Welcome to the wires!

overhead power gantry

power to move


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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6 Responses to Welcome to the wires!

  1. Rhydgaled

    Did a trip from (near) Cardigan to Swansea yesterday with three other members of the family. They weren’t too pleased at my suggestion we go via Fishguard, since driving to Whitland or Clunderwen to get a train cuts the journey time, but drive to Fishguard & Goodwick we did. The four of us joined the 09:59 train, along with at least 5 others. As it pulled in I noticed at that there was at least one passenger already on board. A slight delay to the incoming Manchester connection at Carmarthen meant reservation cards were being put out as we took our seats for the journey down to Swansea.

    For the return journey, we decided we would rather not discover how busy the 17:00ish departure (the Gloucester to Fishguard through service) was and opted to use the later service with the connection for Fishguard at Clarbeston Road. The automatic anouncement system on the class 175s concerned me a few times with their habit of not listing request stops as calling points until the previous compulsary stop. As we departed, the ‘Sardine Express’ was still remarkably busy (given that we were only boarding it at Swansea I expected it to be quiet) but I only noticed one other passenger joining the Fishguard connection at Clarbeston Road.

    Good that: the train service seems to be running smoothly and the 09:56 train had a fair few on board (though a 153 would probably have been more appropriate than the 150 that was used yesterday)
    Disapointing that: only one other person was using the late train into Fishguard, are the sardine-tin conditions out of Cardiff or the change of train at remote Clarbeston Road putting potential passengers off?
    Bad that: the only reason I could think of for using our nearest station (FGW) was to support the trial train service. Whitland and Clarbeston Road aren’t much further, so using them instead doesn’t save much car mileage either.

  2. Anthony

    There is an interesting article in the latest issue of Todays Railways UK concerning the desire among some in the WG to take more control over the wales & borders franchise namely brining it in house with a company owned by the WG operating the franchise.

    Also included a suggestion that local firms could bid to operate local services such as the Conwy valley line.

    I also spotted a paragraph about the WG wanting the wires to Milford Hvaen to benefit freight in addition to passenger services. If that did happen I would like to hope the other branches in west wales will also see the wires. Litte doubt emu’s would help boost the Pembroke Dock line improving reliability since trains would be accelerating from stations more quickly and reduce risk of delays particulary if a train is waiting at Tenby or Whitland for the single line section to be cleared.

    Linspeeds between Tenby and Pembroke if raised could reduce Whitand – Pembroke Dock journey times to 53-54 minutes which would allow trains to turn around quickly and thus eliminate the long times trains layover at Pembroke Dock.

    The sparks effect would certainly boost the west wales area and in particular the Fishguard branch. It would also allow through trains beyond Swansea to Cardiff and Bristol. Milford Haven – Swansea – Bristol service anyone?

    Plus wires to west wales would help kill off the requirement for bi-mode trains west of Swansea.

    Wire the wires expected to get to Swansea by 2018 it would make sense to continue westwards since it could be done more cheaply with the team in place.

    That said could you fit wires through the Narbeth tunnel as well as the ones at Cockett and the one on the Fishguard branch?

    • Rhydgaled

      When the wires reach Swansea, I think there are still plenty of other lines the electrification team could move on to electrify that would probably bring greater benifits than wires west of Swansea (the missing ‘neck’ of the ‘electric spine’* for example).

      If/when WAG are consulting on what happens when the current ATW franchise ends, I think the most we can hope/press for is a fleet of class 156 or class 155 units for HOWL** and Pembrokeshire to Swansea services (no more 150s west of Swansea please, unless they are only used on branch shuttles to/from Whitland/Carmarthen) along with class 158s on Pembs/Carmarthen to Cardiff services via the Swansea District Line (to maintain through services to Cardiff with everything that goes into Swansea terminiating there, except the Paddington – Pembroke Dock service).

      The so-called bi-mode Intercity requirement west of Swansea is a single daily Carmarthen service, the summer Saturday Pembroke Dock Intercity services look like remaining diesel throughout (since the only bi-modes that are likely to exist, IEP, are not being cleared into Pembrokeshire). IEP is a looming disaster, enviromentally and finantially.

      * Electric Spine is the government’s plan to provide an electrified route from Southampton to Shefield via Oxford, Bedford and Derby, but this leaves a non-electrifed gap (the ‘missing neck’) between Shefield and the East Coast Main Line.

      ** Heart Of Wales Line

      • Rhydgaled

        That said, electrification could be very benifital for the Pembroke Dock line. I’ve thought in the past that they should electrify it with 3rd rail and use the 3-CIG units withdrawn from Lymingnton shuttle duties a few years ago (one was called ‘Freshwater’, which goes with the Freshwater East/West beaches in south Pembs quite nicely), but that’s a totally unrealistic hope.

        On the other hand, if the new A477 is built even electrification might not be enough to avoid completely writing the line off as a through route. If that happens maybe we could have Tenby – Swansea rail services and a Tenby – Pembroke Dock Parry Pepole Mover shuttle, with a TrawsCambria/TrawsCymru express service running Pembroke Dock – Pembroke – Carmarthen along the new road?

  3. Anthony

    What is really needed is for work ti be done to upgrade teh Pembroke Dock branch such as raising the linspeed to cut journey times on the branch to under 55 minutes. modifying the crossings between Tenby and Pembroke Dock would certainly help this. and electrification would further help this.

    The sparks effect complete with a much improved service level between Pembroke Dock and Swansea if the wires do reach west wales would cause a sharp increase in passenger numbers. raifreight could also be improved in west wales which would help reduce pressure on the road infrastructure.

    With fuel prices rising as they are even if they upgraded the local roads I still think there will be good demand for rail services especially if electric services went beyond Swansea to Cardiff and Bristol etc

  4. Swansea Jack

    Regarding electrification of the tunnels west of Swansea – Spittal tunnel on the Fishguard line was built for double track so would be no problem for electrification, while both Cockett and Whitland tunnels similarly should prove little problem as they were constructed for double track on Brunel’s 7 foot 1/4 inch broad gauge, but may need the track lowering. Narberth tunnel however could prove a challenge, being sharply curved and a single line bore.

    It is good to see talk of electrification to Milford which would be of benefit to both passenger and the heavy oil trains but I’d suspect that any wiring that followed on from electrification of the Valley lines and the SWML to Swansea would probably be in the following order:
    1. North Wales coast line (already being actively pushed in the corridors of power)
    2. Wrexham – Bidston To tie in with the Merseyrail network and would allow through Wrexham to Central Liverpool trains)
    3. Gloucester to Severn Tunnel Jcn (along with Swindon to Gloucester / Cheltenham to build on GWML wiring and as a diversionary route for the Severn Tunnel

    The next logical route would then probably be the Marches line from Newport to Crewe, which is ATW’s busiest.

    West Wales would probably follow on from that as traffic densities are lower, and although Freight traffic adds to the justification for wires to Milford the Marches line is also a heavy freight corridor.

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