The headlines after the UK government's latest High Speed 2 rail announcement were largely critical: 'Deliver what you promised', they demanded.
Boris Johnson's administration was reshaping its promises, scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Leeds and replacing it with a patchwork of other fast lines linking northern towns and cities and a mass transit system for Leeds. The government said it meant faster journeys for more areas sooner. Northern leaders said they were being let down.
Yet from a Welsh perspective, the entire argument over a £96bn spending bonanza funded entirely by taxpayer contributions left us cold. We are getting nothing. This historic investment will come from the UK tax take we contribute to. Scotland will get a Barnett consequential. Wales will get nothing.
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This is not new ground for Wales, for some reason stuck firmly in second class when it comes to UK rail investment spending. Over the eight years from 2011-12 to 2019-20, Wales received a total of £514m less than it would have if it received under a population based share of the UK's rail infrastructure spending. That's according to calculations by the Wales Governance Centre and presented to MPs earlier this year.
But what is to come as the UK launches fully into its high speed rail spending bonanza makes that looks like peanuts.
The latest announcement from the UK government suggested that the programme is now costed at £96 billion. A crude calculation suggests that Wales would, on a simple population-calculation, be entitled to around £5bn as a consequence of that spending.
Scotland won't miss out. It is expecting a windfall of around £10 billion as its share as HS2 is built over the next decade or so. Campaigners are already arguing over how it should be spent.
But successive Tory-led administrations at Westminster have decided that Wales is not entitled to a share. In 2015, David Cameron's government applied, in the technical jargon, a 0% comparability factor for Wales to HS2 spending.
What does this mean? It means we get nothing. The billions being spent on a fast train line linking London and Birmingham in phase one and then on to Manchester and other parts of the north in phase two, was deemed to benefit Wales. So we weren't entitled to extra funding.
In contrast, Scotland's comparability factor was 91.7%. What does that mean? In the complex way UK funding is calculated, it means that for every £1 spent on HS2, Scotland gets a population-based share of 91.7p of that. Or about £10 billion.
Why? In the face of incredulity, mockery and anger from Welsh Labour and Plaid MPs in the House of Commons last month, Montgomeryshire Conservative MP Craig Williams tried to explain. He spoke of how "incredibly important" the Birmingham rail interchange was to his constituents.
Mr Williams said he "completely disputed" that HS2 was not good for Wales. Referring to mid Wales, he said: "The reality of our economy and transport is that we look to Birmingham. That is just a day-to-day part of life."
In response, Plaid's Liz Saville Roberts told him: "HS2 has become a catchphrase for constitutional injustice, the high-handed mistreatment of Wales by Westminster, and the lack of fair play, let alone a level playing field. It reveals the reality of this union of inequality"
So the north is left to debate the journey time from Manchester to Leeds (36 miles and 50 minutes) which the government says will roughly halve in its new plans. And Wales gets no debate on the journey from Cardiff to Swansea (34 miles as the crow flies, roughly 1hr) or Carmarthen to Aberystwyth (40 miles, no train line).
To try and put into perspective what Wales’ railways could look like if it was given its fair share of the HS2 spend, WalesOnline spoke to financial experts at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and Mark Barry who is a rail expert and professor of practice in connectivity to properly show how Wales is missing out.
This is a good question.
The Welsh Government was actually offered to take control of rail in Wales by the Labour Government of Tony Blair about 16 years ago.
However there were fears that the Welsh Government would not be able to afford to pay the liabilities on the assets if there were issues after they were transferred. Therefore they declined the offer.
Commenting on this in his blog Professor Barry said: "However, I think that is perhaps the biggest mistake made by the devolved administration in Wales; especially when one looks at how rail enhancement investment in Scotland has been transformed in the period since."
What sort of rail network would £5bn build for Wales?
“You could do an awful lot frankly,” said Professor Barry. “You could have a huge impact.”
Professor Barry has extensively researched the issue as well as advising the Welsh Government on significant rail projects. He has outlined several projects that could all likely be funded by what Wales is missing out on from HS2. Bear in mind that these are approximate figures and would depend on the specifics of how the scheme was carried out
So what sort of rail network would £5bn build for Wales? It is not a simple question to answer but it is important to make the attempt because it makes real to people the impact that the shortfall in Welsh rail spending can have. Numbers on a page or spreadsheet don’t illustrate the real world impact of Wales missing out. To truly demonstrate what Wales is missing people need to see how their lives, communities and communities could be different and more connected if Wales received its fair share.
Improving the South Wales mainline - £1bn - £1.5
Key improvements could include:
South Wales has got a rail network which is totally unfit for linking up Wales two largest cities. The fact it can often be quicker to drive from Swansea to Cardiff is insane.
Professor Barry said: “The south Wales mainline needs a billion pounds ballpark just to get us going. It needs electrifying to Swansea. It needs measures to improve capacity and line speeds. It needs six or seven new stations. It needs some other infrastructure enhancements to enable it to operate more like a mainline in England.
“If you look at the mainline speeds when you go through the Severn Tunnel it drops.”
Under his analysis he believes roughly a £1bn would mean that we would be able to speed up travel between Cardiff and Swansea. Part of the issue is that the line is just two tracks between Cardiff and Bridgend meaning that if you are stuck behind a freight train you are not able to travel very quickly. One option would be to put in a totally new line but this would be very pricey therefore Prof Barry suggests that decent travel times could be made with just improvements. “Some more passing points, higher line speeds, different signalling, all of that kind of thing could make a difference.” he said.
Adding new stations, especially east of Cardiff, could act as hubs taking a great deal of pressure off the M4 around Newport.
“From a commuter perspective, and the decarbonisation perspective is in South East Wales, between Cardiff and Seven Tunnel we need about five or six new stations. So we can provide an alternative to the M4 and they become hubs where bus services can go. You can also link Crossrail and other things. We do have a four track mainline between Severn Tunnel and Cardiff so you put them on the relief lines, so you don't impact the faster services.”
“Something innovative” in West Wales - £0.5bn-0.75bn
Key improvements could include:
As anyone living on the Wales’ west coast will tell you, the rail links are atrocious. Getting from Aberystwyth to Cardiff can take you over four hours (often via Shrewsbury in England). Bearing in mind that you can get from Cardiff to London and back again in under that time it shows the issues.
Part of the challenges isn't just under investment (though this has been unquivally a problem). It is also the land of Wales itself with the hilly terrain making traditional heavy rail impractical.
Professor Barry is currently undertaking some work where he believe that for £0.5bn-0.75bn of investment Wales could do something create to make travel by rail in the west far more efficient. These plans are still on going but he is hopeful that adopting lighter trains could make large improvements in west Wales feasible and affordable.
He said: “The problem we have in the UK is, is the cost of rail is driven by the standards we adopt to implement rail. The Network Rail mainline was also constantly designed around the topography of southeast England.
“Now Wales, in many cases has a lower population and is hillier and heavy rail is expensive. One of the things we're looking at is what if we had different standards for rail?
“What if we had lighter vehicles that could go long distances, as is common in other countries, that means you can navigate some of the topology more easily. Rather than connecting up Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, you could instead connect Aberystwyth to Swansea, which will have more demand. So what I'm trying to do is work out how we can reduce the capital costs, but increase the passenger numbers to make a business case more acceptable.
“If you want more rail in the UK, you need different standards for lower speed, which means lighter vehicles. Different standards of track stiffness, allow you to have different alignments and lower cost alignments, we may not be able to integrate between all the networks, at least look at vehicles and I've looked at it get a vehicle if an operator traditional heavy rail but also operates on a lighter system for longer distances. So we are looking at that. I think there's so mileage in it.
“What I have suggested is effectively a long distance tram. So you have a tram train kitted up for long distances with toilets and seats rather than, like we see in local urban services.
North Wales mainline and borderlands electrification - £1bn
Key improvements could include:
Professor Barry added: “Like in the Cardiff Capital and Swansea Bay regions a range of complementary bus prioritisation/segregation measures as part of a comprehensive rail/bus integration. Local active travel measures will also be required.”
The Swansea Bay Metro (£0.5bn) and South Wales Metro (£1bn)
Both these projects have already been well documented and could transform how people get about in the area.
Transport for Wales says the South Wales Metro will offer faster and more frequent services, with some Valley lines expected to see four services run per hour. This will also tie in to some of the investment described in the above section on the South Wales mainline so some of the costs (such as building a station on Rover Way) will be covered there.
So what does £5bn buy you?
Added together the above projects add up to £4.75bn. This falls below what Wales is estimated to have received if it had been given a fair slice of the HS2 pie. Clearly these figures are estimates. Rarely does a large infrastructure project come in under budget.
However the clear benefits to Wales of any one of these projects (let alone all of them) are enormous. Especially when compared to the dubious benefit that Wales will gain from HS2.
Scotland and NI are going to be receiving proportionally much larger windfalls from HS2 than Wales. Because of the north/south nature of the line there is an argument to say Scotland will benefit more directly from HS2 track itself than Wales will. But ultimately the decision not to give Wales’ its fair share has pushed it even further behind
As you can see from the graph below Wales has consistently received lower amounts of spending per person than England and Scotland.
This gap is only going to increase. For the remainder of the HS2 project’s lifetime - likely to be several decades - the Welsh Government will now receive a much smaller share from any increase in the Department for Transport’s budget.
The decision to count HS2, a once in a century investments, as England and Wales spend has condemned Wales to another century of a second class rail network.
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