Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Longer term view needed

Clearly, the electrification of the main line to Cardiff is good news.  But the decision not to continue on to Swansea is bad news for those of us in West Wales.  And the worst news of all (despite apologists for the current UK coalition government trying to claim it as good news) is the decision to go ahead with hybrid rolling stock, having both electric and diesel power.
I understand why clutching at the straw of not having to change trains at Cardiff may appear to be good news, but the choice of hybrid rolling stock has two major disadvantages, in my view.  The first is that it undermines many of the advantages of electric stock – it reduces the cost savings, the extra weight undermines the reduction in wear and tear on the line itself, and the extra complexity means that it loses the advantages of improved reliability and reduced maintenance costs which accompany the move to electric power.
But it is the second disadvantage which concerns me more.  That is that this is inherently a decision with long term consequences.  The new rolling stock is likely to have at least a forty year lifespan, and that reduces the incentive for extension of electrification to Swansea and beyond at an early future date. 
Although it would obviously be preferable to have made the decision on the whole line to Swansea now, the electrification project has such a lengthy timescale that that there is still a window of several years to enable the project to be extended, without incurring the extra costs of a whole new and separate project.  And the environmental, reliability, and cost advantages of electric power are such that I, even as a resident of West Wales, would have preferred to put up with a (comparatively, when looking at a 40 years lifespan) short term change of train at Cardiff in the hope of getting that extension.
The underlying problem is that this government, like its predecessor, is taking decisions on a case by case basis, rather than having a master plan for electrification of the whole network, which is where any government which is serious about reducing the environmental impact of transport would start.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the announcement of a willingness to look at a comprehensive electrification of the Valleys.  It’s a bit of a mixed blessing, I fear. 
On the one hand, it is clearly a significant investment in transport infrastructure and emissions reduction in a heavily trafficked part of Wales’ rail network, and that has to be welcomed.  On the other hand – and I accept that this is very much said from a West Wales perspective – it emphasises once again a Cardiff-centric approach.
This again underlines the piecemeal approach being taken – if it were just the next step in an overall programme to electrify the whole network, I might grumble a bit about why it has to start in Cardiff, but I’d have to accept that there would be a certain logic to that.  But as a step on its own with no promise of follow-up, coupled with the limitation on the main-line announcement, those of us in the West can surely be forgiven for feeling that we are being left behind with a second class rail network.
And this is more than just a question of transport infrastructure.  It sometimes looks as though the UK policy of development concentrated in the South East whilst the rest is left behind – a policy which has been so damaging to Wales over the decades – is being repeated on a smaller scale in Wales.  I’ve commented before on the apparent emphasis in the Economic Renewal Plan on developing the major conurbation around Cardiff as a significant economic driver.  Concentrating investment in transport infrastructure on that area will serve only to reinforce that trend.


Cibwr said...

Where is the vision, where is the strategic planning? Once again piecemeal decision making to the detriment of the economic well being of Wales.

Old_Miwl said...

I can't see why they don't use coaches hauled by electric locomotives as far as Cardiff and swap to a diesel locomotive for the trip west. Or if they must built more self powered coaches for intercity routes, why not have a diesel locomotive which would attach in Cardiff and haul the train on to Swansea and Carmarthen. This is quite common practice elsewhere in the world, and would remove the need to lug all that diesel and the big engines around all the time. As the diesel locos could be displaced elsewhere if/when electrification goes further west it removes the disincentive.
For some reason rail planners in the UK are obsessed with multiple units (self powered coaches) which don't give such a good ride quality and in most parts of the world are used only for local services

Anonymous said...

Can we really not do better ourselves?

We're just fussing about with bits of this and bits of that.

I live in London and I'll just say that Wales is totally irrelevant here. It's not on the radar. No mailce, no anti-Welsh nonsense. It's just that Wales is totally a non-place.

There is some little recognition by what may be called 'ethnic' English people, but the thousands who've moved here over the last decades have absolutely no idea about Wales and that's the growing trend. They're not being anti-Welsh, it's just when people in London talk of different cultures or languages or politics, then it's about the countries which are in the news (Lybia at the moment, Afghanistan etc) and then the places which are the homeland of the vast diasporas in London. Wales just doesn't come in to it.

We may as well be independent. It would seriously make no difference in London. Seriously.

John Dixon said...


Attaching a diesel loco at Cardiff is a possible short term option, although likely in practice to add around 15 mins to journey times further west. Still better than either changing train or current timings though. There may also be a complication at stations such as Swansea and Carmarthen where the train reverses direction - which is, of course, one of the advantages of multiple units.

"multiple units ... in most parts of the world are used only for local services"

Not sure that I'd agree with that. Most of the high-speed network is based on multiple units (Eurostar, TGV, ICE...)

Unknown said...

Once again, Cheryl Gillan has proved her self totally inadequate to the job of standing up for Wales!

She is very active in her opposition to the HS2 line proposed to run through her constituency of Chesham and Amersham,and has even threatened to resign if it goes through! What has she said or done to defend the integrity of the Welsh railway system? NOTHING!

She has to go in the next reshuffle - which can't be far away!

John Dixon said...


Just remember the Chinese proverb, and be careful what you wish for.

Anonymous said...

Well said Cibwr
There is no vision or plan
The Severn Tunnel remains the Achilles heel of rail in South Wales
just as the Brynglas tunnels are to the M4
We need as John says purpose built diesel and electric units not hybrids of both power sources
No one is considering freight in this equation.

Carmarthen Station is in the wrong place for a through service east west
Swansea needs to wake up to the fact that High Street Station is totally in the wrong place The high level link to Victoria station and west via Blackpill and Gowerton was lost years ago A new location for Swansea station is desperately needed and it will not be cheap. The Swansea relief line to Llwchwr seem to be about to be brought back to regular use
Why does not Pembroke Dock have Quayside access to the railway or is it simply because there is still an anti Irish agenda to road and rail infrastructure in West Wales

Old_Miwl said...

Fair point on the European High Speed network, but the kind of multiple unit we're going to get is likely to be a version of the awful voyager/pendolino/Adelante trains - cramped, quite noisy and not a good ride. Plus the fixed formation invariably means overcrowding I'd welcome TGV or Eurostar type trains but I'd wager that's not what we're going to get.
But an electrified GWR main line isn't a high speed route and the equivalent in Europe would be the intercity but non high speed network (still with faster speeds than Swansea - London). Most of these are not multiple units - precisely to allow them to work through electrified and non-electrified lines and to cope with peaks and troughs in demand. They manage the change locomotives in much less time than 15 minutes. Terminal stations like Swansea aren't a problem either as the trains can be worked in push-pull mode - as London to Edinburgh trains are.
But this is really all tinkering at the edges. Initially the line to Swansea needs to be electrified and some method of running more through trains to Carmarthen needs to be found. In the longer term the UK government needs to stop pussyfutting around and build a proper high speed network rather than trying to squeeze ever more trains on to existing lines.

Cibwr said...

Of course what we really need is high speed trains all the way to the ports of Fishguard and Hollyhead, the reopening of the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line and an upgrading of the rolling stock and electrification of the whole network...

That would take work and vison, some how I don't think our "betters" in London will think further than the next 10 years.

Jeff Jones said...

John as you have pointed out the really important issue from a rail technology perspective is whether the bi modal trains will actually deliver what is required.Hence the FT headline about the 'most controversial decision since privatisation.' It seems to me untried technology which has not be used to a great extent anywhere else in the world. The other interesting factor is the way in which the whole investment is being financed. The trains are being bought via a PFI scheme over a 30 year period and the line is being electrified by Network Rail extending its debt. Take away the spin and what we had yesterday was an announcement which will cost the present UK government very little up to 2015. If it goes pear shaped for what ever reason then given the time scale it doesn't really matter that much politically because much of the work again is after 2015. In terms of the economic benefits only time will tell. But if the existence of an electric train to London is a key factor in business decision making then Bristol will have 4 an hour, Cardiff 2 an hour and west of Cardiff 1 an hour.

John Dixon said...


"some method of running more through trains to Carmarthen needs to be found"

There is a perfectly good way of doing that already (as Anon pointed out above) using the alternative route around Swansea which is already dual track, but the government and the train companies prefer, for some as yet unstated reasons, to ignore it.


Thanks for drawing my attention to the funding details.

"But if the existence of an electric train to London is a key factor in business decision making then Bristol will have 4 an hour, Cardiff 2 an hour and west of Cardiff 1 an hour."

To be honest, I've never been entirely convinced about the economic development benefits of a fairly small improvement in travel time anyway, particularly if we're serious about developing indigenous businesses rather than depending on inward investment.

What I am convinced about is that fast, comfortable, reliable railway services can displace car journeys over short distances, and air transport over longer distances; and that electrified train services will help to reduce transport emissions.

Anonymous said...

Why not open a station at the County Show Ground at Carmarthen similar to that at Severn Tunnel Junction
The current station could still be used and there is a case for restoring the Camarthen to Aberystwyth line though I suspect the case for restoring the direct line up the Towy Valley to Llandeilo should be a higher priority
We may also need to examine the need for a water crossing linking Pembroke Dock to Neyland to create a genuine round Wales infrastructure