The South East Wales Transport Commission (SEWTC) report published this week had a brief from the Welsh Government to find solutions (many previously highlighted in this column) to peak-period traffic congestion on the M4 around Newport and Cardiff – morning, evening and major events. Removing 20% of traffic is required and the report shows this to be achievable.
The building of a new M4 was not included for both environmental and cost reasons.
The proposals are in Yes Minister parlance “cheap, quick, popular” – affordable (at up to £800m over seven to 10 years), achievable and effective.
Research shows that construction of easy, at grade interchanges giving better integration of bus and rail services enhanced through multi-use tickets (as with the Netherlands’ Chipkaart and London’s Oyster card), joined-up timetables, service frequency and reduced, predictable journey times encourage a switch to public transport.
The proposed new South Wales Main Line commuter stations (eg Magor, Llanwern, Tredegar Park, Maindee and St Mellons) enable short-distance walking and cycling.
However, to reduce peak-period M4 traffic, these have to be easily accessible from motorway junctions and have adequate parking capacity to attract car-users.
Network Rail’s good relationship with Transport for Wales augers well for such developments.
In parallel, bus rapid transit systems are considerably cheaper than rail schemes. However, to achieve regional co-ordination, the current discredited, deregulated bus services market has to be reformed, as suggested in the SEWTC report, in this column and by Lee Waters, the deputy minister for transport.
The Union Transport Connectivity Review led by Sir Peter Hendy has a wider brief to examine links between Wales and other parts of the UK in terms of quality and reliability of major connections; the expected future demand for transport links; and the benefits for economic growth from the internal UK market once we leave the European Union.
In south-east Wales there is common ground with the SEWTC report along the M4 corridor. We shall see whether the outputs agree or not.
The devolution context then comes into play.
Major roads and motorways in Wales are the responsibility of the Welsh Government, which would like to extend its recent takeover of train operations in Wales and part of the rail track network in the Cardiff valleys to all rail infrastructure, thus enabling itself to make financial investment allocation between transport modes.
Currently, rail investment responsibility is through the UK Government funding Network Rail, of which Sir Peter is chairman.
This may take his proposals towards rail connectivity solutions for Wales and extend them beyond south-east Wales.
The electrification of the North Wales Main Line, under discussion for 40 years, would bring economic benefits as HS2 train services could operate along its length, thus improving internal UK connectivity and links to Ireland – another of the Hendy study’s objectives – through Holyhead, Britain’s second-biggest ro-ro port.
Increased capacity on the Cambrian Line and the Heart of Wales Line from Shrewsbury (in England) to Aberystwyth or Llanelli would encourage an environmentally preferred route for those wishing to enjoy mid Wales’ leisure attractions and hospitality sector – and 15% of Wales’ workforce.
The original London to Swansea electrification evaluation fits into Boris Johnson’s Union connectivity context and the benefit-cost ratio was high. With Chancellor Rishi Sunak saying BCR is no longer the prime criterion, there is even greater argument for straightening and electrifying the South Wales Main Line to Swansea and westwards.
The Marcher (Newport-Chester) line operates in and out of Wales and England’s porous border. Thus, Mr Johnson should regard this as the epitome of his inter-nation connectivity investment programme.
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There are many transport investment opportunities which are currently a Westminster Government responsibility and within its investment portfolio. Building the M4 south of Newport is not one of them.
Mr Johnson is welcome to invest that £1.6bn in Wales’ railway network. This column suggests passing that money to the Welsh Government, possibly with a one-off caveat to spend it, of course, on TfW transport schemes. Doing so, Mr Johnson would not then step into areas which are no concern of his.
The more evidence available to make strategic decisions, the better the result. As expected, the quality of the SWETC report was, and the Hendy report will be, well thought-out and relevant, having worked with Professor Peter Jones, Elaine Seagriff (a former student), Lynn Sloman and Sir Peter Hendy.
The challenge for Welsh ministers will be to use the evidence to determine their final investment programme.
Professor Stuart Cole CBE is Emeritus Professor of Transport (Economics and Policy), University of South Wales