Wales railway upgrade proposals would cost £5bn, says expert

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A file photograph of a Welsh train service in Cardiff
Image: Chris McKenna.

A committee of Welsh Assembly politicians has called for an extensive programme of works to upgrade the railways in Wales, saying that Wales is not being treated fairly in comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom. However, one academic who gave evidence to the committee says that the proposals, if implemented in full, would cost about £5 billion (more than US$8 billion), and it is unclear whether this level of public finance will be available.

The Enterprise and Learning Committee made a number of recommendations to improve the rail service within Wales, and between Wales and England. It calls for better links between the north and south of Wales, high-speed links from Wales to other parts of the UK, and light rail systems for the southern cities of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport.

Other suggestions include upgrading the Severn Tunnel between south Wales and England, electrifying the line along the north Wales coast, and new carriages, especially on routes serving the valleys of south Wales. Improved access for passengers with disability is another area where the committee wants action. It also calls for more decision-making powers about railway matters to be transferred to the devolved government in Wales.

The committee, which took two months to look over the report, said that it was concerned that passenger satisfaction with the service was lower in Wales than elsewhere. In addition, investment was needed to meet an anticipated increase in demand for passenger and freight services. It wants the possibility of reopening closed lines, or building new lines, to be examined.

Committee chairman Gareth Jones said that the report "examines the long-term future of the rail network in Wales", adding, "The evidence we have gathered indicates that freight and passenger traffic on our network will increase over the coming years. The objective hopefully will be that Wales benefits from this extra traffic so that we are better placed in terms of high speed link connections with the rest of the UK and Europe. It is important that the Welsh government provides for that extra demand."

Commenting on the report, Profesor Stuart Cole from the University of Glamorgan said that although the plans were ambitious, the committee had "set out very clearly what is required if you’re going to get a 21st century railway". The 21 recommendations would cost £5bn in total, with the three light rail schemes taking about one-third of that total, in his view.

Other improvements, for example between the north and south of Wales, could be achieved at a lesser price. Cole, who gave evidence to the committee, says that "for an expenditure of £50m spread over three years we could get the journey time from Llandudno to Cardiff down from four hours to three hours and 20 minutes.”

The Welsh Assembly Government will give its full response to the report at a later date. A spokesman said that a modern railway was "crucial" for Wales, and commented that the Assembly Government agreed with many of the recommendations. Network Rail, which manages railway tracks in Wales and elsewhere in Great Britain, said that it would already be spending more than £1.5bn on infrastructure over the next five years, with improvements to over 120 stations planned.