Wales must rediscover its 19th century zeal for big transport projects – but to bind together north and south

The long and winding road between the north and south of Wales. Picture by Suzanne Gielis (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Jac Jones

For a ‘small’ nation Wales is rather geographically divided. The north of Wales is referred to as ‘North Wales’ – the same goes for ‘South Wales’. People speak of them as if they’re entirely two different countries rather than two different regions of the same country.

Some speak of the north and south of Wales in a similar vein to someone speaking of North and South Korea!

The Welsh language name bestowed upon those in the southern parts of Wales by those in the north is another clear indication of the separation. As Hwntw derives from ‘hwnt’ which in itself translates into ‘yonder, over there’.

It’s no secret what is responsible for this sense of alienation between the north and south – the lack of a quick means of getting from one to another.

Transportation into Wales was designed in the 19th century to do two things – to take resources out of the country and to bring people in for coastal holidays.

Where there are good, quick railway lines in Wales it is generally a coincidence of geography. Lines like the Chester to Holyhead Line were designed to further bind Ireland into the British empire.

The north of Wales was a request stop on a train whose primary destination was Holyhead harbour.

In the south too, the numerous major towns on the network were once nothing but whistle-stops on the route to extract coal from Wales. Many lines involved in Transport for Wales’ grand scheme, the South Wales metro, will be built and expanded upon old and disused coal lines.

Even when Wales was better connected than it is now – before the Beeching axe fell in the 60s – the connections between the north and south were much slower than east to west.

The same can be said about roads. The only two decent roads in Wales – the M4 and A55 – both travel north-west so that traffic and freight can quickly travel to cities like Chester and Bristol.

 

Rectification

Through the implementation of high-speed and efficient road and rail networks, the people of Wales could feel as one, rather than two regional identities (three if you include mid-Wales) sharing the same nation.

The Labour Welsh Government of the last 20 years take the easy way out by only tweaking existing trunk roads, and possibly at a push bringing a few closed lines back into service.

But what is needed to reunite 21st century Wales is high-speed road and rail networks.

We should look into establishing a motorway or at least a dual carriageway along the spine of Wales, from Cardiff to Llandudno. It would branch off and connect to major settlements along the way.

These roads would serve as the artery of Wales when concerning vehicle transportation, as they would allow easy and quick travel between the north and south of Wales.

Obviously, one would think to re-establish the Carmarthen – Aberystwyth line. However, the line would have to operate at a reduced speed along the west coast due to the unfavourable terrain and small villages. This would require many request stations. Therefore, it would be wiser to look eastward.

The establishment of a high-speed rail link through Powys may be a wiser decision, as the terrain is a much more favourable. A direct Llandudno – Cardiff rail link going along that area would be a better decision when concerning the use of high-speed transportation.

The task itself will be monumental, and yet there is no longer any excuse. We cannot claim that Wales’ tricky geography is a barrier in a world where it’s possible to build bridges higher than The Shard, tunnel under seas and dig through mountains.

Ambition

Rail travel was born in Wales. The world’s first-ever railway journey ran nine miles from the ironworks at Penydarren.

What happened to the Wales that created the Pontycysyllte aqueduct, the highest in the world, or the 25 mile Glamorganshire Canal, considered one of the wonders of the world when it opened in 1794?

The catch-22 argument is that there’s not enough of a population or economic activity in mid-Wales to justify a high-quality road. The answer to that is that Cardiff’s population was 4,000 when the Glamorganshire Canal was built. Investment creates economic activity.

Unfortunately, we seem to have lost our appetite and any ambition for a challenge.

But after 20 years of devolution, a new confidence is stirring in Wales. It’s time to unite Wales as one whole country, rather than two separate entities.

Let’s find a way of connecting Wales and make the country a single cohesive unit, as well as the economic advantages that a better transport network would bring.

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