Salt in an open wound

Speech to Rail Cymru 23 Conference at Holland House Hotel Cardiff, 20th April 2023

Thanks for the chance to make a contribution, it’s a good opportunity to share some honest reflections on all that is going on in rail and some of the stark challenges ahead. 

I hope you are not expecting a bland speech peppered with platitudes.  What I hope to do is give an unvarnished view of where I think we are in the hope and expectation that being clear about what we need to do will help us all to make improvements. I hope you take it in the spirit it is intended, a collective challenge rather than a pointed criticism. 

Despite what you may have read I am a regular rail user, and have been all my working life. In fact last year I swapped my second car for a folding electric bike, and I’m now a regular on the train to Llanelli. I experience first hand the frustrations that rail passengers have become all too familiar with.

I must confess, it’s a little awkward bringing up with my fellow passengers that I am in fact the Transport Minister! Because when your train is cancelled, or replaced by a bus, or overcrowded, you don’t really want to hear of the £1 Billion Metro that’s going to transform services in Cardiff and its valleys, or about the £800 Million investment in brand new trains that are running on the Rhymney line; that’s not much comfort when a two-car 150 trundles up in Llanelli, already nearly full. 

I bore myself in interviews when I say things will get better, soon…

And of course they will, in large part because of the determination and dedication of the all the people working really hard to keep the current trains running, and to deliver the long promised transformation. And hats off to them. 

Of course things will get better. But marketing melts in the face of the intensity of experience.

I want to pay particular tribute to the small team who run the TfW twitter account! They fill a void that has long existed in public transport - they tell passengers what is going on. We’ve still got a lot to do in this regard. It is a horrible, disempowering experience being a passenger when things go wrong; and the feedback is always the same: ‘we just want someone to tell us what’s happening’.

The Twitter team do a great job. And I recommend you look at the messages they reply to every day. Here’s just a random sample from earlier this week. 

On Tuesday Debbie tweeted ‘This morning I went to get the 0711 train from Llandaff to Queen St and it was cancelled. Standing room only on the 0726. Told at the station that next week my train is not running at all! Waste of time buying my railcard.’

Aly tweeted: ‘Wales wants people to ditch their cars and use public transport. 8.11 Ebbw Vale line train to Cardiff today only two carriages and rammed by the time it reached Rogerstone. Like travelling on a cattle truck. Not doing much to encourage commuters !!’

Bille tweeted: ‘First train was cancelled, second one delayed and horribly overcrowded. Now it’s kicked us off in central instead of going to queen street. I am sick of the Barry service being such a mess everyday. I already leave over an hour earlier for work and I’m still late!’

Now I realise that running a railway is very difficult. And that Jan at Transport for Wales, Nick at Network Rail, and the team at Amey, are working incredibly hard to improve day-to-day performance. I also appreciate that there are good reasons for all of these situations, and obviously all the people who have daily positive experiences don’t take to social media to talk about the mundane success of their daily commute. As James Price has said TfW’s performance has been steadily mid-table when compared with other operators around the country, and will get back there soon..

But even so, you can’t see the photos of overcrowding, or the awful experiences people report, without acknowledging that the day-to-day reality facing many rail passengers in Wales has been pretty bleak for a while.

It will get better. But it's not better yet, and we should have the humility to acknowledge that.

We are not running a railway for its own sake, we are running it to help improve people’s lives and we should never lose sight of that.

Nobody who has travelled on the new Stadler units, or the CAF trains we’re currently testing up in North Wales, will deny they are fabulous. They are. And the more people who travel on them, the more we will be able to address the jaundice and fatigue understandably felt by passengers and staff.

On the first day the Stadler 231’s were running on the Rhymney line, I popped on one for a short stretch to see for it myself. One of the guards told me that when the train had arrived in Bargoed that morning the passengers had waited on the platform after it had opened its doors, they just could believe this swanky new train was for them!

On one level I thought it was comical, but also poignant. Because it tells us that after decades of underinvestment, in the dying days of British Rail, then a zero-growth franchise, our expectations are now set so low. Passengers in Wales are used to being treated as the runt of the litter when it comes to our rolling stock - always hand-me-downs. A world where even the tired old trains we got were better than the ones they replaced.

That era is at an end.

By the end of next year 95% of passengers will be travelling on newly built trains, many of them assembled right here in Wales. 

We should celebrate that, but it’s hard to visualise it now we are in the interregnum. The new is not yet born, and some of the old are dying on their feet - the recent performance of the 175s has been bitterly disappointing. We are working hard with CAF to get them back into service, and to keep them there, but we’ve been hit by one set-back after another. I want to pay tribute to the team at TfW who have been on heightened problem solving alert throughout, and there are encouraging signs that we’ll have the fleet back in service within the next couple of months. Fingers crossed.

So there is a huge amount to do - across the whole industry - if we’re to rebuild that boringly reliable service James Price once talked about, and that passengers across Wales should quite rightly expect.

If we’re serious about persuading people to choose public transport instead of the convenience and comfort of their car, we need to seriously improve the alternative.

People want public transport to be convenient, reliable and cost effective.

People will do what it is easiest to do. If we want more people to use public transport then we need to make public transport the easiest way to get around. 

When it was hard to recycle people didn’t do it, now we’ve made it easier, people do. Wales now has the third highest rate of recycling in the world because we have taken friction out of the system. We’ve made it easy. And as a result we’ve managed to cut carbon emissions from waste by 64% since 1990 - the UN’s baseline year for measuring emissions. 

By contrast in transport we’ve been focusing on making it easier and quicker to drive than to use the bus or train. And as a result transport emissions have been the slowest to fall of any sector. Despite leaps in vehicle technology emissions have fallen by just 6% since 1990. 

If we repeat that rate of progress over the next 30 years we will fail to reach Net Zero. 17% of our carbon emissions in this country come from transport, and we will not reach our overall targets unless transport plays its part in getting us onto a low carbon trajectory. And we can't rely on technology and electrification alone, we also must achieve modal shift - the independent Committee on Climate Change is very clear about this: electric cars are necessary, but not sufficient. 

I am under no illusions about how difficult this is to do. But I am also certain that it is do-able. And we must all confront the consequences of our failing to do this.

I worry that the increasingly alarming warnings from scientists are washing over us. ‘We’ve got enough trouble in the here-and-now’ why make things even harder in the short-term by worrying about 2050?", that’s a view I hear. But of course that’s a staggeringly myopic approach. 

The impacts of global warming are happening here and now, and unless we urgently start doing things very differently we face very real hardship. 

If we just look at this just through the narrow prism of the rail industry we get a sense of how devastating man-made climate change is proving to be. It has been nearly a decade since Network Rail published its Climate Adaptation Wales Route impact assessment which showed that 34 miles of track in Wales is already vulnerable to overtopping, coastal erosion and storm surges. The North Wales coast line is one of the most vulnerable in the UK.

Since that report the science has hardened and the UN says that emissions are rising at the higher end of expectations.

And that’s just one example. Droughts, species extinction, mass migration that will make the ‘small boats’ experience look trivial, and two metre sea level rises are all coming our way. Unless, we act.

The truth is that while we have plans in Wales that will help us meet our next carbon budget. We don’t yet have a plan for the period to follow. If we are to avoid what the scientists categorise as ‘catastrophic climate change’ we must make greater cuts to our emissions in the next 10 years than we’ve managed over the whole of the last 30 years.

The challenge is acute. And transport needs to do far, far, more if we are to meet it.

Meanwhile the UK Government are directing a managed decline of the railways in Wales.  Not only have they failed to invest in improving our network but they are now planning to worsen the performance of it. 

Network Rail has recently set out its asset management plans for the five year period starting next year and Wales has had the second worst settlement in the UK - with funding going down by 0.1% in cash terms at a time when costs are going up. 

The effect of this will be a managed decline of the railway in Wales.

The programme for Network Rail’s Control Period 7 points to an increase in infrastructure failures and deteriorating assets which will result in speed restrictions, reduced reliability, more service failures, and either stagnant or worsening performance.

It will take the rail network in 10 - 15 years to recover from this set-back. 

The only bright spot is that the CP7 settlement will deliver a very marginal gain in Wales’ on time performance, but that’s due to Welsh Government interventions - new trains, more, better trained staff and improvements to legacy fleet performance.

At a time when the Welsh Government are investing almost £2 Billion to improve our railway, decisions made in Whitehall will actively undermine that progress. By forcing Network Rail to consciously plan for a 15 year decline in rail performance in Wales the UK Government are endangering our ability to meet our legally binding climate targets, and undermining their own policy of Levelling Up. It is unacceptable, and rubs salt into an already open wound.

We already have the indignity of having just 2% of our network electrified in comparison with 40% in England. And we had to swallow a u-turn on electrification to Swansea. We shouldn’t be buying new diesel trains, but we’ve been forced to because of the UK Government’s failure to electrify. 

And to compound that, investment in High Speed 2 is being prioritised over the rail network in Wales. Worse still we will not get a penny in funding because it is classed by the Treasury in London as being a scheme that benefits the England and Wales - even though not a metre of track is in Wales, and its own business case shows a negative impact on the Welsh economy every year of around £200 million.

It’s outrageous. Now the Secretary of State for Wales justified it on the basis that because HS2 would be going to Crewe that would help passengers in north Wales. But now the leg to Crewe has been severed.

It really is a shocker. 

Many of you will know that Peter Hendy, the Chair of Network Rail, has recently been enobled. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords last month he set out his thoughts as an independent cross-bencher. As you’ll know even better than me, Peter is a man who chooses his words carefully - that rare breed who’s respected right across the political spectrum.

It wasn’t a long speech. But of all the issues he could have drawn attention to, one of the few he chose was the lack of a HS2 consequential for Wales. In a typically understated way he said it was ‘strange’ - and that ‘something is amiss’ in the way the Barnett formula was applied.

That is not an insignificant intervention. 

And it would be an absolute disgrace if the speculation is correct and a similar approach is to be taken when classifying the Northern Powerhouse rail schemes.

Not only have the UK Government consistently short-changed Wales when it comes to investing in the rail infrastructure they have responsibility for, but by denying us a spending share of investment in England they are preventing us from delivering our own devolved responsibilities.

It is a legitimate democratic choice for the Tory Government in Westminster to underinvest in the railway. You only have to go back to the 1980s to see that they’ve got form on that.

But it doesn’t recognise devolution. It doesn’t account for the specific needs of people and communities in Wales, nor the historic underinvestment in our railway, or the policy direction of the elected Government of Wales. 

So, there’s a philosophical and practical misalignment at the heart of the current industry. That’s true of the operating model and, and it’s true of the rail funding arrangements for Wales.

I don’t blame Network Rail for this. I know their team here in Wales are highly skilled and incredibly dedicated - I saw that first-hand in the aftermath of the Llangennech derailment in my own constituency. But because of the way their funding settlement is allocated, and the way Network Rail’s own business units are carved up - with Wales lumped in with England - they’re operating with their hands tied behind their back, working to different, and very often conflicting, marching orders to the rest of the transport system in Wales.

That’s a now become a real problem.

The way we do rail in the UK is broken. Just as deteriorating water quality levels symbolise the failure of the privatisation of the water industry, and the contraction of the bus network underlines the failure of privatisation of the bus industry, the folly of rail privatisation is not hard to spot. It shouldn’t be cheaper to drive to London, or fly to Edinburgh, than catch the train. It’s as plain and simple as that.

There is no systematic plan to grow rail use across the UK. Instead we have a reactive, almost crisis-management approach, with no better example of its failure than the handing back of almost every franchise to the DfT. That is not a sign of success.

It also presents a grim legacy for an incoming Labour Government, if we manage to secure one. The list of demands will be long and expensive, and I have no doubt that the Treasury in London will be advising a new Chancellor and Secretary of State on the challenges of properly applying the Barnett formula for HS2. And that’s why I want to see a clear commitment in the next Labour manifesto for fair funding for Wales, and the devolution of rail powers so that our democratic mandate to deliver on our climate targets can be delivered in tandem with our other powers.

We want a good relationship with the UK Government. I’ve had an initial positive and constructive meeting with Mark Harper where I stressed that we want to be part of the proposed Great British Railways - as partners, not stakeholders. 

We know it's not easy being in Government; in Wales we too are having to grapple with the everyday challenges of running a railway. And as the Operator of Last Resort we are not immune to the funding pressures facing the rail industry elsewhere - rising costs, reduced revenue, changing travel patterns.

People work from home more, commute less at traditional peak times but travel more for social reasons. These are the facts on the ground and we must adapt our thinking to respond to them. Are we running the right number of services at the right times of day? Are the frequency of services right for the level of demand? We need to look at all of this, not least because of the impact of the UK Government policy of Austerity. 

As you know better than anyone the sheer cost of running a railway is eye watering – particularly for a Government that can’t borrow money – or miraculously find it down the back of the sofa like they seem to be able to in Westminster. We’re noticing a pattern of late that new announcements are made but when we ask where our share of the money is only to be told there is none.

As you all know intimately the cost of all infrastructure projects have increased very significantly as a result of Covid, Brexit and inflation. This has hit our budget significantly. The Metro is now a £1 Billion project, and the assumptions of passenger growth, and in-turn farebox revenue, that ran through the franchise are having to be reset.  

This poses invidious choices. As a Minister my priority is modal shift, and I am mode agnostic as to how we achieve that. Something like 80% of public transport journeys are currently carried by bus but meeting the increased costs of rail limits the funding I have available to throw a lifeline to the bus sector that is facing significant cuts in routes and services. 

Our bus system is fundamentally flawed and we are seeing evidence of profound market failure. Buses are a public service and the commercial model has failed to serve very many communities, and that is why we are introducing the most far-reaching reform package of any part of the UK in our forthcoming bus Bill. Our plan is to enable One Network, One Timetable, and One Ticket. 

Finally the promise of an integrated system of rail and bus can begin to be realised.  That is critical to achieve our climate targets, and of course it is part of the answer to our financial pressures because the cheapest way to run a railway is to get people to use it. 

So it is essential that we think about rail as part of a sustainable transport system. That’s something the rail industry has been reluctant to confront in the past, but it now must. Not only because scarce resources demand we demonstrate value, but because it is critical to achieving our modal shift imperatives.  

James Price, Scott Waddington and I talk about the concept of Transport for Wales 2.0 – a truly multi-modal organisation that is outcome focussed and totally mode agnostic.

TfW was set up to build a Metro but the next phase in its development needs a far wider vision. I see Transport for Wales as a behaviour change organisation, and rail is just one way that is to be achieved. It needs to sit alongside bus, active travel and private transport. 

It is not just about infrastructure, it is about changing hearts and minds, and infrastructure is one way of achieving it.  

Lets stop thinking of the concept of ‘passengers’ and start thinking about people, their lives and their needs when we are designing and delivering transport services that will change behaviours.

A good rail offer is obviously an important part of getting people to use their cars less but very often it will be bus that is the right, and best value solution, to connect communities.

TfW has a pivotal role to play as a ‘guiding mind’ in our new bus architecture, and is already building its role in delivery of active travel interventions. This will be allow it to play a pivotal role in making our multi-modal vision a reality, but we can’t afford to wait for that – James knows that I want to see TfW 2.0 become real as quickly as practicably possible and I think that fundamental change in mindset is an opportunity for the wider rail industry too.

When I announced our response to the Roads Review in February it was remarkable to see some of the different ways in which the civil engineering and construction community responded.

Of course, there was some of the resistance you would expect – industry is instinctively self-sustaining and there are those who just want to carry on in the same way as they have done for generations, building more roads and bypasses – blinkered to the context of the climate change emergency and severe reductions in funding.

But there were others - many more than I expected in fact - who recognised the opportunity to do something different here in Wales. As a small country, with a very different set of policies and priorities, that was being watched by the rest of the world with interest.

Part of that is generational - certainly - but this will create opportunities for those within the rail industry here who truly embrace that multi-modal way of thinking and planning that we’re seeking to foster in Wales.

Integrated transport is not just about timetables but about cross-fertilising thinking. Whether it’s developing joint communities of practice across transport modes, opportunities for genuine innovation in engineering and transport planning, a digital transformation that to date remains woefully unexploited, or building on some of the new freight opportunities that are emerging to connect with last mile delivery. And potentially much, much more besides.

We’re doing some of it already. On the lines north of Queen Street, where many of you will have hopped off this morning, there’s a transformation taking place on the Core Valley Lines.

More and more Overhead Line Equipment is in position, new signalling equipment is being installed, and many decades’ worth of overgrown vegetation has been removed – change is on its way and suddenly it’s becoming very visible.

Now I’ve heard the CVL transformation described as the most innovative railway project currently being delivered in Europe and the biggest transformation of the railway in Wales since the Victorian era.

And that’s all well and good – very interesting for the anoraks, the engineers, and the enthusiasts, I’m sure.

But if I’d been around when we’d fired the starting gun, I would have framed it for what it really is: the most important and ambitious transport behaviour change project ever conducted in Wales – a turn up and go railway that will give people real choice, flexibility, and freedom – turbocharging modal shift in one of the most concentrated population centres in Wales.

That is the true scale of our aspiration for transforming transport.

It shows what we can achieve when the levers, and the funding are in our own hands.

And it points us towards the change we need across the whole of our railway in Wales – not just here in Cardiff and its Valleys.

We’re going through a tough time at the moment. But we are investing a significant amount of money in making it better, and the fruits of that are beginning to be seen. And we will do more. Rail is a vital part of our vision for a sustainable transport system. We want to give people more choices, better choices, of how they move around. That will deliver social justice, improve people’s everyday lives and build our resilience to climate change. And is a key enabled of prosperity - modern successful economies have modern successful public transport systems.

That’s what we want for Wales - a country that is Stronger, fairer, greener

Thank you


Mike Smith said…
Dear Lee,

It is good to see your article, an excellent review; concise, constructive, detailed and realistic. We have met before (at SBBC) and Kevin M has for many years pointed you as the man to watch.
Also StewTom and myself seem to have similar views to yours.

Whilst the opportunity arises I would like to thank not only yourself for a very good job but mention in passing also Dave Thomas WG and also David Edwards HoWL DevCo. both having spent a quarter of a century helping keep our lines live.

As CEO of S9L (AVR Group) forming a new Int'l NGO ~ blue SEAS ~ green ACRE ~
which introduces a similar trend to your thoughts towards major developments promoting the Severn Barrages complex in order to create a major energy, tourism, and transport hub which will open up world trade which will, at last, effectively join Wales to England . This can be achieved enabling four new rail, highway and tram (shipping & air) routes to effectively create all links necessary for greatly increased trade – at an achievable cost.

You may well have already received from other sources our 10 page brochure proposing same, made up of local disruptive tech companies and NFPs in Wales conjointly with some major foreign interests (for which we may well be close to a fiscal breakthrough re major funding, the projects together being big enough)

(Capt) Mike Smith

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