Welcome to the wires!

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The coalition government is in trouble and needs to rediscover a sense of purpose. The economy is locked in recession, and more and more we feel the public spending cuts in our daily lives. Our confidence in the major institutions of our society – politicians – bankers – the media – could hardly be lower.

And in the midst of all this decline, the Prime Minister and his deputy turn to the railways to announce their confidence (and our investment) in our future. Whatever we think about Britain 2012, that is surely a sea change in the status of the railways in our lifetime. Dr Beeching, where are you now?

The news is good for Sheffield, Oxford and Southampton, but it is spectacular for Wales. Today we share with Albania the distinction of being a European country without a single mile of electric railway. By 2019, two-thirds of Wales’ population will be served by electric trains. This is a transport revolution, no exaggeration.

Of course Swansea should never have been dropped from the Coalition’s announcement of electrification to Cardiff (remember the previous Labour government had planned to bring Swansea under the wires). Of course the Valley lines, Britain’s most intensive non-electrified urban commuter network should never have been left to struggle on for decades with inefficient old diesel traction. Of course the remarkable growth of rail use in Wales, and the successful re-openings – Cardiff’s City Line, the Vale of Glamorgan line, Maesteg, Ebbw Vale and now Fishguard and Goodwick – have all been achieved on a fraction of the massive level of investment taken for granted by London’s Crossrail and England’s HS1 and HS2. We are not about to exhaust a long list of complaints.

But the fact is that from having being relegated by successive governments to a marginal place in Britain’s expanding rail-connected economy, Wales will now be fully connected. Swansea can compete with Sheffield, Cardiff with Coventry, and the head of every valley in south-east Wales can connect with our capital, helping to spread the wealth out from the small enclave of relative prosperity that is Cardiff. We say – two cheers for Welsh wires!

But we will only give three cheers when we know what the news means for the remaining one-third of Wales which will be nowhere near the wires. If Swansea rightly feared the consequences of being left out of the electric revolution, shouldn’t Carmarthen and Milford Haven now fear for their future? If two-thirds of Wales will connect seamlessly to a modern, efficient world of urban and international transport, how will our diesel-plumed west appear? Quaint, inefficient and ignorable?

Now is the time for Cardiff Bay to follow Westminster and show some vision. A former Welsh Transport Minister made a name for himself by pushing through social investment in upgraded north-south rail links (not to mention Ieuan Air, but that’s another story). He also caused a stir by announcing the revival of an obscure rural railway somewhere in the far west – for which we in Fishguard and north Pembrokeshire using the new service in growing numbers have every reason to be glad.

Welsh Government must now join the dots. Not just some, but all of the transport dots. Now is the time to build an all-Wales integrated rail-bus express network, working seamlessly to connect us all, whether by electric wires or diesel, whether by rail or road. You’ve been talking about it for years, but the reality falls lamentably short. Try travelling from Haverfordwest to Aberystwyth, or Cardigan to Swansea (if you dare). You now have time to plan the all-Wales network, as the wires push west through the Severn Tunnel, past Cardiff, past Pyle and Neath.

Don’t let London’s investment stop dead at the buffers in Swansea.


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