If a bridge between Scotland and Ireland is feasible, is a decent road across Wales too much to ask?
Ifan Morgan Jones
Hugely expensive infrastructure projects seem to be in vogue at the moment.
Not only is Boris Johnson about to greenlight HS2 – the cost of which has ballooned to over £100bn – but is now exploring the possibility of a bridge between Ireland and Scotland.
It’s 21 miles between the two countries at the narrowest point but it’s another 100 miles to Glasgow across very poor roads that would presumably have to be updated to make the bridge in any way worthwhile.
That’s another £100bn or so spent on a huge project of dubious value.
Of course, while an emergency magic money tree always seems to exist when No 10 needs it, Wales never seems to benefit from this largesse.
Even modest proposals such as electrifying the railroad between Cardiff and Swansea seem to fall foul of the ‘little economic benefit’ argument – while we are expected to fork out or share for HS2, which is projected to actually harm the economy of Wales.
Do voters really want hundreds of billions spent on huge new infrastructure projects? I doubt it. I suspect they would much rather see the money spent evenly across the UK on maintaining and upgrading the creaking infrastructure we have already.
And a prime candidate would be Wales’ north to south roads, particularly the A470 which meanders dangerously up from Cardiff to Llandudno like a drunken snake. It takes four hours and almost 200 miles to cover just 130 miles as the crow flies.
It means that making the journey between north and south is torture that few look forward to. It’s an arduous, stressful, boring journey.
Let’s be clear: I’m not calling for a motorway. I’m not even calling for a dual carriageway. Just a decently straight road with regular passing places would be nice.
For Wales, however, this seems to be too much to ask.
On paper, of course, if the Welsh Government wanted to go about improving Wales’ economy through investment in transport the solution is obvious: invest in the south-east of Wales.
Over half the population of Wales live within a 20 miles radius of each other in Cardiff, Newport and the surrounding valleys.
I’m not arguing that this shouldn’t be done – it should obviously be done. So obviously in fact that it’s incredible that after 20 years of devolution that plans for a south Wales metro are still parked in the depot.
But there is more to consider when investing in transport than the economy alone. Just thinking in terms of units of population to be shifted here and there misses the point.
The fact is that the geographical chasm between the north and south of Wales is also very quickly becoming a political one.
Following the General Election on 12 December there is only one Labour constituency in Wales north of Merthyr Tydfil.
And after 20 years there is a growing sense in the north that devolution has served Cardiff and environs very well but that they’ve yet to see much benefit there.
In many ways Wales has repeated the UK’s mistake of over-centralising political and economic power in one place – the very problem devolution was supposed to fix.
But in Wales’ case the problem is worse because while good transport links with London exist across the UK it’s very difficult for a good chunk of Wales’ population to even get to Cardiff.
With 33% of the population still backing scrapping devolution altogether, and the figure at its highest in the north [although the usual caveats about one poll and a small sample size apply] this is something Cardiff Bay should be very concerned about.
Brexit should be a warning of the political ramifications when part of a nation feels ignored or left behind. Politicians who ignore it will ultimately pay the price for it.
And if the political support for devolution goes so will the economic and political power to invest in improving Wales’ transport network in the south-east too. Westminster, as we have already seen, certainly won’t show any interest in doing so.
Very often when I suggest that a decent road is needed between north and south people argue that it’s not possible – the terrain is too tricky, or that it’s too far.
As for the terrain, well, tell that to Switzerland, the United States, Nepal, China or any other nation which has successfully crossed far more challenging terrain to link two centres of population.
As for the distance, it’s easy to forget however that it’s actually only 100 miles from the top of the valleys to the north coast of Wales.
For reference, the tip of Llŷn Peninsula and Manchester and further away from each other than Llandudno and Merthyr Tydfil. Yet one feels far away and the other a day trip.
In the context of larger nations, it’s a short stroll. Los Angeles to San Francisco is over three times the distance.
Brasilia is six hundred miles from Rio, yet a dual carriageway will get you from one to the other.
The spatial distance between the north and south of Wales is more a psychological one than a geographical one. Because it takes us a long time to get from one to another, if feels like further than it is.
Yesterday an airplane flew the 3,500 miles from New York to London in under five hours. It would have taken about as much time on Wales’ creaking transport infrastructure to get the 130 miles from Holyhead to Cardiff.
But why improve the roads between the north and south Wales, I hear you ask? In this age of climate catastrophe wouldn’t it be better to build, say, an electric-powered train track up through the mountains?
Ideally yes, but in practice, a train running up the spine of Wales would be largely useless to the residents of mid-Wales because they would have no way to get to it without a car anyway.
If I needed to get from Cardiff to Dolgellau and this hypothetical new train track swept past Bala, it wouldn’t be much help in me completing the last leg of my journey. I’d stick to the car instead.
A road meanwhile would improve transport for all of Wales because it would become part of an already existing network.
It’s fine therefore to argue for a train – if it came alongside huge investment in public transport in mid-Wales that made it a viable alternative to the car.
More realistic would be to invest in roads and make certain that they are suitable for electric vehicles, with regular charge points on the road for public use.
As for the environmental cost of a new road over the terrain, improving the A470 needn’t require destroying any new habitat. If diversions are required then old sections of road could, where possible, be rewilded.
Let’s face it, any nation with a modicum of gumption would have built a decent road from one end of the country to another a long time ago.
Over such a short distance, and terrain that is comparatively unchallenging compared to infrastructure projects tackled 100 years ago by other countries, there’s no real excuse.
It needn’t even get done all at once – the road could be improved in segments over 20-30 years.
With Wales expected to pay for white elephants like HS2, and Johnson ready to break the bank for a 20-mile vanity project, there’s no real excuse anymore for Wales to put up with such poor pre-Victorian transport connections.
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Very good article. I suppose the way to find out if there is economic value in upgrading the A470 or a new railway is to fund them on the basis that 25 years fares or tolls would make it economical to build and operate and service and repay the debt ie a bond issue or even private capital as the Victorians did with the railways.
Right about the concentration of Labour power and spending around Cardiff and the Welsh subsidy of HS2, both an utter disgrace.
I agree, be fantastic to have a North/South link. As usual us in Wales get left behind, HS2 to link southern England to northern England, a link between Scotland and Ireland, (is this the unionists trying to turn the head of those who want Irish unity and Scottish Independence) and meanwhile they don’t gave a hoot about us in Wales. Is this because they think they have nothing to fear ? The only way to make Westminster sit up and take notice is for all of us to put Wales (and so ourselves) first ! If you live in Wales… Read more »
“It’s fine therefore to argue for a train – if it came alongside huge investment in public transport in mid-Wales that made it a viable alternative to the car.”
Let’s argue for this then. Better buses so you can get to the train stations at times that coincide with the trains. Connect the west with a line from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen then you can go up the east or the west, no need for a totally new line through the middle.
I’m all for better infrastructure in Wales, particularly benefitting Mid and North Wales (I live in Cardiff). However the discussion has to take place in Wales. For decades the threat of the new M4 motorway across the Gwent Levels chuntered on, vigorously opposed by environmentalists. Finally Mark Drakeford made the decision to prevent the road going ahead, and instead indicated the importance of better public transport for the region to reduce the pressure on the motorway. Less than a year later, Johnson gets elected and moots the idea of this road being built once more putting the cat amongst the… Read more »
Ifan, would you build a bridge where thousands of tons of redundant WW1 & 2 ammunition, including chemical warfare ammunition, mainly German (no one knows exactly how much and where this rubbish was dumped) more worryingly is the unknown amount of nuclear waste has also been dumped here. For those unfamiliar with the North Channel where the reason for dumping here was the existence of the very deep ‘Beaufort Trench’. I think that grandiose schemes like this are a throwback to the Victorian’s who had a notion that they could build anything, remember The Tay Bridge and while just outside… Read more »
The WW2 bombs dumped off western Scotland washing up on beaches
Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14820042-200-the-ww2-bombs-dumped-off-western-scotland-washing-up-on-beaches/#ixzz6DbMBSQOq
Interesting article and it summarises neatly the poverty of our existing transport infrastructure, road and rail. However I don’t want Wales’ infrastructure needs featuring on Bunter’s giant fib list, because believe me it’s all hot air designed to maintain interest while he goes ahead with his plan to further enrich the stinking rich and leave the rest of us well behind, out of sight. He may press on with HS2 if the contracts are heading to companies that are on side with his grand scams ( or schemes if you are blindly loyal). In due course that will experience huge… Read more »
As an Ulsterman from the Unionist tradition I’ll put my money on a united Ireland before a Boris Bridge. Despite his fondness for Hi-Viz jackets and hard hats he knows that he can’t afford it if he hopes to hold on to his recent converts in the English Midlands and North.
I know its a sticking point but probably not a bad idea britain should never of been in Ireland.
It’s a NIMBY issue, not an infrastructure issue.
How about a car transporter train I could drive on in the south and off in the north. Of course, a decent fast rail route might be handy. I also dreamed about a scissors rail plan: Chepstow to Holyhead and Chester to Milford Haven, crossing at Machynlleth which should be our capital
Why would Chester feature in a Welsh rail plan? Wouldn’t Deeside via Wrecsam be more relevant?
Fine, terminate it at Shotton and people can walk the last mile to Chester via passport control.
If you like. It’s more like four miles, though, so they’d be better off getting the train to Wrecsam and changing there, if they really have to come to Wales.
I don’t begrudge HS2 – England needs that infrastructure, its 20 or 30 years late though…. What we need is rail infrastructure devolved and Barnnatised so we can benefit too, 6billion would go a long way to improving North South and East West connections, including electrification of the main lines to the ports, reopening the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth Line, and improving the A470 – We will not get it though – the only way to secure proper investment in our infrastructure is independence.
I would support the main principles of Ifan’s article. Living in South West Wales requiring regular travel up to North Wales raises the issue of upgrading the A487 particularly between Cardigan and Aberystwyth. Upgrading would require a number of three way lanes to allow overtaking and perhaps a few by passes of the eighteen villages between these two towns. I have raised this matter with the Welsh Government with very little support. There view is that the Strategic Transport Plan for Wales decides the priorities. If we want any transport improvements between North and South we need to start lobbying… Read more »
Absolutely. Get off the A55 and the roads fizzle out to dirt tracks and dangerously windy traffic-congested disgraces. Johnson’s vanity project could give us decent road which don’t destroy our cars. The A55 could easily be extended down to Aberystwyth, with the M4 extended in the other direction to meet it, giving us an excellent road network on the west coast. The motorway which ends near Shrewsbury could be extended to Aber, making the whole of Wales easily accessible for everyone, boosting our economy and not just for the tourists! HS2 and Bojo’s bridge both need cancelling, and the infrastructure… Read more »
None of that will help, but will simply make it easier for cross-border holiday-makers. Ifan’s argument is in favour of effective transport links between the north and south of Wales, not consolidating east-west links.
In the not too distant future there may be AI driven vehicles capable of safely negotiating even the windiest roads at speeds only limited by passenger comfort. That might mean improved drive-times even if (as is likely) no money can be found for N-S road improvements.
A tech fix for political remoteness may be harder to find.
I drove from Wrexham to Milford Haven earlier this year and was struck at how much better the roads were, compared to the last time I did a similar trip a few years ago. European money has made the difference, from the signs I saw.
Im sorry but not a good idea it would damage the welsh language its a natural barrier and should remain that way.
This is baaaaaaaaarmy
Agree with the general idea – and a straighter, safer road would be good. However I think that this is the wrong focus for answering the right question. We need to better connect Wales north-south, but in a sustainable way for the 21st century. It’s good that you try to address the issues around climate and nature but I think this misses some points. Firstly, the idea that north-south rail wouldn’t benefit people in rural mid Wales much is based on the assumption that it sits in isolation. That ‘last leg’ of the journey doesn’t have to mean someone goes… Read more »