Ken Skates MS, Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales
I welcome this latest report from Lord Burns and his team and the significant evidence base that sits behind it.
I am encouraged by the report’s emphasis on the need for a fully integrated public transport solution to congestion in Newport and wider south east Wales region. It recommends a major upgrade of the south Wales relief rail lines, as part of an integrated multi-modal public transport network. This points the way towards a sustainable, long-term alternative to the private car in that part of Wales. The Welsh Government believes this is the right way forward and we will play our full part in making it a reality.
That public transport alternative will provide greater resilience to the network in Newport and across the region as set out in our south Wales Metro programme. This report and the final report of the Commission later this year, will help develop our plans for the Metro in that part of Wales over the next few years.
Following the implementation of the lockdown in March due to the Covid crisis, our public transport networks have faced an unprecedented challenge. With fewer passengers to carry, our bus and rail services have had no fare box income to support their operation. I am proud that we have been able to provide additional funding to ensure services continue, but I recognise that it has been an incredibly difficult time for our operators. I would like to place on record my thanks to all of the staff who have worked so hard to keep services running to allow essential workers to continue to be able to travel.
On 2 July I announced the introduction of the Bus Emergency Scheme. As well as addressing emergency short term needs, the approach signals the beginning of a lasting partnership between operators and public bodies to enable a reshaping of Wales’ bus network, supporting the management and interaction across transport modes including smart ticketing, unified routeing and integrated timetabling. I look forward to working together with the bus industry, local authorities, and Transport for Wales to secure an efficient, sustainable, and robust bus network for the future.
I fully support the ambition to use the south Wales mainline as the backbone of the public transport network in the region, in particular upgrading the relief lines between Severn Tunnel and Cardiff, to improve opportunities for commuters to access the network through new stations and services.
The Burns Commission report highlights the need for all partners to come to the table and play their part in turning its recommendations into reality. The Welsh Government will deliver on its responsibilities for buses, road improvements and active travel. I have asked Transport for Wales to explore and report back on establishing a joint delivery team as part of a joint taskforce with Newport City Council in order to secure a multi-agency, multi-funder approach to expedite delivery of this ambitious programme.
Rail infrastructure outside of the Core Valley Lines is not devolved to Wales and in order to deliver the major upgrade of the relief lines recommended by the report, the UK Government will need to play its part.
The upgrade of the relief lines was identified as a priority by Network Rail in 2016, following a commitment by Chris Grayling to develop options for the line following the cancellation of electrification to Swansea in 2017. Now in 2020, we still have no commitment to fund these much needed enhancements.
I published our vision for rail, “A railway for Wales” last year in response to the UK Government’s Williams Rail Review which was due to report last Autumn. We are still waiting for that review to report. We are still waiting for the UK Government to respond to our call for full devolution of the railway in Wales alongside a fair funding settlement. A call that was supported by a majority in the Senedd following our debate in February 2019.
We also need the UK Government to agree to allow Transport for Wales to operate additional services beyond Severn Tunnel Junction, or additional services through their own rail contracts. An additional hourly service between South Wales and London is shown in the 2020 Network Rail Business Plan. While the franchised operator has made it clear that it will not operate these services, we continue to support other operators’ plans to increase frequencies, including Grand Union Trains’ proposal to provide a significant increase in services between Carmarthen and London, which would also provide additional services at Llanelli, Swansea and Cardiff and look to the Office of Rail and Road to allow preparations to start services later in 2021 to begin.
While full devolution of the railway is essential for us to realise our ambitions, we are pressing ahead with the actions we are able to take now to meet the many challenges we face. In March we successfully completed the transfer of ownership of the valley lines out of Cardiff Queen Street. Transport for Wales are now able to accelerate their work to transform this valuable but historically under-invested asset into a modern, high quality, high frequency network fit for the 21st Century.
We are investing in the Metro programme, before the revolutionary new rolling stock is delivered and the infrastructure to enable it is completed. I have instructed Transport for Wales to deliver an additional service on the Ebbw Vale Line in 2021 and we continue to provide funding support to Newport City Council for their active travel ambitions. In light of the recommendations of the Burns report we need to do more, in partnership with Newport and other stakeholder and delivery partners to make the changes necessary to public transport and active travel.
Today I am publishing two strategic plans that exemplify the ambition we have for rail services across the mainlines in the North and South. These will drive our policy decision-making, guide our funding allocations, and signal to other funders and delivery agents our expectations of them to commit and invest in the rail network in Wales. They include new services and increased frequencies in both North and South Wales, as well as longer term schemes such as new routes or line re-openings.
The Welsh Government is committed to making the Burns vision a reality, but we are not the only partner with a responsibility for this work. We will deliver on our ambitions for Wales and our public transport network while continuing to call on the UK Government to complete its long delayed rail review, and to fully devolve rail matters to Wales. This must be accompanied by a fair funding settlement so that we can progress our ambitious development programme and start to rectify the years of historic underinvestment by the UK Government in the rail network in Wales.
The people of Newport deserve no less.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Senedd returns I would be happy to do so.