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Rail network improvements cut because of Euro rules; ASSEMBLY: Money will have to be spent on meeting regulations, AMs told.

Byline: CLIVE BETTS Assembly Editor

MAJOR extensions and improvements to the Welsh rail network are to come to an end because so much money will have to be spent on changes to meet European rules.

The Strategic Rail Authority Plan due to be released at the end of this month includes several rail extensions in the short term but none in the medium and long.

This means that schemes such as rebuilding the line between Bangor and Caernarfon, possibly extending the Cardiff Valleys system towards Blackwood, and reopening lines to inaugurate a Swansea commuter system are unlikely to be affordable.

The National Assembly's environment committee was told that much medium and long-term investment will have to be concentrated on Europeanisation of the system - to ensure that differing national rules dating back 150 years are unified so that equipment can be sold continentwide, which will produce financial advantages in the long term in the ability to purchase equipment abroad.

Chris Austin, SRA director of public affairs, said a lot would have to be spent as well on introducing the European train management system on high-speed train lines. This follows the Cullen inquiry into the Paddington crash.

In addition, Mr Austin said, money would be taken up by the rising costs of the Great Western "renaissance" - the price of modernising the line between Cardiff and Paddington has risen considerably because of the extra costs that will have to be paid which were discovered in the course of the work for the West Coast main line upgrade.

The result is that no major Welsh schemes will be listed in the medium and long-term plans: the only ones which the committee were told of as affecting Wales are all in England. They are resignalling at Reading; work between Didcot and Reading for freight services; and improvements in capacity at Birmingham and Manchester.

But Mr Austin said later that Welsh schemes could be added to the longer-term list during the list's annual upgrading.

And a number of smaller schemes - costing less than pounds 10m - could be added through use of the Rail Partnership Fund, he said. This fund is being used to help pay for the bus-rail interchange at Haverfordwest.

The short-term situation looks better.

Reopenings included in the strategy's short-term plans are the Vale of Glamorgan line past Cardiff Airport and the route to Ebbw Vale.

Mr Austin said unusual methods might have to be used to enable work to go ahead at Ebbw Vale - where the town is shortly to see the closure of the steelworks, its largest employer. Because of the national shortage of signalling engineers, part of the work may have to be carried out by a private firm.

Meanwhile, the new but troubled Wales and the Borders franchise could yet be fully operational by autumn next year or by the spring of 2003, the Strategic Rail Authority hopes.

Currently, a shadow franchise is being operated by the Wales and the West company: already, the Cambrian Coast lines have been taken over from Central Trains, and the North Coast local services should follow next year.

Long-term plan for Wales may not exist ONE reason why Wales possesses no major schemes for the long-term plan is that none may exist.

A local authority official said, "Although we possess plans which would fit into that time-scale, they are all quite small."

But Transport Minister Sue Essex said the lack of plans may reflect the lack of confidence that Railtrack would be able to carry them out. The Assembly's coming adoption of a Transport Framework would provide the security for plans to be drawn up, she said.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 2, 2001
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