Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Dams and Bridges

The logic of putting a new Wales-England link along the top of any barrage as part of a single engineering project seems at first sight to be obvious, as was highlighted in the Western Mail last week. I'm not convinced, however, because the two things are responding to two very different needs; and the arguments surrounding the two are very different.

I am not at all convinced about the building of a barrage across the Severn in the first place, and never have been. (I remember back in the 1970's calling it an idea which didn't hold water. Poor joke, I know, but at least the South Wales Echo used the press release.) The environmental damage done by such a barrage will be significant, and the carbon cost of construction will be enormous. Tidal lagoons, on the other hand, will be far less damaging in environmental terms, and are likely to produce electricity at a cheaper unit cost, even if the total amount of electricity produced might be lower.

So I hope that no barrage will ever be built - which is why creating a dependency between such a barrage and a new crossing looks like a major mistake to me.

I am not convinced of the need for a new road link across the Severn estuary either, but I am absolutely convinced of the need for a new rail link. The Severn Tunnel is expensive to maintain, and the near continuous maintenance works make it a bottleneck on the rail network, frequently causing delays and diversions. And as long as the rail link eastwards from South Wales depends on the Tunnel, our capital city will never be linked into the European high speed rail network. The tunnel needs to be replaced, and we should be planning for that now.

Continental Europe is surging ahead with a modern high speed rail network. Plans exist to link the continent from North to South and from East to West with new additions to the high speed lines. Whilst the rest of Europe has spent the last 30 years investing in rail, the UK has been fragmenting and privatising the railways in the name of right wing dogma; and instead of being used to fund investment, UK government subsidies to the rail industry have effectively gone into paying dividends to shareholders.

There are plans in existence stretching to at least 2020 for investment and expansion on the continent, and in the UK, we have... well, no plans at all to expand high speed rail beyond the link from London to the Channel Tunnel, just vague, empty discussions. We need to bring the railway network fully back under public control, and we need an imaginative and bold plan to extend the high speed network across the UK. A new rail crossing of the Severn has to form part of that.

As far as Wales is concerned, the high speed network certainly needs to reach the ferry ports – and why not plan for a north-south link as well? Expensive – certainly, and tremendously so. It will take many years to bring to fruition. Our European neighbours have all recognised the advantages, and have had the imagination and courage to make that infrastructure investment, but we are already 30 years late and haven't even started.

Against that background, linking the future of South Wales rail links to the barrage creates an unnecessary dependency, and is just a recipe for further prevarication.


Unknown said...

Use the money to develop Wales' internal hydroelectric potential.
Domestic wind power may also be feasible. There is no lack of wind.
We do not need further links across the Severn apart from the railway (and a rail extension to Aberystwyth).

Draig said...

Definitely agree with Alan on this. I'm in the early stages of doing a feasibility study on small scale hydro in the Penllergaer area, and think that there is considerable potential for micro hydro all over Wales.

I really think the Assembly should be looking at commissioning a Wales wide study to look at the issue in more detail.

I'm no expert on energy, but in renewable terms, hydro power provides a useful complement to wind, as it's much more reliable, and works as "baseload" that kicks in when the wind stops blowing...

John Dixon said...


I'd agree that Wales has not, to date, exploited anything like its full potential for hydro-electricity. This is something that Plaid have been drawing attention to for decades- the late Dr Phil always drew our attention to Scandinavian experience in this regard. And including a good measure of hydro-electricty is a far more balanced approach than over-dependence on wind power.

Cibwr said...

Until the 1950 Machynlleth was supplied by its own small HEP station. Many small and not so small communities could benefit from this sort of micro generation. We have to be realistic about energy production, wind, wave, tidal and HEP have all their part to play. We need to look to phasing out fossil fuel generation for greenhouse gas purposes and energy security.

As for the Severn Barrage, I am not convinced that the "big bang" approach is the right idea ether. Tidal lagoons with wind farms on top of them seems a better idea to me, maybe coupled with bottom tidal generators.

You are spot on with the need for a replacement for the Severn Tunnel - its a major factor in slowing down the network and preventing high speed links to Europe. We need to look to light rail in the valleys and new high speed links north south and east west. Look at the latest French super TGV trains, they make anything from the UK look as if we haven't progressed since the 19th Century!