Network Rail’s south-east Wales Metro project will be far more than just a transport scheme, but central to efforts aimed at improving the economy of the Valleys where towns like Pontypridd have the potential to flourish, says chief executive of Transport for Wales James Price.
Mr Price, who heads up the Welsh Government’s at-arm’s-length transport body, said that in five years’ time the devolved rail network across Wales would be “utterly transformed” into one of the best in the world, with 95% of journeys on £1bn worth of new rolling stock, including tram trains on the south-east Wales Metro network, and a huge increase in passenger capacity and frequency of services.
The investment will also see wi-fi on all trains and free travel for children being increased, for those currently aged under five to under-11s, and half-price fares being extended to those under 18.
Stations in other parts of Wales outside the south-east Wales Metro area will also benefit from £200m worth of investment, while under the last franchise operated by Arriva Trains Wales, negotiated with the UK government, there was only an investment of £400,000 over 15 years.
With poor weather leading to higher-than-expected levels of rolling stock having to be taken out of service as a result of debris on the tracks causing damage to wheels, the franchise got off to an inauspicious start when launched last October.
Mr Price, speaking at a recent meeting of Cardiff Breakfast Club, said that while new rolling stock was on order, the franchise is currently operating the ageing fleet inherited from Arriva Train Wales – whose 2,000-plus employees have transferred over under the 15-year franchise.
However, he said it was understandable that some passengers believed that significant changes should have happened overnight.
The new franchise is being delivered by bid winner KeolisAmey in a joint approach with Transport for Wales, under the Transport for Wales Rail Services brand.
Mr Price said: “If we look at our (Transport for Wales) Twitter feed most people are saying ‘where are these new trains?’ This is kind of understandable and we need, and are, explaining to people that while the new trains are on order and are being manufactured as fast as they can, it takes two years to make and test them.”
The chief executive said that prior to the franchise going live, there were bigger concerns than those relating to rolling stock.
He said: “In my view the things that we were really worried about went very well, like the back-office ticketing and payment systems, as well as the security and safety systems, being transferred and working, and the thousands of pieces of paper that had to be signed by the various regulatory bodies to allow us to take over [franchise], some of which we didn’t get until some 48 hours beforehand.
“So, despite some of the things that have happened, I think we saw a very good transition from one operator to another. But what is more important is what is going to happen in the future.
“In five years the service will be utterly transformed in comparison to today. And the service in Wales will be significantly ahead of what you see in most parts of Europe and maybe the world.
“Every train in Wales will be replaced within five years and we are going to spend nearly £1bn on new trains. Some 95% of journeys will be made on brand new trains, but it will feel like 100%. And really importantly, from an economic development perspective, is that almost half of those trains are going be made in Wales in Newport at the CAF factory.”
He said the focus would be in supporting as many Welsh-based firms as possible to win contracts in the procurement process.
Mr Price said: “We will be procuring from tens of hundreds of companies and we want to help bring those companies up to the highest quality standards that they can achieve and for those firms not only to be able to supply us, but to be able to supply the rest of the UK, Europe and the world.”
There are currently around 2,200 employed in the rail industry in Wales outside of Network Rail.
Mr Price said: “We are planning to create an additional 600 jobs and 450 apprenticeships as well, so that is a significant uplift in the number of people who are being employed. We are driving efficiencies as well, which will mean an average increase of 65% in capacity [passenger] across Wales in five years’ time.”
Work on the next phase of the south east Wales Metro, with electrification, although only partially on the Rhymney line where trimode trains which can switch between diesel electric and battery power will operate, is not scheduled for completion until 2023.
Mr Price said Pontypridd by then, although it could be a year earlier, would benefit from 12 trains an hour (24 in an out) with journey times of just 22 minutes to and from the centre of Cardiff.
The Metro project has a ringfenced budget of £734m, which includes provision for VAT, although there is potential for this to be exempted, and a healthy contingency for any overspend.
On the project, wich is being referred to as Central Metro, Mr Price said: “It is not just a transport project it is all about economic growth. South east Wales has some high growth areas, but also low ones with real need as well, This is about connecting people and allowing growth to be more evenly distributed, but also to drive economic growth off Cardiff itself,
“We have 1.5 million people living in the area [Cardiff Capital Region] which should lead to massive benefits of agglomeration and the concept that people can bounce ideas off each other and that businesses can grow.
“However, if you cannot travel easily around the region that cannot happen and that is what Metro is all about sorting out.”
Mr Price said that research undertaken by Cardiff council focused just on the proposed redevelopment of Cardiff Central Train Station and the confirmed new adjoining bus station — and predicated on the Metro being delivered — estimates it would leverage an additional £1bn worth of GDP.
Mr Price added: “That is really good for Cardiff and an exceptional figure, but my question is,is the real opportunity in the Valleys?
“So pick somewhere in the Valleys like Pontypridd, which is a really good example, and where from 2023, and potentially 2022, you will see 12 trains an hour with a 22 minute travel time to the centre of Cardiff and under 15 minutes into Cathays and well under 20 into Queen Street.
So what could Pontypridd become with that type of connectivity, which is not far off some of the east London underground services? So, I think we should focus on what we could do for the Valleys and particularly around joined up land use planning too.”
The project is currently at a so called design and discovery phase, with KeolisAmey assessing the state of the existing rail network. Mr Price stressed Transport for Wales would not underestimate the challenges of delivering electrification of the core Valley Lines, whose ownership is being transferred, although a deal has yet to be finalised, from Westminster to Cardiff Bay.
He said, “The will be challenges around engineering and transition from where we have been to where we are going. We will be managing disruption to a minimum, but there will be some. We shouldn’t convince ourselves that it will be really easy. Just look at what has happened with Crossrail in London and Network Rail’s electrification programme.”
He said the first significant improvements on the franchise would bee seen in north east Wales this year.
Mr Price said: “The north east Wales Metro is kind of at the stage that the south east Wales Metro was probably four to five years ago, so there is some way to go in terms of planning, but stuff is starting to happen. And the first thing people will see probably in terms of a significant change on the railways in Wales will be the new north east Wales Metro rolling stock coming on the Wrexham to Bilston line.”
He said that lower fares and exemptions for younger passengers would also play an important role in the franchise.
Mr Price said: “You will see fares on the north Wales coast and the Heads of Valleys coming down significantly, without fares anywhere else in Wales going up to compensate. That is in recognition of north Wales where fares are relatively high compared to the rest of Wales. In the Heads of the Valleys there is a social reason why we want to bring the cost of rail down to promote economic growth.”
He added: “Free travel for under fives is going up to under-11s which is a big difference. Under-16s, when accompanied, will travel free off peak and half price child fares will extend to under-18… so again all big differences and big changes,
“There are still quite a lot of not spots in terms of being able to use mobile phones across Wales, So, we will be putting in more than forty 4G masts alongside our network that will benefit wi-fi on the train so you should be able to work constantly. This will also benefit communities that are near the network, so that is a real positive as well.”
Cardiff Breakfast Club is sponsored by The Western Mail, Effective Communication Stills Branding, Lloyds Banking Group and Blake Morgan.