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‘Wales not getting a fair share of rail investment’ says transport expert

10 Feb 2021 5 minutes Read
Transport for Wales train. Picture by Jeremy Segrott (CC BY 2.0).

A transport expert has said that Wales is not getting a fair share of rail investment.

Mark Barry, Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University, told MPs at the Welsh Affairs Committee that there had been a “disproportionate” focus on investing in London and the south-east of England by the UK Government’s Department of Transport (DfT).

According to Professor Barry, Wales has “suffered” from a lack of investment because of this, and he said that the answer to the problem was to move control over it to the Welsh Government.

He pointed out that the Welsh Government is already responsible for the rail subsidy, but does not have control over “investment in the underlying infrastructure”, a situation that he described as “bizarre” and added that “you would never run a private business that way”.

Professor Barry said: “The sad fact is that over probably the last 30 years, Wales’s rail network has not received an adequate share of overall UK investment to enhance the rail network and, as a result, it is more constrained, it carries fewer people less efficiently.

“That is a contributing factor to maybe higher subsidies per passenger.

“There are some good signs emerging with some of the projects ongoing but there is a huge deficit, in my view, in the kind of investment required to create a more sustainable railway and something that is more attractive to passengers and is more affordable and cost-effective to operate.

“If you look at the railways through a London telescope, it may look as though there is massive investment going in.

“But the plain fact is if you look at the next 10 years of enhancement spending, I worked it out at about £50 billion-plus, potentially, across the United Kingdom.

“The UK Government have responsibility for the Welsh rail network, and it is about £350 million in Wales, so I don’t get that shared sense of enthusiasm.

“The bizarre situation in Wales is that the Welsh Government, via the Wales and Borders franchise, are responsible for the subsidy but are not responsible for the investment in the underlying infrastructure, the condition of which ultimately affects the operational efficiency of the rail service and therefore the subsidy.

“You would never run a private business that way, where you say, ‘You are responsible for the costs at the customer-facing end, and we are responsible for the underpinning capital investment.'”

‘Priorities’ 

He added: “While I think people recognise the importance of rail, I do not fully recognise the DfT’s and the UK Government’s acceptance or knowledge of what the priorities are in Wales. I think in Wales we are getting much clearer on the strategic priorities.

“What we lack, unlike in Scotland, is the responsibility to discharge the investment against the priorities that we have been developing, and I have been involved in it for the last four years. I am less rosy in my view of that shared vision, to be honest.

“I was privy to a review of something called the passenger demand forecasting handbook, which is what the DfT uses with the sanction of the Treasury to project the demand for new investments.

“I think there was a look back at 1996 through to 2017 to see how the actual growth in passengers compared with the original estimates.

“It was found that schemes in London and the south-east overestimated the demand by 50 per cent, and outside London and the south-east they underestimated demand by 50 per cent.

“That has meant that, over 30 years, there has been a disproportionate allocation of available enhancement spending to London and the south-east. Wales has suffered, but other parts of the UK not on the big shiny investment conveyor belt have also suffered.

“Look at south-west England, for example. There is a systemic problem, an issue I think, in the way in which we appraise transport projects, particularly rail and how that is discharged.”

‘Frankly unacceptable’ 

He continued: “Devolution was voted for in 1997, and that we are still discussing this on railways 30 years later—or whatever it is—is frankly unacceptable.

“There are good reasons for bringing things together. Having operations and infrastructure separated is not efficient, so bring them together.

“I also agree that you need to make Welsh Government accountable for decisions in a holistic way, responsible for spending decisions so they can decide whether to invest in roads or something else.

“I would argue very strongly that Welsh Government, to their credit, took on board the south Wales Metro project after the DfT stepped back from electrification.

“Even though it was not devolved, they stepped into that space and made something happen that I do not think would have happened without the Welsh Government doing it.

“They have demonstrated their capability. They have just created an organisation called Transport for Wales, imperfect, still learning, but what an incredible achievement in five years to have undertaken the biggest, most complicated procurement in rail industry history in Wales and now delivering an innovative rail solution.

“They know and have the capability to take on this responsibility. Frankly, why we are still even debating it? I am flabbergasted. They need to be given the responsibility.”

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