Integrated Rail Plan for the North & Midlands – first reactions

18 November, 2021

Publication of the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) for the North and Midlands is a long-awaited moment of truth.

Northern Powerhouse Rail comes to an end at Diggle

Across the Pennines, between Manchester and Leeds, absurdly, two competing projects have been under development for 6 years. The overlaps between the two projects have been apparent throughout. The IRP signals the end of this particular saga. Meanwhile, other trans Pennine routes (for instance, those that serve Sheffield and Halifax/Bradford) have been largely ignored.

The planned and much-touted Liverpool-Manchester-Bradford-Leeds fast line, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), is largely abandoned in the IRP. A sub-section from Manchester to the West Yorkshire border (at Diggle) is salvaged. Continuation across West Yorkshire (24 route miles) will be along today’s railway through Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Leeds. There will be no new high-speed line here; instead, the lower cost multi-phased Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade (TRU) comes into play.

Bradford, which was part of the final NPR plan, is the big loser in this arrangement. The IRP claims a Manchester-Leeds journey time of 33 minutes will be feasible. It will need to be a top-of-the-range version of TRU to achieve that.

Westwards from Manchester to Liverpool, the idea of building a new section of high-speed line from HS2 near its proposed Manchester Airport station through the centre of Warrington to Fiddlers Ferry (where it would join an existing line to complete a circuitous route into Liverpool) features in the IRP. This approach is preferred to an upgrade of the existing much shorter line from Manchester to Liverpool. But this part of NPR doesn’t shorten Liverpool-Manchester journey times that today are only 37 minutes. This part of the package looks to be at risk of being dropped at a later date.

The North West is a key example of a complex railway geography where all of the local, regional, and long-distance passenger service options and rail freight needs should be examined together, rather than basing decisions on a review of short-listed NPR options.

HS2’s Eastern arm shortened

Plans for the Eastern arm of HS2 are revised and curtailed in the East Midlands, with the whole section beyond to Yorkshire dropped and replaced by an upgrade and electrification of existing lines. It means that cities will be better inter-connected (the central section of HS2’s Eastern arm avoided intervening cities, chasing a headline London-Leeds journey time). Nottingham and Derby, previously bypassed, will now be able to join the list of cities with a direct HS2 service. Sheffield, as it happens, will get just as fast a connection with London as the full HS2 plan provided. But there is sadly no sign of any improvement for Sheffield-Leeds, the North’s busiest cross-commuting corridor.

In our review of the HS2 Eastern arm last year, we showed how the ability to serve Nottingham with high-speed rail could be used as a basis for transforming the nation’s key longer distance inter-regional route (‘cross country’ in railway parlance). This in turn supports a proposition of upgrading the East Coast Main Line (ECML), introducing 140 mile/h operation from Nottinghamshire (Newark)  to Newcastle and adding capacity where needed – and even considering high-speed rail in the ECML corridor – a much easier proposition than the now suspended HS2 East alignment that was beset with the challenge of negotiating multiple towns and villages, former collieries and landfill sites and ducking diving with the M1 Motorway (which would have needed temporary relocation).

This would create the strong NE-SW rail infrastructure that must form part of any sensible national strategic rail plan, adding Nottingham to a much faster cross-country route between Doncaster and Birmingham. This is how the Y-shaped network, whose right-side arm has now been truncated, can yet be made into an ‘X’ shape. This also requires investment at Moor Street station in Birmingham. This latter scheme gets a mention (Midlands Rail Hub) but, with only one of the two ‘Bordesley curves’ needed to ensure that the Midlands section of HS2’s Eastern arm can serve this wider purpose without enforced and inconvenient passenger interchange in the centre of Birmingham.

The IRP doesn’t join up the dots. It speaks of infrastructure rather than services, and so misses the importance of the more detailed points that determine whether rail services are attractive to customers. True, the IRP envisages track upgrades and re-signalling of the ECML and claims significant journey time savings as a consequence. But without these important connections at either end of the east-west cross-Midland part of ‘HS2 East’, the business case for taking it forward will be weak, and the full spread of benefits it could bring will be unrealised.

The IRP component parts

Source: Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands (publishing.service.gov.uk)

Setting budgets

It was good that the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) a year ago set out a budget to help shape the IRP. It was set at £108bn, 25% above their baseline figure. With some caveats, Greengauge 21 welcomed NIC setting a budget as an important discipline in the planning process. The NIC report said that spending at this level, consistent with the budget set for infrastructure investment as a proportion of GDP nationwide, was needed for economic growth in the Midlands and North. But it also pointed out that not everything on the table was affordable and that choices remained to be taken.

The harsh truth is that the rail sector isn’t now, after Covid and its wider financial consequences, accorded the priority it had just 2 years ago – despite the NIC recently concluding that “Transport is the sector with the most opportunity for helping to reduce disparities between places.”[1] The IRP has a budget set at £96bn. This will have been developed on the same basis as the NIC had set out in its Rail Needs guidance. The NIC budget, and now the IRP budget, places the whole cost of HS2 – including the route into London – within the ‘Midlands and North’ budget total.

Several factors have reduced the perceived need to enhance the capacity and speed capability of the rail network in general, including in the North and Midlands. More immediate demands have appeared – maintaining the resilience of the rail system in the face of climate change and accommodating a resurgent railfreight sector are two examples. Meanwhile other demands have shrunk: less pressure on commuter peaks as work from home becomes (for some) the new normal.

And during this time, the flagship Crossrail project, once due to open in December 2018, sadly has remained unfinished, with cost overruns and a still extending completion date. The rail sector hasn’t helped itself in the eyes of HM Treasury.

There is a risk that Government has settled on a ‘mainly upgrade’ approach because it is less expensive than ‘new line’ and comes with an assumption that it can be delivered more quickly. The reality on timescales may be a disappointment. True, the West Coast Route Modernisation, although much criticised at the time, was very largely delivered in 10 years from conception to completion adding route capacity and a line speed uplift. It had commercial pressures driving its progress, but the question here is what will incentivise the pace of delivery for the IRP? An accelerated delivery approach is called for and needs to be achieved.

A budget area apparently not covered by the IRP budget is any investment coming out of the soon-to-be-published Union Connectivity Review. This will surely proclaim a call for some investment on the two Anglo-Scottish cross-border routes – the West Coast Main Line north of Crewe and the East Coast Main Line as a whole. That is to say: in the North of England (with the possibility of some matching investment north of the border). Yes, both West and East Coast Main Lines are identified for unspecified upgrades as per the map above. But has HM Treasury been fore-warned that the Union Connectivity Review will likely generate a call for further investment, beyond the IRP £96bn provision, to reduce Anglo-Scottish surface transport journey times and accommodate more freight on rail?

What kind of plan is this?

The IRP is the kind of ‘integrated plan’ that risks giving planning a bad name. The four projects – HS2 in its entirety, NPR, Trans Pennine Route Upgrade and Midlands Rail Engine – devised over the ten-year period 2008-2017, are now judged by Government to be unaffordable. Parts of each of them are now on the chopping room floor. The IRP comprises what is left.

In preparing the IRP, Government has taken the unusual (and for rail, unprecedented) step of preparing a forward plan. In the inter-regnum before the new post Shapps-Williams arrangements came into force, this can be seen as a necessary step. But it is now, equally, a time for Government (specifically, DfT) to take a step back.

The rail network being the perfect example of an interconnected system, implementation planning requires a disciplined approach, albeit one that is capable of adapting (as the NIC suggested) to shifting circumstances, but also one with a deep understanding of day-to-day operational realities.

The IRP needs scrutiny and a responsible delivery authority

The Integrated Rail Plan is a bolt-together job, with a lack of definition around some of the component pieces, and some worrying gaps.  It is not clear whether Government believes priorities for the rail network have shifted as a result of the changes in travel behaviour wrought by Covid-19.  And the deliverability of the IRP, while set out as a decade-by-decade programme stretching well into the 2040s, has not been tested, although there is plenty of discussion on rail industry initiatives to improve on recent performance.

In this context, it is very welcome that Government is proposing to place the responsibility for implementing the IRP with the nascent Great British Railways (GBR).

GBR has in-hand a ‘Whole Industry Strategic Plan – ‘WISP’ and so is eminently well-placed to assume responsibility for the IRP and its implementation. As a first stage it should examine and critically review the plan, not in a cumbersome months-long escapade, but in a short, 6-8 week, task and finish sprint to check the IRP against some key reality tests.

In the UK, it never has been the responsibility of Government Departments to plan the development of the national rail network as has been attempted with the IRP.

Somebody needs to own the IRP outside Government and GBR, which has been set up to lead and coordinate the national rail system, is the right choice to take this forward:

“Great British Railways will take over future responsibility from Network Rail for upgrading the existing network and taking a leading role in ensuring integration with HS2 into that network. It will be made up of powerful regional divisions, with budgets and delivery held at the local level, not just nationally. This will enable much closer collaboration and joint working with local leaders. There will be one, single point of accountability for rail services in a town, city or region.”[2]

GBR, it should be remembered, has no commercial interest; rather its central task is to satisfy rail customers as a public sector body. It will want to ensure that, within the allocated budget, for example:

  • the scaled-back plan can be fully delivered through to completion by (say) 2045, instead of dragging on past 2050. This will likely mean contemplating having more than a single railway Bill in Parliament at any one time
  • the IRP addresses key current pinch-points on today’s rail network – including in Manchester and Leeds (£100m appears to have been set aside to ‘examine’ station capacity options in Leeds)
  • there is a realistic plan to deliver a much better rail service along the East Coast Main Line corridor (accelerated Bradford-Leeds-London trains for example has featured in the highlights quoted by the Secretary of State for Transport in the IRP launch debate) in the absence of NPR and the full eastern arm of HS2
  • real thought has been given to accommodating additional rail-freight,
  • to network resilience needs, and
  • to enhancing services over strong long-distance inter-regional passenger demand flows that stretch beyond the North and Midlands such as Cardiff-Bristol-Newcastle-Edinburgh, that is, SW-NE across Birmingham. The connectivity needs of adjoining regions and nations really should matter in the IRP.

In this way, the IRP can be seen as a template that can guide GBR and, with a specific enhancement budget set for the next 25 years, allow the rail industry to get on with delivery, freeing itself from the day-to-day management by DfT that all recent reviews (including Shapps-Williams) have called for.

[1] Second National Infrastructure Assessment: Baseline Report – NIC.  November 2021.

[2] Paragraph 5.17 Integrated Rail Plan


Okehampton railway re-opening is an important step towards a full line re-instatement

15 November, 2021

The re-opening of the railway to Okehampton is great news. Network Rail and GWR in particular are to be congratulated for pursuing the project through to completion. Greengauge 21 was pleased to be asked to build on its earlier work and investigate on behalf of GWR the opportunity for feeder bus services to broaden the value of GWR’s new Okehampton rail services.

The Exeter-Okehampton railway is the first part of what is likely to be a three-stage programme to recreate the ‘northern route’ across Devon to Plymouth and Cornwall. The planned Tavistock-Okehampton feeder bus route will serve to help build the market for a full re-instatement of the through line in due course. And Network Rail’s acquisition of the track-bed west of Okehampton to Meldon is another step in making this possible.

The Okehampton line has been rebuilt to main line rather than branch line standards, with an operating speed of 75 mile/h.

Vulnerability

The loss of the railway 50 years ago left a huge hole in the nation’s railway map. But this wasn’t one of Dr Beeching’s branch line closures. He was also intent on closing duplicate main lines, and the route around the north side of Dartmoor via Okehampton was indeed a second main line, linking Exeter and Plymouth.

Its closure left much of Devon and all of Cornwall ‘hanging by a thread’ in rail terms, as the breach of the sea wall and related cliff falls at Dawlish and Teignmouth proved in 2014, when the railway was out of action for 2 months following storm damage. Plymouth is the largest city in England with no alternative connection to the national rail network.

Climate Change

In this month of COP 26, the importance of containing carbon emissions has become better understood, and so too has been the need for adaptations to climate change. England is not somehow immune to the effects of sea level rises.

As has been shown in detailed assessments, the low-level coastal route between Exeter and Plymouth will be increasingly susceptible to the effects of sea level rises over the decades ahead, as the polar ice caps melt. Network Rail is valiantly trying to keep the coastal route intact. But what happened in 2014 is not only likely to recur but research points to ever increasing numbers of days each year when, sadly, rail services will be disrupted.

The Network Rail resilience work programme for the coastal line extends through to the 2070s. As yet no agreed way to address the problem of cliff erosion between Dawlish and Teignmouth. With no road access to this part of the railway, there is no easy way to carry out the extensive protective works needed. The availability of a second route – the north of Dartmoor main line reinstated – is what’s needed to be able to give Network Rail the extended access periods needed to accelerate their coastal route works programme – and make it affordable.

In Devon and Cornwall, there is every need, even if it was not apparent to Dr Beeching 50 years ago, to have two railways connecting Cornwall, and South/West Devon with the rest of the country. This is the nation’s prime example of an investment in transport needed for climate change resilience – to ensure that rail can be relied on to provide a dependable alternative to long distance car and lorry use.

Many fewer lorries

Right now, the logistics sector is looking to commit to a switch to railfreight for the distribution of consumer and industrial products to/from re-established railheads in Plymouth and Cornwall. The lengthy road hauls that could then be avoided will bring major environmental gains. With serious and ongoing HGV driver shortages, a switch to rail makes great sense. But consignors need an assurance of service continuity. In other parts of England, if there is engineering work, there will be an alternative rail route available. The South West Peninsula needs the same facility.

What next?

It seems likely that the next stage in the re-creation of the northern route will be a section of line from Bere Alston to Tavistock, reconnecting that thriving town with Plymouth. Ministers have agreed an initial grant for its business case to be developed.

We understand that Network Rail has developed plans that will allow the continued operation of direct Gunnislake -Plymouth trains and the introduction of Tavistock-Plymouth services on the single-track branch. Suburban stations in Plymouth will get more services as a consequence and help policies of reducing car use into the city centre.

Over 20 years ago, this scheme was promoted by a developer (who has long since departed the scene). Agreements were put in place to help fund Tavistock line re-opening with a station provided at Callington Road on the southern outskirts of the town where a major housing development got the go-ahead. Developer finance is of course welcome (especially by HM Treasury), but in reality it can only contribute a small part of line re-instatement costs. These will no doubt include a substantial sum to replace the bio-diverse strip of land along the disused and unused railway track-bed.

There is another challenge to be faced. A station at Callington Road would serve Tavistock poorly. It is a 20-minute walk into the town centre from this location. And there is insufficient space for a major park and ride site. So thoughts will turn to a longer re-instatement that will allow the whole of Tavistock to have good access to its rail service. This might even broach the question of re-establishing the route over Tavistock viaduct.

Another approach to the second phase of the full re-instatement might be an extension west and south from Okehampton, extending from Meldon (the current line limit) to reach Tavistock.

The economics of rail operation

It is hard to operate branch lines economically. Services need to use scarce platform space at the ‘parent’ main line station (St David’s, Exeter, in this case). With services operated as shuttles, a large proportion of train in-service time is spent at turnrounds rather than getting anywhere. And the limited number of direct connections provided discourages the full take up of the longer distance travel by train that generates (disproportionately) greater revenue. Stations in South West England double revenues if they have a London as well as a local service.

In the short term, it is conceivable that Exeter-Okehampton could be operated as an extension of the Waterloo-Exeter service. The only downside is the extent of single-track operation that might put punctuality at risk.

Conclusion

As we rightly celebrate the re-opening of Okehampton, it is important to keep the long-term objective in sight. Already there is talk of adding further stations to the Okehampton line. But this would add substantial costs, extend through journey times and reduce line capacity. A better approach would be to seek to get the absolute maximum from Okehampton station, including by direct road access to the west (A30) that could accommodate, for example, a very handy bus connection for Launceston.

Two branches – Okehampton-Exeter and Tavistock-Plymouth – compound the financial weakness of branch line operation. Through service operation (Plymouth-Tavistock-Okehampton-Exeter: the long-term aim) at a stroke multiplies the revenue earning potential. It turns a cash negative railway cash positive.

And of course, it also provides the alternative route needed for cost efficient resilience works to take place on the coast line and it provides a great back-up route, with easier track gradients, for rail freight.

Greengauge 21

We actively encourage people to use our work, and simply request that the use of any of our material is credited to Greengauge 21 in the following way: Greengauge 21, Title, Date.

 


Where the UK leads the US

23 July, 2021

“We need to move fast with major funding for high-speed rail to have an impact. Climate change has quickly become the single-most-important issue we face with disasters showing up all around us, and transportation is the number one cause. We need to go big and build on high-speed rail in the reconciliation framework.”

…”the case for major funding for high speed rail outlining the technology as a major mobility, jobs, climate, and equity solution all at the same time, and because of how many things it solved simultaneously, it needed major funding from ….government.

“My case is simple on high-speed rail. High-speed rail is necessary because transportation is the single biggest emitter for carbon in the US. The only way we can truly make transportation carbon-free — the only technology we really have — is high-speed rail. We can spend a lot of money on electric cars, but it’s not going to fix congestion on our highways. So we’ll have silent traffic jams, folks. True high-speed rail runs off of renewable energy to meet the climate crisis today.”

The above are extracts from speeches by US Congressman Seth Moulton and USHSR CEO Andy Kunz, speaking at a coalition of Congress members including House Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio at a press conference on the lawn in front of the US Capitol Building Washington DC, on July 20th 2021.

It seems that even in the land where the car is king and domestic aviation is on a unique scale, there is a policy turn to high-speed rail. The US looks on in envy at the work we have in hand on HS2. The challenges in the UK – on economic recovery, mobility, jobs (and particularly those in the so called left behind places), climate and equity are the same as those high-speed rail advocates identify in the US.

The policy case for high-speed rail here is the same. Change one letter in the quotes above to make it the UK not US: the same observations hold true.

Greengauge 21

July 2021


HS2 levels up and helps tackle the climate crisis

7 July, 2021

“Rail is climate infrastructure”.  This is how US Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez put it when hosting a press conference at Washington’s Union station in June 16th. And she is bang on the money.

“It would be good to hear UK politicians pick up on this perspective: we are much better placed than the USA to use our national rail system to help decarbonise the transport sector. All the more so with HS2 – an electrified railway that adds capacity in spades – now firmly in sight.” reflects Greengauge 21’s Director Jim Steer.

Levelling up

HS2 is part of the current Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. And as long ago as

Read on »


The first passenger railway in the world – and what’s needed next

15 April, 2021

“On 25th March 1807, a year after the Swansea-Mumbles line started transporting cargo, the railway began to also start transporting passengers.

Benjamin French was the man who brought about the world’s first passenger railway by converting an iron carriage to be fit for transporting people. He was an entrepreneur from Morriston who thought that people would enjoy travelling by train for the romantic scenery of the Mumbles.

One of the original investors in the idea, he began to advertise this new found service after agreeing to pay the owners £20 a year for its use. The service was such a success that they immediately upped their offer to £25 so that they could continue using the service.”

 

 

 

 

Source

The railway closed some 60 years ago, after operating as successful modern segregated tramway for many years.

Metro plans

‘Metro’ plans have already been developed for South East Wales (Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys), and although on a different scale, also for North Wales. In each case, comprehensive plans centre on rail proposals and bus services. In the South East Wales case, work is underway to electrify some sections or routes and to introduce a tram-train operation to serve Cardiff Bay and the Senedd (Wales Government).

Regional local authorities are now turning their attention to Swansea Bay and West Wales, to examine the best way to create a Metro network for the area and a public consultation on options is underway.

Wales Government’s Transport Strategy, March 2021 and the National Plan 2040

These two documents published in 2021 by the Welsh Government are closely inter-linked. The transport strategy commits to increasing the proportion of active travel and public transport use from 32% to 45% of all travel by 2040.[1] The strategy document says:

“Over the next five years we will … deliver our public transport Metro systems in all parts of Wales to improve services and better integrate other public transport and active travel with the rail system”.

The over-arching aim is to help fulfil the Welsh Government’s explicit social well-being targets. Swansea Bay and West Wales will need to offer a much better alternative to car use as will other parts of the nation. And, consistent with the new 2021 Strategy, plans will also have to reduce the need to travel.

While no doubt some parts of a Metro concept could be delivered for Swansea Bay and West Wales in a 5 year time-span, here we look at options which would inevitably have a longer implementation period.

Swansea Bay and West Wales

The National Plan usefully delineates Swansea Bay/West Wales and shows the distribution of population (as of 2018):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The current pattern of  commuting into the Swansea area is illustrated in the following diagram, also taken from the National Plan 2040:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the 2040 Plan makes clear, recent trends in rail use and rail investment in Swansea Bay/West Wales are not propitious:

“The number of train journeys made in Wales increased by 30% between 2007-08 and 2017-18. The vast majority of this increase was in journeys starting and/or finishing in the south east. The Wales Route, which represents 11% of the UK rail network, has received just over 1% of rail enhancements in recent years.”

Indeed, rail use over the ten year period to 2017/8 scarcely grew in West Wales.

The National Plan sets out something England lacks: a spatial strategy. This is hugely helpful in seeking to set transport priorities. For the southern part of Wales, the updated spatial strategy is shown below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(reproduced from the Wales National Plan 2040)

It can be seen that Swansea and its hinterland is designated as a national growth area (cross-hatched) – alongside a much more extensive growth area in South East Wales. Linkages westwards into Dyfed (‘The South West’) and eastwards from Swansea Bay along the heads of the valleys corridor which forms the northern boundary of the SE Wales growth zone, are each identified as being ‘national connectivity’ linkages (as is a connection to the national airport at Rhoose). The Heads of the Valleys corridor is the subject of a major highways improvement programme with an innovative financing regime (A465), but the project runs out at Hirwaun, as it leaves South East Wales.

Part of the regional connectivity component of the Future Wales spatial strategy is Metros: South East Metro, South West Metro and North Wales Metro. These are designed to “create new integrated transport systems that provide faster, more frequent and joined‑up services using trains, buses and light rail.” This reflects a focus on planning for growth in urban rather than rural areas in Wales and adopting a [city]/town centre first policy.

“The Welsh Government promotes transit orientated development, focusing higher density and mixed-use development around public transport stations and stops. The metro projects, which are at different stages of progress, all offer significant and timely opportunities to identify locations for transit orientated developments around new and existing stations. Land in close proximity and with good access to metro stations is an important and finite resource and will play a key role in delivering sustainable urban places.”[2]

The report explains that the regional local authorities are consulting on Metro options for SW Wales, and these will include consideration of:

  • Increased South Wales Main Line services to Carmarthen, Pembroke Dock/Milford Haven
  • An examination of the potential for a strategic West Wales parkway station
  • An examination of the case to re-open various closed lines including in the Dulais, Amman, Neath and Swansea Valleys.

The South Wales main line itself is seen as needing to adopt the EU’s TEN-T standards, with higher operating speeds and electrification.

Swansea Bay and West Wales Metro

Any review of transport options in 2021 faces two stark realities:

  • The Covid-19 pandemic creates uncertainty about future travel demand patterns, especially for office-based journeys to work;
  • There needs to be a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions from the transport sector.

On the Covid-19 point, the employment base in Swansea Bay is diversified. Many jobs are not office-based and hopefully will remain intact and on a not very dissimilar basis post-pandemic. These would include, for instance, jobs in the higher/further education sector, those based on the recreation, hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors, as well as those in industry, where the scope for work-from-home during the Covid period has been very limited. The long-term aspirations of the Spatial Strategy call for a city centre renaissance, post pandemic which becomes unsustainable if it is not led by active travel and public transport.

The carbon emissions driver is less severe in Wales than across the UK as a whole. Transport which accounts for over 30% carbon emissions UK-wide, accounts for only 16% of greenhouse gas emissions in Wales. Nevertheless, it has to be recognised here that, as elsewhere, diesel powered rail systems have a limited shelf-life. This will likely be confirmed in DfT’s national decarbonisation strategy expected to be published in May/June this year.

Network Rail has already prepared a decarbonisation strategy and it identifies the South Wales Main Line from Cardiff to Neath, Swansea, Llanelli and Carmarthen, along with the Swansea District Line[3], as routes that should be electrified. Other lines (west of Carmarthen, the Heart of Wales line and the various freight-only lines) would be expected to see services provided using battery or hydrogen power.

A recent review of rail electrification schemes focused on rail freight pointed out that while significant progress is being made in developing electrically powered vans and medium sized goods vehicles suitable for logistics/delivery within a 100 mile range, there is no viable re-powering option available for long-haul HGV movements that are currently diesel powered.[4] This led the review’s author to conclude that in South Wales, it would be worth extending the current electrification limit westwards as far as Swansea, picking up freight flows from Port Talbot ‘under the wires’. The reality is that the more distant parts of Wales need an electrified or part-electrified railway to overcome the long distances for which there is no suitable road-based alternative to diesel for freight (HGV) haulage.

Given the high capital cost of electrification – to be considered alongside the significant carbon gains it brings, especially if passengers and freight can be attracted away from less carbon-acceptable means of travel –it makes good sense to aim for full utilisation of routes that are electrified, seeking to increase the share of travel made by (electrified) rail. This would apply to the South Wales Main line.

The South Wales Main Line

There are important inter-relationships with adjoining sub-regions that will have a bearing on future Swansea Bay/West Wales train services. Decisions to invest in the rail network of South East Wales, and in the Newport-Crewe, Severn Tunnel Junction-Gloucester/Bristol lines are likely to be crucial to the Swansea Bay/West Wales area rail network.[5]

A key question for the Swansea Bay area is whether it wishes to be part of a wider economic growth zone extending eastwards through Cardiff to Bristol. If it does, as suggested in the National Plan 2040, then one priority should be the provision of (at least) hourly fast services between Swansea Bay key stations, Cardiff and Bristol. Swansea Bay can enhance the prosperity of this multi centred corridor, adding travel demand attractions and supporting the prospect of office-based employment switching post-Covid-19 to a 2-3 days/week, longer distance, commuting pattern.

While, a few years ago, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee was persuaded that electrification of the Swansea-Cardiff line would bring only minimal journey time savings, it noted that there would be localised air quality gains, and that electrification could allow more local (’Metro’) services to be operated.[6] The Committee also noted that hybrid electric+diesel trains have a limited shelf life and it is encouraging to see that Hitachi is now going to trial a battery-electric version of its GWR intercity trainsets, which could allow the replacement of diesel engines with battery packs in due course. This might be combined with some amount of ‘discontinuous’ electrification, but the level of use of this Main Line and its mix of traffics should justify its electrification as a priority.

Swansea District Line (SDL)

The very lengthy travel times by rail from, for example, Cardiff to Tenby (close to 3 hours, usually with a change of trains en route), make rail uncompetitive compared with car travel, and so any facility that shortens rail journey times has some appeal for longer distance services to/from West Wales. The Swansea District Line acts as a cut-off route between Port Talbot and Llanelli, used for a modest number of freight movements currently (from the oil terminals at Milford Haven and from Trostre steel works at Llanelli). The time saving it offers for passenger trains between Cardiff and Llanelli/West Wales come at the price of not serving Swansea and Neath. But, inevitably, trains operated over the SDL need to be additional to those serving Neath and Swansea and demand take-up is likely to be thin having missed these major intermediate generators of demand. The case for electrification of the line would be weak.

The reality is that both freight and passenger services to/from West Wales can avoid the need to call into Swansea High Street and reverse without using the SDL by using the through line at Landore. This would also save some time for West Wales users and (unlike the SDL route) would retain a station call at Neath. Unless a good proposition can be identified to increase use of the SDL, with budget pressures on the national rail network, a good case could be made to close it, given its limited value. So what are the other options?

The consultation paper identifies a set of options that could make use of the Swansea District Line, which pre-Covid carried just one passenger train/day. One is the idea of a parkway station at Felindre on the SDL, seen as parkway-style station to serve the wider  Swansea area. To be effective, this facility would need, at the very least, an hourly train service. One option might be an extension of the hourly Paddington train which otherwise terminates at Cardiff, to provide some speed-up for Llanelli, Carmarthen (and possibly other locations in West Wales). But the time savings available are modest – of the order of only 10-15 minutes – over a train that calls at Neath, Swansea (reverse) and Gowerton. It is hard to see the case for a Parkway station on a route that today can only support a single train per day.

There is also a suggestion that a set of local stations could be provided on the SDL, allowing a Swansea Bay service to operate from Ammanford and Pontarddulais to the city centre at Swansea. Following the consultation document, this would reach Swansea by using an extant freight route via Llandarcy, approaching the city centre ultimately from the east, necessarily operating tramway style (for which some future provision has been made) rather than a fully segregated railway over the final section into the city centre. There are some parallels with the arrangements devised for the Cardiff Valley line metro service to serve the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.

The closure of local railway lines that could have provided useful routes from the valleys to the north into Swansea city centre is an unfortunate historic reality. Using the Swansea Direct Line to support a local Metro service requires investment to overcome this legacy. But it could be used to connect Pontarddulais (and beyond it Ammanford and Pantyffynon with a set of new stations along the Swansea District Line, as shown in the diagram below. These stations are at Penllergaer, Felindre, Morriston, Llansamlet and Llandarcy, together with two suitably located stations along the eastern seaboard approach to Swansea city centre. A park and ride facility at Felindre for local (Metro) travel could form part of this approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Consultation Paper – route from Neath Riverside/Llandarcy to Swansea (in blue) added by Greengauge 21

This would be a major scheme and the business case would rest on the availability of otherwise unused railways. To keep costs manageable, it would very likely to be necessary to stop using the District Line for any non-Metro (light rail) purposes (but as we have seen, this should be no great loss). The SDL would be removed from the National Rail network.

Tramway style stations could be well integrated with local development and avoid the very substantial costs of disabled access compliance.

Having created a new line into Swansea city centre, it is worth considering what other use could be made of it.

Connections with South East Wales

The consultation paper also identifies the possibilities of potentially linked further developments to restore rail-based passenger services that extend into SE Wales:

  • A re-instated link between Hirwaun and Cwmgwrach;
  • A new service from Cwmgwrach to Neath (this is a little used freight line currently, along the Vale of Neath); and
  • A tram-train style operation from Neath/Llandarcy to Swansea city centre.

Taken together, these three linkages could form a valuable new rail connection, improving accessibility to the former Swansea eastern docks area and opening up the scope for direct through services between Swansea, Neath, Hirwaun, Aberdare and Pontypridd. These services would share use of the new light rail route into Swansea city centre from the Swansea District Line; east of Llandarcy, they would use existing limited use freight-only lines as far as Cwmgwrach, after which point a new alignment would be needed to reach Hirwaun. Beyond this point, there would be connections into the SE Valley network, including bus links using the upgraded A465. The first section of this line (from LLandarcy through Neath) is also shown in the sketch diagram above.

The creation of some equivalent operating concepts in South East Wales, including the deployment of tram-train type vehicles, helps de-risk this proposition. Its development here would require joint planning across the two adjacent southern Welsh Metro planning regions – and there  is an obligation to do just this contained in the Future Wales 2040 plan. It would be a scheme unlikely to be prioritised by either region acting alone but could bring significant benefits looking at the two regions together.

Faster connections for West Wales

Electrification of Cardiff-Swansea may help take a few minutes out of journey times. And whether electrification needs to extend further west – say to Carmarthen – will need investigation, ultimately very likely to be determined by the range limits of battery-electric powered trains. The beneficial impacts of electrification are likely to be larger on sections of track with steep gradients (the approaches to Swansea, for example) and if older diesel units are replaced with new battery electric trainsets.

Another possibility is avoiding Swansea and Carmarthen, both of which lie off-route and can only be served with reversals, probably worthwhile only for selected trains through the day.

As demand builds over time and provided line capacity constraints don’t preclude it, Swansea could get a faster connection to Cardiff and London if the intermediate stops at Neath, Port Talbot and possibly Bridgend are omitted from the hourly GWR service. This would be complemented by an extension of the hourly Cardiff-terminating GWR London service which would call at Bridgend, Port Talbot, Neath, Llanelli, Pembury & Burry Port and Carmarthen.

Conclusions

The electrification of the Cardiff-Swansea line should be seen as a renewed priority. In conjunction with electrification of the relief lines though Newport and electrification to Bristol Temple Meads, a high quality frequent Swansea-Neath-Port Talbot-Bridgend-Cardiff-Newport-Severn Tunnel Junction-Filton Abbey Wood-Bristol Temple Meads service should be established to form the backbone of an economic prosperity arc across the Severn Estuary.

Using the Swansea District Line for a Metro service requires creates new connections and would support multiple development opportunities at a set of new local stations. Without a new connection, the east-west orientation of the line frustrates its potential role as a useful metro-style line between the Amman valley and Swansea.

Connections from the Swansea Bay area to South East Wales could be improved significantly by the re-creation of the link between Cwmgwrach and Hirwaun.

The Swansea Bay Metro could use the same technology that is being developed for tram-style operation into Cardiff Bay to provide access to Swansea city centre from key valley towns such as Pontypridd and Aberdare.

Given where passenger railways started 214 years ago, someone is bound to ask whether the light rail into Swansea city centre could be extended to Mumbles. That is a challenge we leave for others to ponder.

References 

[1] https://gov.wales/llwybr-newydd-wales-transport-strategy-2021

[2] Source: National Plan 2040 p86

[3] Its inclusion is no doubt based on its designation as diversionary route. Its regular but limited use for freight trains (oil traffic, mainly) and minimal passenger services would not otherwise justify the capital investment of electrification.

[4] Julian Worth Freight Electrification: making it happen, Modern Railways, April 2021 p75

[5] Some of these propositions are being considered in the current Union Connectivity Review

[6] Electrification would allow some journey time gains and this would apply especially if older diesel units were replaced by electric units to provide local/Metro services. This would also help get the best use out of line capacity where a mix of stopping and longer distance services operate. In this way, electrification can be seen to bring a capacity (as well as carbon and air quality) benefit


Missing Main Lines

6 April, 2021

Reconnecting communities to the national rail network by restoring closed branch railway lines is popular, with many applications to the Department for Transport’s Restore Your Railway fund. Government announced the first go-ahead on 19 March 2021 which should lead to regular services from Exeter to Okehampton later this year (ref 1).

But are there lines of regional or even national – as well as local – significance that also should be brought back into use? Main lines instead of branch lines?

In “Disconnected: Broken Links in Britain’s Rail Policy” (ref 2) authors Chris Austin and Richard Faulkner  devote a chapter to this question when they looked at missing main lines

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