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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:18 pm on 20th February 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:18 pm, 20th 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.