The Cardiff Capital Region is getting a Metro. By the end of next year, most of the Core Valley Lines (CVL) north of Cardiff will have been upgraded and enhanced to allow new electric Stadler Tram-trains and Trimode FLIRTS to operate from Cardiff to/from Merthyr , Aberdare, Treherbert, Rhymney and Barry. The scheme is a first for the UK whereby rail infrastructure owned and managed by Network Rail has been transferred to a new owner-manager: Welsh Government and Transport for Wales.
In most cases services of at least 4 trains per hour, quicker journeys and a doubling of network capacity will transform the passenger experience. Up to 12 tram-trains per hour from Pontypridd to Cardiff in just over 20 minutes! Yes, there have been some issues and cost overruns, and yes there are still some glaring omissions (especially getting 4tph on all the rail lines in Cardiff i). However, to go from Metro heresy in 2011ii, to be operating a Metro in 2025 is remarkably quick in global terms for a major transport infrastructure project. Finally, the people of southeast Wales have the option of travelling the region, and especially up and down the valleys north of Cardiff, in something other than a car.
The new Metro is all the more remarkable given that rail infrastructure is actually a non-devolved area with responsibility still controlled by Westminster rather than Welsh Government and yet the latter are spending nearly £1bn on delivering this rail transformation, with a small amount (less than £200m from UK Gov and a similar amount from European Regional Development Fund). This is in addition to the £800M of new rolling stock for the wider Wales and Borders franchise. Whilst I welcome recent UK Government commitments regarding Metro Central (the integrated transport hub for mainline rail, bus and Metro in Central Cardiff), the South Wales Main Line, North Wales Main Line and Cardiff Crossrail etc these are just relatively small tactical interventions; the strategic problem is unresolved.
Under the current arrangements Welsh Government can do no more without a constitutional change that sees rail powers vested with WG and all English rail spend barnettised. This is the case for Scotland and Northern Ireland, so why not Wales? The old chestnut of the England-Wales border being a barrier just does not cut it. Europe manages. Cross border services are commonplace as is cross border infrastructure and those countries manage maintenance of, and investment in those assets sensibly and equitably. Currently Wales has no say. And so whilst Welsh Government have made great Metro progress in south east Wales, it is now stymied and metro plans in places like Swansea iii will go no further.
The current arrangements have cost Wales at least £3bn in rail enhancement investment since 2000, that figure will double by 2040 without change. The issue impacts the regions of England as well of course. In recent years, given the generational economic dislocation of losing a primary industry, places like southeast Wales have been the subject of political "levelling up" rhetoric. Whilst the attention is welcome, I suspect few people fully appreciate the scale of the challenge to actually deliver on so many easy political promises. "Levelling Up" raises some serious constitutional questions and has to go beyond the shallow populist rhetoric we have become accustomed to over the last few years. You can't "level up" by handing out a little more cash though politically compromised Westminster largesse. A handout economy and a handout constitution based entirely around Westminster and Whitehall, has not and can never really work for everyone and every place on this island, especially in Wales but equally true of Leeds, Bristol and Manchester.
What Welsh Government and the Cardiff Capital Region can do in the current circumstances is to ensure they realise fully the benefits of the Metro by wholly embracing Transit Oriented Development (TOD) iv, especially around this new rail network. I have always said the biggest benefits of the South Wales Metro (or the Cardiff Capital Region Metro) are not just the 'easy-to-see-and-count' transport user benefits. They are the wider economic and regeneration benefits that can be enabled by itv. So, densification of development, especially housing, around transport hubs, relocation of more jobs and public services to public transport connected places (eg like Cardiff Parkway as well as Cardiff City Centre, Pontypridd, etc) combined with efforts at physical and social regeneration in places that have often been overlooked following the dislocating impact of losing so many major heavy industries over the last 50 years.
That is why I am in favour of a new "Metro Development Corporation" that can lead on curating plans and working in partnership with the private sector and Welsh Government/TfW to bring forward the development change at scale. In this context Wales can and should also explore further innovative forms of finance such as land value capture and TiF.
Prof Mark Barry will be speaking at a free to attend event, "Better Connected: How could the South Wales Metro shape the future of transport connectivity across the UK?" taking place in London on 27th February as part of the annual Wales Week in London https://walesweek.london/whats-on/how-the-uk-can-learn-from-the-south-wales-metro
For a fuller version of this article, read Mark's blog – 'Wales: Metros, Transit Orientated Development , Cars and Devolution' https://swalesmetroprof.blog/2024/02/05/wales-metro-tod-devolution/
Mark Barry is Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University's School of Geography and Planning. Mark also has his own consulting business M&G Barry Consulting. He led South Wales Metro Development for Welsh Government from December 2013 to January 2016 following the publication of his Metro Impact Study in 2013.
i M Barry, 2023 Metro Moans for 2023... – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)
ii Mark Barry IWA/CBP, 2011, "A Metro for Wales Capital City Region – Connecting Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys" iwa-metroreport.pdf
iv DCFW/M Barry 2019 Transit Oriented Development in the Cardiff Capital Region #2
v M Barry 2018 Metro & Me, October 2018 – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)