Aberystwyth to Carmarthen Railway Reopening — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 3:58 pm on 20 February 2019.

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[Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 4:00, 20 February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered reopening the railway between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Paisley. It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship.

The Carmarthen to Aberystwyth rail line fell victim to the infamous Beeching axe in 1965. Together with the closure of the Afon Wen to Bangor line, this closure has meant that for more than 50 years, people in Wales have had to cross the border into England to travel between the north and south of their country by rail.

That is precisely what happens when a country allows another country to determine its transport policy. To this day, decisions over rail infrastructure remain the preserve of Westminster, with Wales left to deal with the far-reaching financial and economic consequences. What appears reasonable on Whitehall spreadsheets and maps has far-reaching and always overlooked consequences in Welsh communities. The people of my country face the indignity of a dilapidated transport system, with no line linking the north and the south, while having to pay, via their taxes, for England to get an incalculably expensive vanity project that links the north and south of that country. At the same time, the British Government refuse to provide full Barnett consequentials for Wales.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn

I have full sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, having spent three happy years in Carmarthen, which, as he knows, is home to the successful University of Wales Trinity Saint David. How are we to attract students to that world-class institution when it is really difficult to travel between Carmarthen, Lampeter and Aberystwyth? I am told there is a great university in Aberystwyth, too, which the hon. Gentleman may have attended at one point.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I was fully aware of the hon. Gentleman’s history in Carmarthen. He will realise the importance of a north-south link in the context of the west of our country. I will deal with his point about universities later, but he is absolutely right to highlight the importance of linking those higher education institutions to enable us to develop the economy of the west of our country.

Let us knock on the head the British Government’s fake truth about the Barnett consequentials from HS2. Unlike Northern Ireland and Scotland, Wales does not receive its full share of spending from HS2. In the latest statement of funding policy, which accompanied the last comprehensive spending review, Wales had a 0% rating for HS2 whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland had 100% ratings, showing once again that the British Government regard my country as nothing more than the west of England. This week, the boss of HS2 essentially said he has no idea how much the project will cost and no way of calculating it. Mr Paisley, I am sure you can appreciate our concern in Wales about the current arrangements.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My hon. Friend mentioned north-south links and talked about HS2. There is actually a north-south rail link on the west coast of Wales, but if someone wants to go by train from Aberystwyth to Porthmadog to Llandudno Junction, a critical part of their journey will be on the delightful but steam-powered Ffestiniog railway.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I am grateful for that intervention by my party’s parliamentary leader. I have long had an ambition to go on that rail line, but that shows the lack of serious investment in Welsh rail infrastructure over the years.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most peculiar things about the current devolution settlement for rail infrastructure is that the Secretary of State for Wales makes bold statements about looking to expand lines and open new lines but Wales, which has 11% of the track, has had only 2% of the infrastructure investment in the nine years for which the Conservative party has been in government? That simply is not sustainable if the British Government are going to continue to hold all the economic levers for railway infrastructure investment. They must invest—they must step up to the plate and do their job.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I have a very simple answer to that problem: devolve responsibility for rail infrastructure to Wales, as is the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland. That would give us the key consequentials.

I will return to that point, but I want to continue concentrating on HS2 for a minute. If we consider that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority estimates that it will cost £80 billion, Wales would get about £4 billion if we received our full share. This is not just about HS2, of course; there will also be HS3 and Crossrail 2. The former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, calculated that London will need more than £1 trillion of investment to cope with the extra demand of planned investments by 2050.

Just to be clear, I am not calling for a high-speed line between north and south Wales. I am not even calling for an electrified line. What I am here to ask for is a line, so that the people of my country can travel by rail between the north and south of their own country without having to leave it.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

I am more sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments on this subject than he might expect. He refers, not unreasonably, to the people of our country, but this does not affect just the people of our country; it affects the people of any country who happen to visit Wales and might bring wealth and investment to our aid. They do not have to be from Wales.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right. I will go on to talk about the development of the Borders line in Scotland, which has been an incredible success. I have no doubt that a north-south railway would be a huge attraction to the tourists who come to Wales and to that sector of our economy.

The facts on rail spending in Wales are sobering. According to the Welsh Government’s Minister for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, Wales has 11% of the British state’s rail network, but has received only 1% of the investment—that is 11% of the network and 1% of the spend. There is no such thing as a Union dividend for Wales, and it is a record that shames every single Unionist politician based in my country—I do not mean to upset my near neighbours.

The economic consequences of that imbalance should send a shiver down anyone’s spine, let alone those who aspire to see the British state as a vaguely cohesive unit. Of the British state’s 12 nations and regions, only three are in surplus. It will not come as a surprise to anyone to hear that those areas are none other than London, the south-east of England, and the east of England. The wealth per head in inner London, based on the latest figures, is an incredible 614% of the European Union average. To put that into perspective, in the communities that I represent in the industrial valleys and the west of my country, that figure is only 68%. That disgraceful record is no accident. It is the direct result of British Government policy, based on a philosophy that the role of Westminster is to throw all the resources at London, with the nations and regions left to share out the crumbs. In Wales, we are no longer dealing with crumbs, but with the dust the crumbs leave behind.

The excellent researchers at the Wales Governance Centre have calculated that, had transport infrastructure in Wales kept pace with spending in London since 1999, an extra £5.6 billion would have been invested in Welsh transport. In such a case we would not be having this debate today, because the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth rail line would already have been built. Indeed, we would have not only that line, but the Swansea Bay metro, the Cardiff Bay metro, and full electrification on both north and south main lines. Imagine the economic productivity gains for Wales and the far-reaching consequences for the wellbeing and opportunities of my fellow countrymen and women if that were the case. Wales is relatively poor because Westminster decides to keep us poor.

The British state is broken beyond repair. Brexit was largely driven by those disgraceful imbalances, and the great tragedy of this moment in history is that Brexit will more than likely exacerbate those imbalances, rather than offer a remedy. Had the British state remained in the EU, communities in its poorest parts were likely to have received £13 billion in convergence funding in the next spending round—a 22% increase from the 2014-20 spending cycle, according to the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions. West Wales and the valleys is a convergence area and therefore a direct recipient of EU regional aid. Here we are almost three years after the referendum, and only a year from the end of the current European convergence period, and the British Government have yet to provide a single detail about their shared prosperity fund.

We all know that Wales is about to be done over once again, despite the clear promises that we would not lose a single penny—promises that were made by the Secretary of State for Transport. If Brexit Britannia is not to turn out to be a 21st-century Tartarus, there must be a major rethink of policy priority, with a long-term view of economic planning based on dealing with the gross geographical wealth inequalities within the British state. Central to that will be the need to ensure an equitable share of infrastructure investment.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He makes a valid point about the need to reconnect our communities and bring about economic regeneration in the western part of Wales. Does he agree that other benefits will come with connecting Aberystwyth and Carmarthen, not least for our local health services, and particularly for individuals in Aberystwyth who find the trek down to Glangwili and Carmarthen by bus or car far too onerous?

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My hon. Friend is right, and I congratulate him on his work since he was elected as the Member of Parliament for Ceredigion in pushing forward this whole project. He is absolutely right, and that is one of the benefits that I will mention later, because for health and other public services, having a spine rail line linking the two largest towns in the west of our country will be hugely beneficial.

Unless the British Government can be unhooked from their obsession with high finance and London, the structural imbalances of the British state economy of low productivity, low wages, and high personal debt will continue unabated—indeed they will get worse. The economist Grace Blakeley writes forcefully in the New Statesman this week about the need for an economic green new deal. The Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line fits into that sort of stimulus to a T. It is not just about the rail line itself, but how it would act as a literal economic spine. It would provide a much-needed north-south economic focus, which is a far more natural focus for those of us living in the west of Wales, as opposed to the obsession with east-west links. The communities are ideal for any economic strategy based on environmental investment because of our abundance of natural resources.

Too often, the missing link is physical connectivity. The line would open up significant opportunities for bulk freight movement, linking the western ports of Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock with the southern ports of Swansea, Cardiff and Newport. If the west of my country was linked from top to bottom, it would link three universities—Bangor, Aberystwyth and the University of Wales’s campuses in Lampeter, Carmarthen and now in Swansea. The line would promote greater collaboration between two university health boards, as my hon. Friend Ben Lake said, and a range of other public services. It would make the hospital in Aberystwyth far more viable. We have a threat at the moment of services being restructured in the west of Wales.

Aberystwyth and Carmarthen are two of the largest towns in the west of my country, yet anyone who wishes to make that journey by train today would face an average journey time of seven hours and five minutes. The fastest possible route is five hours and 52 minutes. The old rail line closed to freight in 1973. Since 2000, calls to reopen the line have intensified. I pay tribute to the dedicated work of the campaign group, Traws Link Cymru. We were lucky enough to meet it a few weeks ago in the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion, and it has done incredible work in developing the case. Its proposed route would use much of the existing line, with a new section from Alltwalis to Carmarthen, in the constituency of my friend, Simon Hart. Stations along the route would include Pencader or Llandysul and Llanybydder in my constituency, and Lampeter, Tregaron and Llanilar in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion. The expected journey would be one hour thirty minutes, compared with the more than two hours 20 minutes that the bus service takes. Despite the slow march of the bus route, it provides a service for more than a quarter of a million people per annum. The link would have a huge impact on Welsh connectivity, providing for a figure-of-eight system for Wales and reducing the rail journey between Aberystwyth and the capital city of Cardiff by more than two hours.

Opponents of the project will throw back the cost-benefit analysis. However, more than 55,000 people live on the proposed route, compared with the 50,000 who live on the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line. The mid Wales line thankfully survived Beeching’s axe, and its passenger numbers are increasing, providing a vital link between Welshpool, Newtown, Machynlleth and Aberystwyth.

As a result of the Budget deal between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour Government, Mott MacDonald was commissioned to undertake a feasibility study on the project. It calculated that if the rail line was up and running by 2024, it would generate 370,000 trips. That would rise to 425,000 by 2027 and 489,000 by 2037. Public appetite for rail is growing and the Minister will be more than familiar with the incredible success of the Scottish Borders line since it was reopened.

In the case of Carmarthen to Aberystwyth and the link to journeys further north, we are talking about, in the words of “Lonely Planet”,

“one of the most beautiful countries in the world”.

What better way to appreciate the splendour of Wales than on a pan-nation rail journey, especially considering that 85% of all visitors into the catchment area of the rail line are day tourists. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made that point eloquently.

The report puts the approximate cost at £775 million. For the British Government, that is not a lot of money, and they have shown they can find the money when they need to, whether that is £1 billion to bribe 10 MPs from across the Irish sea or £5 billion to prop up this place for privileged politicians. The cost of refurbishing this place will go up considerably, I have no doubt. The report calculates that the project would create 2,584 gross jobs along the line, with only 144 of them directly attributable to the railway. It calculates that £170.1 million per annum will be created in gross GVA. I am confident that those figures could be magnified if a proper detailed economic strategy was put in place to increase the impact of the line.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the old line between Afon Wen and Bangor. We talk about advantages for south-west Wales, but moving ahead with that line would replicate those same advantages in north-west Wales, which has just as much need of them and just as much need of improved transport links.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Wylfa Newydd, which is now viewed as a white elephant and is in grave danger, was seen as the saviour of the economy of the north of our country. The reality is that we need a major project in Wales; we need a major project in the west of our country.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

My hon. Friend is generous with his time. To elaborate on his point about the railway’s potentially being a spine of the economy, it could also be the spine of a more integrated transport network, allowing bus services that currently service the main towns to be redirected to the smaller villages, thus bringing a lot more connectivity to the more rural areas of west Wales.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I was born and raised in the Amman valley in Carmarthenshire and he was born and raised in Ceredigion. We understand the challenges of travelling very small distances within the communities that we represent. This project could integrate public transport and get people out of their cars. It could actually make public transport viable.

Our horizons should be broader. Why not do something really innovative and exciting as part of this project and operate battery or hydrogen-powered passenger trains on the line? I am not an engineering expert, but why not design the line with inclines leading up to stations and declines leaving them, to allow a battery-powered train to regenerate? I am led to believe that Network Rail has trialled a battery-operated train, the Class 379 Electrostar, between Harwich International and Manningtree. Bombardier is a world leader in producing battery-powered trains, so there are opportunities to create manufacturing jobs within the British state on the back of the project.

With the new nuclear power station, Wylfa Newydd, in difficulty, the west of my country needs a new big idea, as I said in answer to my hon. Friend Liz Saville Roberts. This rail line would cost considerably less than the exposure of the British Treasury to a new nuclear power station.

In a recent meeting with Traws Link Cymru, I was supplied with a letter dated April 2017 to the former Member for Lincoln, Mr Karl McCartney, from the then Transport Minister, Paul Maynard. Mr McCartney had a great interest in the project because he used to be a student at Lampeter University. In the letter, the former Minister said that

“if the Welsh Government progress positively with the studies conducted and subsequently decide that the reopening of this line is a transport priority for Wales, I would have no objection to fund and deliver the scheme.”

Will the Minister to confirm that the British Government have no objection to funding and delivering this scheme if the Welsh Government make the appropriate request? If not, will he finally give Wales the tools to do it ourselves?

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:18, 20 February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate Jonathan Edwards on securing the debate.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s interest in ensuring that the corridor between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen in which this former rail line is located has the transport infrastructure that it needs to flourish and grow, and I agree that the potential role of reopening that line needs to be carefully considered by regional partners alongside potential improvements to existing transport links. He thinks that that area of Wales is one of the most beautiful in the world. I entirely agree. My name might be Jones, but I have to say that I am a Yorkshire Jones, rather than a Welsh Jones.

The hon. Gentleman says that the Government are not investing anywhere outside London and have ignored Wales. I do not accept that. The Government have committed to investing in Wales. We delivered the Wales Act 2017, which places the Welsh devolution settlement on a firm footing and builds further powers in areas such as transport, elections and energy. We are providing a boost of more than £550 million to the Welsh Government’s budget, including more than £25 million from a 5% uplift in the Barnett consequentials. By 2020, the Welsh Government’s block grant will have grown to more than £16 billion before tax devolution adjustments, which is a real-terms increase over the spending review period.

The Williams review is looking at the structure of our rail industry and includes a review of devolutionary arrangements. I hope that we will see more devolution in our services, but let us see where that goes. We do not yet know what Mr Williams will recommend.

The UK Government recognise that improving transport connections is an important part of helping people to access job opportunities, supporting business growth and access to education in Wales. Throughout control period 5, which covered the period from 2014 to now, Network Rail invested £900 million in the Welsh rail network. That includes a £50 million project to upgrade the north Wales railway, including new signalling on the north Wales coast mainline from Shotton to Colwyn Bay, which was completed only last year.

Network Rail’s proposed investment for the rail network during CP6, which starts in April and runs to 2024, is £1.34 billion. The Welsh Government now have responsibility for franchising rail services in Wales, and franchises bring investment. The new Transport for Wales franchise will recruit an additional 600 members of staff and invest £194 million in station improvements.

We have committed £125 million to the upgrade of the Valley lines as part of a wider contribution of £500 million to the Cardiff capital region investment fund, which will help to drive the growth and employment increase in the Cardiff region that we all want. Through our investment, Wales is benefiting directly from a range of projects.

HS2 was mentioned as a white elephant. I do not accept that. HS2 will deliver the capacity and connectivity that our United Kingdom needs. It will benefit the people of Wales, most obviously by bringing forward by six years the delivery of HS2 to Crewe to give access to north Wales. The idea that the Government are focused only on London is simply not correct.

In addition to the spending I mentioned earlier, Bow Street station near Aberystwyth was announced as one of the five successful new station fund 2 stations in July 2017. The scheme received close to £4 million from that fund in addition to £2.4 million from the Welsh Government. The station will increase accessibility to the rail network, improve transport integration and provide an alternative to car journeys. It is on schedule for completion by April next year.

The line from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen was closed to passenger traffic in 1965, although a section remained open to freight until 1973, as the hon. Gentleman said. I am aware of the local group, Traws Link Cymru, which campaigns to reopen the line. The group was established in 2013 and calls for the reinstatement of rail links across west Wales. I pay tribute to its work. It has raised the profile of the case for reinstating that 55-mile link. The scheme has been discussed here on several occasions, including a debate in November 2017.

Our rail strategy, “Connecting people”, includes exploring opportunities to restore capacity lost under Beeching where it unlocks growth for housing or commercial development, eases crowded routes or offers value for money. The strategy makes it clear that any potential line reopening would need to demonstrate a strong business case if Government funding were sought. If we are to invest in reopening routes, they have to unlock economic or housing opportunities, or break up a point of congestion.

The Government have, however, consistently explained throughout the years that local authorities and local leadership are best placed to decide on and take forward transport schemes that will most directly benefit their local areas. We work closely with individual authorities to help them to take forward schemes that they are interested in progressing.

The rail planning process is led by Network Rail with input from a wide range of stakeholders and funders. In March 2016, Network Rail published its Welsh route study, which sets out its strategic vision for the network in Wales over the next 10 to 30 years. That route strategy will inform decisions by funders for the period up to 2024, and the reopening of the route between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen is identified as a stakeholder aspiration. It has not, however, been identified as a potential priority for funders during that period.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Welsh Government and local authorities have commissioned useful reports over the years. A scoping study commissioned by the Welsh Government, which reported in October 2015, set out all the issues to be considered in a full feasibility study into reopening the line. The report identified a large section of former track bed that remains in place, but there are other engineering challenges. It discussed the potential routes to obtaining consent, along with the operational and environmental considerations.

In November 2016 a strategic case jointly commissioned by Ceredigion/Cardigan County Council appraised potential options for improving strategic connections between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. It recommended that road-based options were taken forward and a rail link not pursued further. That was followed by a Welsh Government-funded £300,000 feasibility study completed only last year that estimated the cost of reinstatement at £775 million.

The study identified numerous challenges, including the continued need to accommodate the Gwili Railway Preservation Society, which runs on part of the former track bed. It considered the environmental impact: ground conditions, property impacts and the need for environmental protection of peat bogs. Subject to the satisfactory resolution of the issues, the report states that initial operational assessments have determined that the reinstated route could provide a regular hourly train service between Aberystwyth, Llanilar, Tregaron, Lampeter, Llanybydder, Pencader and Carmarthen—I am not sure I got the pronunciations absolutely correct—with an end-to-end journey time of around 85 minutes. It really comes down to how we can best serve the transport connections in that area to deliver the connections that Ben Lake articulated very clearly.

The route can include bus services as well. The hon. Gentleman mentioned there was a bus service. There is a road-based transport link in the TrawsCymru bus service, funded by the Welsh Government. It has operated since 2014, seven days a week, between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. It has an hourly service on weekdays and Saturdays. I recognise the journey takes more than two hours, but it does connect Aberystwyth and Carmarthen rail stations and offers free weekend travel. TrawsCymru is an important part of the integrated transport network in Wales. The route between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen connects with Bwcabus and is a fully accessible bus service.

I will finish by congratulating the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr on the commitment that he and his local groups have shown to the issue. I recognise entirely the case he makes for broader devolution with transport budgets, but I also have to highlight that the Government look to local leaders, local authorities and the Welsh Government to determine their priorities for connectivity in his region and in Wales. On this particular proposal they think the transport need can be met through other solutions, but of course that may change over time. I look forward to seeing how the Welsh Government determine their transport priorities in the future.