Monday, March 12, 2012
MAKING THE CASE FOR ELECTRIFICATION OF RAILWAYS IN SOUTH WALES
I am sure it will have been a massive disappointment that Cardiff was not chosen as the site for the UK Government’s £3 billion Green Investment Bank.
Given the worries by Westminster politicians over the independence vote in Scotland, the choice of Edinburgh as the site of the bank’s new headquarters was not much of a surprise, especially as the Scottish capital is already a major financial centre.
However, the real prize for South Wales from the UK Government is still out there, namely securing funding from the Department for Transport funding for the electrification of railways. Already, business cases have been prepared by the Welsh Government and submitted to the Department for Transport.
One focuses on the extension of the electrification of the Great Western main Line to Swansea, whilst the other on the entire valley line network, including lines to Ebbw Vale, Maesteg and the Vale of Glamorgan as well as the core valley lines north of Cardiff.
Both projects are equally important. The first in ensuring that the second city in Wales has a fast transport link to one of the World’s major cities, thus opening West Wales to potential investment, and the second in regenerating the South Wales Valleys and enabling efficient commuting to Cardiff.
Indeed, given the billions of pounds spent on trying to regenerate the poorest parts of Wales in the last decade, it is likely to be a transport project that brings workers to jobs, rather than the other way round, which is likely to have the biggest impact on the future prosperity of some of our poorest communities.
In fact, one can only applaud the current Welsh Government for finally supporting the development of a city region of 1.4 million people around Cardiff. But if it is to succeed as a modern European city, then it has to have a modern transport infrastructure to support any future development.
Given the changes that have occurred in Cardiff since devolution, it is incredible to think that there has been no major project in the capital city of Wales since 1995, when the last section of the section of road from Culverhouse Cross to Cardiff Bay was opened.
In addition, the development of a strong financial services sector in the city based on a new enterprise zone, which is the aim of both Cardiff Council and the Welsh Government, could see tens of thousands of extra jobs created in this sector alone by 2020. Yet, without a coherent strategic approach to transport, the revitalisation of Cardiff and much of South Wales is likely to be undermined.
And it is no longer acceptable that our capital city remains at the European average in terms of connectivity by road and rail when it is trying to position itself as a competitive international centre.
In fact, Mark Barry, in his excellent paper for the Cardiff Business Partnership - A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region, hit the nail squarely on the head by stating that whilst a good transport infrastructure does not guarantee economic success, it is also true that economic success can only occur where there is a good transport infrastructure.
So, ensuring the success of the electrification of the Valley Line Network and the main line to Swansea is critical, as any negative decision will mean that it will probably be decades until a similar case can be made successfully, ensuring that Wales will continue to bump along the bottom of the UK’s prosperity league table.
I have been reliably informed that the business case prepared for both projects by Welsh Government officials has been thorough and professional and should stand up against other projects from other parts of the UK that are also looking for funding.
However, things are never that simple, especially when there is strong lobbying for rail schemes in and around Manchester and the Midland Mainline Electrification. And whilst some may think that Wales ‘deserves’ the funding, others will be making the same case for their regions.
Given this, it is vital that we adopt a strong “Team Wales” approach to this, which not only involves politicians from all parties in the National Assembly, but also businesses in the region and local authorities. But most importantly, the Welsh Government needs to put aside any political differences it may have and work closely with the Wales Office to ensure there is a strong voice for both transport projects within the corridors of Whitehall.
The stakes are far too high for petty political point scoring and if this opportunity is missed because of an inability to work together for the benefit of our economy, then it will be Wales that will be the poorer for it.