Wales, Transport Planning & Choices…

What mode is best……?

Postscript April 2022 – I have made a small number of edits re WG Bus legislation and rail v bus

In this blog, my first of 2022, I’d like to take on some transport questions that keep coming up in Wales and often generate answers, perhaps, that draw more upon sentiment than objective analysis.  These are:

  1. What mode is best, bus or rail?
  2. Should  we re-instate the Carmarthen Aberystwyth rail line?
  3. Should we focus on east west links from Wales into SW England and NW England?
  4. Is Cardiff too “wealthy” and does it “get everything”?
  5. This then leads a to a supplementary question: What is really damaging our high streets?

To note, I have drawn some material from earlier blogs, articles and publications.

Before I answer them, a little theory first….


As I set out in summary in the CCR Rail Passenger Vision[i], when developing schemes and business cases, transport planners have to weigh up and assess a wide range of costs and benefits and reflect the needs of current and potential passengers, as well as the needs of operators and governments. Contributory factors include decarbonisation, congestion, demand (actual and latent), capacity, Persons of Reduce Mobility (PRM) compliance, station design, integration, service frequency and costs (both capital and revenue) as well as broader considerations such as economic development and regeneration.  There are few “right answers”, only choices and implications, shaped by policy priorities.  For example:

  • Services that aim to maximise coverage (and so serve as many places as possible), especially where demand is low, can add to opex per passenger and overall subsidy

  • Services that maximise passenger  numbers (serving the most populous places with the most direct services)  typically result in lower cost per passenger & more efficient operations, but may not serve everyone at all times

  • Service with “turn up and go” frequency (typically at least 4tph), especially where local catchment is high can increase demand and reduce opex per passenger; however, in areas of lower total catchment or off peak, can add to opex and increase costs per passenger

  • Services with low and subsidised fares can attract more demand but make incremental service expansion (that may be needed to satisfy the increased demand) more costly

  • Segregated operations (via rail, bus lanes, etc) which may have high capex, enable faster more reliable & attractive services (so higher demand & fares) with lower opex.

Choices always have to be made and transport planners do their best to develop schemes and business cases that deliver most value to most people and in so doing consider spatial & economic  geography, transport  planning process and political realities.

Transport planners are also increasingly grappling with how to ensure equity and inclusivity as well as effective engagement in appraisal and decision making; something that has become more important in Wales as a result of the Well Being of Future Generations Act[ii]

One of the best sources of transport planning data and insight is Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Planning Institute,  who published two papers[iii] in 2021 that help provide a more systematic basis for addressing some of these questions. His September 2021 paper explored the role for more equitable public transport in a post covid world; his December 2021 paper  expanded his earlier work to provide a more robust basis to include distributional impacts in transport planning and makes the case for more effectively and fairly apportioning external costs (including measures like road pricing),  and how we serve disadvantaged groups and address social injustice. In so doing  he set out some of the types of transport equity that we need to consider Figure 1.

Figure 1 From Litman, Evaluating Transport Equity

Transport Planners also have to assess a range of alternative measures to deliver the same outputs. This is what WelTAG[iv]  (Welsh Transport Appraisal Guidelines – which needs another refresh)  tries to achieve. This is more an art form than a science !

However, for me, perhaps the primary consideration to acknowledge, especially given the decarbonisation challenge (now overtly referenced in Llwybr Newydd – The Wales Transport Strategy[v] and Net Zero Wales[vi] with a target to reduce car mode share to 60% by 2030)  is that we need to develop a transport network and services that can attract some of the approximately 80% of people who pre-covid chose to use their cars. There is clearly a large untapped market for public transport, so we need a better product designed more around what the 80% want and perhaps less so the 15% already using public transport. I also think the case for Demand Management measures (including road pricing) is overwhelming – I cover this in recent blog on cars and climate change[vii] which also touches on the phenomenon of induced demand and the negative socialised external costs of car use (in effect a subsidy to car users).

Public Transport Grids and Networks

In that context there is value and efficiency in developing public transport services via integrated multi-modal grids of rail and bus with high quality interchanges.  This is not the situation we have today with multiple operators planning and operating their own networks, often on a hub and spoke basis, with no real attempt to connect/integrate these networks.  This is one of the legacies of bus deregulation in the UK in the 1980s and rail privatisation in the 1990s – albeit there is more central control and regulation in the rail industry. This fragmented offer is “confusing” for passengers, generally results in less coverage, adds to vehicle miles operated per passenger and increases opex  and subsidy  per passenger.

The more efficient grid approach is illustrated in Figure 2 and  Figure 3 below. In urban areas grids are more efficient to operate as typically less vehicle miles are required to serve a larger population. However, to secure a positive  passenger experience grids need high quality interchanges  between component services; this also means that such component services have to be of sufficient frequency so that “wait” times are minimised and do not deter patronage; this typically means at least four services an hour. (Anyone who has used the London underground will understand this type of grid service)

Jarret Walker is always worth a read on these subjects and in particular his book, Human Transit[viii] which is an essential read for all transport planners.

The challenge for each of Wales’ Metro  projects[ix] (and perhaps most especially in SE Wales given the larger and more dense population), is to develop interconnected and integrated (esp. fares and ticketing)  multi-modal grids of rail and bus which appear to the passenger as a single network.  In fact, it should be explicitly stated that many of the bus service improvements (via network redesign, BRT, bus lanes, fares/ticketing, etc)  being developed in the CCR require rail frequency enhancement so that they have something to “integrate with”.  For example, this is why it is important to enable “turn up and go” rail services of at least 4tph (vs the 2tph now) (and so commensurate with the local demographics and potential demand) on the City and Coryton lines in Cardiff.

Figure 2 Services from everywhere to everywhere (!) Vs Grids V Hub & Spoke

Figure 3 The multi-modal integrated grids we need for our Metros

It is also worth emphasising the importance of segregated public transport services through the provision of infrastructure, road or rail, that limits interaction with other modes – especially cars.  Operating in “mixed traffic” impacts journey times and reliability.  This adds costs through having to operate more vehicles (so more staff and opex) to maintain frequency of services, which are also less reliable and slower supressing demand and fare revenues. 

In short, the ability to operate faster on segregated alignments (esp. bus lanes/BRT as well as fixed rail) reduces opex whilst at the same time providing the passenger a more reliable and attractive service so increasing demand and fare box.

For example, in Wales, with the work ongoing to enhance and integrate our bus ecosystem, one of the quickest and easiest things we can do is introduce a lot more bus lanes and bus prioritisation – Swansea, Newport and Cardiff should lead the way.  With braver local politicians this simple measure applied on a more ambitious basis could help transform the public transport offer – especially, as is planned, when integrated with more strategic regional metro rail services.  

The application of the grid concept must also change how we think about specific stand-alone schemes, especially in respect of demand analysis and transport user benefits.  For example, narrowly defined business cases and demand analysis for say a cross valley link between Ystrad Mynach and Quakers Yard  or the Coryton – Radyr connection in Cardiff, may, when assessed narrowly,  only generate relatively  minor additional transport user benefits based on historical  flows.  However, both these sections can  play a fundamental part in delivering a “regional Public Transport grid” in SE Wales as they can support trips to/from a far higher  number of Origin/Destination (O/D) points across the region Vs those just along the route. The same principle applies to the package of further CVL stations TfW have proposed for the network following the completion of the current transformation in 2023/24.

This is why it is much more effective and efficient to develop business cases for larger packages of interdependent interventions Vs many smaller individual schemes.  This is what DfT did with HS2 (even the cut back version!) with one Full Business Case for the entire scheme and is what TfW are trying to do re: future phases of the South Wales Metro.

Modes..and this begins to answer question #1 above

I often get dragged into  the rail v bus debate as if it were an evangelical choice! It really isn’t one can make an informed decision based on an analysis of  “the numbers”. Each mode will deliver very different outputs (especially capacity and costs per passenger) and have different capex and opex profiles – so an objective analysis reflective of the local demand to be served is necessary.

In the following examples,  I illustrate five main modes:

  • Traditional high-capacity Heavy Rail (HR) seen on most of the UK urban rail network (with vehicles that can typically hold 300-500 people and often more)

  • Traditional Light Rail (LR) like Metrolink or Tyne and Wear Metro in the UK and soon to be seen on the South Wales Metro with Tram-train operations (with vehicles that can typically hold 200-400 people)

  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Figure 4 with off vehicle ticketing, segregated operations  and a LR type service offer, as is common in many African and South American cities (with vehicles than can typically hold 75-200 people)

  • Traditional local and fixed bus routes generally using shared road space (with vehicles than can typically hold 50~75 people)

  • Demand Responsive Transit, so bus local routes that change in response to real time demand (eg the new Fflecsi[x] service from TfW) (with vehicles than typically hold less than 50 people), DRT can also include local taxi

  • Active Travel, so cycling and walking.

In areas with sufficient population density and demand to support fixed services, the choice of Bus, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) , Light Rail (LR), Heavy Rail (HR) is, in general terms, determined by the local demand and long-term revenue and operating profile of the system, as well as the initial capital costs (which are often a barrier for fixed segregated systems – especially rail). The biggest component of operational costs typically relates to numbers of vehicles and staff required to move a fixed number of people.

Figure 4 A fully segregated BRT system in Washington DC with “stations” and off-vehicle ticketing

As an example, Figure 5  it is operationally more efficient to move 1000 people an hour between two points in 2 or 3 trains (of 300~500 people) or 4 Light Rail Vehicles (of 200~400 people) instead of 14 or 15 buses (of 50~75 people).  At 100~200 an hour then perhaps 3 or 4 buses works better than one train, remembering that a frequency of 4 services an hour is generally regarded as the minimum required to deliver a “turn up and go” services able to attract most passengers. 

Figure 5 An Illustration of mode applicability Vs demand

So, broadly, the bigger the local demand (and this is often related to local population density) then fixed segregated rail (HR and LR) and BRT solutions are most efficient, for lower demand then local bus services can be most efficient. For much shorter journeys of up to 3~5km then Active Travel is best irrespective of population density.

To note: for the south Wales Metro the new Stadler Tram-trains can hold up to approx 250 people and when operated in double sets 500 people; the Flirt Tri-modes can hold up to approx 450 people

Segregated BRT can be developed with potentially lower costs than rail if there is sufficient road space able to be easily allocated to fully segregate bus operations. As stated above, segregation allows bus operators to maintain a particular service frequency with less vehicle miles and so less opex.  

However, with the increasing interest in BRT we also need to avoid the mistake of only providing segregation for bus operations where road space is “easy” to allocate. However, for efficient and reliable operations the entire route needs segregation. One single pinch point can and will impact the operational efficiency and the reliability and attractiveness of the entire service, as exemplified by the problems experienced by the Delhi BRT scheme; similar issues have impacted BRT systems in Bristol, Boston,  Seattle and Portland.

So, we need to be mindful of the phenomenon of the 80/20 rule of a poorly developed BRT system Vs a fully segregated LR system, in that the BRT attracts 80% of the capital costs but only 20% of the benefits of a LR solution.

There is a role for segregated bus services and some comprehensive Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) across parts of urban Newport, Swansea and Cardiff where rail capital costs for new build maybe prohibitive and where road space maybe “easier” to allocate to segregate bus operations (E and NE Cardiff for example). Similarly, segregated bus can play a role across the urban valleys where redesigned bus networks can be developed to integrate with rail services. Where we already have rail infrastructure in urban areas then enhancing it to enable it to support at at least 4tph is the optimal approach Vs trying to replicate or duplicate with more constrained unsegregated bus operations. Outside the core grid services, the opportunity is via development of and integration with local bus services.

In contrast to high-capacity PT, trying to move 1000 people an hour in 500~1000 cars is always the least efficient and most environmentally damaging. Autonomous and/or electric vehicles or “pods” can’t change the basic physics and geometry of the question – primarily road space required per user and energy costs per passenger. Figure 6

Figure 6 Road space: car V bus V AT (Source Cycling Promotion Fund, Canberra 2013)

The car industry greenwash trying to persuade us that this is not the case is deeply depressing – especially given cars are getting bigger and heavier so requiring more energy to move, and now often being made available  as part of an ongoing lease arrangement (often with an option to replace with new every 2 or 3 years).  The reality is that we need far fewer, smaller and better utilised cars before EV/AV can help deal with our decarbonisation obligations.

Where “AV” may work well is in areas of low population density and more variable demand; we are already seeing this play out with Demand Responsive Transit (like Fflecsi) where opex could be reduced with the application of AV technology. I did a blog on Cars and AV back in 2017.

Some data to help with context:

Before I get on to the “questions” perhaps a little data to help with context:

  • 50% of Wales’ population, over 1.5M people, live within ~35km of Cardiff, in the ten local authorities that make up the Cardiff Capital Region (CCR); the population of the Cardiff local authority itself is 370k by far the biggest in Wales and the most densely populated

  • Swansea Bay & West Wales (the local authorities of Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire & Carmarthen) has a population of  700k (22% of Welsh pop.); North Wales (Conway, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Gwynedd, Yns Mon and Wrexham) is again 700k (22% ) and Mid Wales (Powys and Ceredigion) is only 205k (7%)

  • Whilst the population of the Cardiff Local authority area is nearly 370k[xi] (2020 mid yr estimates), its Built Up Area (BUA)[xii] is 470k[xiii] (based on 2011 census data, so is probably over 500k now, given the LA population has increased by over 20k since 2011) with a density of 43pph. That is amongst the highest in the UK and higher than Greater Manchester, Tyne and Wear, Liverpool

  • The Newport BUA is 306K with a density of 36 pph; in fact, most of urban SE Wales  has relatively high population density

  • Similarly urban Swansea, Neath and Llanelli is also high (the combined BUAs are 350k) as is the Wrexham/NE Wales area (although the absolute population is lower); See Figure 8  for main BUA stats for Wales.

Post Script: I’d also like to add some Stats Wales Commuting data ( pre-covid) and approx. However, they help illustrate the largest movements where more PT can have most impact to help deliver our decarbonisation obligations. From this data it is clear that that more local, intra-regional trips make up the vast majority trips across Wales.

  • SE Wales has ~710k working residents and daily working population of ~677k (about 62k commute out include 26k over to Bristol/SW England, 18k to Swansea & 5k to London/SE England; and ~30k commute into the region)

  • North Wales has ~317k working residents and a daily working population of ~298k (about 46k commute out including ~32k to Cheshire West/Chester; 1~2k to Wirral, Liverpool & Manchester and ~6k to the West Midlands; London (limited data so LT 1k)

  • Swansea Bay has ~306k working residents and a daily working population of ~310k (about 22k commute out and 26k commute in)

  • Mid Wales has ~96k working residents and daily working population of ~92k (about 16k commute out including ~7k to the West Midlands)

The biggest and most important cross border movements (although still smaller than intra-regional, making up about 4% of total trips in Wales) are between SE Wales and Bristol/SW England (~26k) (and why this corridor was identified by the UCR for investment by UK Government) and NE Wales and Chester/Cheshire West(~32k). Also important, trips further afield to places like Manchester, Liverpool, West Midlands and London/SE England total about 3% of trips In fact across Wales’ working population of ~1,430k only ~100k (or ~7%) is commuting over the border. As I set out in this video explainer these are also important considerations when assessing Wales rail investment priorities (which, echoing the 2006 Eddington Transport Study, are primarily intra-regional) Vs schemes in England like HS2, IRP

These are material facts when engaged in transport planning given, and as I set out the CCR Passenger Rail Vision, that academic data (examples [xiv] [xv] [xvi]) indicates that fixed segregated public transit, typically needs a minimum population of 200,000, a density 22 people per hectare (pph), and a planning system that encourages employment as well as residential development along transit corridors; especially within 800m of transit stops. These though, are just guidelines and I look to more detailed and local transport demand modelling to really inform transport planning.

Nonetheless, the conclusion is that there is clearly a large potential market for segregated high capacity  “turn up and go” transit  in SE Wales and in/around Swansea/Neath/Llanelli and in some of NE Wales. This is also a material consideration if we want to determine where we can most quickly and efficiently decarbonise our mobility choices.

The stark reality though, is that most of the rest of Wales is sparsely populated with low population density Figure 7 and certainly lower than one might typically require to invest in traditional fixed heavy rail systems, so we need to look more to traditional bus services in such areas. The topology of most of Wales is also challenging!  

Figure 7 Population and Activity density in Wales based on 2011 Census (ref Duncan Smith UCL)

Figure 8 Main BUA stats for Wales (2011 Census)

To exemplify, as a comparator, and yes pre-covid, the annual passenger flows  through the rail stations at Haverfordwest, Aberystwyth, Carmarthen and Bangor (the busiest in  north Wales)  were  124k, 310k, 385k and 670k per year. In comparison, Penarth, Pontypridd, Cathays and Cardiff Bay were 740k,  935k, 1,160k and 1,720k respectively.  Places like Cardiff Central,  Queen St, Newport, Swansea  had (pre-covid) passenger numbers counted in the millions. Figure 9 shows the ORR station entry/exits for the top 25 stations in Wales.

In terms of commuting, and yes this is pre-covid and there will be changes, the scale of movement within the CCR is also complex, with by the far the most movements to/from and within, Cardiff.  However, there is much cross-region movement. For example, as per Stats Wales data[xvii]: overall there are a total of 717,000 working residents in the CCR of which 660,000 live and work within the region with 57,000 commuting out (includes approximately 25,000 to Bristol and SW England and 18,000 to Swansea and West Wales) and 33,000 commuting in.  This a net out-commute of 24,000 leaving an overall working population in the region is 693,000; with 260,000 in Cardiff and 433,000 elsewhere in region.

The visualisation of ONS 2011 data Figure 10  also illustrates the patterns which demonstrate the very different mobility challenges across the CCR. In terms of mode share, the region is still over reliant on car use, which for commuting makes up over 80% of journeys.

Figure 10 Commuting Patterns in CCR (Source: ONS: Census of population, 2011)

So back to questions and assertions!

These statistics I think help us put in context some of the more common questions that come up in Wales from time to time!

#1 What mode is best, bus or rail?

As I tried (probably poorly) to set out above, there is no “right answer”. Given differences in capacity, capex, opex, and especially the outputs, etc. then let the transport planning and analysis dictate what is appropriate.

#2 Should we re-open the Carmarthen  – Aberystwyth line?

There was never meant to be a Carmarthen-Aberystwyth railway.  The intention was for a Manchester to Milford Railway to connect the growing conurbation of Manchester with the port of Milford Haven (as an alternative to Liverpool – and before the development of the Manchester Ship Canal.)  The scheme  ran into financial and engineering difficulties and ultimately was reduced in scope via a connection to Aberystwyth rather than over the mountains to Llanidloes from Strata Florida. This then resulted in the Carmarthen and Aberystwyth railway. 

The line weaved its way through a very sparsely  populated part of Wales  with Lampeter, being the biggest town on the route, having less than 10k people.   In fact, the population and demand on just one of the much shorter valley lines north of Cardiff is orders of magnitude higher. Even when operating into the early 1960s, services were slow and infrequent and not really “intercity” and so in no way could be considered part of a strategic Wales rail network.  From an industrial perspective the line was probably most useful in the movement of milk.

I accept the strategic narrative re: connectivity and nation building and real opportunities to secure tourism demand and greater integration with local and rural bus services.  I am also impressed by the advocacy work of groups like Traws Linc Cymru who have and continue to keep this project in the public eye.

So, whilst I share the romantic desire to re-open old lines, I am also a realist….and accept that using traditional Heavy Rail this scheme will likely never happen, as even if one considers all the wider strategic benefits, the demographic obstacles are non-trivial.

Work on innovation in rail standards re track and rolling stock may allow more attractive and direct alignment options[xviii] (so lets properly explore them).  However, even then, the option of fast high quality bus service(s) may still provide more cost effective  – especially if fully integrated into the rail network.   

So, as I have argued previously, lets assess the innovative options, but in so doing keep our feet grounded in demographic reality and affordability.  If we have £750M to spend, is it better to re-open this line  or introduce a rail-based Swansea Metro, enhance the SWML or NWML and/or expand the South Wales Metro and so serve many more people more efficiently and effectively? 

Choices have to be made – especially given the urgent need to decarbonise our transport systems which will depend in large part on a major mode shift from car to PT and AT in our main urban areas?

I have seen some suggestions that we should not focus on cross border links with England.  This is madness. Whether we like it or not, Wales’ most populated regions are adjacent to the populous  regions of Bristol and Cheshire/Merseyside.  People in Aachen, Liege and Maastricht (three cities in three countries less then 25km apart) have no issue with strong cross border economic ties and consequential movement; the same could be said of Malmo and Copenhagen.  So why should we be any different in Wales?  After all we can’t just ask thousands of people and business to stop moving!    

Figure 11 GWML/SWML serves over 3M from Bristol to Swansea

Over 3M people live between Swindon and Swansea Figure 11  including the cities and city regions of Swindon, Bristol, Bath, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport; a combined urban area that has agglomeration potential (yes it does!) across multiple industries. As per the data above over 26,000 people commuted (pre-covid) across the border between the CCR and Bristol/Bath/SW England. This geography also includes three “city deals”:  The West of England Devolution Deal, Cardiff Capital Region City Deal and the Swansea Bay City Deal. In the current political and rail industry ecosystems these are important considerations if one is interested in securing capital investment from UK Government. Remember rail powers are not devolved (as they should be) to the Welsh Government.

The Western Gateway ( I have no problem with such )  has set out a strategic evidence base for a cross-border partnership, presenting recommendations that include improved infrastructure. One of the priorities is to see rail improvements to enhance connectivity as presented in  the Spring 2020 Western Gateway Prospectus[xix]This ambition is dependent to a large extent on enhancing both capacity and line speed on the primary rail corridor, between the Swansea Bay City Region, the Cardiff Capital City Region, Bristol, London and Heathrow.

Despite the recent  and welcome electrification of the GWML/SWML to Cardiff (although not to Bristol Temple Meads or Swansea) it is clear the Wales and the southwest of England have not enjoyed the levels of rail enhancement investment experienced elsewhere  in the UK over the last thirty years, a situation  not commensurate with their emerging economic ambitions.   This is important, as enhancements improve the capability, capacity, reliability of the rail network. So, the limited share of such investment in Wales and SW England, over a prolonged period, has led to relatively less attractive services, attracting fewer passengers leading to lower modal share and higher subsidies vs the rest of the UK. This is different from the Operations, Maintenance and Renewal Spend (OMR) which is about maintaining the network’s current capability and reliability. I did a little video explainer on this last year.

Figure 12 The limited capability of the SWML is metaphor for the limited investment in Wales rail network

For example, the 84 mile rail journey from Swansea to Bristol Temple Meads takes over two hours and requires interchange at Cardiff; similarly rail journey times to/from Swansea/west Wales to Cardiff and Bristol/London are poor given that much of the South Wales main line (SWML) is a 90-mph railway or less with significant capacity constraints vs 125 mph east of Bristol Parkway Figure 12;  this limits demand & encourages car usage on already congested roads, with consequential air quality and  carbon impacts.

Figure 13 Cardiff rail connectivity vs major UK cities (Greengauge 21, Beyond HS2, May 2018)

Independent third-party organisations such as Greengauge 21, have also contributed to the UK debate re rail infrastructure, some of which is relevant in Wales and SW England. For example, as set out in  “Beyond HS2[xx]” Greengauge identified Cardiff as the worst connected major city Figure 13  in the UK in respect of direct services to other major UK cities.

Low service frequency (just 2tph) and overcrowding  is also a feature of the Cardiff – Bristol Temple Meads services. This is major constraint on rail use and in stark contrast to the provision of 6tph between Leeds and Manchester, the demand for which NR estimated in their 2043 route studies is only marginally higher than the demand between Cardiff and Bristol.

In comparison, even the scaled down and revised Integrated Rail Plan [xxi]for the Midlands and north of England will  see £96Bn of rail enhancements (including Northern Powerhouse Rail).  We also know despite the cuts to HS2, the DfT’s own analysis shows it has a significant disbenefit[xxii] for South Wales. I have also prepared another shortish video explainer re the relative importance of HS2 to Wales vs other schemes likes SWML enhancement.

As has been noted by Welsh Government, the non-devolved status of rail infrastructure in Wales has and continues to be a major constraint on the development and funding of rail enhancements in Wales[xxiii].  In that context, I  support the work of the SEWTC[xxiv] and the recent report to UK Government by Sir Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review[xxv] which endorses further rail investment by UK Government on these key corridors. I have blogged on this opportunity in the past[xxvi]

The reality is today with rail not being devolved the best opportunity of securing necessary local rail enhancements and the necessary UK Government support,  is to work collaboratively across the border with our neighbours to try and secure such investment.    In rail operational terms it also makes sense to do so.  So I support groups GT360 in northern Wales/ Cheshire/Merseyside[xxvii] and the Western Gateway  who are actively supporting the case for strategic funding for things like cross border rail.  I really struggle with those who are not in support of such mature collaboration. Until Wales has full powers over rail investment then we have no choice….and even when those powers are vested entirely with the Welsh Government, such cross-border collaboration will still be very important to the Welsh economy. 

I set out the case for a comprehensive  joint UK Government Welsh Government transport investment and levelling up programme[xxviii] earlier in 2021.

#4 Is Cardiff is sucking the life out of the valleys and getting “everything”?

On the basic numbers, Cardiff now (based on a new data set, which separates it out from earlier Cardiff & Vale figures – perhaps an economist can comment?)  has a GDP/capita of 112% of the UK average[xxix]. However,  on Gross Disposable Household Income (GDHI) the figure for Cardiff and Newport is only 81% of the UK Average[xxx] vs Monmouthshire on 102% and the Vale of Glamorgan on 92% . Weekly wages also show that in 2020 Cardiff is not the highest in Wales[xxxi]  and in SE Wales VoG, Torfaen and Monmouthshire are all higher.

I’m also moving toward a world view that is less focused on GDP and GVA given that such analysis fails to properly account for the negative environmental and social costs (esp. carbon emission) of those activities that generated  that “output”. 

I’d also prefer in any more holistic regional  economic analysis we treated Cardiff City Centre (which performs a regional function) differently from the rest of Cardiff and the wider Cardiff Capital Region (as we should perhaps with places like Newport City Centre & Pontypridd Town Centre).

Furthermore, some of the transport and economic challenges and presence in top 10% Welsh Index Multiple Deprivation (WIMD), are as stark in parts of Cardiff like Ely, St Mellons, Tremorfa and Llanrumney as they in in parts of RCT, Torfaen and Merthyr, and often affecting more people.  Just for comparison, Cardiff has more Lower Super Output Areas (LSOA)[xxxii] in the top 10% of the WIMD than any other local authority in Wales[xxxiii].  In fact, a third, 65,000,  of those people living in LSOAs in “top 10% WIMD” in all of SE Wales live in Cardiff. This is in contrast to 38k in Newport (24% of regional total),  38k (24% of regional total) in RCT  and  just 5k (or 3% of regional total) in the VoG,  9k (4%) in Blaenau Gwent and 9k (4%) in Bridgend.

I don’t want to underplay the economic issues across Wales, but the reality is that the challenges facing some communities in the valleys are not that different from places like Tremorfa or Ely in Cardiff.   In making the case for better public transport, I also acknowledge that good regional connectivity is not a sufficient intervention to  address such issues… but it can often be a necessary one.

But yes, Cardiff has nearly 370k people that are much more densely packed than anywhere else in Wales, and more density can be more sustainable.  The GDP/ capita is higher because there are more jobs in places like Cardiff City Centre, the Bay, Heath which pull in 100k commuters a day from outside the city (pre-covid), as well as 160k commuters from within the city itself. But to note, even though Cardiff supports 260k jobs there are still nearly 450k elsewhere in the Cardiff Capital region[xxxiv].  Looking at GDP/capita or GVA/capita only really has meaning when you look at travel to work areas or city regions; as I have learned, I am not sure it’s very helpful at local authority level.

So, I would argue, there is no “wealth extraction”, it is just that those locations in Cardiff that support regional employment do so because of demographics and being the most accessible location for the most people in SE Wales. In fact, even before Covid, compared to other UK city regions, commuting into the “centre” is lower in SE Wales than many other places[xxxv].  Cardiff has a lot going for it, but it’s not the Emerald City!

Furthermore, Cardiff has received very little Welsh Government (WG) capital investment in transport infrastructure in the last 20 years. Just look at some recent and planned road schemes in Wales[xxxvi]: £740Bn (at least) to complete the Heads of The Valleys Rd Figure 14, Caernarfon by-pass £135M, Newtown By-pass £100M, Church Village By-pass £90M, etc.  In fact, prior to the current roads “freeze” there were well over £1Bn of road schemes on the blocks in Wales – with very little in Cardiff apart from the £50M for a section of the PDR in 2016. 

Figure 14 A465  Upgrade at Clydach

Even the current £740M phase of the South Wales Metro is much more focused on RCT, Caerphilly and Merthyr with 4tph to the HoV, and which are likely to secure some agglomeration benefits; these benefits could be enhanced with more cross valley connectivity between Blackwood, Bargoed and Pontllanfraith with Pontypridd![xxxvii]. In contrast the City and Coryton Lines in Cardiff which go through some of the most densely populated parts of Wales are left with just 2tph which is  a completely inappropriate service level and a significant omission from the current metro programme. The degree of movement, population density and potential for significant mode shift and mobility decarbonisation in Cardiff is why schemes like the Cardiff Crossrail are so important.

Post script: As per this article by Sion Barry it could (subject to further analysis) make sense to initially enable a service frequency south from Pontypridd of 8tph (which is still very good!) vs 12tph planned, and re-allocate the stock to the City and Coryton Line services (subject to some relatively minor infrastructure enhancements) so they can operate at 4tph. The Heads of the Valleys still retain 4tph by turning back some services at Pontypridd – eg 2tph from Aberdare to Treherbert via Pontypridd. There are no doubt other service variants as well….nonetheless, we do need to deliver a minimum of 4tph across all the Metro routes in Cardiff asap.

Yes, the BBC and HMRC Tax Offices have been re-located to Cardiff city centre, but these were mainly jobs (about 4000 out total of 700,000 across SE Wales[xxxviii])  that were already in Cardiff which are now better located in the city centre and so accessible to more people  across the region, now with the option of using public transport (Llandaf and Llanishen were predominantly car-based locations).  Nor do I take seriously the suggestion that the BBC or the HMRC could have effectively been based in Ebbw Vale of Machynlleth.  Some functions are suited to those locations…. but not these.  Some will point to the ”infrastructure spend” associated with for example, the Wales Millennium Centre or the Senedd. I would make a similar argument and note the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum did relocate to Swansea.  Much (yes not all) of the activity in Cardiff is private sector led in locations, generally, with better and improving accessibility and so more sustainable than more remote and/or poorly connected locations.

I have also read some of the work of Fothergill and Beaty[xxxix] re agglomeration.  Much to support in that work and whilst I agree there may not be much difference in individual efficiency across the UK, it is clear to me the wider benefits of agglomeration based on density and accessibility are still real and should not be dismissed lightly.  Of course, if you adjust for the factors (e.g. occupation and industry mix, commuting, etc) that relate to agglomeration benefits then the phenomenon diminishes.  I still look to Rice and Venables[xl] and their assessment of agglomeration benefits associated with density. 

I would also argue that causation is not correlation. Those pointing at the apparent “success” of Cardiff as “suggested” by its GDP/head (which as stated above is not a useful measure at scales smaller than city regions and which fail to account for many negative external costs) and then correlating the in-commuting to Cardiff and “agglomeration” with the economic issues facing the whole region, are not in my view properly assessing all the contributory factors.

This leads to a supplementary question….

What is really damaging our high streets and our local economies?

For me, after the collapse of local and employment intensive heavy industry, the biggest negative influence on many of our city and town high streets, has been the huge relocation of office, retail, public services, etc to car based “out of town” locations in the last 50 years. South East Wales is covered in them; Trago Mills, Cardiff Gate, Imperial Park, Spytty Park, Navigation Park, Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Celtic Springs, McArthur Glen, Culverhouse Cross, etc. Figure 16 Figure 17 Figure 15

When you combine this reality with mass volume car-based corporate supermarket retail, the consequential demise of local independent shops and food retail, and now the perversity of drive through coffee shops, the primary cause of the sickness afflicting our high streets becomes clear. It is not, 30,000 or 40,000 more people commuting to Cardiff City Centre out of regional working population of over 700,000… is car based out of town development. We have a collective blind spot with cars and a failure to recognise the wider societal and economic costs of the apparent “freedoms” they provide.

PS This Nov 2022 video explainer may help?

This was a key finding of a recent report[xli] by the WG Foundational Economy Research Unit that concluded that car based out of town and edge of town development had had a serious impact of the vitality of town centres such at Bridgend. A further report by Audit Wales further endorsed this phenomenon.

Figure 15 Newport Retail Park, Spytty Newport

Figure 16 Trago Mills Merthyr

Figure 17 Cardiff Gate Business Park

It is now abundantly clear 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.

There is an ongoing ill-informed local debate at Wellfield Rd in Cardiff (and other places no doubt) with some trying to blame the recent introduction of a one system and a cycle lane for the impact on local retail which clearly, aside from out-of-town shopping and Covid, is also being hugely impacted by on-line retail. 

The stark reality is that the best way to help regenerate our town and city centres is to disincentivise car based out of town development and to encourage the  relocation of many “out of town” car-based offices, retail, housing, etc back to city and town centre locations.  In fact, in a post Covid world with more flexible working this is essential. Local authorities need to take this 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.

The obsession of some with the relatively small numbers of people commuting to Cardiff is a distraction from the real issue. And even in that context our decarbonisation obligations require us to encourage  more of those commuters to use public transport and Metro rather than their cars (which is pre-covid is what the vast majority were doing).

Welsh Government and our Local Authorities have a number of such car dependent carbon hungry offices, to which I would add the UK Government Patent Office, ONS and DVLA; there are more.  Relocating much of the car-based office and retail estate back to city and town centres would be a good start to help regeneration and at the same time help make public transport more attractive and affordable by reducing the subsidy burden on government given the increased patronage.

The move toward more widespread Transit Oriented Development[xlii] (TOD) Figure 18
Figure 19 Figure 20
 is a must and is perhaps as, if not more, important to deliver our decarbonisation obligations than the necessary investment in public transport infrastructure and services.

Figure 18 Illustration of “TOD” from [xliii]
 also see What is TOD? – Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (

Figure 19 TOD – The Missing Middle[xliv], Source Opticos Design

Figure 20 TOD Illustration (by Laura Sorvala) from 2019 Cardiff University & DCFW TOD Charrette

Tough Choices

As I hope I have set out we face some tough choices re: transport planning in Wales.  To do so effectively we need to embrace spatial and economic realities, objectivity in analysis and less so sentiment.  Me included!

…and my answers to the original questions:

  1. What mode is best, rail or bus?
  2. Should  we re-instate the Carmarthen Aberystwyth rail line?
  3. Should we focus on east west links from Wales into SW England and NW England?
  4. Is Cardiff too “wealthy” and does it “get everything”?
  5. This then leads a to a supplementary question: What is really damaging our high streets?


  1. There is no right answer, let the transport planning and analysis of local demand, etc dictate the answer, especially given the very different capex, opex and especaially the outputs of each mode
  2. Probably not! But lets explore the innovation options
  3. Yes, but not exclusively
  4. No and no
  5. Too many cars, too much road space for cars, and low density, out of town, car dependent office, retail, public service and residential sprawl….and a failure to allocate all the negative external social and economic costs of car use directly to car users.
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda (1 Jan 2022).


[i]        investment-propsectus-appendix-1-passenger-rail-vision-english.pdf (

[ii]       Well-being of future generations: statutory guidance | GOV.WALES

[iii]       Litman, The Business Case for post Covid Public Transport bcpct.pdf (
Litman,  Evaluating Transport Equity,  Evaluating Transportation Equity (

[iv]       WelTAG, Welsh transport appraisal guidance (WelTAG) | GOV.WALES

[v]       Llwybr Newydd: the Wales Transport Strategy 2021 | GOV.WALES

[vi]      Net Zero Wales | GOV.WALES

[vii]      Climate Change, Cars & Challenges – Mark Barry (

[viii]     Human Transit — The professional blog of public transit consultant Jarrett Walker.

[ix]      Future developments | Transport for Wales (

[x]       Home – Transport For Wales (




[xiv]     University of Canberra; Light rail transit and residential density in mid-size cities Working Paper 5 June 2015; David Flannery, Renee Duarte, Barbara Norman, Tayanah O’Donnell, Hamish Sinclair and Will Steffen
(PDF) Light rail transit and residential density in mid-sized cities (

[xv]      University of Canberra, Planning for Structural transit in low density environments: The case of Canberra, Australia; Cameron Gordon
(PDF) Planning for structural transit in low density environments: The case of Canberra, Australia (

[xvi]     Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Berkeley Urban Densities and Transit: A Multi-dimensional Perspective Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra
qt3mb598qr.pdf (

[xvii]     Commuting patterns by Welsh local authority and measure (

[xviii]    A Metro in North West Wales…? – Mark Barry (

[xix]         Western-Gateway-ENGLISH-WEB.pdf (

[xx]      Beyond_HS2WEB.pdf (

[xxi]     Dept for Transport, Integrated Rail Plan (for North and Midlands of England)
Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands – GOV.UK (

[xxii]     18_10_13_newsnight_hs2.pdf (

[xxiii]    Welsh Rail Infrastructure Investment – Mark Barry (

[xxiv]    South East Wales Transport Commission: final recommendations | GOV.WALES

[xxv]     Union connectivity review: final report – GOV.UK (

[xxvi]    Mark Barry Blogs
No new M4…so what instead? – Mark Barry (,
South Wales Metro & Devolution – Mark Barry (

[xxvii]    Better rail services for NE Wales – Mark Barry (

[xxviii] Levelling Up, Working Together? A Transport Enhancement Programme for Wales – Mark Barry (




[xxxii]    Lower Super Output Area (LSOA), is statistical unit of same population size (About 1500 people); there are about 240 in Cardiff



[xxxv]    Metro Impact Study, 2013, See P25


[xxxvii] Making the Metro work for the Valleys and for Cardiff… – Mark Barry (


[xxxix]   Beaty and Fothergill, Sheffield University 2019 Local productivity: The real differences across UK cities and regions,

[xl]      Rice and Venable, 2004, Spatial Determinants of Productivity: Analysis for the Regions of Great Britain

[xli]      WG 2021, “Small Towns Big Issues”, Small Towns, Big Issues: independent research report | GOV.WALES

[xlii]     Transit Oriented Development in the Cardiff Capital Region #2 – Mark Barry (
Transit Oriented Development in the Cardiff Capital Region…. – Mark Barry (

[xliii]      What is TOD? – Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (

[xliv]     The missing middle response to urban housing demand | CNU

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