7. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport: Transforming Rail: Update on the delivery of the South Wales Metro and the Fleet Upgrade Programme

– in the Senedd at 5:46 pm on 4 June 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:46, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

Item 7 today is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport: transforming rail, an update on the delivery of the south Wales metro and the fleet upgrade programme. I call on the Cabinet Secretary, Ken Skates.

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 5:47, 4 June 2024

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Back in November 2015, the then First Minister Carwyn Jones described the south Wales metro as representing the future of public transport in south-east Wales. With the timetable change taking place on the core Valleys lines this week, that future is fast becoming a reality, with more frequent journeys for passengers, improving connectivity, connecting people and creating opportunity. The new timetable is a step change towards the 'turn up and go' service that the metro will provide.

Transport for Wales are now running six trains an hour between Caerphilly and Cardiff and eight trains an hour between Pontypridd and Cardiff—two additional services every hour on both of these routes, providing more choice and more flexibility for passengers. And for the first time, there are Sunday services on the City line in Cardiff, allowing more people to use public transport for leisure or work in the city centre. The new, improved timetable is designed for the brand-new electric trains that will be introduced throughout this year. We are able to make this change to the timetable because of the progress being made to upgrade the infrastructure itself. Every week we're a step closer to the final delivery of this transformational £1 billion programme. Just last week, TfW successfully completed the energisation of the Treherbert line. This will provide power for the new fleet to begin testing and eventually run passenger services on that line. And last month we made history, as the very first electric train ran north of Cardiff to Pontypridd during daylight hours.  

These incremental milestones mark vital steps in our vision to build a world-class metro, offering passengers a glimpse of what the future holds across the core Valleys lines network, a transformation made possible by an investment of £1 billion. It's enabling us to deliver high-quality 'turn up and go' services, brand-new trains and rolling out pay-as-you-go ticketing across the south Wales metro. These improvements show what can be achieved when Welsh Government has the powers and the funding to invest in our railway. We are delivering real change for passengers.

Now, our ability to make transformational change outside the core Valleys lines is more limited. Those powers, and funding, remain with the UK Government. But I am determined that no part of Wales will be left behind. We are coming towards the end of our fleet upgrade programme—over £800 million in brand-new, modern trains serving every corner of Wales. You can now travel from Llandudno to Wrexham, from Holyhead to Milford Haven, or Ebbw Vale to Cardiff, all on brand-new trains that are more comfortable, more reliable and more accessible. We've now received 70 per cent of the new fleet, with more trains being delivered all the time. Some of these are in daily service and some are being used for driver training. By the end of the programme, 90 per cent of journeys with TfW will be on new trains.

Dirprwy Lywydd, we've gone from having one of the oldest train fleets in Britain to having one of the very newest. We will have 484 carriages available, compared to just 270 carriages that we inherited from Arriva Trains Wales in 2018. And these new trains will underpin the consistent high levels of performance that we are determined to deliver.

We know that performance has not always been good enough. Replacing the entire fleet and delivering the largest ever infrastructure investment in Wales has been difficult to manage, but we are emerging from those twin challenges and we have turned a corner. We're starting to reap the rewards of hard work and years of investment.

Transport for Wales have improved their performance right across Wales and the borders. Overall, they are more reliable than any other train operating service within Wales. The latest performance results show year-on-year improvements. In April, 3.4 per cent of all TfW services were cancelled compared to 7.5 per cent last year, and punctuality on the core Valleys lines was over 90 per cent, an almost 10 per cent improvement on last year. And we are doing this whilst carrying more passengers across our services. Transport for Wales are providing a much more reliable and higher quality service for passengers on the Wrexham to Bidston line. New trains operating additional services are encouraging more people to travel on this important cross-border route.

Of course there is more to do, but we will not be complacent. It is time to recognise the real changes that passengers are experiencing. I'm proud of the journey that we are on, and how far we have come since the establishment of Transport for Wales. We have a unique approach in Wales. We will always put passengers first, adjusting our services to meet the demands of when people want and need to travel. We are providing more capacity on the busiest services, and we are delivering more services to reflect demand. This means that in Wales we are now celebrating increased services, improved performance, better customer experience, better reliability and brand-new trains. In short, we are delivering positive, transformational change and there is even more to come in the future. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Natasha Asghar Natasha Asghar Conservative 5:52, 4 June 2024

Thank you so much, Cabinet Secretary, for this afternoon's statement. All of us here, I'm sure, can agree that we want to see top-quality, reliable rail services and integrated transport across the country, with our communities better connected. I don't think anyone can honestly dispute that. But, as things stand, I would argue that residents aren't getting the service that they deserve, despite huge amounts of public cash being pumped into Transport for Wales.

Cabinet Secretary, you talk about the metro with such positivity, but the scheme's architect has come out with some rather stringent criticism. Now, Professor Mark Barry, the man who actually conceived the idea of the south Wales metro, described the scheme, and I quote, as a 'raw deal' for Cardiff and insisted the city wasn't really getting a metro. Professor Barry also said that the scheme, the cost of which has ballooned to north of £1 billion, would not result in any extra services at more than half of the capital city stations. That's quite a big comment to make, Cabinet Secretary. Do you agree with Professor Barry's remarks? And how will you ensure that this transport project does in fact deliver for Cardiff? Increased services, especially later in the evening and on Sundays, will almost certainly be welcomed by many. However, questions are being raised, Cabinet Secretary, about how you will ensure that they will indeed arrive on time. The reason for my concern is because, as we all know, Transport for Wales has racked up more than 1 million minutes worth of delays in 2023—the worst on record to date.

You mention in your statement that punctuality on the core Valleys lines was 90 per cent. That is, of course, welcome news, but how will the Welsh Government ensure that this is maintained going forward? Having repeatedly called for an all-Wales travel card to be introduced, I'm genuinely hand on heart thrilled to see the pay-as-you-go rail fares rolled out, with passengers able to use their bank cards and smart devices to get around, and I do hope, even being the regional Member for south-east Wales, we'll be able to see this in all corners of Wales going forward.

Cabinet Secretary, you said that the Government expects 90 per cent of journeys to be made on new trains by the end of the metro programme, so how confident are you that this target will be hit, and when do you expect us to be hitting the 100 per cent coverage? As part of the metro work, some 40 stations are being renovated. One of the big issues I've been working on in this role is ensuring that public transport hubs are indeed accessible for all. So, Cabinet Secretary, can I get a commitment from you today that the needs of people with disabilities, women and vulnerable users have been taken into account as part of the improvement works, and that things like tactile paving, tannoy systems, in fact accessible and really productive closed-circuit television are going to be installed to ensure passenger safety is paramount, going forward?

New stations are also being built under this project, yet a cloud of uncertainty is hanging over the Cardiff parkway station. As things stand, the east of Cardiff isn't currently served by a railway station, so this development in St Mellons would be key to connecting passengers and ensuring residents in this area benefit from this investment. I've raised this before with you, Cabinet Secretary, and I know you'll be reluctant to perhaps go into specifics right now, but can you please outline a timeline for when a decision is likely to be made on this project?

Cabinet Secretary, there's a lot to be hopeful about, and I do have a level of confidence in you, but it is imperative that the Welsh Government and Transport for Wales get this right and get it right now, because for far too long people in Wales have been let down by a poor public transport network, and that simply has to change. Thank you so much, Deputy Presiding Officer.

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 5:56, 4 June 2024

Well, can I thank Natasha Asghar for her questions and for her positive tone, indeed? I would agree entirely that the prospect of integrated public transport across Wales is exciting and is shared across the political spectrum. And through the bus Bill and other changes, we hope to be able to fully integrate timetables, ticketing and ensure that people in north, south and mid Wales—everywhere in Wales—are able to enjoy a fully integrated public transport system of the highest standard.

Now, in terms of the comments that have been made about Cardiff, they are specific, I understand, to the City line and the regularity of services on that particular route. My understanding is that it would not be possible to conduct the sort of Metro-level services on that line without infrastructure upgrades to infrastructure that is the responsibility of Network Rail. So, ultimately, it comes down to UK Government, because it's part of the main line infrastructure arrangement, to actually make the decision about financing the infrastructure upgrades that are required. So, actually, it's something that we could work together on, I believe, if we could influence UK Government to make the investment required to ensure that the City line can enjoy the same degree of service regularity.

Now, in terms of 2023’s figures, I would agree that they were not good enough, but they have been improving, and we are at a point now where 84 per cent of rail services arrive within three minutes of the timetable, and if we look at the performance of operators across Wales between 1 April and 27 April—and this is just a snapshot of how things are going in 2024, but it does show that there have been significant improvements in Transport for Wales services—we will find that, in the whole of the Wales and borders area, the punctuality rate is 77.9 per cent for that particular month. That is higher any other operator, including Avanti, West Coast, CrossCountry and Great Western. And if you also look at the core Valleys lines, as you identified, the punctuality there has been 90 per cent.

In terms of new rolling stock, we have seen an enormous delivery of the £800 million fleet, and that's across Wales. That applies to the whole of Wales—it's not just confined to the core Valleys areas. And within the next two years, we will see the entire train order delivered, and that will, as I said in my statement, mean that we will have one of the newest fleets anywhere in the United Kingdom, compared to us having inherited one of the oldest fleets back in 2018.

I'd agree entirely as well with Natasha Asghar about the need to ensure that stations are accessible for all, and this was something that the spokesperson and I discussed when we met recently, and there is an advisory group that is able to work with Transport for Wales to ensure that the right sort of infrastructure and the right sort of support is put in place at stations. So, we're increasing the number of ambassadors, for example, but we're also looking at tactile paving to ensure that people who are of partial sighted ability or limited mobility are able to navigate around stations safely.

I'm afraid I can't go into any detail regarding Cardiff parkway at this moment. The Member, and I'm sure most Members in the Chamber, will be aware of the review that’s being conducted into that, and it may well come to me for decision, so I can't comment on that I'm afraid. But I'm sure a decision will be made in the not-too-distant future.

And finally, in regard to pay-as-you-go, I'd share again the enthusiasm of the Member for this particular scheme. It's based on the scheme that is widely used in London. Ultimately, what I would love to see happen is full integration of bus and rail service ticketing and the adoption of pay-as-you-go for all forms of public transport in Wales in the future. That won't be achieved in the short term, because of the amount of infrastructure and technology that is required, but, certainly, as an ultimate objective, I think pay-as-you-go across the bus and train network would be a great ambition to deliver on.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 6:00, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary—I can never remember what that is in Welsh—for updating us on these plans. I caught a train on the new timetable this morning, and it was nice to be able to come to the bay without having to change at Queen Street

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru

I understand that, while some of the new trains have been rolled out already, more are supposed to be added in time for the National Eisteddfod in Pontypridd that we're all very excited about.  Could I ask if the programme is still on time to be able to deliver that? And could you outline what part that will play in providing extra capacity to encourage greater attendance, of course, at this Eisteddfod and how it would assist in helping people get home safely at the end of those days?

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 6:01, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

In order to get the most out of the metro, of course, you have to look further than what will be beneficial for the passengers of today only, in order to make sure that behaviour change does follow.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru

We need to look at densification of development, particularly what affordable housing will be developed, as well as physical and social regeneration projects near those transport hubs in many of our towns in the Valleys that have previously been overlooked. Professor Mark Barry has already been raised this afternoon. He has previously called for a metro development corporation to lead on that work that I've just mentioned.  Is that something that you would commit to working to achieve, please?

Finally, I'd like to raise the issue of the devolution and the funding of Transport for Wales, and not just Transport for Wales, but transport of Wales and in Wales. A lot of these new developments, really, I think that they are to be welcomed. There is a lot here that is exciting. But the current arrangements that we have that constrain what is possible—and you've already mentioned what's not going to be possible at the moment for the City line—are simply an unfairness, a fundamental unfairness for Wales.  The Welsh Government has had to pay for the south Wales network, these changes, out of the overall budget. Transport infrastructure is not devolved. And one of the most unfair manifestations of this—we'll have a debate on this tomorrow—is the fact that we're having to fork out £4 billion for high-speed rail networks in England, and not a single piece of track for that is laid in Wales.

Now, in the context of what we've been discussing this afternoon, imagine, all of us, what could have been done with that money. Cabinet Secretary, I'm sure that you would agree with how not just frustrating but unjust that is, because, under the current arrangements, would you agree that surely we cannot—? As to the ambition that we can have for transport and throughout the network without those devolved powers, there is a cap on that ambition, isn't there? Without the Barnettisation of transport infrastructure spend for England, there is a cap on what will be possible.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 6:04, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

There is no reason why we could not have these powers devolved. Countries across Europe manage cross-border infrastructure effectively. Wales has no say in so many of these decisions.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 6:03, 4 June 2024

An economy that is based entirely around Westminster will never work for Wales. We can see this in the failure of the levelling-up programme. We need to have control, surely, over our own funding for our transport network to truly level up our communities. So, do you agree that we need, in order to have that ambition, those extra powers to get us to where we need to be?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 6:04, 4 June 2024

Dirprwy Lywydd, can I thank Delyth Jewell for her questions? I share many of the concerns the Member has raised this afternoon. I would say at the outset that I do not have specific detail about the trains that are going to be coming into use in the next couple of months that will be appropriate for carrying passengers to the Eisteddfod, but what I can say is that, on some key routes, we have now seen the train fleet return to around about 90 per cent where they are new. On the north Wales main line it's 80 per cent, and on the Wrexham to Bidston line, for example, all services are provided by new trains. At the moment, we've got 342 of the 484 carriages that will ultimately be available, and 71 per cent of those are new as well, but I will write to the Member regarding how we are introducing new trains to the network in the next couple of months.

Now, in terms of what's being undertaken at a regional level and regarding the south-east Wales metro and, indeed, metro plans elsewhere, the Member will be aware that corporate joint committees at the moment are taking greater responsibility for transport planning, and, at the moment, they are putting together regional transport plans. They are also putting together the regional development plans and, at a regional level, through the corporate joint committees, there is a great keenness to make sure that the two plans for transport and for permissible development are processed at the same time so that they are able to integrate fully and so that sensible decisions can be made regarding development alongside transport provision.

Now, I could talk at length regarding the deal that Wales gets regarding rail infrastructure. If any Member is interested, I can provide the evidence that I gave to the UK parliamentary committee for transport a few weeks ago, but, in brief, what I’d say is we do need to have a phased process of devolution alongside fair funding for rail investment in Wales. As things stand, because we are part of the Wales and western region for investment through Network Rail, we are essentially having to compete with routes right from the Thames valley across to Penzance, and, unfortunately, because of the Treasury Green Book and the way that it operates in terms of investment decisions, we will always be competing with more affluent areas that carry larger number of passengers, and therefore we will be at a disadvantage, because, normally, that’s where the investment goes to, to those areas where you get the greatest return, where the Treasury are able to deem that a particular project has a strong benefit-cost ratio. So, we do need reform of not just the decision making that takes place, and to devolve the decision-making process, but we also have to have a fair funding mechanism in place alongside that.

Now, the reason I gave evidence to the committee a few weeks ago is because they were interested in the draft rail Bill in the establishment of Great British rail, and it’s my firm feel that if Great British rail were to be taken forward, then we as Welsh Ministers, Wales as a nation, would have to be able to determine how and/or where funding for rail investment is carried out, and that would obviously be to the benefit of the Wales and borders service area that we are responsible for.

Photo of Jenny Rathbone Jenny Rathbone Labour 6:07, 4 June 2024

Thank you for your statement. First, I'm sure you'd want to join me in paying tribute to Lee Waters for the excellent ambition and energy he put into driving forward this £800 million investment in brand-new trains. I welcome the improvements on the City line, because it's serving the part of Cardiff where there was a huge number of houses built without a proper public transport system put in, which obviously has caused an enormous amount of congestion and air pollution. So, any improvement on the City line is really going to benefit people in Cardiff.

I wondered if I could ask you a little bit more about the pay-as-you-go ticketing and the link of the bus reregulation programme, so that the south Wales metro is both rail and buses. And the other thing is, I wondered if, before the general election was called, you'd had any opportunity to talk to the UK Government about where and when we're going to get the investment in the four lines running east of Cardiff Central that continue to be the responsibility of the underfunded Network Rail and the UK Government. Otherwise, we are going to continue to have people commuting into Cardiff who live east and north of Newport by car because the services are just not good enough, and so I wondered if you could say a little bit more about that.

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 6:09, 4 June 2024

Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for her questions and her contribution, and agree that Lee Waters made a huge contribution to this ambitious project? I'd also like to pay tribute to my predecessor as transport Minister, Edwina Hart, and Edwina Hart's predecessor as well, Carl Sargeant, all of whom were heavily involved in the development of the south Wales metro, and the creation of Transport for Wales. Perhaps, above all, I should pay tribute to the former First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well, effectively whose vision this was. Both Carwyn Jones and Mark Drakeford, as well, as First Minister, were huge supporters of this scheme, and it has truly been a group effort, a team effort, to get to where we are so far today. It will go on being a team effort, involving all of the regions of Wales as we seek to modernise the rail network across our country.

In terms of the four lines to the east of Cardiff Central, I'm afraid no commitment was given to me prior to the general election by UK Government Ministers of the need to upgrade the infrastructure and the willingness to do so. The City line, of course, will see improvements itself. We would like to see further improvements in terms of service provision in the future to that particular line, but, as I said to Natasha Asghar, unfortunately, we are relying on the UK Government for a decision over investment in that particular piece of infrastructure.

With regard to pay-as-you-go ticketing, I think this is a really, really exciting initiative, and, essentially, it's based on new zonal fares, so it will always capture you the least expensive option for tickets. It will also have a capped rate, as well, so that you are never paying more than you would do if you were to purchase the individual tickets. Effectively, it's how people pay for travel on the London underground. It's already in operation on services on the Ebbw line and between Newport and Pontyclun, and it's going to roll out to the entire south Wales metro area this year. But, as Jenny Rathbone mentioned, the ultimate ambition is to have this as an integrated payment system, integrated with bus services, and, ultimately, not just in the south-east Wales metro area. I'd like to see it taken further; I'd like to see this become a national approach, but it would require a huge amount of investment in the infrastructure at stations and in digital infrastructure. But it is not an ambition that we should shy away from.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 6:12, 4 June 2024

May I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his statement? Obviously, there's a great deal of excitement in the region that I represent about some of the changes that are coming into play and, obviously, the new fleet is very welcome. But, you will know that one of the concerns was around toilets on the new fleet. This is a huge concern of constituents of mine, especially looking at the timetable where, in the evenings, there will be one an hour. So, there are concerns, then, about what they are supposed to do. Do they have to wait on a platform for an hour? So, if they do need to go to the toilet, the advice was to get off the train, use the facilities at those stations. Is there a guarantee those facilities will be open? Also, terms of passenger safety, will that be assured, because people are nervous about the idea of getting off a train late in the evening. So, on just some of the practicalities, I wonder if you could clarify.

Also, in terms of the last train from Treherbert back to Cardiff Bay, the last one is at 21:12, which means if you want to enjoy dinner in the Valleys or go to the Parc and Dare in Treorchy, actually, you'd have to leave before the end of the play. So, what plans are there to extend so that we're connecting not only Cardiff to the Valleys, but ensuring that people can access the services and spend money in our Valleys before returning to Cardiff?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 6:13, 4 June 2024

These are superb questions that I have raised recently and will be continuing to raise with Transport for Wales in the coming weeks. I am meeting with the chief executive in a couple of weeks' time, and it was my intention, actually, to raise the issue of cleanliness of stations, of safety at stations and the provision of toilets, having myself recently travelled late in the evening between Chester and Wrexham. The service provision was excellent, but it did strike me that we have to ensure, for women in particular, that stations are as safe as they can possibly be.

In terms of toilets, the south-east Wales metro will be no different to pretty much any other metro in the United Kingdom or around the globe. I don't know of another metro that has on-transport toilets. Certainly, in terms of trains, there can be toilets included, but in terms of metro vehicles—so, the trams, if you like—very few manufacturers, if any, provide such vehicles with toilets on board, and it's largely because of how narrow they are and disability access being difficult with how narrow they are. But it does mean that the provision of toilets at stations is vitally important. I'll take up the Member's points with the chief executive of Transport for Wales. I'll ask him to outline any service provision that is going to be improved in the coming months and years regarding toilet facilities and safety at stations, because I think this is a really important point to make for people who would, perhaps, use train services of an evening but are put off because of a fear over their security or the provision of toilet facilities. 

All our services are revenue dependent. Basically, they have to have a subsidy in order to operate, with the exception of very few services, primarily those between Cardiff and Manchester and, I believe, north Wales mainline services to Manchester as well. They are the ones that generate the highest levels of revenue. Our ambition for later evening services is based on the need to increase the farebox from other services. The whole point of the metro within the south-east Wales area is that we'll be providing more services to more passengers, which will generate a higher farebox, which will then enable us to use the subsidy in other areas of Wales and, indeed, later into the evening and potentially earlier into the morning. So, essentially, we're going to be raising the farebox in order to pay for enhanced services right across Wales. 

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of John Griffiths John Griffiths Labour 6:16, 4 June 2024

Cabinet Secretary, as we've already mentioned in this statement, outside the core Valleys lines, the Welsh Government's ability to make transformational change is more limited, and obviously partnership with the UK Government is vital. As you do, I'm sure, I hope for a new UK Labour Government in short order. How would you work with a new UK Labour Government, if we have one, on projects such as new rail stations at Magor, Llanwern and Somerton in Newport East, which could help bring that transformational change beyond the core Valleys lines? And would you agree with me that having CAF, the train manufacturer, in Wales—again in Newport East, in my constituency—has been very important in contributing to the new rolling stock and will be very important for the present and future?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 6:17, 4 June 2024

I thank John Griffiths for his questions. I would agree, the presence of CAF in Newport is enormously important for the region and for the whole of Wales. We're very proud to have been able to attract CAF to Wales, building those fantastic 197 trains that many of us use on a very regular basis, increasing the quality of service provided and providing reliability. The presence of CAF, I think, has also brought the attention of decision makers at a UK level to what we could deliver further west in Wales, the global centre for rail excellence. We know that train manufacturers have to undergo testing, but that testing takes place on main lines and on branch lines. It would be something for the whole of Europe to celebrate in terms of the rail industry if we could deliver the global centre for rail excellence. And it's something I would hope a future UK Government—and as I see it, hopefully a future Labour Government—would indeed invest in. 

In terms of the additional stations that John Griffiths outlined, of course, the south-east Wales commission identified these additional stations as being vitally important as part of the report by Lord Burns and his team, and it was also identified through the union connectivity review as being vitally important. So, as we look towards a future UK Government, we will, no doubt, be discussing investment opportunities right across Wales. But, of course, the two big pieces of work recently regarding rail infrastructure have concerned north Wales, with the north Wales transport commission, and then the south-east Wales transport commission, looking specifically at the Newport area and the wider area around the M4. So, we're keen to make sure that we can progress with delivery against those reports, and that would include, of course, additional railway stations. 

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:19, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that statement.