I’m normally pretty positive and optimistic…and have talked and written at length about Metros in Wales in such a manner, even with some small measure of critique. For example, in these blogs from 2022:
and these earlier papers from 2018 (which events have overtaken somewhat):
I have also addressed the challenges of making choices through the Transport Planning process:
However, I am going to start 2023 with a collection of moans that really need to be dealt with and in so doing I am going call out some organisations to do better, including in no particular order: Welsh Government (WG), the UK Government’s Department for Transport (DfT), Transport for Wales (TfW), Network Rail (NR), Cardiff Capital Region (CCR), Merthyr Council, Cardiff Council and Cardiff University…
The moans cover:
- #1 The lack of Metro services proposed by TfW for Cardiff on the City and Coryton Lines
- #2 Bus delays and need for bus lanes
- #2 The missed opportunity at Cathays station for Cardiff University
- #4 No point extending a 2tph Coryton Line 600M to the new Velindre Hospital
- #5 Has Merthyr missed a major Metro regeneration opportunity?
I have also added some Metro hopes in a complementary blog that follows this one, to provide some new year balance!
Metro Moans for 2023…
Moan #1 – Cardiff is not really getting the full Metro Treatment
Welsh Government and/or Transport for Wales can’t claim to be delivering Metro services for Cardiff, if half of its stations (10 out of 20) are only getting 2tph once the Core Valley Line (CVL) transformation is completed and new Stadler Tram-train Metro Vehicles (MVs) and FLIRT Trimodes are operating across the network in 2024.
Anyone who knows just a little about transport planning, passenger behaviours and the geography of Cardiff, will quickly spot that offering a service every 30 minutes for trips of probably less than 20 minutes, is not going to attract passengers. Whilst people are generally happier to wait longer for longer trips, so 30 minutes for a journey of an hour or more, they are less inclined to do so for shorter trips.
This reality will apply to all the stations on the Coryton and City lines in Cardiff, that will, as far as the passenger is concerned, see no meaningful improvement in services when Metro is operating Vs today (so at Danescourt, Fairwater, Waungron, Ninian Park, Birchgrove, Rhiwbina, Whitchurch, Coryton, Ty Glas, etc). It also makes no sense to be offering 2tph at these station whilst at the same time operating 10tph through Llandaf and Cathays to Queen St. The Metro service offer in Cardiff is completely unbalanced and does not reflect latent demand. The direct service between the City and Coryton Lines will also be lost.
The reality in Cardiff, is that without an attractive public transport offer (also see Moan #2 re Bus Lanes!), people will almost certainly get into their cars instead – as they do now! In this context, the importance of service frequency to attract passengers in urban areas cannot be understated. These are worth a read:
- How frequent is freedom? — Human Transit
- How frequently does transit need to run? It depends on distance (gregjd.com)
- The Case for Frequency Mapping — Human Transit
- Also, worth reading the relevant chapter in Jarret Walker’s excellent book, Human Transit
To note, Cardiff is the most populated and densely populated part of Wales; in fact, the Cardiff “Built Up Area[i] [ii]” is one of the most densely populated in the UK Figure 1. So, whilst I support getting 4tph to the Heads of the Valleys to Rhymney, Merthyr, Aberdare and Treherbert, it makes no sense to do so whilst not offering at least the same service frequency where it will be operationally more efficient (less vehicle miles required) to deliver 4tph ( City and Coryton Lines) than any other part of Wales Figure 2 (and ideally more as demographics and trip data suggests).
Figure 1 Main Built Up Area (BUA) stats for Wales (2011 Census)
Figure 2 Commuting Patterns in CCR (Source: ONS: Census of population, 2011)
The reasons we are constrained to 2tph are limited capacity through Network Rail’s (NR) Cardiff West Junction in Canton and a single-track section on the Coryton branch line. These are well known issues which go back 20+ years; I first highlighted them in the Metro Impact Study[iii] in 2013!
Fixing the NR Cardiff West junction in Canton to enable 4tph on the City Line was originally planned to be addressed as part of NR’s CASR (Cardiff Area Signalling and Renewals) project in 2012-15 Figure 3 ; but inexplicably, this requirement was I understand, value engineered out by NR/DfT. This has in effect transferred a cost/liability onto WG/TfW re the constraints on CVL operations as a result. For DfT/NR not to be addressing this issue in parallel with WG/TfWs CVL transformation works is at best an odd look.
Figure 3 From one of my earlier “Cardiff West” presentations…
Similarly, the requirement for 4tph on the Coryton line was set out by WG/TfW in the original tender specification for bidders for the Metro in 2016, but again, inexplicably, watered down by WG to just 2tph. This makes absolutely no sense – especially given the demographic realities (see above) and our collective Net Zero Wales mode shift obligations. It is also abundantly clear, that like the bay line, the Coryton Line with its close station spacings, should be designated and operating to tramway non-mainline standards using Tram-train MVs (same is true of the Rhondda branch which will have MVs)
These were both, and still are, manifestly very poor decisions (and I am being generous in this interpretation!). Given inflation, we are likely spending approx. £1Bn on the Metro – to not be spending a further say est. £30-40M to address these glaring issues is a false economy. Doing so will almost certainly result in a more efficient and reliable network able to attract more passengers (PAX) than that anticipated in 2024. It is also a poor use of expensive capital infrastructure not to be maximising its utilisation – these are segregated transport corridors totalling 10Km in length (segregation is essential for fast, efficient and reliable public transport services) that would be prohibitively expensive to replicate in Gold/Silver BRT or alternate LR route terms through dense urban Cardiff. To be bequeathed this infrastructure and not be making best use of its capacity through a densely populated city is at the very least a questionable strategy, if not irresponsible.
Just a brief look at the relationship between passenger numbers and rail service frequency in Cardiff is instructive. There is clearly a link between more demand and higher service frequency Figure 4. This is especially true since most of the stations have broadly similar catchments.
For example, Birchgrove (on the Coryton Line with just 2tph) has a comparable local residential catchment population[iv] (8~10,000 people within 800M) as Llandaff north (already 5/6 tph with 10tph proposed); but Birchgrove only had (pre-covid) ~75k PAX vs Llandaf north of over 600k. Frequency matters!
In fact, the 800M catchment of all the City Line and Coryton Lines stations are broadly similar at typically 6~12,000 people per station (to note these are higher than many stations on the CVL in RCT, Caerphilly and Merthyr where 3,000~8,000 is more typical) and in aggregate each line has a natural catchment of approximately 20,000~30,000 people (so comparable to Rhondda branch north of Porth, the Rhymney Line from Bargoed north and Mountain Ash to Aberdare). This is probably a better measure as the close station spacings (especially on the Coryton Line) will result in some double counting if aggregated separately. Data from TfW’s transport model will be the best guide!
Although my data is crude, I think it is pretty clear, looking at service frequency, demand and catchment population, that there is significant latent demand for increased services of at least 4tph on the Coryton and City Lines Figure 4. I would suggest doing so would generate at least 2M more PAX per year. I actually procured a socio-economic benchmarking study exploring station demand about 10 years ago which came to broadly the same conclusions. The potential uplift in demand once we connect Coryton to Radyr to pick up the many movements E-W across the north of the city (which today are predominantly car based) is even more significant, demonstrating the strategic importance of the full Radyr-Coryton “circle” connection.
Figure 4 Station PAX v Service Frequency at Cardiff Stations (pre-covid)
I have raised this issue “nicely” on multiple occasions over the last few years, but now I am saying again, you can’t claim to be delivering Metro in most of Cardiff if many of its stations are stuck at 2tph. This is in contrast to all of RCT, Merthyr, Caerphilly, VoG whose CVL services will be at least 4tph at all their stations (despite many such stations having smaller catchment than the City Line and Coryton Line in Cardiff); and the Ebbw Valley branch is currently in receipt of £70M to increase its service frequency with plans for a full 4tph in development.
Further development funding and more importantly capital funding needs to come forward now to address these glaring omissions on the City and Coryton Lines in Cardiff.
In fact, getting the City and Coryton Lines fixed to enable a minimum of 4tph is a higher priority for me than all the further new CVL stations proposed, the Cardiff Crossrail/NW Corridor (in phases), Aberdare-Hirwaun, etc as well as current plans to deliver 4tph to the Heads of Valley on the CVL. I would also note that getting Maesteg Line services from 1tph to at least 2tph is also a glaring requirement – and needs minimal works on NRs kit on that line to enable– prob less than £20M.
More positively WG, NR, Cardiff Council and TfW have been making good progress on developing options to address the immediate tactical Cardiff West issue in the last 2 years. However, some of the foot dragging on finding the capital funding is very disappointing, as are arguments vis a vis Coryton that pivot of a low service frequency /demand baseline claiming, erroneously, that there is no demand, latent or otherwise! This is so “heavy rail” and wrong!
Funders need to stop prevaricating and fix this: WG, DfT, NR, TfW, UK Gov. Our Net Zero Wales[v] decarbonisation and mode shift obligations require it! I look to UK Gov/DfT to lead on Cardiff West (on NR kit) and WG/TfW on the Coryton line work on the CVL (WG kit). I get the challenges of, and focus on, delivering the current programme – but these fixes need to be bolted on ASAP. Only then can we claim to be delivering a Metro for Cardiff.
The “easy” service fix, subject to the usual caveats, (and this is not my idea- plenty of more capable people have been grappling with this), once we have addressed the infrastructure constraints at Cardiff West and Coryton Line, is to take 2tph of the 10tph tram-trains planned to run from Radyr through Llandaf to Queen St and Central, and instead divert them from Radyr down the City Line instead, and then through Central, Queen St and onto Coryton so retaining a direct link across the city as we have today (there are some variants of this option depending on how you treat planned Penarth services).
This will result in just 8tph at Llandaf and Cathays but deliver a minimum 4tph everywhere else in Cardiff. From an operational perspective it also delivers the 4tph on the Coryton line without having to increase the number of services through Queen St north junction (planned to be 18tph) which given retention of HR block signalling for the CVL is more of a constraint than, for example, a Light Rail “non-mainline” system using a “Line of Sight (LoS)” Tram Control System (TCS).
Aside from being a far more balanced and equitable distribution of rail service capacity across the city, more strategically, this work will enable the longer-term vision for the Metro in Cardiff . This is more than just Cardiff Crossrail, Cardiff Circle, NW Corridor, more stations, etc. It’s about making much better use of the existing rail infrastructure and much more overt rail/bus/active travel integration at every station, to enable a high quality integrated multi-modal public transport grid across the city.
Moan #2 – Bus delays and bus lanes in Cardiff
In Cardiff there is manifest, a very obvious rule of bus operations…..buses stuck in traffic suck.
It costs more money to operate services if buses are constantly delayed in traffic and as a result don’t provide a reliable service able to attract passengers. Typically, if such services are subsidised then calls for cuts soon follow….the cycle of decline we have seen elsewhere will surely follow.
Now buses are not trains, they do different things, serve different markets and have very different carrying capacities and operational profiles. But buses are easier and quicker to “change” and so present opportunities.
The reality is that if you can double the average speed of your bus, you can run the same service frequency with half as many buses, saving money or allowing you to run new/additional services. Better still a more reliable bus service with reduced journey times will attract more passenger. The easiest way to do this in urban areas is to provide more bus prioritisation. This can’t be said any more clearly, Cardiff needs more bus lanes, not just a few Ms here and there, it needs Kms more, so that bus operators and especially Cardiff Bus can operate more efficiently and reliably – and so attract more passengers. This will actually save money!
So, for me please, can we take this head on and introduce many more bus lanes. For example: all of Richmond Rd and West Grove, Most of Cowbridge Rd East, More of Cathedral Rd, Newport Rd, etc. I know nascent discussions are in play re: bus network design, but for me a sensible discussion about bus lanes between TfW, Cardiff Council and Cardiff Bus (ask them what they want) is essential. I also get the challenge of cycle routes ( I cycle a lot), but somehow we have to find a more balanced allocation of road space to enable more bus and Active Travel (AT) prioritisation. In most cases this means less space for cars.
Figure 5 Some example bus lane/prioritisation on approaches to City Centre
Starkly, if we want to get people out of there cars quickly and affordably and provide a viable alternative, we have to take space away from cars and provide it to buses. We can’t afford more prevarication– we have a climate change obligation and clear NZW mode shift targets, but we are weighed down with old thinking. I am tired of subsidising so much damaging car use….we have to start doing something different (including road pricing or the “reduction in the road use discount” as I prefer to call it).
Those complaining about loss of parking should reflect that many of the roads potentially impacted by bus lanes have properties with rear lane access. In my view we need to encourage where possible, people to store their cars at the rear of their properties in garages accessed via their lanes – which used to be a thing?! Not in front which creates an eyesore as Richmond Road is demonstrating along with the hundreds of plastic bins. Roads were NOT designed for people to store cars, repeat roads were NOT designed for people to store cars. In fact, most of the roads in Victorian/Edwardian Cardiff were designed for pedestrians, cyclists and trams/buses! Let’s get back to those priorities!
Figure Y From Roath Local History Society
It is also worth adding that the desire for more optimal bus networks and full rail/bus integration can be satisfied more easily with the provision of 4tph on the City and Coryton Lines (ref Moan #1 above!). This presents a rail service, buses can actually integrate with; the current plans for a rail/bus interchange at Waungron Rd for example are severely constrained by the current poor 2tph rail service now and planned on the City Line.
With 4tph (at least) then opportunities for better bus/rail integration at places like Whitchurch, Coryton, Birchgrove, Waungron, Heath, Crwys Road (new station), etc are real. When one adds the additional stations proposed in Cardiff (eg Ely Mill, Roath Park, Gabalfa, Newport Rd, etc), then a real integrated rail/bus grid network for the city becomes very deliverable once we implement (probably post WGs Bus Reform legislation) the capped multi-modal PAYG fares/ticketing currently in development via TfW.
The mode shift potential I think is very significant. In future this potential will be enhanced by “connections” to expand the grid via future Cardiff Crossrail sections, circle connection between Radyr and Coryton, NW Corridor as well as BRT proposals in the east of the city.
We also need to address the absurdity of Cardiff having three (at least) bus companies operating in the city with no integration of networks, routes, fares, ticketing, customer information, maps, apps, etc. Who ever thought such fragmentation would be in the customers interest? For those interested this goes back to the 1980s legislation to de-regulate bus networks outside London by Margaret Thatcher’s government
But first we need bus lanes – and lots of them!
Moan #3 – Cathays Station and Cardiff University need to become acquainted!
Anyone who knows this place can see how poorly integrated Cathays station (which is the 7th busiest in Wales!) is with its surroundings. In fact, people new to the area would probably be unaware of its existence as it is squeezed in between old and new Cardiff University estate. Whilst TfW have some funds to upgrade the station as part of Metro – it is not very much and certainly not enough to address how it integrates beyond the “red line” and connect with the wider area – especially the Cardiff University campus.
I feel that Cardiff University, which has spent £000Ms on its Maindy campus, should have stepped up to help enable a station at the heart of the university campus, rather than one located within it, but not really connected to it.
In fact, in my view the whole Maindy Campus development is that it feels like an out-of-town car-based development – dominated as it is by car parking with very little Active Travel provision and buildings apparently just dropped in from the sky that don’t really connect or create an urban realm that is greater than the sum of its parts. Figure 6
Figure 6 View south toward Cathays station from Sbarc
For example, the very impressive Sbarc building – designed for meetings, innovation and collaboration (especially including with 3rd party organisations), is situated as far as you can get from Cathays station (in the distance in the image in Figure 8 ) with lots of parking spaces in between! It should really have been co-located with Cathays station on the site where the new Maths Abacws building has been built (again with little reference to the station sat behind it!)
I have been involved in some work and discussion re: the art of the possible with like-minded individuals, but we have been frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm from the primary landowner. It can’t just be TfW who need to contribute here. One has to ask who is best placed and has most responsibility for the last mile access to the station at this location.
Cardiff University can and should do more to better connect this station to its estate and especially Maindy Campus. Aside from helping deliver an entrance at the northern end of the platforms near Cathays Terrace – this really means funding, and having more forward-thinking discussions with Lidl (the site is key Figure 7 ) and with CCC. So, I think Cardiff University needs to step up here; I think the whole Maindy Campus needs an Active Travel focussed masterplan refresh (including a reduction in the amount of parking spaces provided – as does all of Cathays Park!) and with access to/from Cathays station a key consideration.
As part of that, I also think Cardiff Council need to establish some Active Travel prioritisation over the rail bridge from Cathays Terrace into Cathays Park and a complete redesign of the junction with Park Place. It also needs a dedicated segregated cycle way from Cathays terrace into Bute Park along Corbett rd.
More strategically, across the region we have to look to land owners and local authorities to lead on this “last mile” access to stations and especially densification and Transit Oriented Development in/around all our stations. There may also be a need for a dedicated Metro Development corporation to lead on such matters? I made some comments on these issues in my submission to the Senedd Climate Change Committee earlier in 2022.
Figure 7 View north from Cathays Terrace bridge
Moan #4 – Let’s not bother extending the Coryton Line to Velindre Hospital
It is very clear to me that spending £10-15M (even if the Health Board funds most) to extend the Coryton Line 600M to a station at the new hospital at Velindre is a poor use of public money. In pure transport planning terms, it delivers very little additional benefit (even more true if the Coryton line is still operating at 2tph) and is a scheme strategically compromised. The majority of staff and patients will drive, and we can more easily and affordably improve access to the new hospital more cost effectively by providing better bus services and higher quality Active Travel links between it and Coryton station and especially direct to Radyr station (which would likely be a larger source of trips to/from the hospital than Coryton).
The only real extension that makes strategic sense, which is more expensive but will deliver major benefits given the large number of Origin/Destination (O/D) points it connects, is the circle connection between Radyr and Coryton (direct or indirect an has to be to tramway/non-mainline standards) (see earlier!). Do that (eventually) or dont bother. The short 600M extension of a 2tph service is a tactical project with little or no transport user benefits. (Don’t get me on where the hospital should have been located)
So rather than be distracted by a poor value for money short extension, the health board should be encouraged to help fund some of: 4tph on Coryton line, new stations at Roath Park and/or Gabalfa (for better PT access to Heath Hospital) and better and more direct AT links to Velindre Hospital from Radyr station (its LT 800M as the crow flies) and the existing Coryton Station ( LT 600M away) – as suggested above.
It would be a very poor use of public funds to be progressing this scheme and not be addressing the issue of 4tph on the City and Coryton Lines! The latter are self-evidently a much higher strategic priorities.
Moan #5 – Has Merthyr and the CCR missed a Metro opportunity?
In 2018, as part of the Metro and Me event and publication, I presented an idea that I still think could help the further regeneration of Merthyr. I am not being overly critical of tactical plans to improve the current rail station; however, the more strategic question of where the rail station should be located has not been properly addressed.
So, perhaps a bigger opportunity for Merthyr has not been explored to assess its feasibility or potential benefits. In fact, I suspect some actively worked against asking those question so as not to risk progress on, or funding for, the enhancement of the current station. I get that – but it is not an approach I take!
My suggestion was to divert and extend the Core Valley Lines through Merthyr on a route of probably less than 2Km, that would take it along the river corridor (yes I know about the flood risk) toward the major visitor attraction planed at Cyfarthfa Castle[vi] and close the huge car parks at Cyfarthfa Retail Park and Trago Mills (perhaps within 600M). It may even be possible to eventually extend onto the Prince of Wales Hospital – another major car trip generator. (yes I know the elevation is a challenge – but tram-train can cope with up to 7% gradients and more for short sections).
An initial extension closer to Cyfarthfa Castle would only require perhaps 1-2 Km of new “tramway alignment” and importantly the relocation of the main Merthyr Station to a site right next to the new Swan St Bus Station. Figure 8
Figure 8 From “Metro and Me” in 2018 – A Merthyr Metro Extension?
I would have made more of a noise about this opportunity – but have been too busy with other things; there is also a lack of any local support (I have raised in the past with WG officials, and local members and officials).
This is in marked contrast to Cardiff Council who have been very enthusiastic to exploit the opportunities presented by the use of Tram-train (re new alignments and routing options not possible with traditional HR) through the “Cardiff Crossrail” proposals which aside from the significant mode shift potential of the full scheme (including the NW Corridor/Penarth & Circle options) could enable more Transit Oriented Development (TOD) based development and regeneration along the entire route from Cardiff Central through the docks, Splott and onto Newport Rd. Look at the Metrolink extension to Rochdale which was diverted through Oldham Town Centre, the extension into Salford Quays, etc. All done to help stimulate development and regeneration.
Looking at Merthyr – I have no doubt that our Net Zero Wales obligations and a town centre first approach (informed by such research as Small Town Big Issues[vii]) will see, eventually, the retail footprint at Trago Mills and Cyfarthfa retail parks (which are major car trip generators) reduced and be replaced with housing. A tramway rail extension that better connects to these sites, Cyfarthfa Castle, the FE College, the Leisure Centre, the Civic Centre and existing offices up near the A470, etc would be far better than just enhancing the station in its existing compromised location.
It may be a longer-term project for the 2030s – but I fear there is no support or momentum for it. The fact that this opportunity has not even been assessed or appraised, for me, manifests a failing of local strategic thinking. In fact, retaining and enhancing the existing station probably stymies the opportunity for ever, as I suspect it will not be possible to extend from that location – even as tramway.
More ambitious still (and again as illustrated in Metro and Me) this concept could be extended to re-connect the Rhymney and Taff Lines between Quakers Yard and Trelewis (so a cross valley link – and again LT 3Km of new tramway standard alignment can add huge value and utility to the existing network)….and between Caerphilly and the Machen freight branch. With a short on street section in Newport this could enable Merthyr-Quakers Yard-Trelewis-Nelson-Ystrad Mynach-Caerphilly-Newport tram-train service! As I said most of this was set out in Metro and Me. Some of theses proposals were also set out in the CCR Passenger Rail Vision in 2021.
If you found all those moans a little deflating then maybe these Metro Hopes for 2023 will help…
Blwyddyn newydd dda
[vii] Welsh Government, 2021,Small Towns, Big Issues: independent research report | GOV.WALES