Thursday, 6 November 2008

Missing strategy

Professor Stuart Cole returned yesterday to a topic on which he has written before – the need for Wales to be plugged into the European high speed rail network. This is an area where the UK has lagged far behind the rest of Europe, which has been prepared to make a massive strategic investment in rail over the past few decades, and is planning to continue with that approach for some time to come.

'Strategic' is very much the key word. The Assembly government has made a number of good investments in improving rail infrastructure, and more are planned, but in comparison with Europe, these are relatively small scale tactical improvements, addressing particular issues and problems. What is missing is the sort of long-term vision which France, Germany etc. have had for their rail networks. The only strategy that seems to exist in the UK is to take short term decisions and ignore the longer term consequences.

Of course, I accept entirely that there is no purpose in the Assembly Government having a strategy for a high speed rail link across the south of Wales if there is no strategy in England for a link from London westwards. Additionally, it's absolutely key to linking Wales into the network that we plan to build a new Severn rail crossing to replace the outdated and problem-prone tunnel. On both of these issues, we need to work jointly with English authorities and the UK government.

But that sort of joint work between authorities is already happening elsewhere in the UK, and as Prof Cole points out, it seems highly likely that the next two high speed lines to be built in the UK will both be from London northwards. It is vital that we not only press for a coherent strategy for a high speed network to be built, but that we make sure that Wales figures prominently in the plans. We are in serious danger of missing out completely as things stand.

8 comments:

alanindyfed said...

And this high speed link with the continent of Europe need not stop in Wales, but could continue beneath the Celtic Sea to Ireland.
It is a viable proposition and would be of immense benefit to both nations.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

Alan, the idea of Plaid supporting a rail tunnel connecting Wales and Ireland isn't going to enhance Ieuan Wyn's chances of re-election.

Valleys Mam said...

any joined up rail link would be good in Wales.Our service is atrocious. Try getting North to South in one go in good time, not rocket science -oh yes it is.
We have a third class service and we are twp enough to accept it. Transport

Amanwy said...

Given that we are taking about strategic issues, perhaps we should ask how sustainable it is (in all senses) to continue planning on the basis that we must be able to travel as far and as fast as we like, as often as we like.

The number of journys we make has remained pretty constant, but the distance we travel has increased substantially.

The cost of energy is on a long term upward trajectory, and the environmental impact of transport is growing.

Given that most journeys are local (60% less than 5 miles), is it wise to be investing vast sums into high speed rail?

alanindyfed said...

High speed rail would encourage tourism in Wales as well as providing transportation of goods.
Local journeys should be well-served by public bus services.
IMO investment should be made in increased rail services with an extended network, not on road transport.

John Dixon said...

Amanwy,

"...perhaps we should ask how sustainable it is (in all senses) to continue planning on the basis that we must be able to travel as far and as fast as we like, as often as we like."

An entirely valid question, particularly in the light of the other points which you make. The current default position is that the 'need', if need it be, is met by ever increasing air travel, and in that context, I would still argue that investment in rail is to be preferred.

If we were to adopt a policy position of saying instead that neither rail nor air travel should expand, but that we should simply restrict the amount of such travel which takes place - then how would that be achieved? Rationing by price, allowing only the rich to travel far or fast? Rationing by availability - and then who decides what capacity should be available? Legislative prohibition on 'unnecessary' travel? I don't see an obviously acceptable policy option here, and therefore tend to go for a planned expansion of the best option rather than an uncontrolled expansion of the worst.

Amanwy said...

Of course, rail travel is preferable to air. But we know that in transport increased capacity leads to increased demand. If we make it attractive to travel long distances then people will do more of it. That may be desirable, but it is realistic in the medium term?

The price of big capital schemes is likely to rise further and - particularly in the Welsh context -will squeeze out other activity.

If we are going to have 6% year on year cuts in carbon emissions - rising to 9% if we follow the science - then at some point we're going to have to confront the uncomfortable fact that we need to change the way we live.

I don't pretent these are straightforward issues to confront. The easy response is to seek to preserve the way be currently behave through technological advances. But it is doubtful that even were they to emerge quickly that they could keep up with rising demand.

John Dixon said...

Amanwy,

Reasonable points one and all. But unless there is actually a restriction or prohibition on travel - something I consider somewhat unrealistic politically - then travel will continue to grow anyway. Such unplanned growth will inevitably take the form of road and air transport. The capacity for neither of those is unlimited, of course, but the limits have not been reached yet. We have a long long way to go before we have an electricity supply which is anywhere near clean and green (which means that transport cannot be planned for independently of energy policy either), but meeting travel needs through high speed electrified rail is something I still consider to be a better option than sitting back and allowing less green transport to continue to expand. It's also a lot easier, politically, to sell restrictions on less acceptable modes of travel if there is a more acceptable mode in place.