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A good beginning, but this rail upgrade must now go rolling on; Business editor Sion Barry on yesterday's decision to electrify the Great Western main line to Cardiff and why further investment to Swansea and the Valleys has to be the next stage.

Byline: Sion Barry

THE decision to electrify the Great Western main line from London to Cardiff is a boost for Wales.

While the case for electrification to Swansea is still under review, it is also extremely positive that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has recognised the strong economic case for electrifying the Valley Lines - which serve some of the most economically deprived areas of the UK.

Credit most also go to Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillian as most connected with discussions only a few months ago feared that electrification would only go as far as Bristol.

She has made the issue a top priority, putting a constant and vociferous case around the Cabinet table. s

She has also been supported by a strong business voice from Wales - underlined by the signatories to a letter sent to Mr Hammond last month which warned of the damaging impact on Wales plc if electrification stopped at Bristol.

Overseen by the Great Western Partnership it was signed by local authority leaders in South Wales, the main business membership organisations and leading business figures, including chief executive of Admiral Henry Engelhardt. The Western Mail has also consistently pressed the case for electrification not just of the Great Western main line, but also for the Valleys Lines.

Mr Hammond would have had little credibility in Wales by arguing, on the one hand, the economic case for investment in the next stage of high-speed rail from London to Birmingham - and then further north to major cities such as Leeds and Manchester - while on the other failing to invest in rail infrastructure in Wales, If his Government is serious in looking to spread wealth outside of the economic hothouse of the south-east of England, then improving rail connectivity to South Wales is vital.

There is now a case to ensure that the 40 or so miles of track from Cardiff to Swansea is also electrified as part of the roll-out from Paddington. Electrification of the Great Western main line on the Welsh side of the Severn Tunnel has been estimated at pounds 300m.

With this in mind it would require only an additional pounds 150m to electrify between Cardiff and Swansea - even if only on environmental grounds via the replacement of more polluting diesel-powered rolling stock. It would also ensure that the perception of Swansea as an investment location is not damaged.

In terms of increased speed, electrification from Cardiff to Swansea would make little difference to current times because of the topography. Electrification from London is not expected to cross into Wales until 2016, by which time the UK Government's finances should be in a healthier state than they are now.

Once electrified lines are operational it also provides the potential to further reduce journey times from South Wales to London - which will be cut by around 20 minutes with electrification.

Funding permitting - or possibly as a condition of the next train operating franchise period - there is no reason why a daily direct service from Cardiff to Paddington is not introduced, or with just one stop at Bristol.

Electrification is the first step towards higher speeds on the Great Western main line, where potentially new trains on straight sections could reach speeds of 140mph.

The UK Government is now committed to working closely with the Welsh Assembly Government over the potential of electrifying the Valley Lines too.

It would be far more costly to electrify firstly to Cardiff and then look, at some further stage, to start work to Swansea and the Valleys. It would be more cost-effective to the taxpayer to roll out all of these projects as part of one contract.

A recent report commissioned by the Cardiff Business Partnership made a compelling economic case for electrification of the Valleys Lines.

And Mr Hammond also recognised yesterday that the best return on investment in Wales is from electrifying the Valleys Lines. Improved connectivity between Valleys towns and Cardiff - with new rolling stock - would improve journey times for the 70,000 people in the Valleys who commute into the capital each day to work.

But it could also encourage new business investment into the Valleys. If businesses currently based in Cardiff could get to Merthyr on a direct train service in 30 minutes they might even consider relocating there to take advantage of lower business-related costs such office rents.

Minister for the Economy and Transport Ieuan Wyn Jones welcomed the decision to electrify to Cardiff and said his Government will now work with the UK Government on the business case for further investment to Swansea and the Valleys - although stressing he was "bitterly disappointed" that Mr Hammond didn't announce commitment to electrify as far as Swansea.

A devolution of Network Rail spend to Wales, providing WAG received a fair settlement from the Treasury, could be the means of ensuring that electrification goes beyond Cardiff. However, these discussions, and whether there is a potential to use European structuring funding, are for another day The bottom line is that Wales is now firmly on the electrification map of the UK, with investment to Cardiff just the first stop.



There is a case now to ensure that the 40 miles of track from Cardiff, above, to Swansea is also electrified as part of the roll-out from Paddington, says Business Editor Sion Barry PICTURE: Andrew James [umlaut]
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 2, 2011
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