temp Meads. Sir Peter Hendy via the Union Connectivity Review’s Interim Report[xiii] has endorsed that work and noted the importance of the South Wales Main line and connectivity from Cardiff to Bristol in a UK context.

In the Cardiff Capital Region (CCR) the nascent regional body has also set outs its Passenger Rail Vision[xiv]  Figure 5 for the expansion of the Metro beyond the current contracted phase to 2023/4. These ambitions and those of the SEWTC have been reflected in recent WG statements. In October 2021, The Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters, set out WG ambition for Metro through work being undertaken across Wales by TfW, as illustrated in a series of Metro maps[xv] published by TfW to support the Minister’s statement.  Figure 3 Figure 4.

Figure 3 TfW Emerging Priorities in South East Wales
South Wales Metro: Future developments | Transport for Wales (tfw.wales)

Figure 4 TfW SWML Emerging Priorities
South Wales Metro: Future developments | Transport for Wales (tfw.wales)

In South East Wales, emerging proposals include further CVL stations and frequency enhancements on the City and Coryton Lines. It also includes the Cardiff Crossrail[xvi] which will see the expansion of the current bay line to include a direct link to Cardiff Central and a route east across the Cardiff Docks through Splott and Tremorfa to a new interchange on the SWML (as recommend by Burns) at Newport Rd/Rover Way. This could support a major brown field regeneration and development programme along the route. The proposed Crossrail also includes the NW Corridor project and the development of a new tram-train route from Cardiff Central via the City Line to J33, Creigiau, Llantrisant and Pontyclun.

Further measures to increase frequencies on the Ebbw Valley and Maesteg lines are also prioritised.  The CVL can also be expanded north from Aberdare to Hirwaun to provide a “gateway to the Brecon Beacons” as well as a P&R station and bus interchange on the A465. The NW Corridor from Cardiff to RCT and cross valley corridors are also being appraised.

There is also a vitally important programme in progress to integrate bus networks, services and fares/ticketing right across Wales, so the passenger is presented with a single integrated PT network, instead of the fragmented and inefficient system we have today (a legacy of the deregulation of bus services in the 1980s!).

Aside from the economic benefits right across the CCR, the opportunity to decarbonise our mobility choices cannot be understated.  The recent publication of Net Zero Wales[xvii] set out challenging mode shift targets with a reduced car mode share of just 60% by 2030.   In this space, I also think there is inevitably going to be a need to introduce demand management for car-based road use – including fiscal measures.

Collectively across Wales there is pragmatic £4Bn programme in development out to the early 2030s. A further £4~5 Bn (at least) will be needed for the full programme out from 2030 to 2040. This programme is more than just a transport project – it is also about decarbonisation and local economic development and regeneration. Welsh Government have now acknowledged[xviii] that much of the damage to our high streets has been caused by the vast amount of car based low density sprawl, especially housing, offices and retail that over the last 50 years have sprung up at the edges of, or between our towns and cities. Local authorities need to take seriously and focus their energies on the need to encourage much more development in/around public transport hubs and corridors and away from car dependent green field sites.

So, there is no shortage of further ideas, schemes and ambition for and in Wales; and to re-emphasise, the primary need to decarbonise our mobility system and reduce car dependency is at the heart of these programmes.

However, the glaring issue, given the devolution anomaly re: rail, is that this ambitious Welsh Government programme to 2030 needs co-funding from the UK Government, by contributing perhaps  £2~3Bn for enhancement of the assets for which it responsible.  I set out the case for such a joint WG/UK Gov programme in a blog earlier this year:  Levelling Up, Working Together? A Transport Enhancement Programme for Wales – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog) [xix].

Sir Peter Hendy’s recently published, Union Connectivity Review[xx] also endorses the emerging proposals for the SWML and NWML. We now look to the UK Government response given they are responsible for managing and funding  the rail infrastructure (apart from the CVL) in Wales.

If not (and better in my view) is to fully devolve rail powers and funding to WG and ensure that projects like HS2, NPR, IRP, Network Rail enhancements in England etc. are designated as England only projects by HM Treasury. Even the Welsh Affairs Select Committee came to the same conclusion re: the designation of HS2[xxi].  I suspect the conservative MPs in north Wales on that committee have now realised that the best chance of securing funding for the emerging schemes in that part of Wales is if WG have more funding rather than expecting the UK gov to contribute.  The revision to the Barnet attribution factor in these circumstances (for HS2 and the IRP), would provide Welsh Government enough resources (as is the case in Scotland) to begin to pursue this programme.

Post Script – I did another short video explainer re devolution and relevance of HS2 to Wales

I would also add that rail powers and funding should also be fully devolved to Transport for the North. One of the problems for the UK it seems to me, is that major investment decisions are made by a small number of senior officials and politicians in and around Number 10, Whitehall (inc. Marsham St) and The Treasury.

As I have stated elsewhere, the current “levelling up “mantra can only be realised with a major constitutional overhaul; it will never work if based on a little more cash being dispensed though politically compromised Westminster largesse. A handout economy and a handout constitution based entirely around Westminster and Whitehall, has not and can never really work for everyone and every place on this island; especially in Wales.

Figure 5 CCR Rail Passenger Vision  appendix-2-passenger-rail-vision-final.pdf (cardiffcapitalregion.wales)


[i]     Institute of Welsh Affairs and Cardiff business Partnership,  A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region, 2011
iwa-metroreport.pdf

[ii]    Metro Impact Study, 2013, South Wales Metro: impact study | GOV.WALES

[iii]    Mark Barry evidence to Senedd Committee 2018, Article (senedd.wales)

[iv]    NAO, Crossrail Update, 2021 Crossrail – a progress update (Summary) (nao.org.uk)

[v]    Public Accounts Committee, 2017, Modernising the Great Western Railway (parliament.uk)

[vi]    Cost increases and delays on the A465 Section 2 road improvement | Audit Wales

[vii]   Welsh Government Analysis of Rail Enhancement Funding in Wales, 2019,
Historical investment in rail infrastructure enhancements [HTML] | GOV.WALES

[viii]   Mark Barry examples of evidence submitted to Parliament:
https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/19482/html/
https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/23936/html/
https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/22844/html/
House of Commons – Transport Committee – Written Evidence (parliament.uk)

[ix]    HM Treasury,  Budget October 2021,  Statement of Funding Policy 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk)

[x]    Welsh Rail Infrastructure Investment – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)
Wales and HS2… – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

[xi]    Department for Transport, Integrated Rail Plan, Nov 2021
Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[xii]   South East Wales Transport Commission, 2019
https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2020-11/south-east-wales-transport-commission-final-recommendations.pdf

[xiii]   Union Connectivity Review, Interim Report, March 2021
Union Connectivity Review Interim Report – March 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk)

[xiv]   Cardiff Capital Region Passenger Rail Vision, 2021,
appendix-2-passenger-rail-vision-final.pdf (cardiffcapitalregion.wales)

[xv]   Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Oral Statement, 20th October 2021
Plenary 20/10/2021 – Welsh Parliament (assembly.wales)
South Wales Metro: Future developments | Transport for Wales (tfw.wales)

[xvi]   Cardiff Council Crossrail and Transport White Paper, 2021
White Paper for Cardiff Transport 2019.pdf
Cardiff Transport White Paper – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

[xvii]   Welsh Government, October 2021, Net Zero Wales | GOV.WALES

[xviii] Welsh Government Statement  re: town centres, transport planning and development, Sep 2021
Radical intervention needed to save Wales’ town centres | GOV.WALES

[xix]   A Transport Investment Programme for Wales,
Levelling Up, Working Together? A Transport Enhancement Programme for Wales – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

[xx]   Union Connectivity Review, Final Report, November 2021, Policy paper overview: Union connectivity review: final report – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[xxi]   Welsh Affairs Select Committee, 2021, Railway Infrastructure in Wales (parliament.uk)

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