Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Staying on the rails

There were quite a few blog posts about the announcement a week or so ago that the main railway line through South Wales is to be electrified – and quite a robust debate took place as a result of a post by Alwyn. Clearly not everyone thinks it was a good decision.

Fundamentally, there are three reasons why I thought, and still think, that electrification is the right thing to do. The first is that electric trains have a lower carbon footprint overall than the diesel alternative. The second is that they are more reliable - and reliability of public transport is one of the key issues in persuading more people to make the switch from car to train. And the third is that, over the long tem, an electric railway is cheaper to run than a diesel railway.

The main counter argument seems to have been that, if we have money to invest in the transport infrastructure in Wales, then the main east-west link in the south is the wrong place to invest it. It's not an argument against electrifying the railways; it's more an argument about transport priorities for Wales. I understand the argument; but disagree.

Part of the problem is that the announcement is very much a 'stand-alone' announcement; not really placed in the context of a wider strategy for rail in Wales. The strategic context itself is not as clear as it could be, at either UK or Wales level. Even the National Transport Plan for Wales published a couple of weeks ago, for all the very positive aspects of it, seems to me to be based on an opportunistic, incremental approach to developing the rail network in Wales, rather than on a vision of where we want to be and how we get there.

In terms of what is achievable within likely budgets, that makes it a realistic, deliverable plan – but I'd still like to see a wider strategy behind that. There's nothing at all wrong with an opportunistic approach to developing the network, as long as those opportunities take us towards the realisation of an overall strategy.

Plaid in this constituency has tabled a motion to this year's annual conference on the issue, where we will debate that wider strategy for the longer term future. Some of the main elements of that strategy should be, in our view:

Electrification of the whole network in Wales
• High-speed links from both the South and the North to join with the European network of high speed railways, including a new crossing of the Severn estuary
• A high-speed link direct from North to South

This is neither a cheap nor a short term strategy; high speed links in particular require planning well ahead, but we are calling for the UK and Welsh governments to at least start the process of designating clear routes which can be protected. (And, incidentally, there are those who seem confused about the difference between electrification and high-speed links, mistakenly referring to the former as being a step towards the latter.)

In the context of this sort of strategy, electrification of the line between Swansea and the Severn Tunnel is probably the best place to start on realising the first of those objectives. Rejecting the idea primarily because the line then extends on to London is to ignore two key facts – firstly, that a great deal of use is made of the line for internal traffic within Wales, and secondly, that it is precisely because it can be seen as an extension to the work on the London to Bristol line that it becomes a more cost-effective proposal from the point of view of the funding body – in this case, the UK government.

Far from being an alternative to the electrification and further development of Wales' internal network, I think it can be – and should be – a spur to doing precisely that.

1 comment:

James Dowden said...

Perhaps the real problem is conceptualizing the South Wales Main Line as ending in Swansea. If we are talking about billion-pound upgrades to the South Wales Main Line, a lot of north-south objectives (as well as east-west ones) could also be served by extending the corridor to Llanelli, Carmarthen, Lampeter, and Aberystwyth.

Envisioning the corridor as such does highlight three problem areas:
1) The absence of tracks between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, although electrification elsewhere implies a not wholly dissimilar level of reconstruction
2) The network topology disaster that is the Swansea area (ultimately, the choice is between the current network's slow drip of lower receipts and small-ticket fixes (such as road schemes) and investing a large sum in the rail network in and around Swansea now to fix the problem properly)
3) That Dyfi Junction points the wrong way for an Aberystwyth hub (and a milk float could probably beat the Cambrian Coast Line anyway)

Of course, this is far from the only possible concept, but it's the sort of thing that needs looking at if you want a move away from the opportunistic toward the strategic.