West isn’t best: A direct rail link between Cardiff and the north coast is what Wales needs
Over the weekend a feasibility study was published for a train line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth.
The dream of Traws Link Wales, the campaign Group that have been lobbying for this development, is that it will form the first leg of a railway stretching down the west coast.
In a decade or so, they hope, one would be able to hop on a train at Bangor and travel down to the south without having to take a detour through Leominster, Shrewsbury and Crewe.
One cannot find fault with this vision – the condition of public transport infrastructure in Wales is appalling and the lack of connections between the north and south an embarrassment.
As things stand, Transport for Wales might as well be called Transport through England.
However, I would like to suggest that while Traws Link Cymru may have the right idea in principle, their proposed railway is in the wrong place.
Wales’ railway infrastructure doesn’t work in Wales’ best interests. But that’s because it wasn’t designed to work for Wales.
Wales’ railways were set up in the 19th century to:
- Extract coal, iron and copper from Wales
- Deliver English tourists to seaside towns like Aberystwyth
- Make it easier to get to Ireland
For example, the Chester-Holyhead Railway was decided by a boardroom meeting in London in 1844 with the aim of binding Ireland to the Empire; Wales was not even a consideration.
This is why the fastest train lines in Wales are the three tentacles that extend from west to east and into England.
They were designed to bind us as a peripheral part of England’s economy rather than facilitate our own internal commerce, markets and trade.
Even in the heyday of Welsh rail transport, before Beeching’s cuts, the links between the north and south were laboriously slow.
The first steam-train ever invented made its maiden voyage near Merthyr Tydfil. But Wales’ has never had a railway network to make it easier for Welsh people to do business with each other.
However, building a railway along Wales’ western shore is not the best way to solve the problem of a slow rail connection between the north and south.
Due to the difficult, hilly and boggy terrain, a journey through the west, stopping at such metropolises as Pencader (population 336) is likely to take the best part of a day.
The lack of public transport infrastructure between these small communities also means that a train to, say, Llanybydder, won’t be particularly useful to anyone who wants to get to nearby Llandysul.
Most people travelling from the north will want to get to the largest centres of business and transport hubs in the south, namely Cardiff, Swansea and Newport.
And vice versa- people travelling from the south will want to get as soon as possible to the populated towns and cities and transport hubs along Wales’ northern coast.
The line from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth is expected to cost £750m. That’s a large amount of money in a country that has spent very little on transport infrastructure. We need to spend it as wisely as possible.
I would suggest therefore building a railway that directly connects Cardiff and the north Wales coast between Llandudno and Rhyl.
This area has a large population but also includes some of the poorest areas in the north, which could benefit greatly from opening up a new economic corridor with the south.
Between the two, it would run straight through two of Wales’ largest towns that also include some of Wales’ poorest areas – Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly.
On its way, it could also serve a number of decent sized towns including Brecon, Builth Wells and Newtown.
The eastern side of Wales is also comparatively flat compared with the west, meaning that the rail journey would be less meandering and more straightforward.
The route would also take advantage of Wales’ already well-developed east-west rail links, meaning that anyone who wanted to travel to the west coast of Wales could hop off at Newtown and head to Aberystwyth.
This would be the single biggest infrastructure investment in Welsh history, requiring over 150 miles of new track.
But in an age where China is building 34-mile sea bridges the idea that Wales can’t master what is essentially 19th century technology to build a railway across the country is laughable.
Only economic investment on that scale will give create genuine prosperity for the people of Wales, by giving people the tools they need to create prosperity themselves.
Either we pay for projects like this or future generations will pay for our lack of ambition and imagination with poverty.