Thursday, 20 July 2017

Cardiff-Swansea electrification zapped by UK Government

Rail electrification between Cardiff & Swansea (including Bridgend) was promised by a Conservative-led government in 2012. Five years later they've scrapped it.

I'm not surprised as we've been softened up for this news. It's happened the same week the first round of contracts (worth £6.6billion) for the (estimated) £56billion High Speed 2 project in England – to which Wales will be paying our share of at least £2.7billion – were announced.

The Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns, slimed his way through the issue earlier this week by talking up the benefits of the new trains. You know what contempt rail passengers are held in when the replacement of 40+-year-old trains that are frequently overcrowded during rush hour is seen as a gift instead of a basic necessity.

Alun clearly knew what was coming, but there's been dishonesty and shadow playing on this from the start. Extending electrification from Cardiff to Swansea is something the Conservatives were reluctantly talked into by the Lib Dems in 2012. They've never really wanted to do it, having wrangled over who was going to pay for it and dragging their feet. It was even omitted from their 2017 manifesto, which should've set alarm bells ringing.

The English transport secretary, Chris Grayling (who also has responsibility for rail infrastructure in Wales), argues the benefits of electrification can be delivered with the new Hitachi intercity express trains, coming into service in south Wales later this year. Fortunately, the new trains are both electric and diesel powered meaning they can run on tracks without overhead lines.

This also means they're more expensive to build, heavier, more things can go wrong with them, are less environmentally-friendly and noisier. That means higher maintenance costs for the track, inefficient engines, no real difference in journey times between Swansea and Cardiff, as much noise as's almost as if there'll be absolutely no difference to things as they are now.

It's a typical solution of a government, party and nation-state that does everything by spreadsheets, divorced from both how things work on the ground and long-term thinking.

Hitachi has built a new maintenance facility in Swansea for the new trains. If you've gone past it recently you will have noticed it's come complete with the infrastructure for overhead power lines. They're going to get rusty.

Electrification between Cardiff and London is still going ahead, but you've got to wonder – with the current state the UK Government's in – what other plans they have in store for us. As Prof. Stuart Cole has argued, this project can't simply be restarted if the expertise and resources are moved. If it's scrapped now it's unlikely anything will happen for a long time; in 15-20 years when we're still talking about this we'll wonder, "Why didn't we do something back in the 2010s?"

I suppose the only question is why has it been scrapped?

We haven't been told because the Conservatives know we won't like the answer: the money and resources for electrifying Cardiff-Swansea are needed in England.

The budget for current electrification work has over-run and if the UK Government are going to deliver pledges in parts of England, "less important" projects need to be ditched.

On an EnglandandWales scale, this is an easy to write-off project between two small provincial cities and should be placed behind the likes of Bath, Liverpool and Manchester. It also means some English cities miss out, like Nottingham and Sheffield - so it's not just Wales being left behind.

At a Welsh level, it's about providing electrified rail services between the capital, one of the most important industrial centres (Neath Port Talbot & Bridgend) and the country's second and third largest cities (Swansea & Newport respectively), as well as being a springboard for electrification in north Wales. Westminster doesn't see this.

Wales has about 6% of the UK's rail network, yet receives around 1-1.5% of Network Rail funding. Scotland gets a population-based share because rail infrastructure is devolved. It isn't devolved here because if Wales received a ring-fenced 4.9% share of UK rail spending, it would mean less money to spend in England London.

As they've significantly underestimated the costs involved, yet again Network Rail's bungling will hamper a major infrastructure project in Wales. It doesn't bode well for the new Wales & Borders rail franchise, Metro, north Wales electrification and pretty much any significant project you can think of either.

Network Rail is really good at putting new shelters in stations, painting lines, fixing bridges and installing new signalling, but beyond that, they're not looking fit for purpose when it comes to running Welsh railways.

The first rule of politics is "Don't make promises you can't keep", but that doesn't seem to apply here. So we've been lied to and let down again. The most depressing thing is you know we're going to sit back and take it because we've got no cards to play and we're used to it.

I can't wait to see what happens with the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon! Fingers crossed!


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