Addressing a legacy of under-investment in Wales’ rail network

As the Welsh Affairs Committee presented their highly critical report on the current Wales and Borders rail franchise established by the Strategic Rail Authority in 2003, Ed Evans, Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Cymru, examines the Committee’s findings and looks forward to the opportunities that the Welsh Government has to transform the passenger experience when it takes over responsibility in 2018.

In Wales we’re often told that we get more than our fair share of investment through the Barnett Formula which is made to sound as if we should keep quiet and be grateful. Sometimes, though, it’s worth delving a little deeper to get closer to the reality of the situation. The rail sector is one of those areas that needs a little more scrutiny. It’s one of those areas which hasn’t been fully devolved yet (this will change if the Wales Bill is passed) and many have long held concerns that investment in Wales has been far below any Barnett consequential. Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Infrastructure and Skills, confirmed that despite having 6% of the UK’s rail routes recent investment in Wales by Network Rail has been as low as 1%. This does little to foster economic growth in Wales.

Last week the Welsh Affairs Committee produced a scathing report highlighting long-term underdevelopment in the Welsh rail network and sounded a call to secure modern rolling stock and a replacement of some of the oldest train carriages in the UK. The findings come ahead of the Welsh Government being given the power to decide the operators of the next Wales and Borders rail franchise, beginning in 2018. This process is being led by Transport for Wales.

The Committee of MPs were particularly critical of the way the current Wales and Borders rail franchise, in 2003, established a 15-year agreement which made no allowance for growth in passenger numbers and no provision for extra train capacity. This lack of vision by the Strategic Rail Authority is astounding. Since then, passenger numbers have increased by approximately 75%. Over the years, efforts and investment by the current holder of the franchise, Arriva Trains Wales, and the Welsh Government have sought to cope with the increase in demand although this has been severely hampered by the poorly constructed franchise of 2003.

The end of the current franchise brings some hope that, from 2018, rail services for passengers might improve and the next franchise presents an opportunity to bring about transformational change. But this will only happen if a number of infrastructure improvements are made, principally, electrification of the network across Wales – the mainlines in north and south as well as the Metro systems. This just goes to emphasise the interconnected nature of all our infrastructure decisions and the need for a broader strategy.

There is also an urgent need to acquire more trains, with modern facilities. The network is suffering from a lack of capacity, whilst the rolling stock has an average age of 27 years, with the oldest being 40 years old. The Committee recommended that more action be taken to acquire new trains through extending existing orders of trains and seeking existing trains where these are made available due to upgrades elsewhere. That might feel like “hand me downs” but we should grab any opportunity we can to improve our services.

To be fair, given the terms of the current franchise, the Committee acknowledged that Arriva Trains Wales have performed well in terms of both timeliness and passenger satisfaction, although the latter has recently declined as passengers have grown tired of old and cramped trains. Additional valuable services to Manchester Airport and Birmingham International Airport have also been secured and, despite some rumours to the contrary, Ministers reassured the Committee that the franchise map will not change when it is re-let.

On publishing the report Committee Chair, David TC Davies MP, commented:

“The decision to let the 2003 franchise on the basis that there would be no growth in rail usage was a huge mistake. It has meant that the investment that might have been expected has not been made, and rail users have had to endure the consequences of this. Often this has meant not being able to get a seat, or that the trains have been dirty.

“As the franchise comes up for tender in 2018 it will be the Welsh Government who will have the responsibility to ensure there are improvements. They told us that the 2018 franchise presents the opportunity for transformational change. If they are successful, then that will be to the great benefit of rail passengers in Wales. However, it must also be emphasised that the franchise will remain cross-border”.

The letting of the next franchise will follow a major change in the responsibility for franchising in Wales, with competence over the Wales and Borders Franchise set to be transferred from Westminster to the Welsh Government imminently. Once this devolution has occurred, it is essential that, given the cross-border nature of many of the services, both Welsh and UK Governments continue to work together to ensure that the best service for passengers is provided. This may also involve a protocol for English MPs to raise any of their constituent’s complaints with the Welsh Cabinet Secretary.

This report, coming hot on the heels of the Charles Hendry report into tidal power, is another timely reminder of the importance of infrastructure to our economic wellbeing and should be at the forefront of any debate by the proposed National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. It also shows the importance of both Welsh and UK Governments working together to ensure that the passenger experience is a good one, unaffected by borders.

At long last, in terms of investment in our rail services, we may be seeing a glimmer of hope that Wales is about to get its fair share.