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.