Why the West Wales Line might not be a pipedream

Posted: April 19, 2016 in Politics, Rail, Transport


Rail reopenings are unambiguously seen as a positive thing, and rightly so. Any large-scale spending on public transport at a time when traffic rates continue to grow and there are increasing concerns about the local and global environment can only be a progressive move. Adding to this is the fact that while openings and reopenings have become increasingly common, at least as far as stations are concerned, they are still relatively rare and concentrated on certain areas – London and Scotland, two areas that have prioritised rail transport over the last couple of decades, have done more than most.

Wales has also done a considerable amount…in the south. Railway lines to Aberdare, Maesteg, the Vale of Glamorgan and Ebbw Vale, and the City Line in west Cardiff, have been opened to passengers since the 1980s, mostly reversing cuts from the 1950s and 1960s and seeing considerable success. A series of stations were also reopened on the South Wales Main Line between Cardiff and Swansea in the 1990s, although the SwanLine service that was meant to serve them didn’t quite live up to the billing.

South Wales will also see electrification in the next few years, and there are the possibilities of more reopenings – Aberdare to Hirwaun, Ystrad Mynach to Bedlinog, Cardiff to Beddau (via two potential routes) and the Ebbw Valley Line to Abertillery are all on the agenda, as well as several other stand-alone stations, although progress remains relatively slow.

However, it’s a different story for the remaining half of the population that doesn’t live in the south. The Mid and West Wales railway network was decimated during the period of cuts from the 1950s onwards, and while North Wales managed to retain its main trunk routes and a couple of branch lines, it didn’t fair much better. This isn’t to say South Wales didn’t also lose a vast amount of its network, but the skeleton it was left with provided a little more in the way of services – and it’s been added to since.

It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of resentment towards the south in these areas. For one the south has a good transport infrastructure that has been possible due to considerable investment. Any investment in the rural areas of Wales is usually qualified with the justification of “improving north-south links”, which must leave people in those areas thinking that they are largely irrelevant.

Mid Wales does at least have a railway line running through it, although the Heart of Wales Line service is minimal and a far cry from its heyday as the Central Wales Line, the main trunk route into Wales of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). A bit further north, the Cambrian Line has at least had some investment in recent years with conversion to a new modern signalling system, but services are still relatively infrequent. But lost was the Mid Wales Railway, linking the Cambrian to South Wales via the towns of Rhayader, Builth Wells and Brecon, all now isolated from the network.

North Wales has the North Wales Coast Line to Holyhead, the Conwy Valley Line between Llandudno and Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the Borderlands Line from Wrexham to Bidston just over the border on Merseyside. But it lost three important cross-country routes: the line connecting Bangor with the Cambrian near Criccieth via Caernarfon, the line connecting Ruabon on the Marches Line with the Cambrian near Barmouth via Llangollen, Bala and Dolgellau, and the branch from that line from Corwen to Rhyl via Ruthin, Denbigh and St Asaph.

But perhaps worst affected were the towns and villages of West Wales. There is no railway line north of Carmarthen (a few miles from the coast) until you get halfway up the country – say, as far as Aberystwyth.

Conwil station (Cynwyl Elfed) in better days; the top picture is its more recent state

This was another legacy of the 1960s. There once was a railway which linked those two towns, although it was never originally intended as such. The Manchester and Milford Railway was a highly ambitious scheme to link the industrial north of England with a new port at Milford Haven, with vast quantities of freight expected. Trains from Lancashire would head south on a line which left the Mid Wales Railway near Llanidloes, ploughed through the wilds of Montgomeryshire and Cardiganshire before reaching the line between Carmarthen and Newcastle Emlyn at Pencader.

Like the elites who divided up Africa between the European empires, so must the speculators behind the “M and M” have just decided to base their entire plan around lines they had drawn on a map. There was a good reason nobody had built a railway through that part of Wales – there were no major settlements and the mass of the Cambrian Mountains were in the way. The company began building railways from opposite ends. The western end got as far as the junction for what was planned to be a branch down the Ystwyth Valley to Aberystwyth – the station, which served the village of Ystrad Meurig, was given the exotic name Strata Florida after a nearby ruined abbey.

However, the eastern end never met up with it. A 1.5-mile branch from Penpontbren Junction near Llanidloes to the village of Llangurig was completed and one train ran on it, before being abandoned – Britain’s shortest-lived railway line. Any hopes of tunnelling through Plynlimon to Devil’s Bridge, Ysbyty Ystwyth and Strata Florida disappeared when the company ran out of money.

So the line to Aberystwyth became the only through route, with the line to Newcastle Emlyn becoming the branch line, along with a further branch to the coastal village of Aberaeron. Though in theory it was meant to be a main line, it was essentially built like a rural branch line, meandering through the countryside between a series of small towns and villages. The only town of significance on the route was Lampeter.

The two branches were early casualties of the 1950s, and by 1965 the line had closed to passengers, with freight traffic surviving a few more years on the southern section. It was survived by the Vale of Rheidol Railway, a narrow gauge railway which did actually make it to Devil’s Bridge, and took the Carmarthen line’s place in Aberystwyth station after it closed.

The truth is this was a rural railway line which was a quirk of historical fate and was never likely to make any money, inevitably leading to its demise. But at the same time, it was the only railway through the heart of West Wales, and in the last couple of years, its absence has become symbolic of the lack of public transport in the area.


Traws Link Cymru and Railfuture are among the groups campaigning for a North-South Rail Link

A pressure group called Traws Link Cymru are campaigning for the reconstruction of the line, claiming it could be Wales’ equivalent of the Borders Railway in Scotland. The group have gained a certain amount of political support, to the point where Plaid Cymru have stated in their manifesto for the 2016 Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) elections that they aspire to rebuild the line as part of a link between South and North Wales, and even Transport Minister Edwina Hart stated her enthusiasm for the prject. Gaining credibility from those that run the country doesn’t seem to be an issue.

Gaining credibility from the Welsh public, on the other hand, might be tougher. A study commissioned by Hart on behalf of the WAG, published in September 2015, found that the line would cost an estimated £750 million to build, including land acquisition. Though 97% of the trackbed is intact, there are some small sections where it is built on, including crucial sections at either end of the line. The study suggested that a new route into Aberystwyth station would be needed, diverting away from the scenic coastal route due to several buildings being built on the formation, and that this would require a vastly expensive tunnel under the hills at Penparcau. It also suggested that the Gwili Railway, a heritage line running north of Carmarthen on the old line, would be reluctant to give up their route, thus necessitating the addition of a second track alongside (considered difficult) or a possible alternative route.

£750 million. That’s more than double what the Borders Railway cost to build. And the Borders Railway was a former main line route for which had there had been considerable pressure for many years, and which has already been a huge success. The Carmarthen-Aberystwyth Line doesn’t pass through a town with a population larger than 4,000, and even those two towns aren’t really massive draws. Route timing estimates peg a journey time between the two main towns at about 90 minutes, with services possibly continuing to Swansea and/or Cardiff.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, the numbers don’t seem to add up. In this time of austerity, when it has been hard to gain approval for rail infrastructure projects that are desperately needed, this seems like a vanity project, an unnecessary fashion statement. The money would be better being diverted to commuter projects like the lines to Hirwaun and Beddau.

7810 Draycott Manor at Pencader, the junction for the line to Newcastle Emlyn

And yet…that is the point. West Wales has not received any major investment. The M4 stops just beyond Swansea. The roads north of Carmarthen are long and winding. The bus services are irregular and take hours to get from A to B. It’s virtually impossible to get to the major cities of Wales without a car from these areas, and why should people have to have a car?

We live in a post-Beeching age with a post-Beeching discourse: railways have to be financially viable in the here and now, otherwise there’s no point wasting money. But that’s not what railways were all about. British Railways wasn’t created to make the government money. It was there to help the railways become a social provision within an integrated transport network, a huge part of the post-war socialist vision the Labour government under Clement Attlee had for the whole country – and I mean the whole country, not just the big cities and a series of towns around it that were meant to funnel towards it, as most transport policy seems to be at the moment.

The ultimate victory of Beeching and the Conservative government of the 1960s that employed him was the death of this idea that public transport was something worth subsidising. Thus, an idea like reopening the line through West Wales will inevitably be dismissed by most as “pie in the sky”, because it’s never likely to make any money. Even arguments that reopening railway lines and stations can generate unexpected traffic (as in Ebbw Vale or the Scottish Borders), or that it can help regenerate an area long term, get shot down, because “there’s no money for it”.

But there may be a way around this. As stated earlier, this project has political credibility. The reason is another quirk of fate – it mostly runs through the constituency of Ceredigion, a traditional Plaid Cymru-Lib Dem battleground. Of course Plaid will ally themselves with a project like this – they can exploit it for political capital; they have done likewise with the project to turn the Rhondda Tunnel into a cycleway.

This is not a new thing. Several railway lines, including the Heart of Wales Line, avoided the Beeching Axe because they ran through marginal constituencies, and the local campaigns were able to exert pressure. The closures of the 1960s were always very fickle in this way. Undoubtedly reopenings will benefit in a similar manner.

£750 million is a lot to spend on safeguarding votes, but with the polls indicating a hung parliament after the upcoming WAG election, a pressure group like Traws Link Cymru, who also want the link from the Cambrian to Bangor reopened, can have significant influence if they have the backing of local people. At the moment, to get from North Wales to South Wales, you have to cross the border into England, and that has symbolic significance, especially in areas of nationalist support like North and West Wales.

Sure, this project has “white elephant” written all over it. It’s hard to see how it can be a significant success. It’s unlikely to make Tregaron a dormitory village for Carmarthen, and tourism can only count for so much. But is that what this is actually about?

There’s a huge blank space in the railway map of Wales in the west. A lot of people live in that blank space. This isn’t to say South Wales has had enough investment, but it’s time the rest of the country was linked back into the national rail infrastructure. Perhaps there are more cost-effective ways of kick-starting the regional economy, but rebuilding this railway line would be a real statement move by the Welsh Assembly, and it might yet happen.

The end of the line (for now): Carmarthen station, towards the former route to Aberystwyth

All photos used in the spirit of fair use.

  1. […] only time a reopening project through a sparsely-populated area has had any traction has been the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth campaign, which seems to be being taken along as a political and nationalist project rather than because it […]

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