Metroland: why is South Wales facing a future of trams?

Posted: September 27, 2016 in Politics, Rail, Transport

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I’ve been following the South Wales Metro project for some time, and have been very supportive of the idea of creating an integrated public transport network in the region – this sort of thing should have happened decades ago, as was originally intended when Britain’s railways were nationalised in 1948, and should bring us in line with the other big cities of Britain.

However, recent developments have seen a move away from the original plan to add tram lines and rapid transit bus networks to the electrified Valley Lines. It seems that after post-election budget cuts to the electrification project and now our impending exit from the EU, the Welsh Assembly is moving towards converting the core Valley Lines network to light rail. Previously the only light rail conversion was expected to be the Cardiff Bay Branch, with that line being extended in the process, but this now seems to be going much further.

I have massively conflicting opinions on this. In theory, it’s a positive idea. Trams are much better at connecting urban centres with their frequent stations than heavy rail, with faster acceleration than even the modern electric trains. It is also easily extendable into new areas. The success of the trams in Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, south London and the West Midlands, and the older Tyne and Wear Metro, is evidence of how this can work; most of these systems include routes that were converted from heavy to light rail or have lines built on former heavy railway routes that were closed in the 1950s and 1960s.

By contrast, electrification of the South Wales rail network is a huge task, as it requires heavy integration which comes at an enormous cost. The bottlenecks in places like Cardiff would remain a big issue. Expansion of the rail network would be difficult, especially when it comes to building new lines on ripped-up routes, and the same goes for adding more passing loops or dualling the track. And of course the trains South Wales was due to get after electrification wouldn’t be the new ones that London and South East England are getting – they would be the ones that have been displaced from there, that are actually older than the Sprinters currently in service on the lines.

All of this is very sensible, and it’s understandable why the Assembly are subtly plugging this as the option they want to pursue, suggesting they are softening up the public before committing to it. But there are two big issues that struck me after reading this.

Firstly, a heavy rail line doesn’t just become a light rail line overnight. It’s not like it would just involve replacing the trains and voila, you have a light rail network with much better services. This aspect has been totally downplayed in the promotional work, and with good reason. Maybe I’ve got this totally wrong, but to convert a heavy rail line to a light rail line requires an enormous amount of infrastructure work, particularly to stations which would need to be adapted and where the network meets the existing heavy rail network. This is all work in addition to electrification which would still happen anyway.

The result will of course be years of disruption and line closures. The conversion process will mean the lines being totally shut down for a period to allow the work to take place, which is beyond the extent of closures for heavy rail electrification – I’m not sure people will accept this. It would also mean the destruction of a lot of the remaining historical fabric of the lines, which matters to me as a historian – some of them have been heavy rail routes since as early as the 1840s.

Reading all the material, I can’t help but think they are underestimating or at least under-representing the cost of the conversion. I can’t believe that electrification to heavy rail would actually be more expensive – that doesn’t sound right to me, because with electrification, while it requires that integration and a certain amount of major infrastructure work, doesn’t mean total remodelling of everything, retraining of all stuff, rebranding everything, all-new trams to replace the train, and closing the lines for long periods. This is especially in light of the significant investment that has been made in adapting stations like Pontypridd and Cardiff Queen Street to fit heavy rail – would all of this have to be undone within a matter of less than 10 years?

It feels like a whole new level of investment, well beyond what they claim – £600 million seems a drop in the ocean of what this ought to cost to implement, considering the latest round of Metrolink extensions (far less extensive than this) cost £1.5 billion, more than double what the Assembly are saying the SWM would cost to begin with. Have they done their sums right – and are they presenting it truthfully? Is this just the Assembly wanting to promote a flagship or vanity project to compete with England’s big cities? The Edinburgh Trams project demonstrates the risks of things going out of control financially. The time frame is also at best incredibly ambitious, if not totally pie in the sky.

Alternatively, there is the other aspect: when I read that this light rail conversion would be a cheaper alternative to heavy rail electrification, I couldn’t help but think that we are being fobbed off. Once again it feels like London, the South East and other well-off parts of England get their full heavy rail electrification and brand new revolutionary trains, while South Wales gets excluded and is just left with cheap trams. Yes, that capital investment is seemingly there initially, but long-term this is clearly meant as a budget solution. It’s not like we’re seeing the Gospel Oak-Barking line in London being converted to light rail, is it? And Crossrail is heavy rail.

It was bad enough that they were going to cascade old trains once electrification was completed. But now we’re not even going to get trains at all. Are the trams going to be brand new, or is this going to be the trams that have been sent away by the other systems? Who knows. It feels a bit cynical that they are trying to sell it to us, the Welsh public, as a better solution when this is clearly coming about because of cuts, which aren’t affecting the “more important” parts of the country.

There are definitely positive aspects to this plan. The basic principle does seem to be an improvement and future-proof. The possibility for expansion is promising, although I’m suspicious of how much will actually happen soon and the scope could be a lot more ambitious than what has been presented so far. And ultimately it is true that it doesn’t make a huge difference whether one gets on a train or a tram to get to Cardiff, as most of the network is already fairly self-contained.

But I remain very sceptical of what those proposing this are saying it means for South Wales. I want to see the details – I’m not sure what’s in them will be as popular as the claims of more frequent services and the pictures of shiny trams. So far, we haven’t been given the full picture.

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