Sunday 29 January 2012

Linking north and south Wales by rail

Before I'm accused of being a fantasist, this is a "money no object" idea, not a serious proposal. I need to make that crystal clear. And if you think this post is long - just wait until next week!

The Challenge

The economic difference between the lowland east Wales and the highland west Wales is stark. In the latest figures, East Wales (Cardiff & Vale, E Gwent, Powys and NE Wales) had a GVA per capita that was 91.4% of the UK average. In contrast West Wales & the Valleys was just 62.8%. So while there are clear challenges in catching up with the rest of the UK, we have to remember there's a huge chasm within Wales that needs to be bridged to ensure an equal spread of prosperity.

One of the main reasons for this - in my opinion - is because of the sparsity of population in rural Mid Wales and its lack of connections with the surrounding areas. In a national context, the lack of adequate connections between major centres of the north and north west with the M4 corridor and Deeside reduces social mobility, whilst increasing the gap between the wealthy east and the stunted west. Also, yes from a nationalist perspective it does hinder the "unity" of Wales.

The Welsh rail network has often been described as "extractive". After several line closures, what we were left with were three networks. A south and south west Wales one. A mid Wales one linking Aberystwyth and Pwllheli to Shewsbury and Birmingham (as well as the Heart of Wales line). And the North Wales network - linked heavily to Manchester. All lines head east, and are joined by the Marches Line which acts as a "spine". It wasn't always like this though. There was a time when you could travel by rail between Cardiff and Aberystwyth with no problems and even from Swansea to Wrexham without spending much time in England.

The Current Situation

The Marches Line between Newport and Chester is the de-facto "north south" mainline for Wales. Indeed there are direct services between Cardiff and Holyhead – taking a torturous 4 or 5 hours to complete and not linking sufficiently with the major centre in north Wales – Wrexham. I don't think there's any reason to change its role. Indeed improved services via Wrexham are forthcoming once various improvements are made to track between Wrexham and Chester. The Marches Line should still be the "main" north-south line.

It's central and north west Wales that needs the links to the south. Aberystwyth has no direct rail service to Cardiff, and subsequently neither does Machynlleth, Porthmadog, Pwllheli, Newtown or Welshpool. It's perfectly possible to do this via Shrewsbury, but it would likely be a typically torturous 4 hour journey.

This is a huge swathe of Wales "cut off" from its more prosperous parts and its seat of government. As said before, in my opinion, the lack of major centres in rural parts of Wales is one reason why it's being held back economically. I believe that there are certain towns that could benefit from planned expansion - focusing on retaining young people in particular, and ensuring that in many communities Welsh can remain a living language. If we want the jobs, the services and the investment that rural parts of Wales are crying out for, they're going to need improved links with each other and with "East Wales".

A Proposal for North-South Rail

Back in 2008, community organisation Ein Blaenau put forward a proposal for a north-south rail link (more on that at Prof. Dylan Jones Evans). It was fairly ambitious, but the route was torturous travelling north from Cardiff, through the Brecon Beacons, Mid Wales and on to the north Wales coast via Corwen and Denbigh. Although railways like the Clwyd Valley line should be on the list for reopening in the future I actually think there's an "easier" way to link north and south effectively without having to drive reopened lines through the Brecon Beacons or the Clwydian Range.

I'm outlining five separate "big projects" to hopefully fullfil these strategic aims:

1. Improve links between north east Wales, Merseyside and Cardiff.
2. Directly link major settlements in Mid and North West Wales to the M4 corridor.
3. Directly link major settlements in Mid and North West Wales to Wrexham and Merseyside.
4. Improve connections with major English settlements in the Midlands and North West.
5. Improve rail services for existing settlements in eastern Carmarthenshire, Powys and Ceredigion.
6. Allow direct north-east to south-west rail services (Wrexham-Swansea) not only for passengers but as an alternative freight route (i.e. To/from Milford Haven).

All the screen caps are taken from Google Earth. I'm not an economist, engineer or an accountant so the cost estimates are based largely on existing projects elsewhere.

1. Upgrade to the Welsh Marches Line

  • Electrification and track speed upgrades.
  • Aim of getting Wrexham-Cardiff journey times to as close to 2hr15m as possible, with knock-on improvements to Holyhead-Cardiff journey times.
  • Even better journey times possible with electrification of north Wales coast line.
  • Improved journey times between Marches towns (i.e Hereford & Shrewsbury) and Cardiff, expanding Cardiff & Newport's economic catchment area.
  • Electrification would allow improved rolling stock (i.e. Penedlino), reduced travel times, less wear on the track and improved passenger experience.
  • Possible additional freight or passenger paths.
  • Electrification in the Gwent area as part of a "south Wales metro" between Abergavenny, Cardiff Central and Newport.
  • Estimated cost - ~£200million (based on £0.8m per km of double track electrified)

2. Swansea District Line – West Wales Line Gorseinon Link

Gorseinon Link (click to enlarge)
  • Could be either single or double track, part of the former line between Pontarddulais and Swansea Docks.
  • Allows direct services to Swansea from Heart of Wales Line without having to turn back at Llanelli, improving journey times.
  • New station at Gorseinon, might require relocation of Gowerton station to allow a new junction.
  • Could form part of a wider Swansea/Carmarthenshire metro system including reopening of the Amman Valley line and new stations (i.e. Cockett) pushing Swansea's economic catchment area firmly into eastern Carmarthenshire and southern Powys.
  • Part of the line has been built on, CPO issues. Would require a segregated crossing over/under the A484. Would probably require resignalling in parts.
  • Estimated costs - ~£50million

3. Rebuilt Mid Wales Railway

Moat Lane - Llanidloes (click to enlarge)
Llanidloes- Nantgwyn (click to enlarge)

Nantgwyn - Rhayader (click to enlarge)

Rhayader - Newbridge on Wye (click to enlarge)
Newbridge on Wye - Builth Junction (click to enlarge)
  • Complete reopening of 55km of Mid Wales Railway between Builth Wells and remodelled Moat Lane Junction near Caersws.
  • Could be a mix of single track and double track passing loops to improve line resilience.
  • New stations at Llanidloes and Rhayader – could negate need for Rhayader Bypass and other road improvements.
  • Would allow direct services between Aberystwyth, Pwllheli, Barmouth, Porthmadog and Newtown to Cardiff (via Swansea District Line), Swansea (via Gorseinon Link) and West Wales (via Llanelli).
  • Could also allow direct Llandudno-South Wales services via link between Blaenau Ffestinog and the Cambrian Coast line near Penrhyndeudraeth (link here to Syniadau article)
  • Drastically improved services to/from larger settlements south of Builth Wells (Llandovery, Ammanford, Pontarddulais, Llandeilo).
  • Aim for an Aber-Cardiff journey of 3hrs 20m and Aber-Swansea journey of 2hrs 40m
  • Should be built with electrification in mind.
  • Would likely require improvements to Heart of Wales Line south of Builth Wells and Cambrian Coast Line, including reinstating some double track, for optimum travel times.
  • Direct trains to Cardiff & Swansea shouldn't call at request stops, causing scheduling issues.
  • Some major engineering work required, might not follow exactly the same route as former Mid Wales Railway.
  • Serious environmental, CPO and private access issues. Would likely be strongly opposed by some, welcomed by others.
  • "Nationally and strategically important" but unlikely to have a strong business case.
  • Seat of government in Powys (Llandrindod Wells) effectively left out, would require good connections at Builth Wells.
  • Would require a new bypass of Llanidloes, easily costing £40million+
  • Estimated cost – At the very least ~£400million

4. Rebuilt Gobowen-Welshpool Link

Welshpool - Gobowen link (click to enlarge)
  • Reopen 25km of line through Oswestry, Pant and Four Crosses.
  • Could be built as single line with passing loop at Oswestry and built with electification in mind.
  • A new station at Oswestry (one of the largest towns without a station in the UK), possibly Pant as well.
  • Might negate need for A483 upgrades.
  • Could form part of a metro system in north east Wales, Cheshire, Shropshire and Merseyside.
  • Mainly on the English side of the border, would require cooperation, almost certainly would be entirely funded by Welsh Government as such a link has no strategic value to England.
  • Would allow direct services between Cambrian Coast Line and Wrexham (as well as Swansea via Heart of Wales and Mid Wales Line)
  • Aim for journey time Aber-Wrexham of 2hr, comparable to Shrewsbury and a Wrexham-Swansea journey time of as close to 3hrs as possible (via Mid Wales Line).
  • Estimated cost - ~£60million

5. Reinstated/upgraded Halton Curve

Reinstated Halton Curve (click to enlarge)
  • The most likely of these projects to actually happen.
  • Entirely within England, no Welsh influence but strategically important to North Wales.
  • Would allow direct North-Wales – Liverpool services and possible Cardiff to North West England or Glasgow.
  • Should have a direct Cardiff-Liverpool Lime Street (or Cardiff-Manchester) service via Marches Line as the "premier" North-South rail service, complimenting Cardiff-Holyhead service.
  • Estimated Cardiff-Liverpool journey time (with upgraded Marches line) ~3hrs Wrexham-Liverpool ~40m
  • Estimated cost - £7million (£5m 2004 estimate), more if route is electrified


  1. Bit confused. On the one hand you argue that the relative poverty of Western Wales is "because of the sparsity of population in rural Mid Wales and it's lack of connections with the surrounding areas" yet Powys is part of the prosperous East!

    And while you accuse the Ein Blaenau plan of being "tortuous" I was unable to follow yours. Surely a simple map of Wales showing the whole line would have explained your plan better than 8 or 9 detailed sectional maps?

    Finally, if north-south connections are the object, then the answer is simple - re-open the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line. Any other plan runs the risk of looking like the Cardiff Metro project rolled out on a national scale.

  2. Fair points Jac, and I apologise to anyone else who can't follow the route via aerial photos. I'll note that for the next time I try something like this. I actually thought it would be easier to visualise it like this.

    I think Powys being part of "East Wales" is an exception - it's still the poorest part of that EU Region (I think it's GVA per capita was in the 60's compared to the UK average) that just happens to be in the same one as the wealthier north east and south east (in the 80's, 90's or exceeding the UK average). It isn't right that such a large swath of Wales remains a "desert".

    The trouble with the Aber-Carmarthen line is that parts have already been built on significantly - like the original route into Aberystwyth from the south. It's another option of course.

  3. New High Speed link Merthyr to Bangor,stopping at Brecon and Blaenau Ffestiniog - now that would revolutionise things.

  4. I'd much prefer that we rebuild the Carmarthen - Aberystwyth line and linking the Cambrian coast line to Bangor, and with a few other adjustments it would mean that we could run direct services Bangor - Aberystwyth - Carmarthen - Llanelli - Swansea - Cardiff - Bristol (for connections).

    Not only would it link up most of the population centres, but most of the work would be in the Objective One area meaning that it would qualify for EU funding (thats how many of the improvements to the Irish rail network were paid for.)

  5. The West Coast option gives a line, entirely within Wales, from Holyhead to Newport. All the re-opened sections would be in Objective One areas. The roads on the west side of the country are both busier and of poorer quality than the A470. There is more tourist traffic in summer.

    So many reasons why this should be our north-south rail option.

  6. I think Carmarthen - Aberystwyth (with a new tunnel to bypass the tortuous deviation near Cynwyl Elfed and 90mph linespeeds on the straight section from Lampeter to some distance north of Pencader) would be very useful, although parts of the most important section (Llanfarian to Aberystwyth) has been built on and will be difficult to replace. Perhaps re-instate the branch to Aberaeron too and have a stopper to Swansea from there and a fast from Aberystwyth to Cardiff (avoiding Swansea via the Swansea District Line).

    I would also like to see a high-speed (well, a mix of new 90mph lines and slightly upgraded existing routes) Y-network for Wales. This would involve a new route from Merthyr to Brecon (not using the tortuous old alignment, but threading up the same valley the A470 uses, although getting down from the summit near Storey Arms would require an expensive tunnel to level out the gradient while keeping the line straight enough for 90mph running). From Brecon the line would again use an all-new alignment to gain a straighter, faster, route as far as Llanstephan where it would rejoin the old alignment through to Builth Road and Rhayader (with a few short deviations to avoid new buildings). From Rhayader to Llanidloes, the line can again take a much straighter route than the original at the expensive of some tunneling and viaducts. At Newtown, the hourly service from Merthyr would thin out to 2-hourly services onto Wrexham (via the Oswestry route you mentioned) and Holyhead/Bangor (via the Cambrian Coast Line to Porthmadog, new alignment to Bryncir and re-opened line to Bangor).

    The Heart Of Wales line just needs more frequent services (with almost all the request stops dropped from the extra services to speed them up, leaving 4 all stations trains per day as now) and maybe some linespeed improvments.

    A ValleyLines network for Swansea, using existing frieght-only lines to access the hub of the new network at Swansea Docks would be useful too.

  7. Re the first sentence of your post: we must be the only country in the world where someone is concerned that people will call him a fantasist for suggesting that we should have a railway line linking one part of the country with another.

  8. Thanks for the comments.

    It's clear that Carmarthen-Aber-Bangor is the popular route for any north-south link. As much as I'd like to see that (and it does make an awful lot of sense), I still think there are too many issues with that route compared to linking the Cambrian Coast and HoW lines (and even that isn't easy). There's no way for it to get into Aberystwyth from the south as I've said before - it's been built on.

    If, as Rhydagaled suggests, you could build tunnels or straighten sections of the old line - great, but I doubt the levels of investment needed would match potential passenger use. So in addition to this it would be better if our railways were run for the public benefit and as a public asset, not profit.

    The Western Corridor in Ireland is often cited as an example to emulate, but they had nothing near the same topography as central Wales. Also even by linking two major cities - the service has been a spectacular flop as demonstrated in this RTE video. I don't think the EU would be willing to fund a service linking Carmarthen to Bangor with the largest settlement having a population of just 30,000 or so.

    Welsh Agenda - I think it's sadder that anyone needs to suggest something like this in the first place. It should already be there. It's what happens when a distant bureaucrat decides whether we have something or not. However times change and this would be a huge project that would be difficult to justify on a simple cost-benefit anaysis (now that's a phrase that's the bane of our existance).

    Having said that it would still be cheaper than a few miles of M4 around Newport or the £32bn train set the UK Government is going to give England (of which Wales will be contributing around £1.57bn towards - barring a Barnett consequential).

  9. Just for information - 50% of the HS2 line is to be underground. We should not be bound by historical alignments.

  10. I don't actually think of Carmarthen - Aberystwyth as part of a full north-south corridor much, although (if my proposed new line from Porthmadog towards Bangor is also built), it would be possible to go from north to south with a change at Dovey Junction and perhaps Aberystwyth. The latter depends on whether the service from Carmarthen terminates at Aberystwyth or reverses to form the train to Shrewsbury/Birmingham.

    The Carmarthen - Aberystywth bus (TrawsCambria X40) are timetabled 2hrs 21min, with the odd trip avoiding Llanwnnen which cut 10 minutes off that. That service ends 26th Feb, replaced by a new non-Traws service, the 40, timetabled to do the trip in a blistering 1hr 55mins. This includes an allowance of only two minutes between Carmarthen's bus and train stations. I very much doubt Arriva can actually make this service run on time, given they are trying to be 20minutes quicker than at present without avoiding Llanwnnen (although the route there is to be changed).

    Either way, I doubt there would be much point in re-instating the old railway, the very tortuous section starting around the Gwili railway's current northern terminous would probably make it almost as slow as the X40. However, by strategic improvements to the old alignment journey times could be slashed, to far less than is possible by bus. I once had to take a charted, non-stop, coach trip from Aberystwyth to somewhere near Bridgend. I noticed we stayed on the A487 until Synod Inn, so didn't take the X40 route. We passed Aberystwyth station at around 15:20 and skirted Carmarthen at 16:43 so a 1hr 23min trip if you go non-stop.

    I once estimated the Carmarthen - Aberystwyth journey time by rail would be around 1hr 15min, but I cannot remember my method of estimation. However, I have tried again to estimate the journey time, using (mainly) the original alignment) like so:
    - Carmarthen to near Cynwyl Elfed (just before new tunnel, avoiding aformentioned tortuous section) - 5.02 miles, guestimate linespeed 55mph, estimated journey time 5.5mins (plus 2mins for stopping at Bronwydd Arms), so 7.5mins in total.

    - From there through the tunnel to Llanpumsaint, 3.23miles at 75mph is 2.5 minutes.

    - Llanpumsaint to Lampeter, 17.86miles, 60mph, 18mins (becomes 24mins when six minutes are added (allowing for stopping at Llanpumpsaint, Pencader and Llanybydder))

    - Lampeter to Pontrhydfendigaid Road, 15.47miles at 90mph (the orriginal alignment is nice and straight for this bit) 15.75mins, plus the stops at Lampeter at Tregaron bringing the time to 19.75mins.

    - Pontrhydfendigaid Road to Llanfarian, 10.60miles at 60mph, 10.75mins plus request stops (1.5mins allowed each) at Pontrhydfendigaid Road and Llanilar, bringing it up to 13.75mins.

    The total journey time up to this point is 1hr 7.5mins, but now we come to the hard part, actually getting from Llanfarian to Aberystwyth. It is actualy getting past Llanfarian that is the biggest problem (apart from the expense of the new Cynwyl Elfed tunnel) I think, as the old railway now appears to be a street of houses. There is an awful traffic jam stretching out of Aberystwyth to Llanfarian in the mornings, so I actually think this bit should be built first as it could offer a park & ride service into town while the desision is made on whether to go through with the line to Carmarthen.

    If you can squeese a new railway past Llanfarian (probably have to go under the A487's bridge over the river), you then have a choice of trying to thread the line between the new buildings to roughly follow the old route, which I've estimated at 3.58miles, 45mph and 5mins (7.5 after Llanfarian(request) and Aberystwyth stops are accounted for) or tunneling straight through the hill, 3.28miles, 50mph, 4mins (6.5 after stops added). Either way, a rather odd, long, level crossing will probably be needed near the station.

    Total journey time, 1hr 15mins or 1hr 14mins depending on the choice of route into Aberystwyth. That has well and truly beaten the bus.

  11. Thanks for the informative/detailed update, Rhydgaled.

    I've often wondered if a "modern" narrow gauge railway could be built right along the Western coast to overcome the alignment and topographic issues. The Swiss and Austrians manage it. In fact there are many examples across mainland Europe - the Flemish have a "coastal tram" for example. These are "proper" electrified commuter-carrying railways too, not just for tourists or enthusiasts.

  12. Reinstating the rail line would bring so many benefits, linking 3 university towns (4 if we connected Bangor too), giving us a Wales 'loop'. Yes, it will no doubt be expensive but it really will invigorate communities here that have been left isolated for far too long. If the original Carms - Aber line were to reopen, the trackbed from Abergwili to Lampeter has more or less been railbanked by the Gwili Railway Preservation Society. The Ystwyth Trail has more or less banked nearly 20 miles more of trackbed, making most of this pretty viable.

    Getting out of Carmarthen and into Aberystwyth will be the biggest engineering challenges. There is a tiny slither of former trackbed that has been taken over by the A40 although there are ways around this. It's sickening to see the UK government spending £34bn on HS2 when half of that could open tens of former lines across the UK.

  13. Thanks for the comment, Mathew.

    The big problem, as you said, is getting out of Carmarthen and into Aberystwyth. I don't think this could be rebuilt in stages, which might help things. It would need to be built in one go to be anything approaching economically viable.

    HS2 is about 20 years too late to make any big economic impact IMO, though having a north-south high speed line does make sense on a long, thin island like Great Britain. I agree that the money could've been better spent elsewhere. You could probably electrify the entire UK rail network for £34bn - and it will have to be done at some stage.

  14. The reopening of Aber to Carms has been unofficially priced at £400m by those in the know. (If I told you the source of this info, I would have to kill you!)

    Expensive, but still affordable. Someone has actually created this nifty video detailing the route.