FAR-REACHING proposals to improve train and bus services in South West Wales must have regional backing to help persuade central Government to fund them, transport experts have said.
Ben George, of Transport for Wales (TfW), and academic and consultant Mark Barry, made the call during a discussion about the Swansea Bay and West Wales Metro.
Work has been going on in the background to develop a better integrated transport network in Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.
There are three broad themes to this Swansea Bay and West Wales Metro concept: more train services on the South Wales Main Line, including faster journey times to Swansea and Pembrokeshire; new rail services between Pontarddulais and Swansea – via Neath – and new services between Swansea and Burry Port, Carmarthenshire; plus station improvements and improved local connectivity.
A draft outline business case for specific improvements is due to be completed shortly.
Mr George and Professor Barry gave an update to leaders of the Swansea Bay City Region on July 8.
Prof Barry urged leaders to support the Metro proposals and work with regional leaders in South Wales and North Wales, who are developing Metro transport projects of their own.
“The funding will come from the Treasury, and if the Treasury are getting the message from whatever source they are dealing with in Wales that this is an important, or one of the most important projects, it’s more likely to get traction,” said Prof Barry. “This is the reality.”
Differing priorities have been voiced within the Swansea Bay and West Wales area. Leaders in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire prioritise faster and more frequent main line services to West Wales, whereas Swansea and Neath Port Talbot chiefs have voiced concern about some trains potentially bypassing their city and town centres en route to the west.
Mr George said the Metro team was building up a picture of rail capacity in the west of the region and, using mobile phone data, passenger usage.
He said he was optimistic about “tangible options” when the outline base case was published, subject to satisfactory business cases.
These include new passenger rail services on freight lines in the Swansea and surrounding area, and better service frequency between Carmarthen and West Wales. Trains are also due to stop at a re-opened St Clears rail station in Carmarthenshire from 2024 onwards.
Mr George said he and his colleagues would need to demonstrate “explicit buy-in and support” from the region when discussions were held with UK Government and Welsh Government officials.
He said he was pleased the feedback from a recent consultation on the Swansea Bay and West Wales Metro project, which elicited more than 600 responses, was broadly supportive.
Prof Barry said the UK Government and Welsh Government would also have to agree on what could be delivered.
He said: “Without such agreement, and some give and take on both sides, much of what is being proposed and developed through TfW all over Wales will likely struggle to be delivered.”
Prof Barry said if the Welsh Government identified, for example, £3 billion to £3.5 billion of public transport improvements, then around £1.5 billion of that would need to come from Network Rail via the UK Government.
Prof Barry also said he felt the Welsh Government was “grappling” with how to achieve its aim of decarbonising buses and taxis by 2028.
Decarbonisation, he said, was the “elephant in the room”.
He added: “It is non-trivial and requires some very tough decisions to be made politically to deliver the (transport) mode shift required.
“The expectation must be that we have a multi-billion pound programme of enhancements in rail and bus in the next 10 to 15 years to get anywhere near those decarbonisation targets.”
A more integrated bus system, said Prof Barry, often relied on better rail services.
Carmarthenshire Council leader Emlyn Dole, who chaired the Swansea Bay City Region joint committee meeting, said improved rail journey times between Swansea and West Wales was “front and centre for us” – a view echoed by Pembrokeshire Council leader David Simpson.
Mr George said the business case for expenditure the further west you went was harder due to its smaller catchment area, but he stressed to anyone listening that they shouldn’t read too much into that.
The draft outline business case, he said, had “some really good improvements for the whole region”.
Neath Port Talbot Council leader Ted Latham described the Swansea Bay and West Wales Metro as a “no-brainer” which had to go ahead.
Swansea Council chief executive Phil Roberts said his concern was that dialogue between the three Metro regions in Wales was not currently happening.
Mr Roberts said it would be “catastrophic” if the regions developed their own transport schemes in isolation.