Electrification and the potential for South Wales

  • Noel Dolphin

Electrification and the potential for South Wales

Noel Dolphin from the Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway highlights the tangible benefits that can be generated from the electrification of the South Wales Metro

The outcome of the Wales and Borders Franchise is hotly debated in Wales. From the initial announcement by the Welsh Government of the franchise, then the formation of Transport for Wales in early 2016, the announcement of four bidders in late 2016 only to lose two bidders along the way, each step is met by growing interest.

We are now days away from hearing who the new bidder will be. Uniquely to franchises in the UK, the Wales and Borders Franchise winner specifies what infrastructure improvements will be delivered and how the South Wales Metro will be shaped. So as the winner is announced the public in South Wales will also learn what they can expect from their future metro.

Also, those in Swansea and North Wales will understand a bit more what the can expect from future similar Metro deals.

Electrification has barely been out the news since the inception of the UK’s national electrification programme and the subsequent delays in programme and spiralling cost on Great Western.

What has been less clear to the public is the local benefits electrification can bring. With a new train operator soon to be announced in Wales, we believe that now is the time to reiterate what can be achieved through electrification and what lessons can be learnt from Great Western electrification.

Electrifying the Valleys

If you travel through the Cardiff Valleys by road or by rail, you will notice that there is a huge demand for transport. People travel between the region’s universities and colleges, to big industry such as GE’s large facilities in the area, or to the media hub and Welsh Government on Cardiff Bay.

The valleys are constrained by topography and act as natural funnels down to Cardiff; this means in the morning and evening peak there are long traffic jams on the roads and crush loading on the trains. This constrains economic development and is a drain on human potential. There is a clear and palpable feeling in South Wales that things need to improve in order to increase the region’s connectivity and improve its economy.

In May, as part of the work of the Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway I spent some time on the platforms of Taffs Wells Station on the Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare branches. I saw how busy the platforms were all day long despite Taffs Wells only being a small town.

I also watched the slow diesel Sprinters chugg their way along picking up passengers as they ambled along. In the past year, I have met businesses and employees from all over South Wales and the Cardiff Valleys. From companies using additive manufacturing machines to create human medical implants, Chinese IT companies setting up UK offices in South Wales, aviation companies and of course railway companies. These hi-tech industries hope to transform South Wales, what a contrast with the current diesel Sprinters making their way across the Cardiff Valleys.

Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, wrote to me last month confirming that there was £120 million set aside for electrification of the South Wales Metro in a rolling programme. If ever there is a project that might succeed it is one that is based on a steady rolling programme.

If we compare the difficulties of Great Western to the Scottish electrification programme, we can see the stark contrast. In Scotland, they have been quietly and steadily building electrification and delivering benefits for passengers. Scotland is approaching the magic ratio of £1 million for every thousand metres of electrification that the original business case for a national electrification programme was based on.

Compare this to Great Western, which had an ambitious programme deadline and has been chasing time ever since, resulting in rising costs. The scale and difficulties that the Great Western programme has overcome are immense, but it has come at a cost. The benefits will be there for passengers now and in the future, but right now it leaves a bitter taste.

There is still a business case for electrification; the resent National Audit Office report confirmed this. Electrification projects had been cancelled due to cost not due to diminishing benefits. Now is a good time to reiterate those benefits:

  • Environment: tackling local air pollution issues, but also support wider climate change goals
  • Reliability: electrification has improved reliability compared to diesel trains, and reduces wear on track
  • Metro Service: new services require faster trains, faster acceleration, more frequent trains for a new timetable these can only be delivered by electric trains
  • Reducing road use: modern, fast, frequent and reliable trains attract people out of cars.

Universal benefits

The benefits are not just limited to local passengers. As I stood at Taffs Wells Station, I saw lorries from local fabricators carrying electrification gantries heading towards Great Western. Those local fabricators are looking for the next project after Great Western.

I also travelled to Coleg y Cymoedd, the phenomenal local college in the area. While there I visited their state-of-the-art electrification training centre, waiting to train the next generation of apprentices for installation and also maintenance. Money spent on upgrading infrastructure through electrification is generally spent locally.

As I travel around the UK I am often asked about how we can prevent cost increases on Great Western reoccurring elsewhere. I look to success stores around the UK and Europe. I have discussed both with teams in Scotland but also a dozen electrification companies around Europe and common themes have arisen. Most European electrification is delivered cost-effectively by counties that have a slow and steady rolling programme of electrification.

This means managers, engineers and installation teams build skills steadily and lower unit costs year-by-year. Experience and knowledge take years to develop but evaporate in the boom and bust cycles of UK electrification.

South Wales Metro electrification programme be delivered cost-effectively, by following the lessons learnt of hundreds of other successful programmes across Europe:

  • A steady rolling programme; sensible dates, sensibly planned
  • Chose technology that is appropriate for the Valleys, discontinuous electrification needs to be considered for those areas that would otherwise drive higher costs
  • Train local people to build and then subsequently maintain the railway
  • Rationally sequence work once the final plan for the Metro is known
  • Align the goals of the TOC, the infrastructure companies and Transport for Wales.

We believe that South Wales Metro can be a beacon for the region and the world. A modern metro can provide the economic spark for the region. Electrification can bring real tangible benefits for the passengers and the region.

About the Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway

The Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway is campaigning to create a rolling programme of electrification on Britain’s Railway in order to double the percentage electrified by 2040. For more information, please contact them by email: info@railwayelectrification.org


2018-05-25T16:00:49+00:00May 25th, 2018|June 2018|