There has and continues to be much debate and discussion re: strategic north south connectivity in Wales; road, rail and air. It is a bottomless pit of views, discussion and argument…often driven more by emotion and sentiment rather than hard data. So perhaps I can offer a few words (and I will update this brief blog in response to challenge/critique) where I risk just adding to the chatter!
Over the last 20 years, the A470 has received some upgrades and bypasses…but Rhayader is still a notable challenge; the air service originally initiated by Ieuan Wyn Jones, has now been discontinued[i] – its carbon credentials were not a good look so not really a surprise; and the Cardiff-Holyhead rail service “Y Gerallt Gymro”, (now back in play with increased capacity) has offered a glimpse of a more retro rail offer. My recent breakfast on a 06:45 from Cardiff to Shrewsbury was a very pleasant experience.
I have also written about rail innovation and how it might lower costs (esp. capital) , which I think is relevant, as is the oft discussed Carmarthen-Aberystwyth “rail line” and calls to re-open it. I also want to reference others who have offered thoughts, ides and insight – some quite recently include Gareth Dennis and Mike Murphy and not forgetting the work of Traws Link Cymru.
However, before we do let’s start with some demographics and trip patterns which we have to acknowledge in developing transport solutions. I covered some of the principles and data in a transport planning blog[ii] earlier this year:
- Most people in Wales, the vast majority in fact, live in the southeast, the northeast and in/around Swansea Bay; probably 2.5M of Wales 3.2M population
- Most trips in Wales are intra-regional, over 80% in fact, very few are between regions or cross the border into England.
Figure 1 Census 2011 Population and Density (Luminocity[iii], Duncan Smith, UCL)
We also need to recognise the challenges of trying to serve multiple markets with a limited number of rail services. For any North-South rail service, one is trying to satisfy two markets; the long distance and the many more local trips enabled by the long-distance services. As is the case on the North Wales Mainline (NWML), when one rail product is trying to serve two different markets the result is often a sub-optimal service for both. I tried to cover some of this in my blog on rail in north Wales[iv] in 2021. So, on the NWML, long distance journey times are compromised by having to stop at more stations than is necessary and because of the lack of a local commuter services such stations have a low service frequency (often less than 2tph). This often makes the car more attractive for local trips as well as inhibiting the potential of integration with local bus services – both really need a 4tph “turn up and go” service to address. The same is also true of services in the Swansea Bay Area and on the Marches Line. What is really needed is an ability to offer two products – a faster reduced stop, long distance service and a number of more local all stopper services. But in most cases these require both additional infrastructure and more rolling stock and operational funding.
In developing a strategy, we also have to acknowledge that new rail is very expensive; the costs of re-opening old lines is not that different. For example the 2018 Welsh Government study[v] that explored the reopening of the Aberystwyth-Carmarthen rail line closed by Beeching, estimated £800M for the approximately 80Km route (so £10M per Km), but with a poor economic case given the low demand profile.
To help the “cost challenge”, TfW have been looking more generally at “innovation” and the potential of lighter vehicles to reduce the costs of the infrastructure, and that can also enable more alignment flexibility. The initial work does present some opportunities as I originally set out in my 2019 blog A Metro in North West Wales[vi] . However, the stark reality is that there is probably more demand for rail service on the Penarth and Coryton Lines or between the Taff and Rhymney Valley than the entire Carmarthen-Aberystwyth rail corridor. The Carm-Aber route, as is true in much of Wales has low population and population density that we can best and most affordably serve with better bus services. So, much as I like the idea of the re-opening as I set out in other blogs, I think there are other higher priorities and alternatives we should consider first.
We also face the current constitutional reality of rail powers and funding not being devolved to Wales and a 20-year track record of UK Government “underinvestment” in Wales. I have written[vii] about that depressing phenomenon at length and presented evidence to both Westminster and Senedd Committee, so won’t repeat here! But this is worth a read 200:1 on that subject!
Back to north-south rail, recently Gareth Dennis in one of his now famous “rail natters” set out his ideas for a new North-South Line in Wales[viii]. It would be amazing but with an eye watering price tag of between £5bn and £7Bn. Sounds a lot, but is not really that much when put up against the £96Bn for the Integrated Rail Plan[ix] now on the Department of Transport books.
Specifically, in both cases the Cardiff-Brecon-Builth section (which needs at least 50Km of new track through a very challenging topography) seems to me to be a step too far. Such schemes would also be a challenge to fund given we have £Bns of higher priority schemes in Wales that are not yet funded – which I set out in here Wales’ Metros – Update Feb 2022[xi]
So how about this as an alternative…. … and in so doing I am trying to reflect:
- the existing infrastructure (even if it is in England)
- a need to minimise capital costs and maximise farebox.
And is so doing develop solutions/interventions that provide:
- A sub 3-hour 30 minute Cardiff – Bangor service
- A sub 3-hour Cardiff-Manchester service
- A 3 hour 30 min Swansea-Bangor service
So, for me, lets split Wales East and West from north to South. If we look at the east, the reality is we have to make better use of the Marches line (its only 20 miles east of the alignments set out by Gareth and Mike). I don’t care, nor should anyone, that it weaves across the border (as do many other rail lines across the world)- get over it! In fact, if I lived in Hereford or Shrewsbury I think I would prefer to see rail powers devolved to Wales (and the Wales Route in England) as Welsh Government (WG) is much more likely to invest in the Marches Line than the DfT.
For the west of Wales, we have to cover a broader E-W corridor and in so doing look to make better use of the Cambrian and Heart of Wales (HoW) lines and explore the role of strategic long distance bus services. This does result in some compromises but probably represents a lower cost programme Figure 2 with similar if not more benefits….?
I have set out three strategic and related programmes as follows:
Figure 2 Strategic N-S Rail and Bus options…
#1 Enhance the Marches, Borderlands & NWML Line
For trips from the southeast to anywhere on the north Wales coast, the best and most optimal option is to utilise the Marches Line. Today the ~300Km rail trip from Cardiff to Bangor can take between 4 hours 15 minutes and 5 hours (so 70Kph max); Cardiff to Wrexham takes between 2 hours 45min to 3 hours 30 minutes; also relevant are Cardiff Manchester service which are often 3 hours 30 minutes. So certainly not HS2esque..or even the WCML, but are still competitive with the car which is about the same journey time for both. For trips from Swansea on this route add another hour! Sir Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review[xii] also highlighted the strategic importance of upgrading this line.
The question it seems to me then, is can this journey time be improved. I think yes, the Marches line could/should be upgraded to enable faster long-distance services from Cardiff to Manchester, Liverpool, Wrexham, Chester, and Bangor/Holyhead, etc. The key measures I suspect could take off at least 30 mins (with an average speed closer to 85kph) include:
- Reducing the number of stops by back filling local stations with new local all stopper services. For example, in SE Wales, Cwmbran and Pontypool (and a new Caerleon stop) should be served with local Metro services NOT long-distance services. Near Wrexham, Chirk, Ruabon, Gobowen could also be served with local services. For example, the opportunity operate Merseyrail 777 services on the Borderlands line could be extended south to serve these stations and perhaps include a re-connection to Oswestry! (This might mean losing Wrexham Central?)
- More ambitious, one could re-instate the oft discussed Shotton curve (as both Gareth and Mike suggested) meaning that some Cardiff-Bangor services could avoid the “detour” and reversal at Chester. These could reduce the route length by 20km and take out a time-consuming stop/reversal at Chester (which would still be served by new Cardiff-Liverpool services and, if NPR ever gets to Chester, by Cardiff-Manchester services!).
- Worth adding a PS here. This option helps exemplify some of the “tough choices”. Clearly not without cost and offering a journey time benefit, the Shotton curve by allowing services to miss Chester, will also impact revenues and subsidy. Chester is a big trip generator and not routing through Chester may result in a service with reduced farebox and higher operational subsidy, The Q then is, can the reduced journey times for faster N-S services generate sufficient additional revenues to offset that lost by not serving Chester, and how do we “value” the wider strategic benefits of faster N-S services Vs the pounds and pence we might get at Chester?
- In that vein we also need to recognise the importance of Cardiff – Manchester services to TfW operational finances. This is I understand one of their most “profitable” routes and so further enhancement (faster journeys and more capacity) is likely to generate even further demand and further reduce opex/passenger
- Following another though provoking chat with Jim Steer, in a wider UK context one could see an enhanced Marches Line supporting other longer distance services and avoid the congested WCML corridor. For example, Bristol-Liverpool, Cardiff-Glasgow, etc. In fact it should be entirely possible to secure Cardiff-Crewe journey times via the Marches Line of 2 hours (or less!)
All the above will need line speed and signalling upgrades, some passing loops AND ideally OLE to enable full electric operations. Given those enhancements, I suspect we could reduce the current Cardiff-Banor journey time by at least 30 mins (if not more) to 3 hour 30 mins and perhaps, more important from a commercial perspective, offer a sub 3 hour Cardiff-Manchester service (I also think HS2 works at Crewe need to address the need to ensure quick/easy flow of services from the Marches Line to Manchester)
Just as a guestimate perhaps this would require £500~1,000M and in my view needs work now to explore options/interventions.
#2 A new N-S route, Calon Cymru , using the existing Cambrian and HoW Lines
This is perhaps more ambitious, longer term and does require some significant new sections and/or alignments (but not as many as other proposals). It is, perhaps where the innovation work re “long distance light rail” may play out and so require a new route specific rolling stock. Let’s target a service from Swansea to Bangor as follows:
- Swansea to the Heart of Wales Line (including a new curve near Llanelli) and onto Builth Wells. Requires an upgrade to the Heart of Wales (HoW) line re: line speed, signalling, double tracking (in part), station upgrades, etc
- “Reopen” the old ~50Km Builth-Moat Rd/Caersws section (including a spur back to the Welsh Show ground at Builth Wells which is not well served by Builth road station). If built to a “lighter standard” it may well come in less than the costs/Km for the HR Carmarthen-Aberystwyth re-opening. Noting, as others have stated, there may well be a need to route away from the old alignment in places – which may be easier using a “lighter profile”
- Upgrade the Cambrian line from Caersws to Porthmadog/Aberystwyth/Pwllheli (so again line speed, signalling – although ERTMS in situ may help – and some passing loops)
- Another “new/reopened” 35Km section using “lighter standards” from Porthmadog via Caernarfon to Bangor (avoiding the “dog leg” to Afonwen).
This would connect up more of Wales, more honestly reflect the demographics and enable both local and long-distance services which can and should be fully integrated into the national rail/bus network. Importantly, whilst there are some compromises, it minimises the extent of new/reopened lines required (and minimises costs of such) whilst maximising connectivity.
A Swansea – Bangor route of say 260Km with perhaps 10 stops and a top speed of 120kph (let’s assume an average speed of maybe 75 kmph) might take three and half hours? This compares to the existing rail option of five and half hours or a four-hour car trip. I’ll let others do a more granular and accurate analysis.
More strategically, it provides rail connections across most of mid and north Wales to the largest population centre in southwest Wales, and with good local bus connectivity into the key hubs connects up many more O/D (origin & destination) points. On that basis I suspect it will attract more passenger demand than a Carmarthen Aberystwyth rail service. It would also make a very attractive tourist offer with services starting from Swansea (or even Cardiff) ending up in Caernarfon/Bangor/Llandudno Jn).
I think this also looks like a scheme of the order of £1Bn (If we add OLE then probably need to double to £2Bn), but likely have a better BCR than the Carmarthen -Aberystwyth proposal for HR as it enables more trips from more places. Again, any engineers out there please review.
I don’t want to distract from the current priorities or upset those promoting other schemes….but we need to keep options open and adopt more innovative approaches!
#3 Strategic Express Bus Services for Aberystwyth-Carmarthen/Swansea
Finally, and as an example, we have to properly explore bus and especially the potential for high quality long distance express bus/coach services in Wales. I think the Carmarthen/Swansea to/from Aberystwyth corridor will be best and most quickly served by such an approach. With new high-quality buses/coaches and reduced stops (say Llandeilo, Lampeter, Aberaeron en route) and augmenting and NOT replacing more local all stopper bus services we can begin to offer a joined-up rail/bus transport service for Wales.
In my view, progress on the rail schemes is fundamentally dependant on either full devolution of rail powers/funding to Wales and/or a strategic political agreement between WG and UK Gov to further develop and implement the programme set out. However, I am also very aware that there are probably at least £2Bn of other rail schemes in Wales that need funding. The bus measures that we can develop and introduce are in the gift of Welsh Government and offer nearer term benefits and deliverability.
Mark Barry, July 2022.
[ix] UK Gov, DfT Integrated Rail Plan, 2021 Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
[xii] UK Gov, 2021, Union Connectivity Review (publishing.service.gov.uk)