I note that on BBC Wales, I have recently evolved into a “Senior Conservative” when my comments have been included in an article about cancellation of Govt plans to electrify the rail line from Cardiff to Swansea. One up from backbencher I think. Usually, I’m a bit uneasy about this sort of coverage, it being a controversial issue. But I’m content that it conveys my opinions. The article followed the latest meeting of Welsh Affairs Committee on the issue last week.
Over last few months, I’ve been considering in detail the Government decision to cancel the electrification of the Cardiff to Swansea rail line, (as a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee). Lots of witnesses. This week it was Roads Minister, Jo Johnson. The decision to cancel was controversial and much criticised. But was it the right decision? At the outset of our inquiry I was expecting the Committee Report to be critical of the cancellation, and personally, I felt disappointed by it. However, on more detailed consideration its not turning out quite like that. Not only do I conclude personally that cancellation of the Cardiff to Swansea electrification was correct, but ended up asking myself whether electrification of the Great Western from Paddington to Cardiff was a wise decision. On balance, I still think it was. Just!
The first surprise learned from our evidence sessions came from the National Audit Office. It’s clear that the original decision to electrify the Great Western Line (any of it) was based on highly misleading cost estimates. The decision, in effect, was made not knowing the cost. Must admit I listened to the NAO with wide-eyed astonishment. We are assured by Network Rail that this would not happen now. We must hope not. This week the Minister told the Committee that the cost benefit analysis of the scheme does remain positive, though marginally so. So I can still support the London to Cardiff electrification, though there has been a passing uncertainty about it’s value for money as we have discussed it in Committee. The estimated costs of the Cardiff to Swansea Line was also hugely underestimated. For me, it did not represent value for money. It’s totally right, in my opinion, that it should have been cancelled.
Let’s consider what we have instead. We will have new bi-mode trains, which run on both electric and diesel. They will be faster, with more seats, and way less disruption to the operation of the line. I’ve not ridden in one yet, but told they are very good news.
And the last point to make on this issue. The advance of technology. The Committee are hoping to learn more about hydrogen powered trains. And eventually battery technology will drive further innovation. If I’m revisiting this issue in 10 years time, you can bet the discussion will be vastly different.