Re-opening rail lines

There is an article in the Scotland section of the BBC website about the successful re-opening of a disused branch line from Stirling to Alloa.

More than twice the number of commuters are using the new Alloa rail link than predicted, latest figures from Transport Scotland have revealed. The 13-mile stretch of track is marking its first year in operation since being re-opened after a break of 40 years.

Since May 2008, more than 400,000 passengers have used the service, far in excess of the 155,000 predicted.

BBC, 15 May 2009

This of course mirrors our own experience in Wales, where virtually exactly the same thing happened after the re-opening of the Ebbw Vale line. This was the story after the first four months:

More than 200,000 passengers used the Ebbw Valley rail line in its first four months - smashing Assembly targets for the number of people set to use it.

The service was used by 201,000 passengers up to mid-June, 50,000 passengers more than the National Assembly projected would use the service in the entire first year. Assembly figures projected the demand for the service would be 150,000 in the first year, rising to 453,000 after four years.

South Wales Argus, 17 July 2008

And this was the story after the first year:

The revived Ebbw Valley railway line celebrated its first birthday last week.

The £30million project, which saw the reopening of 18 miles of existing freight track to provide hourly passenger services from Ebbw Vale to Cardiff, reopened on February 6 2008, when the first train departed from Ebbw Vale Parkway at 6.40am.

Since then the service has proved highly popular, exceeding user expectations with 573,442 journeys in the first 12 months.

South Wales Argus, 10 Feb 2009

There's a lesson to be learnt here. Neither the Welsh nor the Scottish Government invented figures out of thin air. They made decisions on the advice given to them by civil servants and outside consultants. If these figures had been so wildly out just once it might be explained by unique circumstances, but when the same thing happens twice it strongly suggests that the models being used to predict rail use are inadequate.

There are at least half a dozen other opportunities to re-open old sections of track in Wales. The cost is usually quite minimal because the major civil engineering works such as cuttings and embankments are still there.

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Pound for pound, it is much more cost effective to be looking to re-open closed sections of railway. We need the boldness of vision to look further ahead than we currently are. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:

The new Ebbw Vale service has a limited capacity due to the decision to make it single track. At present the service runs from Ebbw Vale to Cardiff because the signalling upgrade work necessary to run a direct service to Newport (the responsibility of Network Rail) has not yet been done. But when that has been completed, the capacity of the new line will not be enough to run a full service to both Newport and Cardiff - just half the current service to each.

To dual that track or provide passing loops from Cross Keys to Llanhilleth would now cost about £11m. But if it had been done before they started running trains on it, it would only have cost £1.5m. The huge difference in cost is explained by the fact that it is far harder to build new track alongside an already operating railway.

We can see exactly the same thing on the Merthyr to Cardiff line. Only yesterday the rail service between Merthyr and Cardiff started operating a half hourly service, where previously there had only been an hourly one.

Merthyr-Cardiff trains increase

But this was only made possible at a cost of £19m, most of which was accounted for by the difficulties of improving an already operating line.

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Now I'm not for one moment suggesting that we don't do such upgrades. Of course we must do them ... but we must do a lot more. The main point I'm making is that we mustn't let these very necessary upgrades divert our attention from the task of creating a much more integrated rail network in Wales ... in particular, one that joins up the broken ends of the lines we have in order to re-create new rail links between North and South Wales.

This is something that requires a political lead because it is not part of Network Rail's remit to consider anything other than the stretches of railway that currently exist. Their Route Utilization Strategy for Wales doesn't even address the issue. It is up to us to put these things on the agenda.

Things are different in Scotland. In addition to the Alloa line they are undertaking two other similar projects. The Ardrie/Bathgate link, which will provide another rail route between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the Waverley Line, which has the potential to extend to Carlisle.

If Scotland can do it, why can't we?

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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post ... another reason why Plaid politicians should listen to anything the civil service tells them with a pinch of salt - no a bag of salt.

Now, for reopening lines down the Tawe Valley into Swansea, Aberystwyth to Carmarthen and Brecon to Merthyr.

Where's the money to come from? Out of Health of course - we've got to invest for the future and not be brow-beaten by a health service which is a massive black hole. A spend every ear of £40m on rail could radically change Wales for the better - it would barely be noticed if taken out of Health.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...

Good post - the key thing is about genuine connectivity with a net benefit. Exactly the reason why trying to produce articificial north/south links is so misguided.

MH said...

To Anon: I'm not sure I'd target health as a budget to take money from. I'd prefer it was taken from the pot that was going to be used to build a parallel M4 on the Gwent Levels.

To STH: Help me here, please. What do you mean by "artificial" north/south links? What's the difference between artificial and justified north/south links?

Anonymous said...

STH is Huw Lewis' glove puppet.

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