How rail’s South Wales Metro project can better serve Cardiff and decarbonisation

Work is now well under way on electrifying the Core Valley Lines into Cardiff as part of the Welsh Government’s flagship Metro project.

Its completion, due to the pandemic, could be pushed slightly back into 2024 and don’t be surprised if the £734m predicted cost doesn’t end up being higher.

However, it will provide a sea change in the speed, capacity and frequency of services from the Valleys into the capital and back again. On the periphery of the network, from locations such as Merthyr, Treherbert and Aberdare it will provide four tram-trains an hour in and out of Cardiff – compared to currently just one or two an hour.

New tram-trains are on order, while the Rhymney Line will be served by new trimode rolling stock that will be able to switch between electric, battery and diesel modes. The Rhymney Line, although not part of the origin plan, is now being electrified in full rather than just to Ystrad Mynach.

Getting people out of their cars and encouraging greater use of integrated public transport is very much at the heart of Welsh Government efforts to reach its net zero carbon target by 2050.

However, as it stands the current configuration of improved services on the Metro has a glaring oversight in that the Coryton Line and the City Line – the latter which is only partially devolved – will have no improvement on the current offer of just two services an hour.

The two lines serving the capital run through the most densely populated parts of the entire Metro network and indeed the whole of Wales.

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If the Welsh Government, and yes patterns of working have changed as a result of the pandemic with a permanent hybrid working model taking root, wants to maximise the benefits of the Metro, then at the very least both line need four services an hour.

The tram-trains on the Metro network will have to run on heavy rail specifications. This means they will be unable to run as closely together – with so called block separation – than if the Metro had been redesignated from heavy to a light rail network.

This was a solution being proposed by Hong Kong-based transport group MTR which lost out in the final stage of the procurement to KeolisAmey. Its tram solution would have seen at least four services every hour on the Coryton Line with some investment like double tracking. The City Line, will not devolved between Cardiff West junction, would also have required investment from the Department of Transport (DfT) for Network Rail to carry out the necessary investment for at least four tram-trains an hour.

These two interventions can still happen and would also increase the overall capacity of the network by addressing bottleneck issues into Cardiff Central from the west and on the Coryton Line.

As for the cost it would likely run into tens of millions of pounds, but with more capacity serving the highest population densities on the Metro this could be offset by increased ticketing revenue.

The work could be carried out in tandem with the rest of Metro electrification project and be completed also over the next two years – providing of course the UK Government agrees funding for the City Line investment.

However, where would the rolling stock come from to make use of this additional network capacity on the Coryton and City Lines?

Well, there is a solution to provide more services in Cardiff – and it has to be remembered the majority of the spend and economic impact from Metro will be felt north of the capital – that would be cost neutral and have an immediate impact, subject to required network enhancements.

The Welsh Government transport body Transport for Wales, could just reconfigure the frequency of services scheduled in and out of Pontypridd. The current timetable will see four tram-trains an hour from Treherbert, Aberdare and Merthyr into Pontypridd where services merge and so deliver 12 train per hour to Cardiff, with the same amount in the other direction from Cardiff. That’s one every five minutes south of Pontypridd.

With the higher volume of total trips and so the opportunity for major mode shift from car, being in Cardiff, Transport for Wales could reduce frequency to eight tram-trains an hour between Pontypridd and the capital in both directions.

That’s still a significantly improved service and very much in the ‘turn-up-and-go’ threshold of one just over every seven minutes. The Heads of the Valleys can still retain four trains an hour by turning back some services at Pontypridd – for example two trains an hour from Treherbert to Aberdare via Pontypridd.

That would allow Transport for Wales to reallocate tram-train stock to increase service frequency on City and Coryton Lines by 100% to four an hour.

With the Wales & Borders now directly under control of Transport for Wales – after enacting the operator of last resort mechanism last year after the pandemic and resulting collapse in passengers made the KeolisAmey business franchise financially unviable – it will never be in a better position to affect such a change with no complex negotiations needed with a franchise holding rail operating company.

The only issue could be around the £164m funding element that the European Union has committed to Metro. However, with the number of overall services unaffected the Welsh Government could show that such a reconfiguration would induce a bigger reduction in carbon emissions, as well as improving the utilisation of the planned tram-train fleet.

The DfT, in supporting Network Rail’s emerging and ambitious decarbonisation plans, should consider – alongside investment on the City Line – backing the wider Metro by electrifying the Vale of Glamorgan Line to Penarth and Barry, as well as the South Wales Mainline to Swansea.

Electrifying the Vale of Glamorgan to Penarth would enable Transport for Wales to run tram-trains instead of trimodes – this could potentially allow an extension to lower Penarth.

High speed rail consequential

The UK Government is refusing to de-couple Wales from England, in terms of the high speed two (HS2) rail project.

Even with the cancelling of the eastern leg of HS2, the DfT still has a near £100bn spending commitment for the integrated rail plan which is made up primarily of the London, Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2 and some of the original Northern Powerhouse Rail agenda.

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However, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales will not get a healthy Barnett consequential, which would amount to around £5bn, but more like £1.7bn. This is based on the current DfT Barnett comparability factor of 36%. It used to be over 90%, but has been significantly reduced as a result of HS2, which like all Network Rail enhancement, are defined as England and Wales projects.

Outside of the necessary operating maintenance and renewal costs, there is currently just £345m allocated for rail enhancement projects in Wales in the coming years – despite having around 10% of the UK rail network (as defined by the Wales Route, which includes sections in England like the Severn Tunnel and Marches Line).

While the UK Government has rejected calls for all rail infrastructure to be devolved in Wales – the Core Valley Lines into Cardiff are, following an asset transfer deal in 2020. The deal allowed the Welsh Government to undertake Metro work. That is being overseen by a KeolisAmey infrastructure business, with Amey taking the lead.

Based on passengers using the Metro from 2024 onward, including the Coryton and City Lines, they will account for a significant share of rail passengers within Wales.

As the Core Valley Lines rail asset is now devolved to Cardiff Bay, the Department for Transport – and yes all funding decisions lead to the Treasury – should at least recognise this partial devolution, based on a passengers use calculation estimated at around 40% of the total Welsh figure.

This would revise upwards the DfT’s Barnett attribution factor for Wales to around 70%, instead of the current 36%. This would generate approximately a further £1.7bn for the Welsh Government.

It would be for the Welsh Government to decide where to spend such an enhanced Barnett consequential, but it could be used to support much needed rail improvements in other parts of Wales, like the emerging metro projects for Swansea Bay and North Wales, as well as further enhancement on the Core Valley Lines and schemes like Cardiff Crossrail.

Yes, many of these projects aren’t devolved and should be funded entirely by the UK Government, but to get things done the Welsh Government might have to come to some sort of funding compromise.

The Treasury is not expected to consider a high speed ‘Metro consequential’ until 2024.

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