Sunday, 20 October 2013


As a regular rail user the news that the Severn Tunnel is going to be closed for maintenance this weekend and next weekend has greeted me every morning (at Newport Station) for some weeks. I suspect that the First Minister is perhaps not a regular rail user, perhaps the government limo is too comfortable and too convenient, ideal perhaps for snoozing in whilst going to and from work.   

Severn Tunnel closed - England cut off!
The Welsh First minister’s criticism of Network Rail over the planned closure of the Severn Tunnel for maintenance, on the same weekend as the opening ceremony for the Rugby League World Cup, and the Womex music festival (both in Cardiff), might have a shred of validity if plans to upgrade the diversionary route via Kemble, in Gloucestershire to Swindon had not been dropped in November 2008, under the last Labour Westminster Government.

When the Severn Tunnel is closed for maintenance rail traffic from South Wales is diverted via a single-track 12-mile section of line between Swindon and Kemble (in Gloucestershire). Plans to upgrade this section to double track as it is the only diversionary route between Wales and London were conspicuous by their absence from Network Rail’s plans in 2008/2009. This is a vital link between Wales and London (and Europe) and the only alternative to using the Severn Tunnel.

The origins of the present problems date back to November 2008 (when Labour were in office at Westminster) when the Office of Rail Regulation’s settlement for Network Rail allocated £26 billion pounds - 2.4 billion less than requested; forcing Network Rail to drop a number of projects. Lost amidst the small print of this decision was the decision to drop a plan which would have restored of the 12 miles of single track to double from Kemble to Swindon.

In the event of a major accident or incident in the tunnel, perhaps a crash, a fire or even flooding, then we need a fully operational alternative so that passenger and freight services to London are not affected. Talk to anyone who works the rails (or anyone who has relatives who work on the rails) in the south and they will tell you that the aging Severn Tunnel is going to require more maintenance as time passes, it remains a vital transport link, but it ranks pretty low on Network Rails or Westminster’s list of priorities.

We badly need some original thinking to solve this potential block on our rail links; the construction of a railway bridge / tidal fence close to the Second Severn Crossing should be seriously considered as part of any plans to harness the enormous renewable energy potential of the Severn Estuary. This could carry the main rail link from South Wales, solving the problem of the Severn Tunnel, enhance rail services from Severn Tunnel Station and generate sustainable energy, which we will need in the near future.

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