A £70 MILLION loan to progress plans to re-open the rail line between Newport and Ebbw Vale has been accepted by Blaenau Gwent council.
The interest-free loan provided by the Welsh Government will enable work to increase the frequency of train services from Ebbw Vale to Newport and Cardiff.
Blaenau Gwent council agreed to accept the funding at a meeting last week, despite concerns over how it will be repaid raised by the authority’s Labour and minority Independent groups.
The council’s Labour group has also called for a guarantee that a direct service between Ebbw Vale and Newport will be delivered.
Welsh Government said it is expected the project will be completed to allow a full Ebbw Vale to Newport service to operate in 2023.
It is expected that the service will be hourly.
In a ministerial statement, Ken Skates, minister for economy, transport and North Wales, and Lee Waters, deputy minister for economy and transport, said: “As a clear example of our commitment to achieving our modal shift target we are making available an interest free loan of £70 million to Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council.
“This is to take forward in conjunction with Network Rail and Transport for Wales the infrastructure on the Ebbw Vale line which will secure the additional service between Newport and Ebbw Vale, and help unlock our jointly-held aspirations to re-open the spur to Abertillery ultimately increasing services to four trains per hour.”
Campaigners have long called for the link between Ebbw Vale and Newport, which was closed to passengers in April 1962, to be restored.
It was previously announced, as part of the new Wales and Borders rail contract run by Transport for Wales, that a direct link would be restored this year.
At a Blaenau Gwent council meeting, Labour and minority Independent groups put forward an alternative recommendation calling for the Ebbw Vale to Newport link to be “a firm commitment”.
The recommendation also said that “Blaenau Gwent will not carry the burden of the arrangement alone and that discussions with Newport and Caerphilly open immediately”.
However this was defeated in favour of an option accepting the loan, it is understood.
Cllr Stephen Thomas, the council’s Labour group leader, claimed the ruling Independent group were “suspiciously reluctant to guarantee that the Newport link was confirmed”.
“We also demanded further detail and understanding on potential loan insurance payments, which could put a crippling burden on the council for the next 50 years,” he said.
“There is a lot at stake here, and our residents deserve to know the full facts before the council proceeds with the venture.”
Cllr Phil Edwards, minority Independent group leader, said residents in Blaenau Gwent “should not be penalised for this with further council tax hikes”.
“This loan would be a huge burden over 50 years for Blaenau Gwent alone to bear,” he said.
A Blaenau Gwent council spokesman said the Welsh Government’s transport strategy is “welcome news”.
“The planned work and funding to develop the rail infrastructure in the Ebbw Valley to increase the frequency of train services to Newport and Cardiff will have many benefits for Blaenau Gwent residents,” he said.
“It will help in bringing people closer to employment and affordable housing, as well as attracting tourists to the area.
“We can now work on plans to develop the infrastructure projects with our partners in Network Rail and Transport for Wales.”
The spokesman added: “The matters raised by members in last week’s meeting will be addressed in a future report for the council to consider and approve.”