Friday 22 October 2010

A lot more than cuckoo clocks

The story a week or so ago about the completion of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland was a triumph of engineering; but also a triumph of vision and foresight. It dramatically highlights the difference in attitude towards rail transport between the UK and the rest of Europe. Whilst we wait to hear whether a line built over a century and a half ago will be electrified, the rest of Europe presses ahead with an ambitious, long term programme to develop a network of new high speed lines.

For us in Wales, electrification is in doubt – and high speed isn’t even a line on a map yet. There are plans for a high speed link to the north of England, and eventually on to Scotland, but where is the comprehensive vision for a rail network of the future? It requires the sort of long term thinking of which UK governments – of any party – seem to be completely incapable.

The 35 mile long Swiss tunnel was started in 1996, they’ve been drilling for 14 years – and it’ll be another 7 before the first trains will run. That’s serious long term visionary thinking about the right approach to transportation. And it isn’t the only such project – they started another, shorter (a mere 21 miles!) tunnel at the same time on a parallel route further west. But the Swiss vision isn’t just about high speed passenger transport – the line will also handle significant amounts of freight.

It will help with the implementation of the Traffic Transfer Act passed in 1999, which aims to ensure that most freight passing through Switzerland from Germany to Italy will go by rail rather than road. Another piece of visionary thinking, seeing rail as a real alternative to more road building, and removing the most damaging traffic from their roads.

It’s an idea with some resonance – imagine if all the freight from Ireland which goes from Pembrokeshire right across Wales (and across England as well, often, en route to the ferry ports) were mandated to go by rail instead of road. A few trains per day would remove a significant amount of heavy traffic from the roads, quite apart from the environmental benefits.

Of course it’s not an entirely fair comparison. Switzerland is far more ‘central’ to Europe, purely by dint of geography; and traffic flows are therefore much higher. Switzerland is also about twice the size of Wales, and their population about two and a half times ours; although if we think the terrain in Wales is difficult for construction, just take a look at Switzerland.

But the really key difference is about clear government direction and political will, and the sort of long term vision and investment which is needed to improve the rail infrastructure. I won’t hold my breath, then.


Anonymous said...

...and rail travel on such infrastructure as we have is going to take a further hit with the CSR cuts to the transport budget.
This all ties up with your plea in your recent post "Wales as Victim" for Plaid to make more of policies stressing the positive advantages of self-government which could include far more emphasis on improving internal (at least) rail links.
I wonder how (if at all) the Swiss attitude is tied up with that country's tradition of strong cantonal government. As we try to create an intellectual counterpoint to Labour's top-down welfarism and an alternative narrative, it would be great to see Plaid with much more vigour on the ideas of Leopold Kohr and our own Ioan Bowen Rees once again


Llyr Factory said...

To me it is simple.

Forget the case for making it 20 minutes faster to get to London.

Make the case for the electrification of the Valleys lines, then work outwards across Wales.

John Dixon said...


I think that the Swiss attitude is affected by a number of things. Clearly their fierce independence, aided by their geographical situation, surrounded by mountains, gives them a particular outlook. Their strongly devolved system of internal government makes Wales, let alone the UK, look grossly over-centralised, and yet they manage to push through major projects like these at confederal level.

But there's no doubt that another major driver is the protection of their towns and villages from excessive traffic, and a willingess to tackle that. It's also worth noting in passing that the huge capital cost of the two rail schemes was approved, twice, by the people in some of the many referenda that they hold. And that's another lesson which we can and should learn - we shouldn't assume that people will not be willing to vote for huge expenditure if they perceive a common benefit.


In many ways the issue of electrifying the lines within Wales and the question of lines to Wales can indeed be considered separately. The rolling stock used can currently be used interchangeably, but it seems to happen only to a limited extent. And there is a danger that in demanding something be done for us at UK level we may overlook what we could do for ourselves (finance permitting) within Wales.

There is another factor to consider on sequencing though, and that is that the rolling stock used on the mainline to London needs to be replaced fairly soon. A decision not to electrify commits us to diesel stock for probably another 40 years.

Anonymous said...

Llyr- with respect the faste rjourney time to "London" (an emotive point for nationalists who see our talent leaving us for the bright lights etc) is not the main sell. The economic benefit is that if we (or rather Network Rail/UK Govt) don't electrify, they will have to keep using the 30 year old diesel trains on the line- an environmental blight, increasingly expensive to maintain (more costly than maintaining the new rolling stock that most of Europe uses).

The Valleys point is a good one but not based on real decisions that could actually happen- the cost to Network Rail would be insane compared to the minimal benefit for the economy, which NR ultimately serves.

The electrification of the GWR is something we could genuinely get out of the Westminster system.

We could get the Valley lines done if we had our own capital raising abilities in Wales and our own proper Government- it isn't a "it's either Swansea-London or the Valley Lines" choice, we'll end up getting neither of them unless we strongly stick to the GWR line as a line in the sand and denounce the parties that fail to deliver it.

Anonymous said...

erm, what happened to all that Objective One money?

Oh, wasted on Labour gimmicks and bribes like Community First.

Nothing to show for it.

Less money to the NHS and more to sorting out rail - Tawe Valley to Swansea; new stops in Swansea; extentions off Ebbw Vale line to Cross Keys and Newport, Carmarthen to Aberystwyth. All could have been done with Objective One money and money to spare.

Infrastructure not bribes.

John Dixon said...


Not sure that I'd agree with "gimmicks and bribes" in relation to Communities First. Well-intentioned and poorly thought-through and implemented, quite possibly.

I'd certainly agree that Objective One money was a huge wasted opportunity, though. No real strategy or overall plan, merely a pot of money allocated to those who ticked the right boxes on the forms. I'd like to believe that Convergence Funding wasn't going the same way, but Dylan JE raised some interesting questions about that today.

Llyr Factory said...

Hi Anon,

I don't dismiss the benefits. My point is that as nats we have to make the case for improving our native economy. My understanding is that with political will - we could fund the valleys electrification through our devolved transport budget.

I would welcome the electrification of any of our lines don't get me wrong, but to me we have to spend any money to the maximum benefit to Wales.

Unknown said...

Switzerland is indeed a wondrous place - with some of the best civil engineering I've ever seen! - Not always grand projects, like this one. But when I worked there, I was impressed by to autonomy of the Cantons of things that were of particular interest to themselves, but also of the appropriate directive function of the Country. The Main Lines are all nationalised - in probably one of the most capitalist countries in the world - while their branch lines are all private or cantonal!

Of course, Switzerland is does have a huge repository of very dubious wealth in their coffers, which makes their economics a little different from ours - but I certainly think that now that the concept of Wales as a political entity has become mainstream, we could look at Switzerland for inspiration of what we might like our future to look like!

Geoff said...

In my mind the decision not to extend the M4 west of Pont Abraham had a lot to do with penalising the Irish for events in northern Ireland
Welsh railways have never recovered from the Beeching cuts and the related decision to end rail freight for all but very heavy bulk loads

The high speed link to Cardiff is no more than a token gesture to Wales the real benfits will be realised only in England from Parkway east wards.

We in wales simply cannot go on like this always being the losers in a Labour / Conservative merrygoround of England dominated politics