As elements of it directly affect Wales and as far as it goes, I cautiously welcome the new Network Rail modernisation programme which was announced last Tuesday. The electrification of the Great Western line from Swansea to London is the commitment to extend electrification to some of the Valley lines into Cardiff. Some £ 350 million pounds worth of investment has been allocated to electrify the Valley lines into Cardiff.
I have serious concerns about the apparent exclusion of the final stage of the Ebbw Vale line into Abertillery and into Newport from the plan and the timescale. The Network Rail plan suggests that even its somewhat limited Valley lines electrification programme will not be completed until around 2020. From an economic point of view it would make more sense to commence work on the Valley lines electrification programme as soon as practically possible.
What missing as far as I can see is any real element of reopening old (or building new) railways as has happened in Scotland. In Wales in the last thirteen and half years there have been two successful railway re-openings carried out by Network Rail at the request of the National Assembly; the Vale of Glamorgan Railway Line (re-opened on Friday 10th June 2005) and the Ebbw Valley Railway Line (partially re-opened on Wednesday 6th February 2008).
These were administrative rather than legislative projects, and but for the existence of the National Assembly it is unlikely that they would have been hauled up from where they lingered on Network Rails’ priority list. The National Assembly, has been (with a few exceptions) been pretty muted when it comes to making the case for rail. This has not been the case in Scotland, where bills to reopen old railways have been vigorously debated, scrutinised, amended and passed by the Scottish Parliament. If we are serious about integrated public transport then we are going to have to get serious about how we are going to develop and redevelop our public transport infrastructure.
The Transport (Wales) Act which came into effect in February 2006 gave the National Assembly powers (if not the political will) to plan and co-ordinate an integrated transport system, how much longer do we have to wait to see some vision? In the meantime the rail companies have been busy continuing to ramp up rail fares and attempting to reduce rail services (they have been thwarted in the later endeavour by some well organised local pressure groups in the case of Severn Tunnel and Chepstow in South East Gwent). All of these things have been done with the tacit co-operation of various Westminster Governments and the Department for Transport (in London).
Such duplicity has never been acceptable – it would be nice if the government in Cardiff woke from its self induced slumbers and took the long term view, and actually put its money where its mouth is and work to redevelop our rail services, boost the development of rail freight and to co-ordinate rail and bus services across the whole of Wales. To do this effectively Wales needs to have full control of its transport policy and transport budget devolved as quickly as possible and the franchise when it is renewed in 2017 needs to be run on a not for profit basis.
The creation of a not-for-distributable-profit organisation to run Welsh railways is vital; profits would be available to invest in rail services. This could mean more frequent services in the South Wales valleys, more frequent journeys to West Wales and on the Cambrian line, as well as additional services between the north and south of Wales. This could also mean more investment in new rolling stock to help keep pace with increasing passenger demand. Now, the clock is ticking as most of the preparatory work for the re-franchising needs to be undertaken during the current Assembly term, so that a delivery model that is better suited to the needs of the people in Wales rather than the shareholders dividend can be developed.
Here in the south east, Abergavenny, Caldicot, Chepstow and Severn Tunnel railway stations should be real local transport hubs, with fully integrated local bus services. Better facilities for passengers are needed and the provision of adequate safe secure parking facilities is urgently required. A feasibility studies into the development of a Parkway Station at Little Mill and the possibilities of re-opening the railway line from Little Mill to Usk and the development of a new railway station west of the town of Usk would benefit local commuters and rail travellers and reduce congestion.
The re-opening of Pontrilas Railway station (in south Herefordshire) for passenger traffic (and timber shipments) would also help, as would a feasibility study into developing regional rail freight services, removing heavy Lorries from local roads. Such developments would provide a regular rail service to local residents and reduce the ever increasing traffic burden from already overcrowded roads. One real local priority is the completion of the final stage of the rail-link from Ebbw Vale to Newport needs to be completed and railway stations at Caerleon, Llanwern and Magor would all help to reduce road congestion.