Rail electrification must be 'just the start' for Wales
by Derek Vaughan
The electrification of the main railway line from London to Wales can drive jobs, growth and investment – but there are still challenges to overcome, writes MEP
Plans announced last week that will see the electrification of the Great Western main line from London into Wales – as far west as Swansea, as well as the Valleys Lines network, the Vale of Glamorgan line and connecting lines to Maesteg and Ebbw Vale – are a huge step forward in modernising transport infrastructure in Wales. With such an investment comes not only opportunities but also challenges.
Stretching across the South Wales corridor and taking in three cities, current and former industrial communities and several areas suffering severe social and economic deprivation, by 2019 almost two-thirds of the Welsh population will have access to an electrified network from their local station. Put simply, this will be the biggest investment in public transport in Wales for over a century. As things stand, Wales ranks alongside Albania and Moldova as the only European countries without a single inch of electrified track. Once the work is complete, more than 200 miles will have been brought up to speed.
Even before the recent economic downturn, Wales had been facing an uphill task to tackle longstanding educational and economic disparities that have left it as the poorest country in the United Kingdom, so why is rail electrification seen as so important? A modern, fit for purpose transport system can be the cornerstone of a drive for jobs, growth, inward investment and greater competitiveness on the European and world stage. With increasing congestion problems on the M4 motorway, rising motoring costs and a push for more environmentally sustainable travel, high speed rail will be seen as a building block to future economic expansion.
By deciding to extend electrification further into South West Wales and not just to the capital city, a clear signal has been sent that the whole region is open for business and considerable efforts now need to be made to look at best practice in other countries that spreads prosperity more evenly across all communities and not just its major cities. Reduced journey times, quicker connections to London – with the added possibility of a direct link to Heathrow – and increased links to the surrounding commuter areas, will also make Wales a more attractive place to do business, enabling the two proposed city hubs of Cardiff and Swansea Bay to take shape with integrated links between housing, employment and transport.
If the new proposals come to fruition, what else needs to be looked at to harness the benefits of electrification? Firstly, while it is encouraging that the Vale of Glamorgan line, which runs close to Cardiff airport, is included, how can we create a fully integrated service that includes both rail and air? The airport, and its management, has justifiably come under fire recently for a failure to modernise and attract more routes to key European city destinations. With the chronic lack of capacity at Heathrow in particular, the creation of a new electrified spur direct to the airport would open it up to more passengers from across the UK, reversing the flow of business and leisure travellers out of Wales, and using its spare slots to take up the slack that the wider economy so desperately needs.
Secondly, although the headline announcement involves significant costs, the small print suggests that the shortfall will be met by an increase in ticket prices. The growth in rail commuter numbers in Wales over the past decade has been considerable and is predicted to rise by another 31 per cent by 2019, although problems with overcrowding will be largely alleviated with the ability to run longer trains. However, if ticket prices, which are amongst the highest in the European Union already, increase even more then will the switch from conventional to high-speed rail be mirrored with a similar switch in passenger numbers – or will we actually see a decline despite the improvements to journey times and on-board facilities? Careful use of structural funding, Connecting Europe funding or European Investment Bank support might be a creative way of avoiding this particular dilemma.
Thirdly, the benefits to business and tourist travellers have been well publicised, but often forgotten is the potential for it to be used for freight transport. With the proximity of heavy industry running either side of the soon to be electrified lines – including Tata, Alcoa and Dow Corning – there is great potential to spearhead a drive from road to rail and a need to work with major employers to make the electrified line available to their operations as well. And finally, future infrastructure projects must be tailored to complement a new high-speed rail system. With plans in the pipeline from the Welsh government and BT to provide next generation broadband to 96 per cent of homes in Wales by 2015 and the next tranche of EU structural funding expected post-2013, joined up thinking and the reduction of duplication in the coming years will be required.
The advent of rail electrification in Wales needs to be just the start, and not the end, of a sustained period of investment and development if we are to continue to push forward towards the top, and not the bottom, of economic performance tables.
Derek Vaughan is a Labour member of the European Parliament for Wales