Welsh rail: Left in the dark

Source: RTM June/July 2018

Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, David Davies, argues that, in light of cancelled electrification plans, Welsh rail has been left in the dark and has seen little investment compared to the rest of the UK.

The cancellation of plans to electrify the railway line from Cardiff to Swansea, which had been part of the wider upgrade to the Great Western line, was a great disappointment to commuters living west of Cardiff.

More concerning than the ballooning cost estimates – which rose from £156m in 2012 to £433m in 2016 – is the lengthy list of errors in planning and project management that we heard about during our inquiry. When the failures were set out to me and my colleagues on the Welsh Affairs Committee, we were staggered.

Both Network Rail and the DfT failed to undertake preparatory work in sufficient detail to gain an adequate understanding of the infrastructure improvements required and costs involved. A comprehensive business case was not developed by the DfT until a year after work on the line had begun and two years after new trains had been procured.

Perhaps most alarming of all,  Network  Rail had produced its initial cost estimates without even having a clear idea about the number of bridges that would need to be raised. It is to be hoped that the mistakes of this programme are not forgotten and, most importantly, are not repeated.

Irrespective of the causes, we are left with a situation where Wales has lost out while other parts of the country have seen significant new investment. When electrification was scrapped, the region lost out on hundreds of millions in transport spending.

The introduction of bi-mode trains represents a modest improvement but, overall, there is a feeling that Wales has lost out.

As it stands, it still takes over  50 minutes   to travel from Swansea to Cardiff. This is not just an issue of how long it takes to get to work – it could make a difference as to whether South Wales can remain a competitive location for large and small businesses.

The economic boost of HS2 to England is expected to come at the cost of 21,000 jobs in Wales, and similar schemes for the Northern Powerhouse and yet more infrastructure for London can be assumed to have a similarly deleterious impact. South Wales cannot be allowed to slip further behind.

In our report, the Welsh Affairs Committee recommended that the money saved from the cancelled electrification should be spent in Wales; but we cannot have a repeat of the mismanagement of the electrification project. The UK Government, Welsh Assembly and Network Rail must work together to produce a revised route study for Wales that examines all options for improving the rail network, ahead of identifying and scoping out cost-effective transport projects that would provide demonstrable improvements to capacity or journey times, whilst delivering value for the public purse.

Electrification of the route from Swansea to Cardiff, as it currently stands, would provide local environmental benefits due to the removal of diesel emissions, but have little impact on journey times without significant work to straighten the line – and this would certainly be expensive.

However, there appears to be a pre-existing disparity in funding with the rest of the UK that sees Wales, according to government figures, receive 1.5% of spending on rail enhancements despite having 11% of the network. We would therefore like the government to look at some alternative proposals for improving transport connections in Wales.

Proposals for a Swansea Bay Metro have been mooted, although they are at an early stage of development and would require a rigorous business case to be made. There are suggestions of direct links between Newport and Ebbw Vale and Bristol and Chepstow in my own constituency.

The electrification debacle has been a time-consuming distraction that has left people in Swansea and across South Wales feeling badly let down. We must now move on and look at new, cost-effective solutions. It is time for Wales to be given a transport system that enables it to compete on a level playing field with other parts of the UK.


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