Welsh Government Shouldn’t Blow £300,000 on Another Report into The Aberystwyth-Carmarthen Railway

This is a hard blog to write, as I love railways, mid-Wales and economic regeneration.
It would be wonderful if Wales had a north-south rail link, and we could go to Cardiff without going east to Shrewsbury.
There used to be such a thing, but it was slow and under-used, and it closed in 1965.
In 2015, the Welsh Government spent £30,000 on a Scoping Document that looked at the feasibility of re-opening the line. It is an optimistic document, yet details the many problems re-opening the line would face before concluding at a wildly optimistic (and much quoted) total cost of £750million.

Based on this, the Welsh Government plans to spend £300,000 on a more detailed study.
£300,000 is a lot of money.
At the time of writing, parts of Llanidloes have no street lighting as the council can’t afford to repair them, and the A44 is Wales’ most dangerous road.
There are better ways to spend £300,000 than a further report into something that will never happen.

Don’t get me wrong – I love trains. My grandad was a steam locomotive driver and I’ve ridden every steam line in the area.

If we look at the first few miles of the proposed railway, we can see why it will not happen.

Here’s a map of Aber station when the line was active.
The lines curved west out of the station and over the river.
But since then Matalan has been built and Park Avenue has grown into a major road. And the platform for the Carmathen trains has been demolished.
Just getting the line out of the station would be a major undertaking (uncosted in the Scoping Report).

Suppose they manage it and reach the Rheidol.
Here’s where the old bridge went – can you see the problem?
That block of flats is right where the bridge was.
There are more flats beyond it, and beyond that Felin Y Mor.
The only way through there is to compulsory purchase all these houses, and do you remember the fuss about building Tesco?
The Scoping Report sees two possible solutions.
One is to build another station out by the harbour, somewhere round here, perhaps:
But even if you can overcome environmental concerns, the report accepts that you’ve then lost the dream of an integrated North-South transport link.
People are not walking a mile to change trains.

The other option given is to cross the Rheidol further down river and dig a tunnel (photo from the the Scoping Report)
As you can see, this means smashing through a few streets in Penparcau before tunnelling under Pen Dinas (I would anticipate some resistance to this too).

The Scoping Report budgets £60.5m for this tunnel, but then admits it expects the actual figure to be “considerably in excess of this“.
While we’re talking money, the report also says “the bridge over the Afon Tywi at Carmarthen could cost as much as £25m, far in excess of the £10m suggested“, which does make me wonder how trustworthy the financials are in this report.
It suggests that the total construction cost for the railway at £505million, with the total project costing £750million (eg extra costs for land and consents).
I believe that building a new platform at Aber, crossing Park Avenue, crossing the river, cutting through Penparcau and then tunnelling under Pen Dinas would blow their projected construction budget within the first mile.
A total cost of £750million is totally unrealistic.

Assuming the railway gets out of Aber, it would then sit on it’s old trackbed. But as this is now a cycle path,  there will be resistance here too.
At Rhydyfelin there’d need to be another diversion round a house before climbing the hill to Llanfarian.
There is space for track here, and this lovely bridge still survives –
– but at Llanfarian the track has been extensively built on .
There’s an estate on the west side of the A487, and to the east the village has grown dramatically.
The Community Centre is on the site of the old Llanrhystud Rd station, and houses run down to the river.
Getting round Llanfarian would be a major undertaking of “new bridges, cuttings and embankments”.

Are we agreed that re-opening the Aberystwyth-Carmarthen railway would involve a hell of a lot of work, money, angry cyclists and knocked-down houses?

A much easier (and shorter) analysis can be done as to whether it’s value for money.
The excellent disused-stations.org.uk writes that “[by the 1960s] declining passenger figures meant Beeching’s Axe was inevitable”.
However, it was flooding which finally killed off the route to passengers, when a section washed away at Llanilar.

Now,  without looking up the figures, I’m going to guess that since 1965, car ownership in Wales has increased.
Research in the Scoping Report shows that cars are used to travel to work for over 95% of people in Pencader, Lampeter, & Tregaron.

I appreciate that not everyone has, or even wants, a car.
This makes  rural buses a lifeline.
The T1 bus runs hourly between Aber and Carmarthen from 06:15 to 19:15, and takes just over 2 hours.
That is a better service than the train offered in its heyday.

When I travel by bus, I can’t help but notice how many passengers are using free passes (congratulations to old people for always voting in elections. They get free bus passes irrespective of income, while students leave college £30,000 in debt).
I suspect few pensioners are going to pay for a train when they can go for free on the bus.

What about freight?
I live in Blaenplwyf, and the village would be vastly improved by a reduction in freight traffic.

Here’s the exact wording of the Scoping Report’s section 8.3 on Freight:

Freight is not currently a major user of the rail network in West Wales. The scale of infrastructure required to set up an intermodal facility (loading facilities, sidings, additional passing loops, servicing facilities, etc) could be substantial, requiring a significant volume of traffic to be viable.
Whilst there are some potential markets it is not expected these would have a significant role to play in determining the strategic case for re-opening the line.
Timber is likely to have the greatest potential.

That’s a pretty clear “No”, isn’t it?

The Scoping report is also pretty quiet on benefits to businesses and the area.
I know it would be nice, but how would we benefit financially for an investment of [finger in wind] £2billion?

The report lists Potential Risks as:

  • Lack of capital funding
  • Lack of funding for services to operate over the line
  • Poor Benefit Cost Ratio
  • Objections from landowners and other key stakeholders [eg cyclists]
  • High cost of environmental mitigation
  • Condition of assets
  •  Incorrect demand forecasts [and fierce competition from free-to-use buses]
  • Optimism bias in costs [you’re not kidding!]

Looking at the Scoping report, it seems incredible the Welsh Government is going to spend £300,000 looking further into it.
A quick cost/benefit analysis shows it’s a non-runner.
So why is the new Report being commissioned?
Politics.

A quick look at the Traws Link Cymru website shows a breathtaking list of supporters for the scheme.
Every council in the area is listed, as are First Minister Carwyn Jones,  Ceredigion MP Mark Williams, seemingly every AM in the area and lots of Universities and Health Boards.

Politicians have to be seen to be Doing Something.
Here’s a Cambrian News article about lovely Leanne Wood and our well-liked AM  Elin Jones supporting the scheme.
Politicians love this sort of photo-op – here they are standing up for local people and trying to make things better.
The railways in our part of Wales are poor, but we are an under-populated and hilly area while rail schemes are expensive.
A brave politicians would say “Yes, it would be nice, but there’s not enough benefit to spend £2billion here”.
Alas, no one who wants to be re-elected can say that, and the Traws Link Cymru group has been very successful in giving their campaign momentum.
However, the campaign’s website is a little economical with the truth.
It says

“A scoping study commissioned by Welsh Government has suggested a cost of between £505m and £750m to reinstate the line”

but readers who’ve come this far know that this isn’t true.
£505m and £750m are the are the construction and total costs respectively, as I’m sure they know. And as we’ve seen, £750m is the most optimistic claim since “Peace in our time”.
The campaign website also mentions the possibility of moving goods to freight, though (as we’ve seen) the report calls this expensive and highly unlikely.
They’re decent, well-meaning people, who would like the world to be as it should. But the benefits listed on their website are all highly contentious and unproven (“optimism bias”, as the report wisely says).

If there are hundreds of millions, nay billions of pounds to invest in transport in mid-Wales (and there aren’t), wouldn’t they be better spent on the infrastructure that we have and use, ie the Aber-Shrewsbury railway and our terrible roads.

We all know how dangerous the A44 is, and we’d all like to see fewer deaths on it.
It is almost impossible to overtake on the A44, so drivers take risks and lives are lost.
Wouldn’t a better use of, say, £100m, be to put places where slow cars, lorries or caravans can pull to one side to let people past?
I know British people are often selfish, but big signs could shame them into behaving properly (the only way that works).

No one is going to spend over a billion pounds on this railway.
Spending £300,000 on another report, just so people can say “We’ve tried to get things done”, is a negligent waste of money.
The funding seems to have been part of a deal to obtain Plaid Cymru’s support for the  Welsh Government budget.
Well done to them for getting us money, but this is a very wasteful way to spend it.

(I resent the Welsh Government for wasting £300,000, the politicians for not doing the right thing, and the beardy bobble hat steam train bores for making me write not just my most boring blog post ever, but the most boring thing ever written.
I set up this blog to write about booze & meat, not to argue with converts about how they think the world should be.)

Appendix

I contacted the relevant minister’s office, pointing this all out (in less words).
They replied:

Our National Transport Finance Plan (NTFP) sets out our position regarding future transport improvements.
The Plan includes a commitment to, “consider opportunities to bring disused railways back into the transport network, subject to viability through feasibility studies and economic appraisal/ evaluation on a case by case basis”.
The Cabinet Secretary for the Economy and Infrastructure has also said he will ask the National Infrastructure Commission to examine the proposals.

I replied with specific concerns about the scheme, and they replied:

The feasibility study will be a more detailed level of analysis than the scoping study.
I am sure you will appreciate this detail will enable the Welsh Government to make an informed decision rather than one made on assumption.

I replied to say I knew this, and there’s enough to show the scheme is a non-starter in the Scoping Report,  and silence since.

I haveTweeted Elin Jones AM twice about this, but she hasn’t replied.
Elin is a great AM who loves the area.
I suspect she knows this is a battle not worth fighting, and there would be a political cost to telling the truth .
It’s sad that – as ever – that politicians can only tell the public what they want to hear. The same forces that brought us Trump & Brexit mean we have to spend £300,000 researching something that will never happen.


 

3 thoughts on “Welsh Government Shouldn’t Blow £300,000 on Another Report into The Aberystwyth-Carmarthen Railway”

  1. Thank you for your reply, Adrian
    I know you’re a passionate believer, but your answer doesn’t mention the obvious problem of what to do in Aberystwyth, and again wilfully misrepresents the number (the Scoping Document doesn’t put the cost between £500m & £750m but as just £750m, and even that is wildly optimistic for the reasons above).
    To take your points one at a time:
    i) True, but so what?
    ii) Better to build 100m of road (eg around the blackspot at Chancery) than commission a report into something that will never happen.
    iii) A 21st century railway still needs tracks, and laying them through Aber is an unsolved problem.
    iv) Newport beyond our remit.
    v) Hmm. Yeah, but now would be a good time to note you haven’t answered my point about the railway being uneconomic in the 1960s, before mass car ownership and pensioner bus passes.
    vi) The environmental impact of tunnelling under PenDinas?
    And the old “93% of the trackbed is unbuilt on”. The problem here is that the small percentage built on is a major problem if you can’t get into Aber or through Llanilar. It’s like being 93% free of cancer.
    vii) True, but the figures in the report show people travelling to work by car.
    viii) “Trains generate income.” Shall we let that hang there for a moment?
    Can we think of an unsubsidised railway anywhere? The idea that the Carm-Aber line will make money is charming but unlikely.
    Your final points are covered in my article, and not addressed here.
    “Will provide a huge boost to tourism” – no evidence of this.
    “Allow transfer of heavy goods (particularly timber)” – the Scoping Report rules this out.
    OK, the £300,000 will be spent on the new Report, but there is no way this is going to be built, as the article points out and you don’t refute.
    I wish it were going to be built, I wish it hadn’t been closed, I wish mid-Wales had a viable economy.
    It’s going to cost far in excess of £1billion – if it goes through Aber there’ll be massive destruction, if it doesn’t, it’s a white elephant.
    Passenger numbers will be poor, buses already cover this route, pensioners get bus passes.
    There are better campaigns for mid-Wales.

  2. Your blog about the Welsh Government “wasting” £300,000 on a Full Feasibility Study is interesting because you have obviously done a lot of thinking about this. Our campaign is clear that spending £500m to £750m is a lot of money to rebuild a railway.

    Firstly building roads only generates more traffic, a well proven fact.

    Secondly £300,000 would build less than 100 metres of road and have no effect on reducing the problems of motorists.

    Thirdly it is not proposed to rebuild the old railway but to provide a 21st Century railway which would shorten the journey from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen by one hour and the journey from Aberystwyth to Cardiff by up to 2½ hours.

    Fourthly the Welsh Government is currently planning to spend £1,3b on 14 miles of motorway to bypass Newport when there are cheaper and more environmentally friendly solutions to the problem. We want to see investment in West Wales which is the poorest part of the UK to bring new businesses and investment in, and to build new houses just as has happened with the Borders Railway in Scotland opened in 2015. Our research indicates that £850m has been spent on road improvements in the last five years but these town bypasses simply take traffic onto inadequate roads in the countryside. Get stuck behind a tractor and there is nothing you can do about it.

    Fifthly a Freedom of Information enquiry to Dyfed-Powis Police provided us with the information that over the previous five years there had been 1,249 accidents on the roads between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen (which resulted in 89 serious injuries and 11 deaths) and which cost the Welsh taxpayer an average of £10m per year. We are not suggesting that building the railway will cut this carnage to zero but it would provide a safer option for those who are now forced to drive.

    Sixthly research by us indicates that travelling by train is at least four times less damaging than travelling by car and half as damaging as travelling by bus. These are figures from Defra/DECC Emissions Factors. Global Warming is a real threat and we must invest in sustainable ways. The train track is there and it would be simple to reinstate the railway except for the tunnel into Aberystwyth and the Bridge over the River at Carmarthen. 93% of the trackbed is unobstructed.

    Seventhly the proportion of households living in poverty in Ceredigion and Sir Gar is 37% – it is 16.8% in the rest of the UK. Poor people cannot afford cars and bus travel in some parts of these two counties is woefully inadequate. Public transport is a socially inclusive matter and rebuilding the railway would enable more to be spent on busses to facilitate people getting to nearby stations.

    Eighthly trains generate income, roads do not; roads have to be maintained and damage by particularly heavy goods vehicles require this maintenance to be done more frequently.

    Finally rebuilding the railway between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen is supported by the health boards (it connects five hospitals) the universities (there are over 50,000 university and FE College students who would use it particularly to get to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth) and it would provide transport for 260,000 residents of the region allowing them to get to work, travel to Cardiff and London. It is supported by all the political parties in Wales and is included in several manifestos, by Ceredigion and Sir Gar, by 46 Community and Town Councils, by 36 AMs and 7 MPs and there are currently over 17,000 signatures on our petition. It fulfills both the Welsh Transport Strategy (2008) and the Well Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. It would provide a huge boost to the tourist industry which is of massive significance to the Welsh economy and it would allow the transfer of heavy goods (particularly timber) from our roads. What is not to like?

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