Wales has often been the forgotten part of the UK, attracting little attention or media interest. That is well illustrated by the terrible franchise arrangement that rail services were provided under until the end of 2018. The 15 year deal which started in 2003 and won by Arriva, essentially allowed for no growth and virtually no investment. This was on top of many years in which the rail network in the country had suffered severe underinvestment.
The network is in fact hardly worthy of the name. The railways in Wales are a bizarre hotchpotch of lines which, remarkably, do not even allow for a journey between the lines in the south and those in the north without venturing across the border into the UK. Hence the name of the franchise which was Wales & Borders.
Despite the fact that the Welsh government and Assembly were created in 1999, the franchise was entirely controlled from Westminster, offering no role for the new devolved bodies. The result was nothing short of disastrous, leading to a hiatus in investment and complaints across the whole country about overcrowded services and dilapidated rolling stock. Indeed, such was the level of complaint that Arriva sheepishly withdrew from the bidding process for the new franchise when it became clear that the company had no chance of winning even though, in fairness, many of the problems were down to the design of the franchise rather than anything that the train operator had control over.
The increased focus on devolution since then, with new powers being given to Northern Ireland and Scotland, meant that there was no question that things had to change. But it has been a struggle for Welsh politicians and it was only after much pressure that responsibility for allocating the new franchise was given to the newly created Transport for Wales, a part of the Welsh government.
The result has been a far better deal for Welsh railways and a considerable amount of money being made available for investment. But there are still struggles ahead. The good news is that there is £800m allocated to new rolling stock, £200m for stations including six new ones and a further £736m to transform the valley lines, a network of half a dozen services that run up the valleys from Cardiff. Though these lines were built originally to carry coal, they are now heavily used by commuters into the Welsh capital but the service is clearly inadequate as often trains are overcrowded. In the early days of the franchising system created by privatisation in the mid 1990s, the Valley Lines were a separate franchise but were later merged into the wider Wales & Borders operation.
Now the Valley Lines are set to skip a generation of technology and become pioneers for a new type of train on the network, ‘trimodes’ – battery, diesel and overhead electric. Essentially one branch, the Rhymney line, will be equipped for heavy rail trains by 2023, and the Merthyr Tydfil, Aberdare and Treherbert lines for light rail operation by 2022. Batteries will enable all the vehicles to operate over unelectrified track. The Rhymney line trains will also continue through Cardiff, on lines which will not be electrified and hence the need for diesel on its trains. The batteries will be needed on all the trains in order to avoid having to electrify all the lines, given the problems with the large number of overbridges which contributed to the massive overspend on the electrification of the main Great Western line. So the plan is to introduce trimode trains made by Stadler which inevitably will be more expensive and less environmentally advantageous. Despite this Ken Skates, the transport minister in the Welsh government is confident that this is the best option.
The Welsh government is taking over the infrastructure of these lines, enabling the creation of an integrated operation. This has been delayed over legal and technical issues, but is due to happen early in the New Year, and that is seen as the start of a more extensive takeover by the Welsh Government.
I managed to grab half an hour with the very busy Ken Skates when I was speaking at November’s Wales National Transport Conference, and there is no disguising the scale of his ambition: ‘We are looking very closely at the Williams Review and have made a submission asking for greater devolution, and a future guarantee of funds that will ensure we can improve the railway’. In particular, he said, the Welsh Government wants to take over all the local rail infrastructure, but only ‘following a comprehensive assessment of its condition’.
It was noticeable that Skates’ speech at the conference contained quite a lot about roads despite the fact that earlier this tyear the Welsh government had made the game changing decision to scrap the £1.4bn M4 relief road, a move that has been widely welcomed by environmental campaigners across the country. I challenged him on this and he said: ‘I wanted to give a clear message that we are investing in roads, but most of what we are focussed on is about transforming the rail network.’.
The problem Skates faces is that he has to justify future investment and the rules are set against him. He told me: ‘The formula for investing has to change. The current govt has offered warm words about investment is needed for areas left behind, but there have been no change to the appraisals. We need more investment outside of places in the UK that are already well served by rail services’. The difficulty is that the ‘benefit cost’ ratio for less densely populated areas like Wales will be less good because the calculation of ‘benefits’, from the hugely complicated system called WebTAG, favours places where there are already plenty of rail passengers.
Wales, in fact, wants to use its own assessment system called WelTAG which takes into account legislation is unique to Wales, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. This law requires all public organisations to take into account the long-term effects decisions and to consider the knock-on impact in relation to the prosperity of people in Wales, its environment, culture and communities. In terms of railways, this means that investments in the railways can be made with a much longer and wider assessment of the benefits. As a result Skates argues: ‘Under our economic action plan, we are looking at funding infrastructure on the basis of a more iintelligent format, that takes into account social and demographic issues across Wales’. We could do with similar legislation throughout the UK!
South Western Trains dispute is unnecessary
At the time of writing, the first few RMT strike days of the planned 27 have just taken place on South Western Trains causing untold misery to hundreds of thousands of long suffering rail users. Speaking to both sides in the dispute, it seems bizarre that a settlement was not reached. The crux of the dispute seems – and I use that word advisedly because there are is a lot of smoke and mirrors when trying to get to the bottom of the issue – to be who precisely gives the OK for the trains to depart. The union says the guard must do so, but the train operator argues that this will cause delays of up to 20 seconds at every station, meaning it cannot stick to the timetable.
There is no doubt that South Western has made concessions, notably by agreeing to the presence of a second person on every train. The company says that this person will have, as the unions have sought, a safety critical role. Indeed, a document in which this was agreed was published on the RMT’s own website and put to the executive but rejected. The sticking point is that the union wants a ‘cast iron’ guarantee (their press releases invariably contain expressions like ‘cast iron’ and ‘rock solid’) that the guard has comtrol of the doors.
On the first day of the strike, the RMT’s Steve Hedley (Twitter profile: ‘No war but the class war! It’s either socialism or Barbarism baby! RMT educating workers to rise with our class and not out of it ‘) appeared on the Today programme but South Western did not put anyone up despite being invited to do so. That seemed remiss if the company is so convinced that it is in the right.
The view among some trade unionists is that calling a strike for 27 days in December when members need money for xmas is, as one put it to me, ‘foolhardy’. Hedley argued that 80 per cent of accidents involving passengers and doors occurred on DOO trains but since the management has conceded on the issue of a second person, this seems irrelevant. And in any case the Railway Safety and Standards Board published research three years ago which it claimed showed that safety levels are ‘as good for passengers who board and alight from trains without a guard being present as they are for those using other services’.
The truth is that the union sees this as an existential issue – but it is wrong. Unions play an important role in society and are needed to protect the vulnerable and the weak, as the RMT does well with contract cleaners. This dispute, however, risks making the union irrelevant and ultimately will do it and its members more harm than good.