I spoke in today’s debate on the Union Connectivity Review – here’s my speech in full:
Thank you Chair. While we wait to see what the substantive recommendations of the Union Connectivity Review are when Lord Hendy publishes his final report this summer, I was pleased that the interim update released last week identified issues with cross-border rail services between South Wales and the Bristol area as an important emerging theme.
As the interim report referenced, 9.4m passenger rail passenger journeys were made between Wales and England in 2018/19. This total includes many constituents of mine commute to work in Bristol and the west of England from Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction. Severn Tunnel Junction – a gateway station for Wales – has been one of the fastest-growing passenger stations on the Great Western mainline over the last two decades. This is despite having lost a significant number services on the Great Western franchise back in 2006, and more recently one less Cross Country service. According to the latest passenger use stats from the ORR year-on-year growth for 2019-20 at Severn Tunnel was around 6%. Over the last ten years total passenger growth has been 66% and over the last 20 years 266% – three times the growth the of the UK average.
Unfortunately there has not been an investment in capacity to meet the growing need for cross-border travel from South East Wales. For example, in pre-pandemic times busy GWR morning services from Severn Tunnel Junction to Bristol Temple Meads and beyond have been plagued by overcrowding a lack of reliabilty for years. The term ‘sardine express’ has used in the past – not an affectionate nickname.
The situation is compounded by the fact that the Welsh Government and Transport for Wales are restricted by the Department for Ttransport from providing any additional cross-border services under the current terms of the Wales and Borders Franchise. Extra services would help alleviate some of the pressure, and as I’ve highlighted in numerous Transport Question session, it’s still not clear why the DfT are blocking this from happening. I hope the final Union Connectivity Review report this summer will have something to say about that.
Its not good enough for Tory Ministers in Westminster to continually point the finger at Welsh Government on transport issues which fall within their remit and their gift to remedy.
On this theme, one connected issue that wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the interim report last week – but is the elephant in the room for Welsh passengers – is the UK’s chronic under-investment in Welsh rail infrastructure. Wales accounts for 11% of the UK rail network but only receives 2% of rail investment enhancement. Welsh Government research suggests that on current estimates there will be “underinvestment” in Welsh rail of between £2.9Bn and £8Bn by 2029.
This underinvestment was specifically identified by Lord Burns and the South East Wales Transport Commissions recent report as something for the UK Government to fix, with work on the South Wales relief lines crucial and new stations for Magor, Llanwern and Somerton as part of the plan. If the UK Government is serious about creating an interconnected union, it cannot keep ignoring its responsibilities to Wales.
The interim report published last week referenced that the Union Connectivity Review will continue to engage with key stakeholders over the coming months prior to the publication of the final report. I hope that the views of Welsh Government and the South East Wales Transport Commission can form an important part of this, and the report will provide the stimulus for long-awaited investment in our rail network. My constituents and I will be watching closely.