Lee Waters details appalling state of Wales’ train services in major speech to rail executives
Deputy Transport Minister Lee Waters has made an emotional speech to 400 rail executives in which he describes in harrowing detail the appalling current state of Wales’ train services and admits that people won’t accept improvements are going to happen until they are delivered.
Speaking at the Rail Cymru conference in Cardiff, Mr Waters confronted head-on criticism he has faced for making car journeys despite cancelling road-building plans.
He said: “Despite what you may have read I am a regular rail user, and have been all my working life. In fact last year I swapped my second car for a folding electric bike, and I’m now a regular on the train to Llanelli. I experience first hand the frustrations that rail passengers have become all too familiar with.
“I must confess, it’s a little awkward bringing up with my fellow passengers that I am in fact the Transport Minister. Because when your train is cancelled, or replaced by a bus, or overcrowded, you don’t really want to hear of the £1bn Metro that’s going to transform services in Cardiff and its valleys, or about the £800m investment in brand new trains that are running on the Rhymney line. That’s not much comfort when a two-car 150 trundles up in Llanelli, already nearly full.
“I bore myself in interviews when I say things will get better, soon. And of course they will, in large part because of the determination and dedication of all the people working really hard to keep the current trains running, and to deliver the long promised transformation. And hats off to them.
“Of course things will get better. But marketing melts in the face of the intensity of experience.”
Mr Waters paid tribute to those who run the Transport for Wales (TfW) Twitter account, saying: “They fill a void that has long existed in public transport – they tell passengers what is going on. We’ve still got a lot to do in this regard. It is a horrible, disempowering experience being a passenger when things go wrong; and the feedback is always the same: ‘we just want someone to tell us what’s happening’.
“The Twitter team do a great job. And I recommend you look at the messages they reply to every day. Here’s just a random sample from earlier this week.
“On Tuesday Debbie tweeted ‘This morning I went to get the 07.11 train from Llandaff to Queen St and it was cancelled. Standing room only on the 07.26. Told at the station that next week my train is not running at all! Waste of time buying my railcard.’
“Aly tweeted: ‘Wales wants people to ditch their cars and use public transport. 8.11 Ebbw Vale line train to Cardiff today only two carriages and rammed by the time it reached Rogerstone. Like travelling on a cattle truck. Not doing much to encourage commuters!!’
“Bille tweeted: ‘First train was cancelled, second one delayed and horribly overcrowded. Now it’s kicked us off in central instead of going to queen street. I am sick of the Barry service being such a mess everyday. I already leave over an hour earlier for work and I’m still late!’
“Now I realise that running a railway is very difficult. And that Jan at Transport for Wales, Nick at Network Rail, and the team at Amey, are working incredibly hard to improve day-to-day performance. I also appreciate that there are good reasons for all of these situations, and obviously all the people who have daily positive experiences don’t take to social media to talk about the mundane success of their daily commute. As [TfW chief executive] James Price has said, TfW’s performance has been steadily mid-table when compared with other operators around the country, and will get back there soon..
“But even so, you can’t see the photos of overcrowding, or the awful experiences people report, without acknowledging that the day-to-day reality facing many rail passengers in Wales has been pretty bleak for a while.
“It will get better. But it’s not better yet, and we should have the humility to acknowledge that.
“We are not running a railway for its own sake, we are running it to help improve people’s lives and we should never lose sight of that.
“Nobody who has travelled on the new Stadler units, or the CAF trains we’re currently testing up in north Wales, will deny they are fabulous. They are. And the more people who travel on them, the more we will be able to address the jaundice and fatigue understandably felt by passengers and staff.
“On the first day the Stadler 231’s were running on the Rhymney line, I popped on one for a short stretch to see it for myself. One of the guards told me that when the train had arrived in Bargoed that morning the passengers had waited on the platform after it had opened its doors, they just could believe this swanky new train was for them.
“On one level I thought it was comical, but also poignant. Because it tells us that after decades of underinvestment, in the dying days of British Rail, then a zero-growth franchise, our expectations are now set so low. Passengers in Wales are used to being treated as the runt of the litter when it comes to our rolling stock – always hand-me-downs. A world where even the tired old trains we got were better than the ones they replaced.”
Mr Waters said that era was at an end: “By the end of next year 95% of passengers will be travelling on newly built trains, many of them assembled right here in Wales.
“We should celebrate that, but it’s hard to visualise it now we are in the interregnum. The new is not yet born, and some of the old are dying on their feet – the recent performance of the 175s has been bitterly disappointing.
“We are working hard with CAF to get them back into service, and to keep them there, but we’ve been hit by one set-back after another. I want to pay tribute to the team at TfW who have been on heightened problem solving alert throughout, and there are encouraging signs that we’ll have the fleet back in service within the next couple of months. Fingers crossed.
“So there is a huge amount to do – across the whole industry – if we’re to rebuild that boringly reliable service James Price once talked about, and that passengers across Wales should quite rightly expect.
“If we’re serious about persuading people to choose public transport instead of the convenience and comfort of their car, we need to seriously improve the alternative.
“People want public transport to be convenient, reliable and cost effective.People will do what it is easiest to do. If we want more people to use public transport then we need to make public transport the easiest way to get around.
“When it was hard to recycle people didn’t do it, now we’ve made it easier, people do. Wales now has the third highest rate of recycling in the world because we have taken friction out of the system. We’ve made it easy. And as a result we’ve managed to cut carbon emissions from waste by 64% since 1990 – the UN’s baseline year for measuring emissions.
“By contrast in transport we’ve been focusing on making it easier and quicker to drive than to use the bus or train. And as a result transport emissions have been the slowest to fall of any sector. Despite leaps in vehicle technology emissions have fallen by just 6% since 1990.
“If we repeat that rate of progress over the next 30 years we will fail to reach Net Zero. 17% of our carbon emissions in this country come from transport, and we will not reach our overall targets unless transport plays its part in getting us onto a low carbon trajectory. And we can’t rely on technology and electrification alone, we also must achieve modal shift – the independent Committee on Climate Change is very clear about this: electric cars are necessary, but not sufficient.
“I am under no illusions about how difficult this is to do. But I am also certain that it is do-able. And we must all confront the consequences of our failing to do this.”
Mr Waters said he worried that the increasingly alarming warnings from scientists were washing over us: “The impacts of global warming are happening here and now, and unless we urgently start doing things very differently we face very real hardship.
“If we just look at this just through the narrow prism of the rail industry we get a sense of how devastating man-made climate change is proving to be. It has been nearly a decade since Network Rail published its Climate Adaptation Wales Route impact assessment which showed that 34 miles of track in Wales is already vulnerable to overtopping, coastal erosion and storm surges. The North Wales coast line is one of the most vulnerable in the UK.
“Since that report the science has hardened and the UN says that emissions are rising at the higher end of expectations.
“And that’s just one example. Droughts, species extinction, mass migration that will make the ‘small boats’ experience look trivial, and two metre sea level rises are all coming our way. Unless, we act.
“The truth is that while we have plans in Wales that will help us meet our next carbon budget, we don’t yet have a plan for the period to follow. If we are to avoid what the scientists categorise as ‘catastrophic climate change’ we must make greater cuts to our emissions in the next 10 years than we’ve managed over the whole of the last 30 years.
“The challenge is acute. And transport needs to do far, far, more if we are to meet it.”
He accused the UK Government of directing a managed decline of the railways in Wales: “Not only have they failed to invest in improving our network but they are now planning to worsen the performance of it.
“Network Rail has recently set out its asset management plans for the five year period starting next year and Wales has had the second worst settlement in the UK – with funding going down by 0.1% in cash terms at a time when costs are going up.
“The effect of this will be a managed decline of the railway in Wales.
“The programme for Network Rail’s Control Period 7 points to an increase in infrastructure failures and deteriorating assets which will result in speed restrictions, reduced reliability, more service failures, and either stagnant or worsening performance.
“It will take the rail network in 10 – 15 years to recover from this set-back.
“The only bright spot is that the CP7 settlement will deliver a very marginal gain in Wales’ on time performance, but that’s due to Welsh Government interventions – new trains, more, better trained staff and improvements to legacy fleet performance.
“At a time when the Welsh Government is investing almost £2bn to improve our railway, decisions made in Whitehall will actively undermine that progress. By forcing Network Rail to consciously plan for a 15 year decline in rail performance in Wales the UK Government is endangering our ability to meet our legally binding climate targets, and undermining their own policy of Levelling Up. It is unacceptable, and rubs salt into an already open wound.
“We already have the indignity of having just 2% of our network electrified in comparison with 40% in England. And we had to swallow a u-turn on electrification to Swansea. We shouldn’t be buying new diesel trains, but we’ve been forced to because of the UK Government’s failure to electrify.
“And to compound that, investment in High Speed 2 is being prioritised over the rail network in Wales. Worse still we will not get a penny in funding because it is classed by the Treasury in London as being a scheme that benefits the England and Wales – even though not a metre of track is in Wales, and its own business case shows a negative impact on the Welsh economy every year of around £200 million.
It’s outrageous. Now the Secretary of State for Wales justified it on the basis that because HS2 would be going to Crewe that would help passengers in north Wales. But now the leg to Crewe has been severed.
“It really is a shocker.
“Not only have the UK Government consistently short-changed Wales when it comes to investing in the rail infrastructure they have responsibility for, but by denying us a spending share of investment in England they are preventing us from delivering our own devolved responsibilities.
“It is a legitimate democratic choice for the Tory Government in Westminster to underinvest in the railway. You only have to go back to the 1980s to see that they’ve got form on that.
“But it doesn’t recognise devolution. It doesn’t account for the specific needs of people and communities in Wales, nor the historic underinvestment in our railway, or the policy direction of the elected Government of Wales.
“So, there’s a philosophical and practical misalignment at the heart of the current industry. That’s true of the operating model and, and it’s true of the rail funding arrangements for Wales.
“I don’t blame Network Rail for this. I know their team here in Wales are highly skilled and incredibly dedicated – I saw that first-hand in the aftermath of the Llangennech derailment in my own [Llanelli] constituency. But because of the way their funding settlement is allocated, and the way Network Rail’s own business units are carved up – with Wales lumped in with England – they’re operating with their hands tied behind their back, working to different, and very often conflicting, marching orders to the rest of the transport system in Wales.
“That’s now become a real problem.”
Mr Waters said the way we do rail in the UK is broken: “Just as deteriorating water quality levels symbolise the failure of the privatisation of the water industry, and the contraction of the bus network underlines the failure of privatisation of the bus industry, the folly of rail privatisation is not hard to spot. It shouldn’t be cheaper to drive to London, or fly to Edinburgh, than catch the train. It’s as plain and simple as that.
“There is no systematic plan to grow rail use across the UK. Instead we have a reactive, almost crisis-management approach, with no better example of its failure than the handing back of almost every franchise to the DfT. That is not a sign of success.
“It also presents a grim legacy for an incoming Labour Government, if we manage to secure one. The list of demands will be long and expensive, and I have no doubt that the Treasury in London will be advising a new Chancellor and Secretary of State on the challenges of properly applying the Barnett formula for HS2. And that’s why I want to see a clear commitment in the next Labour manifesto for fair funding for Wales, and the devolution of rail powers so that our democratic mandate to deliver on our climate targets can be delivered in tandem with our other powers.
“As you all know intimately the cost of all infrastructure projects have increased very significantly as a result of Covid, Brexit and inflation. This has hit our budget significantly. The Metro is now a £1bn project, and the assumptions of passenger growth, and in-turn farebox revenue, that ran through the franchise are having to be reset.
“This poses invidious choices. As a Minister my priority is modal shift, and I am mode agnostic as to how we achieve that. Something like 80% of public transport journeys are currently carried by bus but meeting the increased costs of rail limits the funding I have available to throw a lifeline to the bus sector that is facing significant cuts in routes and services.
“Our bus system is fundamentally flawed and we are seeing evidence of profound market failure. Buses are a public service and the commercial model has failed to serve very many communities, and that is why we are introducing the most far-reaching reform package of any part of the UK in our forthcoming bus Bill. Our plan is to enable One Network, One Timetable, and One Ticket.
“Finally the promise of an integrated system of rail and bus can begin to be realised. That is critical to achieve our climate targets, and of course it is part of the answer to our financial pressures because the cheapest way to run a railway is to get people to use it.
“So it is essential that we think about rail as part of a sustainable transport system. That’s something the rail industry has been reluctant to confront in the past, but it now must. Not only because scarce resources demand we demonstrate value, but because it is critical to achieving our modal shift imperatives.”
Transport behaviour change
Mr Waters concluded by saying that the Welsh Government was engaged in “the most important and ambitious transport behaviour change project ever conducted in Wales – a turn up and go railway that will give people real choice, flexibility, and freedom – turbocharging modal shift in one of the most concentrated population centres in Wales.
“That is the true scale of our aspiration for transforming transport.
“It shows what we can achieve when the levers, and the funding are in our own hands.
“And it points us towards the change we need across the whole of our railway in Wales – not just here in Cardiff and its valleys.
“We’re going through a tough time at the moment. But we are investing a significant amount of money in making it better, and the fruits of that are beginning to be seen. And we will do more. Rail is a vital part of our vision for a sustainable transport system.
“We want to give people more choices, better choices, of how they move around. That will deliver social justice, improve people’s everyday lives and build our resilience to climate change. We want to be a key enabler of prosperity – modern successful economies have modern successful public transport systems.
“That’s what we want for Wales – a country that is stronger, fairer, greener.”
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