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Opinion

Why Wales now needs a campaign movement to demand powers over rail infrastructure

26 Jul 2022 6 minute read
The new Stadler FLIRT. Picture by Transport for Wales. Right, a Google Map of Wales.

Ifan Morgan Jones

I don’t need to tell anyone who has spent any time in Wales that the public transport network here is almost farcically bad.

The oft-cited example of course is the complete lack of any rail network connecting the north and south of Wales, meaning that you have to leave the country in order to cross it.

But even the connections between our largest cities areas, Cardiff and Swansea, are slow, unreliable and creaky – denied basic investment such as electrification.

This has always been a problem but is about to become a much bigger one, because we are fast approaching the point where a functioning public transport system is no longer something that would be nice to have, but a necessity.

Rising fuel costs are going to make private cars less and less of an economically viable option.

At the same time, we now need to tackle climate change head-on and that means getting people out of their cars and into trains and buses.

Investment in Wales’ infrastructure is also essential if the country’s economy is going to develop.

Contrary to the UK Government’s mantra of ‘levelling up’ Wales is actually falling further behind the rest of the UK – especially those parts of the UK that do enjoy significant transport investment, London and SE England.

If Wales wants to escape its post-industrial state of being little but an economic backwater on the outer periphery of one of the world’s richest city-states then investment in transport infrastructure is crucial.

Unfortunately, under the status quo – where decisions over where to invest this money are locked into Westminster – there is simply no hope of any of this happening.

Denied

Currently, the Welsh Government is responsible for rail services in Wales, but not the rail infrastructure itself.

This means that the Welsh Government can pour some of its own money into projects – like the South Wales Metro – but we depend on Westminster for the bulk of the investment.

There’s nothing stopping the Welsh Government from discussing and planning for exciting new options such as a rail link between the north and south of Wales. But in practice to actually get any of them built it would have to get out the begging bowl and go to Westminster.

And that’s a problem because the UK Government simply hasn’t delivered that investment.

Professor Mark Barry of Cardiff University estimated this week that England is receiving 200 times as much rail investment as Wales, despite only having 10 times the rail route and 20 times the population. ‘Staggering and completely undefendable’ was his rather polite description of the situation.

This has happened partly because the UK Government classes HS2 and other projects as ‘England and Wales’ meaning that Wales will not benefit in the same way as Scotland and Northern Ireland from additional rail funding.

There is no good reason to class these projects as ‘England and Wales’ because not a metre of their tracks pass through Wales. The railway will no doubt be of some use to Welsh people. But I sometimes use of New York underground and that’s no argument for designating it a New York and Wales project.

This is quite simply a decision by the UK Government to deny Wales proper transfer investment, and it’s a decision they seem entirely comfortable with.

If rail infrastructure were to be devolved, then Wales would automatically get its fair share of the funding under the Barnett formula. A Cardiff University report found that Wales would have received an extra £514m investment in its rail infrastructure between 2011-12 and 2019-20 alone.

Even the Welsh Conservatives agree that the current situation is unfair. While they reject any more devolution, have now called openly for Wales to receive “its fair share” of HS2 funding.

Two workers laying new rails for the South Wales Metro north of Radyr. Picture by Alex Seabrook

Protest

It’s arguable therefore that this isn’t a contested issue within Wales – there is agreement across the mainstream political spectrum that Wales is being shafted. It’s a cross-party issue.

But while everyone now thinks Wales should get its proper share of investment, while the UK Government doesn’t agree, we aren’t getting it, and there is no prospect of us getting it. Ever.

All the Welsh Government and other parties in Cardiff Bay can do is ask politely. All experts on public transport in the media and academia can do is pen articles such as these or blogs decrying the terrible state of our railways.

The UK Government, ideologically opposed to any sort of devolution, will remain unmoved.

The only thing that will do the job of changing the UK Government minister’s minds is some sort of campaign of public protest.

Since the dawn of devolution, the kind of protest movements seen during the late 50s to early 90s seem to have dwindled.

The feeling perhaps has been that with ministers now more accessible and sympathetic to the needs of Wales there is less of a need for the kind of non-violent campaigning seen pre-devolution.

But in the case of devolving the power over rail infrastructure to Wales, we may have little choice, as the Welsh Government and Senedd’s pleas are falling on deaf ears within the UK Government.

The only reason the UK Government would grant any further devolution to Wales is that not handing those powers over would become more of a political headache than doing so.

The closest comparison would be something like the establishment of S4C under the Thatcher government in the early 1980s.

The UK Government clearly did not want to create S4C. They promised the channel and then u-turned once again on delivering it.

It was only a sustained non-violent campaign by Cymdeithas yr Iaith – including, eventually, a threat by Plaid Cymru President Gwynfor Evans to go on hunger strike – that ultimately delivered it.

In the end, it became politically more painful for the UK Government not to deliver S4C than it was to deliver it.

‘Only by revolutionary means will we succeed’ said Saunders Lewis at the start of the campaign for Welsh language powers.

To get the wheels of Wales’ public transport infrastructure turning, a similar mindset may well be needed.


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Dail y Goeden
Dail y Goeden
4 months ago

(1) History: “The only reason the UK Government would grant any further devolution to Wales is that not handing those powers over would become more of a political headache than doing so.” -> Look to the 16th Century: William Morgan and the Bible translators were able to do their magnificent work (and save the language, etc…..) because they were in a setting where the alternative looked (from Protestant London) to be seriously worse…

Dail y Goeden
Dail y Goeden
4 months ago

(2) Present day: I’ve worked in the NHS for many years. One thing I do, several times a month, is to complete reports, for the Dept of Heath & Social Security (or whatever it’s now called…) on the health status of patients, to help allow the government department decide on financing benefits. One of the questions at the end of these forms is “Is this patient able to travel to an assessment centre for face-to-face assessment if required?” My standard answer to this question, even for citizens able to walk a few hundred yards without discomfort, often includes “No –… Read more »

Gareth
Gareth
4 months ago

We must be in a bad way on the railways for A R T Davies and the antWales party to call for funding.Their default position is not to say anything, or send money back, as per John Redwood. Westminster leave us to improve our lot by giving something to us, as they say in London ” Youre ‘ avin a larf” write as many letters and ask as nicely as you can, it will not happen, we must take it or get nasty.

Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones
4 months ago

Public Transprot Infrastructure (i.e trains, lots of them, trams and more energy-efficient buses that belong to the PEOPLE in Cymru and NOT Arriva and all of the other scabby pirates are absolutely essential for personal freedom, commerce and democracy itself.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
4 months ago

We need a good lawyer like Jolyon Maugham of Good Law Project fame…I used to have a good lawyer for a Member of Parliament once upon a time…but Ifan is right we must get out our old self-help books and turn back the clock…they are still on our bookshelves somewhere…

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
4 months ago

Protests will achieve nothing and will probably just be broken up under new Patel laws. What we need is full independence and thus complete control of our network. March on October 1st and make people aware there is a far better future for them instead of being ripped off by Westminster all the time !

I Humphrys
I Humphrys
4 months ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

Yes, we need to focus on Independence being the only way forward. Because it is.

Jonathan Gwyn Mendus Edwards
Jonathan Gwyn Mendus Edwards
4 months ago

Yes, a tougher mindset will be needed. Wales used to have a campaign movement for this sort of thing. It was called Plaid Cymru. But the real point is that Wales has to confront London. The mood of the times struggles with a confrontation, and we all drift, each with ‘my truth’. We need to present that strong argument on the merits, as you have done. But we also need to create implacable pressure on London, politically. Call a Constitutional Convention for Wales.

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