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Whelen Tories abandon Welsh railway electrification

Mick Whelan exposes the government’s short-term, opportunistic policies that will cause inestimable damage to Wales’ economic development, the environment and compromise job creation

THE decision by the Department for Transport to cancel three major rail electrification projects — the Great Western main line in South Wales, the Midland main line and the Lakes Line between Windermere and Oxenholme — was a tragedy for the railway and a tragedy for Wales.

The decision — which I believe was utterly cynical and driven by Tory dogma — to renege on what was, you will remember, a Conservative Party pledge at the last general election, was as perverse and ridiculous as it is indefensible.

Because this country badly needs a modern railway, and a proper infrastructure, fit for the 21st century.

It is clear from the conclusions of the National Audit Office (NAO) investigation that Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, lied.

The truth is that the government didn’t want to find the money for the project and made up a story about “sudden improvements” using “state of the art bi-mode trains.”

It’s a fantasy, of course — an exercise in smoke and mirrors — to disguise the truth, and “Failing Grayling,” as he is known throughout the rail industry, was rumbled by the NAO.

The Prime Minister has her fingerprints all over this, too.

The NAO said she took the decision to cancel the Cardiff to Swansea project in July last year — so the Prime Minister, the Transport Secretary and the DfT are all saying that the people of South Wales don’t count.

We believe they should electrify the line to Swansea, address the historical underfunding of the Welsh rail network and honour the agreement made with the Welsh government to secure a new and sustainable franchise for Wales and the Borders.

We are dismayed that Network Rail’s latest strategic business plan for 2019 to 2024 shows that Wales will receive £1 billion less than it should. Wales would receive £2.4 billion if Network Rail funds were shared out according to population numbers, or £2.9bn if it were divvied up according to track mileage.

Instead, Wales is receiving £1.34bn — this on top of the lost £700 million which the government had promised to spend on electrifying the Great Western main line from Cardiff to Swansea.
So Wales is well out of pocket.

The truth is that the Tory government doesn’t care about Wales: “because they don’t vote for us down there,” they admit privately, but it’s despicable all the same because investment in transport has significant social and economic benefits.

While south-east England has had substantial investment, Wales has been significantly short-changed.

Rail freight is, too often, the poor relation on the railway. Commuters vote and they don’t like fare rises — if trains are cancelled, or late, passengers complain and politicians are sensitive to this.

Rail produces 76 per cent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than the equivalent road journey

Unfortunately, cargo doesn’t have a voice and figures show that freight moved on the rails between October and December 2017 fell by 3 per cent compared to the same quarter the previous year.

And the benefits of rail freight, while undeniably vast, especially for the people of Wales, are indirect.

These benefits come in many forms. It combats climate change — rail produces 76 per cent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than the equivalent road journey.

Or in terms of safety — the Office of Rail and Road reports that rail is 20 times safer than road and HGVs are seven times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal collisions.

The economic case is that road congestion costs businesses £17bn per year and the largest freight trains in Britain can remove 160 HGV journeys from our roads.

Road and rail should complement each other — we will always need HGVs to do the last leg of goods transportation but where rail is a viable alternative, we should support it.

Railways are a long term commitment. It takes time to train staff and build infrastructure.

Once capacity is reduced, it is hard to build it back up. This creates a real danger that when demand increases, the network will not be able to match it, and more goods will head back on to Wales’ roads and we will lose the environmental, safety and economic benefits we so badly need.

We should also remember that freight operators do much of the ballast and infrastructure work on our network and a reduction in capacity will have a knock-on effect on passenger services.

Rail freight brings huge benefits to everyone across Wales — whether they are aware of it or not — and it is time to recognise that we need a healthy rail freight industry to fight climate change, reduce road fatalities and to help grow the economy.

It is also time to recognise that our industry is struggling and needs support. It is therefore clear, whether it concerns the Welsh government’s pledge to build 20,000 new homes, or infrastructure work tendered by the public sector, wherever it is feasible, we must use rail freight.

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