Scoping study (2015)
Funded by the Welsh Government (£30,000) and carried out by AECOM, the Study brief was to provide Technical Advice setting out the issues to be considered under a full Feasibility Study into the re-opening of a heavy rail railway between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen, and a scope, programme and cost for that Study. It noted that over 97% of the 90 km original route remains undeveloped, with the most significant development at the northern (Aberystwyth) end. The core formation, including tunnels, embankments and bridges, generally remain intact. It noted that the original route would not necessarily be the optimum one, although it acknowledged that the topography of the area does not readily lend itself to alternative alignments. However, some divergence from the original route may be necessary to reduce environmental impacts, reduce costs, avoid areas of conservation and sites of scientific interest, and attract more patronage. The topography of the route would largely preclude widening the formation to two tracks and hence a single track line was envisaged.
With a number of uncertainties regarding the precise location of the route, it was only possible to give an indicative cost for the rebuilding of the line which could be up to £505 million (2015 prices). Land and consent costs could add a further £250 million bringing the total project costs to around £750 million. It was estimated that a full Feasibility Study could cost in the region of £350,000.
Pencader Tunnel Report (2016)
An independent survey of Pencader tunnel was undertaken by former engineering firm Carillion in 2016. This assessment of the tunnel was not considered as part of the feasibility study.
Feasibility Study (2018)
In 2017, Transport for Wales commissioned the global consultancy company Mott MacDonald to undertake a full Feasibility Study into the re-instatement of the railway line between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. The Study was funded by the Welsh Government (£300,000) to look into the ‘Case for Change’ in the improvement of strategic connections between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen that had been identified by the WelTAG Stage 1 ‘Outline Case Report, November 2016’, and to explore further the opportunities suggested by the previous Route Scoping Study.
The Feasibility Study broadly confirmed the technical feasibility of reinstating a modified route and train service, although a number of challenges were identified. These included crossing part of Cors Caron (an important SSSI, SAC and RAMSAR site); resolution of the flood-risk impacts and potential problems relating to bridge construction on the River Towy in the vicinity of Carmarthen; accommodation of the Gwili Railway Preservation Company; mitigation of extensive flood risks within Flood and Tan15 Development advice zones; property impacts; environment; and consents where the route passes through sites and features protected by statutory designations; and problems relating to ground conditions, residual structures and earthworks.
Subject to satisfactory resolution of these constraints, the Study concluded that the railway could be rebuilt and could provide a regular hourly service between Aberystwyth, Llanilar, Tregaron, Lampeter, Llanybydder, Pencader and Carmarthen, with an end to end journey time of around 85 minutes. With a potential opening year of 2024, initial demand assessments indicated that the re-instated railway could attract up to 370,000 trips in the first year of operation, rising to 425,000 and 489,000 in the assessment years 2027 and 2037 respectively.
A total cost build up of £775 million was envisaged for a single line formation; this included an optimism bias uplift of £276 million which is a general risk allowance reflecting HM Treasury/DfT guidance. The Study concluded that while there are no compelling engineering reasons why the railway should not be built, it suggested that low population levels along the line mean that, on purely economic grounds, the scheme does not present a positive case. Indeed a relatively low BCR (benefit to cost ratio) of 0.43 was assigned to the project. Hence progression of the scheme would need to be based on wider societal needs and strategic aims, both of which fell outside the remit of the Feasibility Study. It is the contention of Traws Link Cymru that wider societal needs and strategic aims do indeed support the case for reinstating the line, and we explain briefly why this is so in the Strategic Case section on this website, and in more detail in the document ‘A New Strategic Rail Corridor for West Wales’ (2020).
The Strategic Case for Re-opening the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen and Afon Wen to Bangor Railways (2020)
The importance of good transport networks and connectivity to support economic growth and development in Wales is a key component of policy documents at local, regional and national level and was emphasized as such in the Feasibility Study. Indeed, the re-opening of the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen and Afon Wen to Bangor rail link is in line with all of the core elements of the Welsh Government Transport Strategy of 2008. Moreover, the Feasibility Study acknowledged that good public transport connectivity is key to helping rural communities, who may experience deprivation as a result of fewer employment and education opportunities. Economic growth across Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire is therefore dependent on accessibility in terms of the highway network and access to public transport. The re-opening of these railway lines reflects the over-arching policy objectives as set out in these various documents, especially as several highlight the un-sustainability of car use.
What was not taken into account in the Feasibility Study, however, was the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act (section 2.3). This wide-ranging legislation was designed to inform all future decision-making within the public sector in Wales, but the Mott MacDonald’s Feasibility Study makes no reference to this key piece of legislation. As a consequence, no account was taken of the wider social, cultural, political or strategic contexts for the line. Moreover a very low figure for potential population (and hence passenger numbers) was included, with the resulting relatively low BCR (0.43) being derived from an algorithm that was based on a narrowly-defined set of economic criteria. For projects such as this threshold would be a BCR of 1.0 or above.
In the Traws Link Cymru Report ‘A New Strategic Rail Corridor for West Wales’, we examine the basis for this evaluation, and consider the factors that should feed into any assessment of the economic viability of the line. In addition to population and passenger numbers, we examine the demand for public transport, the issue of rural transport poverty, road safety and road maintenance, the environmental benefits of a reduction in car usage, and the improvements that would result in inter- and intra-regional connectivity. We examine social consequences, notably population structure and stabilisation, impacts on the Welsh language, and the benefits that an improved transport network would bring to education (schools, colleges and universities) and for health service provision. Finally we consider the economic benefits in terms of rural sustainability and development, enhanced inward investment, the boost to tourism, the potential for freight transport by rail, and the stimulus that the railways would bring to small-and medium scale industrial development.
Both the Scoping Study and the Feasibility Study gave a cost estimate for the reopening of the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen line of around £750m. However, the Feasibility Study included a substantial additional contingency in the form of an optimism bias. It is TLC’s view that this is unreasonable for this project which is significantly less complex than other Network Rail projects where major problems were incurred. TLC’s assessment, therefore, is that with an increase in passenger numbers, resulting from an enlargement of the population catchment area, and with a revised capital expenditure of around £560 million in 2017 terms or £620 million in 2020 prices (which is 20% less than in the Mott MacDonald Feasibility Study), the project would achieve a break-even BCR of 1.0, or even higher. It is not possible to be more precise with this estimate without further work to take full account of the expanded catchment areas, together with the suggested reduction in capital expenditure.
Whichever cost estimate is accepted, it is nonetheless evident that this will be an expensive project. But it bears comparison with the funds that have been allocated to some road-building schemes elsewhere in Wales, such as the Port Talbot Harbour Way (£107 million for only 4.8 km of carriageway), the Heads of the Valleys A465 upgrade (estimated cost of around £1 billion for 40 km of carriageway), and the projected but now abandoned ‘Black Route’ around Newport which, had it gone ahead, would have cost in excess of £1 billion. While these are undoubtedly important initiatives, they do little for the people of West Wales and their economic and social well-being. So it is not simply a matter of finance; there is the question of political will. It is TLC’s hope and expectation that those whom we elect to represent us will appreciate the enormous benefits that a re-opened railway could bring to this part of Wales, and will do everything possible to bring this project to fruition.