Transport in north Wales

10 June 2016

Article by Andrew Minnis, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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Modernising the main railway line and engaging with emerging English regional transport bodies are high on the list of priorities for transport in north Wales. How will the new Welsh Government make sure the transport network supports the cross-border economy of the region?

The North Wales Joint Local Transport Plan, published by the north Wales local authorities in January 2015, identifies five key transport issues for the region. Among them, the plan highlights the economic importance of strategic road and rail links, and their ability to carry people and freight to ports and to the rest of the UK. This illustrates the importance of cross-border road and rail links to north Wales.

The previous Welsh Government’s National Transport Finance Plan and the Joint Local Transport Plan set out proposed investment projects for all modes of transport in the region. However, two important areas create immediate opportunities and threats for a region closely connected to its cross-border neighbour.

Rail modernisation

While the Welsh Government has powers to invest in rail, responsibility for rail infrastructure in England and Wales sits with the UK Government. Rail infrastructure projects are mainly delivered in five-year planning blocks called ‘Control Periods’. The next block, Control Period 6 (or ‘CP6’), will run from 2019 to 2024 and preparations are getting underway now. The UK Government is expected to publish key documents setting out what projects will be delivered, and the funding available, in the summer of 2017.

The previous Welsh Government wanted to modernise the north Wales rail network, particularly through electrification. This aspiration is shared by local and regional authorities on both sides of the border. The Network Rail Welsh Route Study, which sets out investment ‘choice for funders’ for CP6 and beyond, was published in March 2016. It includes options for both improving line speeds on the current network and electrifying the north Wales mainline.

The Fourth Assembly’s Enterprise and Business Committee held an inquiry into Priorities for the future of Welsh Rail Infrastructure in 2016. The Committee heard evidence outlining the importance of electrification. In particular, evidence from the North Wales Economic Ambition Board and Greengauge 21 argued strongly that a package of improvements, including electrification between Crewe / Warrington and Llandudno / Holyhead via Chester, is essential in CP6 to realise the economic potential of the region and secure benefits from English developments such as High Speed 2 (HS2).

The Committee identified a strong case for electrification, but had concerns about who would fund the project, whether freight needs would be adequately reflected, and whether it could be delivered in CP6. Following delays to Network Rail’s current investment programme, it was concerned that the project might be delayed until after HS2 is expected to reach Crewe in 2027, reducing the economic benefit of HS2 for north Wales.

A cross-border task force including local authorities, the Welsh Government and the business community was set up to identify the improvements needed on the network following a November 2015 north Wales rail summit. The task force developed an outline business case for electrification to be delivered in CP6. The Welsh Government submitted the business case to the Department for Transport (DfT) in March 2016.

Influencing the timing, funding and scope of north Wales rail enhancements is likely to be a priority for the next Welsh Government.

Cross-border links

The previous Welsh Government commissioned a report on the Dee Region Cross-Border Economy which was published in 2013. The report showed how travel patterns in the region do not recognise the border. Similarly, the Enterprise and Business Committee’s rail infrastructure report found                that the border should be invisible from a transport planning perspective. It also found that key network pinch points for Welsh travellers are often in England.

Moves to establish an English Northern Powerhouse include devolving transport powers to new regional bodies in England such as Transport for the North (TfN). This offers the new Welsh Government, local authorities and other important stakeholders’ opportunities to work with and influence these English bodies. Failure to engage effectively might mean investment in the English transport network does not take account of Welsh needs, and could actually undermine the Welsh network. The March 2016 UK Government budget made £300m available for major English projects such as of High Speed 3, linking Leeds and Manchester, and developing a business case for a new Trans-Pennine tunnel. The scale of the planned investment highlights the need to exert Welsh influence on projects that could bring real benefits to north Wales. The budget also opened the door for a ‘growth deal’ for north Wales, providing funding to connect the region with the Northern Powerhouse.

Local cross-border relationships are well established in north Wales, and the Welsh Government has a Memorandum of Understanding with TfN. However, the Enterprise and Business Committee heard evidence suggesting Transport Scotland had closer working relationships with TfN than the Welsh Government. West Midlands Rail, the body working with the Department for Transport to procure the new West Midlands rail franchise, said it had not had any direct discussions with the Welsh Government.

Both the North Wales Economic Ambition Board and TfN recommended that the Welsh Government should engage more with English transport planning bodies to influence decisions and align funding.

Key sources