Monday 18 February 2013

Why Wales is so far behind

I am in Spain at the moment, in Valencia, to be precise. Spain consists of largely autonomous regions and Valencia is the capital of one of those. This makes Valencia roughly comparable to Cardiff in Wales. It has a regional government with a parliament, and decides most of its own affairs, from health to local government.

Taking the train here in Valencia to a nearby city however reminded me once again what's wrong with Wales. Leaving the main central station here in Valencia, the train quickly gathered speed, and arrived at the next stop without any hitch. You think this would be how it is in Wales as well, but far from it. Regional trains in Spain are electrified, whilst Welsh trains run on diesel engines, most of them built in the 1980s. Take the train from Cardiff to Holyhead and you know why most Welsh politicians (who can afford it since they claim it on their expenses) prefer to take the plane if they want to get from South Wales to North Wales.

But it gets worse. Arriva Wales Trains which won the contract for Wales also runs the regional connections to the valleys. I am not sure if you have ever experienced any of the valley trains but if you have you know what I am talking about. The trains are filthy, slow and break down frequently. Not that Arriva Trains would care about the dire service. Their investment in the rolling stock and train stations (in an abysmal state, up and down the country) has been practically zero since they won the franchise in 2003.

Arriva Wales Train in the Welsh valleys

This contrasts starkly with Spain. There are some gaps in the high speed railway network yet overall the trains here are fast, reliable and clean.

This is what you would get if you took a train in Valencia

So why is Wales so far behind? People cite usually two reasons. First, transport policy is not a prerogative of the Welsh Government but decided in London. Second, the geographical terrain in Wales makes fast trains difficult.

Both reasons border on feeble excuses. Transport policy does not differ in Spain from the UK. Most decisions are taken by the centre, that is in London or Madrid respectively. Yet, nothing prevents Carwin Jones and his Welsh Government to build a strong regional alliance of local councils to make a case in London for electrification and investment in Welsh trains. So far, his only response to the dire state of the Welsh railways has been: silence.

The second reason is even more spurious. It seems to me Swiss engineers may face even more difficult challenges in terms of terrain yet the Swiss railways are electrified at 100%. Yes, all of the Swiss railways are electrified which makes them one of the most reliable train networks in the world.

You may say this is all about to change since the Welsh Government has just announced that it will take a more robust stance in transport policy. But not so fast. After almost 15 years of silence on the issue, what did Carwin Jones decide to focus on? Cardiff Airport.

He wants to spend more than £20 million of the Welsh budget to buy (yes you are reading right: 'buy') the moribund Cardiff Airport. This is just the purchase price for an Airport that is practically dead in the water. Why? Since many of the ministers in his government have a constituency in the north of Wales it is essential that they can fly from Holyhead to Cardiff Airport. If Cardiff Airport would shut (which it is about to do) they would have to take the train. God forbid!

So, there we go again. The Welsh Government will spend £20 million on a dead airport with no transport links while we can hop on and off filthy trains in the valleys. That's transport priorities of Labour for you.

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