Wales must plan its future rail network now

In the Daily Post yesterday was a story that gave me major cause for concern. It is about proposals to reinstate the rail link between Bangor and Caernarfon.

Moves to build new rail link between Bangor and Caernarfon

A new multi-million pound rail line re-connecting Caernarfon with the national rail network could be built if campaigners can prove it’s financially worthwhile.

The old line closed in 1970 and part is now a cycle track, with other stretches up for sale to householders. But re-opening the 10-mile long line – possibly along another route – is now an aim of the North Wales transport plan, drawn up by the region’s six county councils.

Gwynedd council – which looks after the track – agrees it would help ease road problems, but is now negotiating the sale of part of the old route to householders in Felinheli because nobody has presented a viable scheme for reopening the railway. Green campaigners have accused Gwynedd of harming Caernarfon’s chances of rejoining the UK rail network ...

Daily Post, 6 April 2010

The part of the story I particularly want to highlight is the proposed sale of part of the land on which the old route ran. It is short-sighted lunacy to sell land in this way, and Gwynedd Council should be severely criticized for wanting to do it. I say that in full knowledge that my own party runs Gwynedd ... but this is far more than a party political issue.

As the Daily Post report goes on to say, councils all over Wales have done exactly the same sort of thing, using the routes of old railways for roads or other forms of development. But policy has changed in recent years, and experience has shown that when old rail routes are reopened, the passenger numbers using them have been much greater than anticipated. For two concrete examples of that, we have the Ebbw Vale line in Wales and the Alloa line in Scotland. The figures for both are here. To me, this suggests that the models that we use to calculate passenger numbers, and therefore the economic viability of reinstating the routes, are still outdated, and that it should therefore be possible to reinstate rail services and rebuild old lines on a larger scale than we have done so far.


But we need to think clearly about what we want to achieve. As I see it, there are two separate goals. One goal is to put more places back on the rail network: a local goal bringing local benefits. But in my opinion the more important goal is join together the various fragments of railways we have to create a network that will make it possible to make longer journeys from one part of Wales to another by rail: a strategic goal rather than a local goal.


The map above (click it to open a larger version) shows the rail network in north west Wales. The lines in black are in operation. The two lines in red have existing track, but no rail service. The reinstatement of the branch from Llangefni to Amlwch has already been identified for reinstatement of services, which is very welcome.

The line shown in green is the existing track bed of the dismantled railway between Pont Britannia and Caernarfon, which is now used as a cycletrack. Building it will certainly provide a local benefit, especially to Caernarfon and Y Felinheli. It is a question of whether the cost/benefit ratio stacks up. However the line could also be part of a strategic link between the north coast line and the Cambrian Coast line. The old railway ran along the route shown in pink on the map.

The ideal, of course, is to meet both local and strategic goals. I'm not suggesting that we have to do both at the same time, only that we make decisions now based on the possibility of doing more in the future. It is relatively easy to reinstate the old line from Pont Britannia to Caernarfon, and in my opinion it should go through Y Felinheli so that the people who live there can benefit from a station within walking distance. It is possible to take another route, roughly along the line of the new main road, but that will mean that any station will be some distance from where people live.

But what is much more critical is that if the line is to be extended south beyond Caernarfon, there is only one route it can take. At present this is used as a road which runs under Castle Square, but I think the road can be sacrificed as Caernarfon now has a better through road. The only place where it is impossible to use the old rail alignment is where the new Morrisons store has been built. But it should be possible to divert the line slightly to run between Morrisons and the Victoria Dock development, though that will mean reconfiguring some roads.

The other thing that must be done is to ensure that we reinstate the railway between Pont Britannia and Caernarfon to normal rail rather than light rail standards. It might well be cheaper to build it to light rail standards, but that will make it impossible to use it as part of a strategic north-south rail link in the future.


However, even though I think the through route is a good idea, I believe that we can achieve a link between the north coast line and the Cambrian Coast line more effectively via Blaenau Ffestiniog. On the map above, the 8km red section south from Blaenau Ffestiniog is existing track in good condition, and it would require only 10km of brand new track to complete the link. More details are here. In contrast, the green section to Caernarfon is about 11km, and the pink section 29km, making 40km in total. Although it might well be better not to follow the old route but to shorten it as shown by the dotted blue line.


This is just an illustration of the issues as they apply to one area of Wales. There are exactly the same issues in other parts of Wales too. So in short what we need is a comprehensive review of what we would like the rail network in Wales to look like ... irrespective of cost or the ability to build it in the medium term. We simply need to identify the routes we want and then, after evaluating the routes in detail, take the necessary steps to safeguard those routes from development. We can then implement that plan in stages as and when we can afford it.

What this story shows all to clearly is that local authorities simply will not do this if left to their own devices. Most of them are so strapped for cash that it is quite understandable that they would look to sell whatever land they can for the best price they can get.

This is an evaluation that needs to be done at a national level by the Welsh Government, and done now. If we fail to do it now we may find that it is a lot harder, if not impossible, to get the rail network Wales needs ... and will need even more as the cost of motoring becomes ever more expensive, both environmentally and as the world wide demand for oil outstrips the supply.

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Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. Where's the political pressure for this strategy? I know of a similar instance of 'localism' undermining national strategy on the A470. The awful medieval stretch between Cwm-bach and Pontnewydd ar Wy is now being replaced by a 21st Century highway. Excellent! But the town itself is NOT being by-passed for minor local reasons determined by Powys CC. Where's the vision in this? Someone needs to get a grip on this issue too.

Anonymous said...

You're on the right track (excuse the pun) but my worry is that many of these new lines would run via tortuous, single-track, low speed (sub 50mph) alignments for much of their lengths. They might've been fine for the 19th century but today would struggle to compete with the car for journey times even on our primitive rural road network.

Take the Cambrian Line, with double-tracking or more passing loops between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury, it could enhance links between our larger mid Wales communities. Reopen the line through Oswestry and you could link Aberystwyth directly to Wrexham and the North West of England.

If the Marches Line were upgraded and electrified, perhaps with new "Pendolino" rolling stock, the journey times between North and South (and between the large settlements east of Offa's Dyke) could be substantially cut. Similarly for the North Wales coast line and lines to West Wales.

If the Valley Lines were electrified and rolling stock upgraded, Cardiff and the M4 Corridor would have an enviable continental "S-Bahn" comparable with some of Europe's largest and most successful city regions.

I welcome any bold strategy with regard the railways but I do believe we have a lot to get right with the existing network first.

Anonymous said...

But what of the recent experience at Wrecsam and the link to London?
I do agree, though, that it is folly to sell of old trackways as you describe happening - even if not used for a railway it would still be a valuable public tourism/recreation asset.

Anonymous said...

What would be the economic case for electrifying the Borderlands line from Wrecsam to Bidston and handing it to Merseyrail who run a first-rate operation? Although I appreciate that the destination of Lerpwl might raise the odd hackle it's a very busy corridor and we do have to live in the real world, not so?

MH said...

I don't see that good connexions to Liverpool should raise any hackles at all, Anon. Any more than good connexions to Birmingham or Manchester.

What you might be thinking about are objections to the West Cheshire/North East Wales Sub Regional Spatial Strategy, but those objections primarily centred round new estates of houses that would make NE Wales a commuter belt to the cities of NW England. I can see that transport links would facilitate that, but it is not the transport that's the problem, it's the housing.

The proposal to electrify the line and have Merseyrail run it has been around for some time. As I see it, the big question would how it is electrified, for Merseyrail uses a third rail 750V DC system. I am firmly of the view that any electrification in Wales should be to more modern standards, and be uniform across Wales. So I would oppose anything other than overhead electrification to 25kV AC.

My main reason for this is that I want to see a chord at Shotton to link this line with the north Wales line, so as to allow better links from north to mid Wales without having to go in and out of Chester. If we electrify to Merseyrail standards we effectively cut out this option.

But there is no reason why dual voltage trains should not be used to run direct services between Wrexham and Liverpool. This has been done before with London's Thameslink service, using these trains.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether dual voltage trains would be suitable for the underground sections? I imagine that the whole system would have been converted to 25kV overhead if it was not for that limitation. 750vDC may be olde-worlde but it certainly provides a top-class reliable service

MH said...

I don't see why dual voltage wouldn't be suitable for the underground sections, Anon. From memory, the Thameslink pantograph is recessed, so that when folded down it is no higher than the roof.

As for the third rail system, I too don't think there's anything so wrong with it that would justify it being replaced where it already exists. I just don't think it's a good idea to newly electrify an existing line with an old system rather than a new one.

When we electrify the north Wales line and the line down through Shrewsbury and Hereford, it will certainly be to 25kV overhead standard, and I want to see the section from Shotton to Wrexham used as an option on a route between north and south Wales.

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