Making Tracks on the Great Western and North Wales Mainlines

On Tuesday 8 May the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, will make a statement to Plenary on the Welsh Government’s ambitions for the Great Western and North Wales Mainlines.

03 May 2018

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

On Tuesday 8 May the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, will make a statement to Plenary on the Welsh Government’s ambitions for the Great Western and North Wales Mainlines.

Following the cancellation of electrification of the Great Western Mainline between Cardiff and Swansea last summer, the Secretary of State for Transport indicated that he has asked Network Rail to develop a number of Welsh projects, while the Welsh Government is also developing its own rail infrastructure proposals for North and South Wales.

The funding and operation of rail services and infrastructure in Wales is a complex picture. While control over the franchising of rail services in Wales will soon be devolved, control over rail infrastructure currently sits with the UK Government and the approach to planning major projects is changing.

Whatever the future holds for the development of these lines, passenger flows seem set to increase with the Network Rail Welsh Route Study (PDF,4MB) (pages 24-25) estimating that demand will grow significantly. By 2043 passenger flows are expected to increase by 124% between Swansea and Cardiff, 111% between Swansea and London and 80% between the North Wales coast and North West England.

All Aboard

Passenger rail services in the UK are operated through franchise agreements. In Wales, the current Wales and Borders Franchise operated by Arriva Trains Wales comes to an end in October this year.

In 2014 the Welsh and UK Governments agreed that powers to procure the next Welsh franchise would be devolved and the draft Welsh Ministers (Transfer of Functions) (Railways) Order 2018 was introduced in Parliament in February 2018. The draft order was agreed by the House of Lords on 16 April 2018 and was considered by the House of Commons Third Delegated Legislation Committee on 23 April 2018.

Meanwhile, procurement of the next operator has been moving ahead, led by Transport for Wales on behalf of the Welsh Government, with news of the successful bidder expected later this month.

Although devolution will give the Welsh Government control over the franchising of passenger services, responsibility for rail infrastructure still sits with the UK Government. Unlike Scotland, rail infrastructure funding in Wales is a reserved matter and while the Welsh Ministers have powers to invest in infrastructure, Wales receives no Block Grant allocation for this.

When the motion to approve the draft order was moved in the House of Lords, devolution of infrastructure powers was raised in the debate. Baroness Sugg, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, stated:

we do not intend to revisit the question of devolving Network Rail funding… the department will continue to liaise closely with the Welsh Government on the specification funding of Network Rail’s operations in England and Wales…to ensure that the requirements for Wales for increased capacity on the network are reflected.

Making Tracks

Rail industry planning in Britain takes place in five year control periods (CP). The current control period is CP5 (2014-19). Before each period starts the Secretary of State for Transport publishes two statutory statements for England and Wales: a High Level Output Specification (HLOS) which sets out what the UK Government expects the rail industry to deliver within the 5 year control period; and a Statement of Funds Available (SOFA). The Scottish Ministers also publish an HLOS and SOFA for Scotland.

Next Stop All Change

On 20 July 2017 the Secretary of State published his HLOS for CP6 (2019-2024). The accompanying SOFA was published in October 2017. Unlike previous statements, which included commitments on major infrastructure enhancement projects, the CP6 HLOS and SOFA focused on the operation, maintenance and renewal of the existing railway but did not commit to any major projects.

This is because the way rail enhancement projects are planned by the UK Government in England and Wales is changing to a ‘pipeline approach’. The UK Government described these changes in its Strategic Vision for Rail (PDF,1.08MB) on the 29 November 2017:

Our new pipeline approach to managing railway upgrades will see Government as funder work jointly with Network Rail and other potential infrastructure providers. Following the lessons learned from issues in the current rail funding period, this new way of working provides oversight, transparency and clear decision points for progression.

The document says the Secretary of State will “set out a Rail Upgrade Plan in due course that will define these priorities and the steps we are taking to deliver them”.

Electrification de-railed

On the same day that the HLOS was published, it emerged through media reports that the Secretary of State had decided to cancel Great Western Mainline electrification between Cardiff and Swansea. You can find out more on cancellation of electrification to Swansea in our blog post ‘rail electrification to Swansea dropped by the UK Government’.

Alongside this announcement, the Secretary of State also issued a press release outlining areas where he had asked Network Rail to develop options for Welsh rail. The options quoted were:

improving journeys times and connections between Swansea and Cardiff, and South Wales, Bristol and London;

improving journeys times and connections across North Wales;

direct services from Pembroke Dock to London via Carmarthen on new, state of the art Intercity Express trains;

station improvements at Cardiff Station;

station improvements in and around Swansea including looking at the case for additional provision.

The Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, issued a written statement expressing his disappointment with the HLOS stating that it makes:

no commitment from the UK Government to enhance our rail network in the 2019-2024 period, but also rolls back on the commitment to electrify the line between Cardiff and Swansea.

He went on to criticise the UK Government’s spending on infrastructure enhancements in Wales:

although Wales and the Marches area has around 11 per cent of the railway track in England and Wales, since 2011 the area has only benefited from around 1.5 per cent of the money spent by the UK Government on rail enhancements.

Analysis of Network Rail’s Regulatory Financial Statements supports this claim when focusing on enhancement expenditure.

Signals for Swansea

Whilst also expressing disappointment at the UK Government decision, Professor Mark Barry of Cardiff University set out his vision for infrastructure improvements around the Swansea Bay Region in the media in August 2017. This vision was presented as an alternative to electrification to reduce travel time between Cardiff and Swansea. Prof Barry was responsible for developing the South Wales Metro Impact Study (PDF,9.2MB) and joined the Welsh Government to work on the project’s development before moving to Cardiff University. Among the developments he outlines for Swansea Bay, he proposes shortening journey times via a new straight section of railway from Port Talbot to the centre of Swansea – taking around 10 miles off the current route on the Great Western Mainline.

Later media reports elaborated on his vision for a similar scheme to the South Wales Metro in the Swansea Bay City Region including new stations and park and ride facilities and reported calls for a feasibility study.

Grants awarded through the Welsh Government Local Transport Fund for 2018-19 (PDF,334KB), announced in April 2018, include a £700k grant to Swansea City Council for the ‘South West Wales Metro’.

Northern bound

Travelling northwards, the Welsh Government has long advocated for electrification of the North Wales Mainline which runs from Holyhead to Crewe. In the Fourth Assembly, the then Transport Minister, Edwina Hart on 31 March 2016 submitted an Outline Business Case for electrification of the North Wales Mainline to the Department for Transport in an attempt to influence the Secretary of State’s HLOS for control period 6.The Fourth Assembly’s Enterprise and Business Committee also published a report on priorities for the future of Welsh infrastructure with the key recommendations including the electrification of the North Wales Mainline.

On 2 March 2017, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport issued a written statement outlining his Vision for North Wales and the North East Wales Metro and in ‘Moving North Wales Forward’ (PDF,2MB) the Welsh Government states that it:

will continue to make the case for investment by the UK Government in the electrification of the North Wales coast main line to improve access to HS2 and the wider UK market.

The Cabinet Secretary gave a further update on the development of the North East Wales Metro in a written statement on 14 December 2017 – Transport Vision for North Wales.

Also advocating for electrification of the North Wales Mainline, the Growth Track 360 campaign is a cross-border alliance campaigning for better rail services across the North Wales and Cheshire area. It has published a West and Wales Rail Prospectus setting out the campaign’s vision for rail investment across North Wales and North West England which also highlights electrification as a key opportunity for investment.

A long journey ahead?

There is clearly a lot of work taking place to develop plans for Welsh rail infrastructure and high level statements from the UK Government suggest support may be forthcoming. However there is a long way to go to develop detailed plans. Key decisions on projects, including who will pay, remain to be taken. The Cabinet Secretary’s statement may provide greater clarity on the next stages of the journey.

Article by Francesca Howorth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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