Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Third Report


South Wales Main Line

9. The South Wales Main Line represents that part of the Great Western Mainline that travels through Wales, from the Severn Tunnel to Swansea. However, because rail links between Wales and London cover track that is in both England and Wales, it has been necessary to consider the full length of the Great Western Mainline in this Report.



10. Intercity services run from London Paddington to Cardiff and Swansea, and are provided by First Great Western. Connecting services from Swansea to Carmarthen and Fishguard will be operated by the new Wales and Borders Franchise. The current timetable offered by First Great Western provides for a half hourly service between Cardiff and Paddington, and an hourly service (including a half-hourly service at peak times) that runs on to Swansea. When we took evidence from Mr Chris Kinchin Smith, Managing Director of First Great Western we asked him about future plans for the timetable. He told us that First Great Western had "absolutely no plans whatsoever to reduce the frequency of services between Swansea and Cardiff, Swansea and London or Cardiff and London".[11] We welcome the assurance from First Great Western that there are no plans to reduce the frequency of their services between London and South Wales.

Last Train

11. Notwithstanding our views on the frequency of the service we were concerned with the withdrawal of the last train from London to Cardiff. First Great Western used to provide a 23.45 service from Paddington. This service was withdrawn in 2002. Since the withdrawal of that service, the last train from London to Cardiff and Swansea leaves Paddington at 22.10 from Monday to Saturday. The Rail Passengers Committee noted that the 23.45 service had allowed visitors from South Wales to London to attend London theatres or have a full evening in London, and that the withdrawal of that service removed that opportunity.[12] This point was also raised by the Wales Railway Development Society, who wished to see the 23.45 service reintroduced as soon as possible.[13]

12. Mr Richard Bowker, Chairman of the Stategic Rail Authority told us that although the 22.10 service was within the Passenger Service Requirement and therefore had to be provided, the 23.45 service was outside the PSR and was run on a commercial basis.[14] He offered the view that:

    "The primary reason is that the later train, the 23.45, was something which was a commercial decision to run by the operator and they have decided they no longer wish to run that service".[15]

13. Mr Kinchin Smith cited low demand as the primary reason for the withdrawal of the service, but added the caveat that the low demand may have been influenced by the fact that the service took a circuitous route to Cardiff, via Bristol Temple Meads.[16] This diversion from the direct route was due to the maintenance needs of Network Rail added a significant amount of time to the journey.[17] Mr Kinchin Smith told us that this route change was due to engineering works, a point acknowledged by Mr Bowker.[18] The Rail Passengers Committee believed that customers at that time of night were not in any desperate rush to get home as quickly as possible: "if they have had a nice evening out, there might not be any objection to running the train via Bristol Temple Meads, and therefore bring additional patronage".[19] However, we are not convinced that people travelling from London to Cardiff are ambivalent to a longer journey back to Wales at that time of the evening.

14. Mr Kinchin Smith gave us an undertaking that First Great Western would look again at options for providing a better late night service from London back to Cardiff.[20] Any decision to reintroduce the service would have to be on a commercial basis because the SRA had no plans to include the service in the Public Service Requirement (PSR): the contracted services undertaken by train operator.[21] Mr Bowker argued that funding was central to the decision not to include the service in the PSR:

    "Currently we provide support for those services which are under the Passenger Service Requirement but which do not meet their costs in terms of the revenue that they generate. If we were to provide this service that would be a further call on our budget, which is already seriously stretched, and we have not formed a view as to whether that particular service has more merit, more value, than any of the other services that are also seeking to secure what is a constrained budget".[22]

However, Mr Bowker told us that the later evening service would be reviewed as part of the construction of the Greater Western Franchise in 2006.[23]

15. We welcome the decision by First Great Western to negotiate with Network Rail for the reintroduction of a later evening service from London to Cardiff. We do not believe that the people of South Wales should have to wait until the award of the new Greater Western franchise in 2006. It is unacceptable that there is no late night service linking the capital cities of England and Wales and we recommend that the Strategic Rail Authority provide sufficient funds to introduce such a service in time for new timetable, due to come into force in December 2004.

High Speed Trains

16. Mr Kinchin Smith told us that First Great Western was looking at a range of short, medium and long term initiatives to enhance its services. He stressed that the priority was the immediate needs of customers and stakeholders and that the majority of First Great Western's effort was targeted at that. First Great Western was also looking at medium term options such as the replacement of the high speed train fleet, the Intercity 125 fleet . A long term initiative suggested by First Great Western was for a new high speed train, labelled the GW200,[24] which would require the need for the construction of a new high speed rail line.[25] Mr Kinchin Smith explained the rationale behind this thinking:

    "If you compare the London/Cardiff route with similar international routes between capitals and major cities in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the thing that differentiates Britain from Spain etcetera, has been the extent of new high speed infrastructure that has been built over the last twenty-plus years".[26]

17. As well as providing a step-change in the service between the two capitals, Mr Kinchin Smith argued that a new high speed train running on a new high speed infrastructure would "free up the conventional network for a variety of other uses,[…] freight, local passenger and intermediate inter-urban passenger services".[27] However, he acknowledged that this initiative had not found favour with the Strategic Rail Authority.[28] This was borne out in evidence from Mr Bowker, Chairman of the SRA:

    "I did not feel at the time that it was a reasonable use of resource and priority. The focus for First Great Western has got to be on delivering a reliable, consistent service now, not in 15 to 20 years' time".[29]

Mr Bowker further argued that a major route development was not a matter for a train operating company in the first instance.[30] However, he did concede that in order to make changes to the railway infrastructure in 2015 to 2020 "you have to start thinking about them now".[31]

18. We welcome First Great Western's proposals for a high speed train link between the capitals of England and Wales. This is the sort of forward looking approach that is necessary to provide a positive future for rail services in South Wales. We are unimpressed with the reaction of the SRA to such proposals. Given the long lead time necessary to enact such a proposal, we recommend that the Strategic Rail Authority give urgent consideration to a new high speed link between England and South Wales as part of the long term strategy for a Greater Western service.


19. The Great Western Main Line is one of the oldest rail routes in the United Kingdom and was last renewed between 1965 to 1973. Mr Coucher from Network Rail estimated that it was "possibly the oldest high-speed mainline in this country and one of the oldest ones in Europe".[32] As a result the line required a high level of maintenance to provide acceptable level of reliability in the short term.[33] Funding had been secured over the last two years and Network Rail argued that a substantial start had been made to renew the line albeit from "a point where the track is very much near the end of its life".[34] However, Mr Coucher acknowledged that Network Rail faced a significant challenge in the medium term to renew a considerable volume of the track and signalling.[35]

20. Network Rail estimated that around half a billion pounds per year was being spent on maintenance and renewal on the Great Western region and argued that this was a significantly higher level than anything over the last ten years. Spending in 2004 would be at a level which was "considerably higher than anything that has been seen in the last ten or 15 years".[36]

21. That expenditure is concentrated on the maintenance of the existing track. Mr Curley's understanding was that the rebuilding of the Great Western Main Line track was probably between six to eight years further down the line. New high output track-renewal equipment had being introduced on the line in the autumn of 2003, which offered a potential step change in the rate at which work could be carried out. Network Rail acknowledged that it needed to sit down with the SRA and the franchise operators to make sure that it could obtain the necessary access to the track to realise the full productivity of that equipment. [37]

22. Our witnesses were in general agreement that improvements were being made to parts of the line. Mr Kinchin Smith cited the use of Platform Four at Swindon, enhancements to Bristol Filton Junction, the Chipping Sodbury Tunnel flood altercation project, and schemes in Wales as areas where improvements could now be seen.[38] However, speed restrictions continued to affect First Great Western's performance: "Regrettably we have so many temporary speed restrictions and emergency speed restrictions today that that amounts to significantly more than the recovery allowance".[39] Both Network Rail and First Great Western were of the opinion that the problems with the route to South Wales fell into three categories: track, signalling, embankments.


23. First Great Western argued that the greatest problems with the track were in England, between Paddington and Didcot. Mr Kinchin Smith described this section of track as "the most unreliable in terms of its year-on-year improvement, or, on the contrary, year-on-year deterioration of delay". Network Rail also highlighted problems with the ballast that held the track in place. That ballast was between 30 and 35 years old, and was life expired. Therefore track needed to be realigned three or four times a year rather than once a year. Furthermore, the abrasion of the ballast also caused the build up of pools of slurry in wet weather which resulted in further speed restrictions in the line.[40]


24. Mr Kinchin Smith told us that the oldest signalling on the line was in South Wales, all of which would need to be replaced by 2010. A programme for renewal had been agreed for the Port Talbot area between 2003 and 2006, and First Great Western was keen for Network Rail to undertake a rolling programme for renewal which would "roll on eastwards through Cardiff, through Newport and all the way to the Severn Tunnel". While accepting that signalling improvements throughout the line were necessary, First Great Western argued the case for prioritising the South Wales section before addressing areas such as Reading. Mr Curley of Network Rail agreed that there were problems with signalling along the line.[41]


25. The third priority for renewal concerned the railway embankments. First Great Western highlighted the geographical triangle between Didcot, the Severn Tunnel and Gloucester, as the area at most risk.[42] Mr Kinchin Smith explained that the recent hot, dry summer had exerted a destabilising influence on the embankments which resulted in further speed restrictions. [43] Mr Curley from Network Rail explained that they had been built by Brunel on clay embankments, while sufficient drainage was part of their design, that drainage had not been maintained in the post-World War Two period. The result was slippage, cracking, and changing that needed to be rectified.[44] Network Rail has instituted a ten-year programme which First Great Western acknowledged had worked well.[45] However First Great Western had experience of cases where as one piece of embankment stabilisation was finished, the ground immediately adjacent to that part had shifted, and 20 or 40 miles an hour speed restrictions had to be reintroduced.[46]

26. While we appreciate that significant work is being carried out to improve the track, the level of service remained well below the level expected by rail travellers. One such traveller is Kim Howells MP, the Minister of State for Transport who acknowledged that the quality of the track gave passengers a poor ride.[47] The Rail Passengers Committee went further and argued that the whole of the Great Western Main Line from Paddington to Swansea was in need of renewal, and cited this as the primary reason for the poor performance of trains on that line.[48]

27. Mr Bowker explained that the SRA had a long term strategy for the line: "The first will be a route strategy which we will be consulting on widely as part of an ongoing programme of these route strategy consultations. The West Coast Main Line is an example of what we have done. A very important one next year will be the Great Western Main Line route strategy. That will be a precursor to the other major event, which will be the tendering and letting of the Greater Western franchise from 2006".[49]

28. We welcome the SRAs announcement of a forthcoming route strategy for the Great Western Main Line, and the potential improvements that a Greater Western Franchise may offer. We look to the SRA to reassure us that the needs of South Wales will not be secondary to those of Southern England when the route strategy is developed.


29. There are competing claims on the railway from train operators who wish to run a regular and reliable service and Network Rail who have the responsibility to maintain and improve the track. Both take direction from the Strategic Rail Authority which is tasked with maintaining a strategic overview of the railway in the United Kingdom. During our evidence session it became clear that these competing claims have the potential to cause unintended disruptions to the service. This point has been noted by the Government.

30. The interrelationship between Network Rail, the SRA and the train operators is key to running an efficient and reliable service. While not wishing to blame Network Rail Mr Kinchin Smith did note that the competing claims of First Great Western and Network Rail on occasions did cause difficulties. "Unfortunately a lot of changes [to the programme of works agreed] are requested by Network Rail at very short notice and that make it even more difficult to plan robustly".[50] Network Rail acknowledged that at times managing this relationship was not always a simple affair "We always do our very best to try and accommodate changes, but it is very difficult"[51]

31. On 19 January 2004, the Secretary of State for Transport announced a review of the interrelationship between these organisations. He stated that

    "There remains a further and very serious difficulty facing the industry—that is, its structure and organisation. The way in which it was privatised has led to fragmentation, excessive complication and dysfunctionality that have compounded the problems caused by decades of under-investment. Quite simply, there are too many organisations, some with overlapping responsibilities, and it has become increasingly clear that that gets in the way of effective decision making and frequently leads to unnecessary wrangling and disputes".[52]

32. We welcome the Government announcement of a review of the rail industry. We look forward to receiving further details on the Government's proposals for streamlining these organisations. We will judge these proposals on the extent to which they promote genuinely better services for rail users.


33. The Severn Tunnel rail link connects rail services from South Wales to England. It requires a high level of maintenance. Mr Kinchin Smith believed that one of Network Rail's success stories in the last eighteen months had been the management of the Severn Tunnel.[53] He explained that there was now a single management focus for the Severn Tunnel as a unique and critical piece of infrastructure.[54] Mr Curley from Network Rail agreed and highlighted the structural challenges that faced the managers of the tunnel: "It is a large black hole under a very wet river. If we do not pump it continuously, it will flood in about three and a half minutes". He reassured the Committee that it had been successfully pumped for over 100 years, so it should not be considered a problem.[55] In its written evidence, Network Rail set out the details of the renewal programme that had been undertaken between April 1999 and December 2002. This included the renewal of rails, sleepers, ballast; brickwork repairs and drainage. Following those renewals, Network Rail declared the tunnel "in good condition to continue to perform its role as the major rail link between England and South Wales".[56]

34. The current maintenance of the Severn Tunnel merely ensures current levels of use. These levels strictly limit the number of trains that are able to pass through the tunnel. A longer term approach is needed for the Tunnel to provide a better and more frequent service for rail customers. The Rail Passengers Committee offered several options that it believed merited further consideration: a light railway on the Second Severn Road Crossing, a new dedicated rail bridge, a new sub-parallel tunnel and a crossing on any future Severn tidal barrage.[57] It is evident that any of these options would have considerable cost implications and the Rail Passengers Committee acknowledged that their proposals were a piece of "blue sky thinking".[58] However, that fact should not preclude consideration of the feasibility of a second rail crossing between Wales and England.

35. We recommend that when the SRA develops its route strategy for the Great Western Main Line, it should give consideration to the cost and feasibility of a second rail crossing between Wales and England.

North Wales Main Line

36. The North Wales Main line runs from Crewe to Holyhead and is the main rail line for North Wales. The line is classified as part of the United Kingdom Secondary Network and therefore is a branch line of the West Coast Main Line.[59] Virgin Trains run intercity services on the line, while local services will be provided by the new Wales and Borders franchise, operated by Arriva Trains Wales.


37. In October 2002 Virgin Trains proposed a two hourly service from Holyhead to London, comprising seven trains a day.[60] This service was later revised down to five trains. Since then, the actual level of service provided has been four trains per day, of which three travel to and from Holyhead, and one between Llandudno and London. [61] Three will use Voyager units and one a Pendolino unit.

38. Mr Chris Green from Virgin Trains explained that the proposed two hourly service was dependent upon line speeds on the West Coast Main Line of 140 miles per hour. Taking that as the basis for its service, Virgin ordered the requisite number of trains. However, the maximum speed of 140mph was not realised, and trains could only achieve 125mph. The reduction in the line speed resulted in a longer journey time so that the trains allocated to that service would not be able to provide the proposed seven train services per day.[62] Mr Green also argued that the introduction of services had been further delayed because Network Rail had not finished the modernisation of the West Coast: "It is awash with engineering work and we cannot run at 125 miles an hour through the engineering work because it is not finished".[63] While not wishing to apportion blame, Mr Bowker agreed that it was a shame that the original plan for a two-hourly service "was not thought through as adequately as it needed to be".[64]

39. We welcome any increase in intercity services for North Wales. We are disappointed that the projected service level of seven trains a day will not be realised. While we appreciate that the reduction in the line speed has forced Virgin to reduce the numbers of trains per day, we conclude that Virgin Train's planning of the new service and consequent promises ought to have been more adequately thought through so that unrealistic aspirations could have been avoided.

Pendolino Trains

40. One further issue regarding the use of Pendolino units on the North Wales Main Line is that of the Chrisleton tunnel south of Chester. Route clearance has not yet been received from Network Rail for the Pendolino train to use this tunnel for its service between Crewe and Holyhead. We understand that Virgin Trains requested such clearance in the Autumn of 2003. The tunnel south of Chester required some engineering work but Virgin has yet to receive further information about its completion. Should route clearance not be received Virgin Trains explained that a temporary connecting service from Crewe to Holyhead would have to be introduced.[65]

41. We find the delay by Network Rail in authorising the North Wales Main Line for use by Pendolino trains unacceptable. We recommend that Network Rail ensure early clearance for the use of Pendolino trains along the North Wales Main Line be given in time for the introduction of that service in December 2004.


42. The SRA and Network Rail are currently involved in a £10 billion redevelopment of the West Coast Main Line of which the North Wales Main Line is a branch line.[66] This redevelopment will provide a high speed rail link from London to Scotland. The North Wales Main Line was not included in that redevelopment programme. Trains can run at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour between London and Crewe, but this drops significantly between Crewe and Holyhead. As Mr Green explained: "We have bits of 75mph, bits of 90mph, and 70 mph through to Anglesey. We will have the most modern train in Europe and a mixed bag of track".[67]

43. Despite the step change in speed between the two parts of the London - Holyhead route, Mr Bowker from the SRA told us that there were no plans to upgrade line speeds along the whole length of the NWML.[68] No evaluation had been carried out of the costs of increasing the line speed.[69] Work had been carried out on the line to ensure that the Virgin Trains new services could operate.[70] Network Rail agreed that only tens of millions of pounds would be needed for a further line speed increases.[71] However, they were unable to provide a date when line speed would rise to 100mph.[72]

44. The SRA has subsequently agreed to carry out a costing exercise on increasing line speeds on North Wales Main Line and undertook to consider what action to take in light of affordability and value for money.[73] Mr Green welcomed the SRA's proposal to cost improvements to the line, but was concerned that regardless of value for money, funds were not available for any improvements: "I think the main problem the SRA have got is funding, which is catastrophic now—as I think everyone knows—because they have spent the next ten years' money in three years".[74]

45. We welcome the SRAs commitment to a costing exercise for increasing the line speed on the North Wales Main Line. However, any costing exercise would be of limited use should funds not be available. We recommend that the SRA give a clear commitment to upgrading the North Wales Main Line should its costing exercise demonstrate value for money. Furthermore, we recommend that the SRA commit to running the exercise in conjunction with the National Assembly for Wales so that there is an adequate level of transparency in the process.

46. A further complication is that while the line between London and Crewe is electrified, the North Wales Main Line is not. This has a significant impact on the Virgin train fleet whose engines run on electrified track. They require a change of engines at Crewe to complete the journey to Holyhead. Mr Green explained to us that the trains "go electric from London to Crewe virtually non-stop." From Crewe to Holyhead they are loco hauled by a traditional diesel engine. He was at pains to point out that this procedure can now be carried out extremely quickly.[75]

47. While any decrease in time spent changing locomotives at Crewe is to be welcomed, electrification of the North Wales Main Line would provide a more satisfactory solution. Several studies have considered electrification of the North Wales Main Line. A 1989 study estimated the net capital cost at £40m,[76] around £150m-£200m in today's terms. Although this represents a significant level of investment, it should be seen in light of the cost of rebuilding the West Coast Main Line, which currently stands as £10 billion.

48. We recommend that electrification of the line be included in the costing exercise for increase in the line speed of the North Wales Main Line. We further recommend, that should the costings not prove prohibitively expensive, the work be carried out as part of the rebuilding of the West Coast Main Line.


49. During our inquiry we became aware that the North Wales Main Line is classified as a secondary route. Mr Coucher from Network Rail explained that the classification of a line as a primary or secondary route was a function of the type of trains and the frequency of train,[77] and the subsequent need for maintenance on the line.[78] He told us that this classification was an internal measure and assured the Committee that trains were not limited by the classification, rather that classification was driven by the frequency of trains using it:[79] "Should the frequency of the service be increased, there would be a corresponding increase in the maintenance costs. That would have to be funded and the funding arrangement for that would have to be agreed with the SRA at the time".[80]

50. In 1996, the North Wales Main Line was designated a part of the Trans - European Network (TEN-T) Outline Plan for Railways.[81] Funding for that network is driven by EU policies to achieve the optimum level of integration of transport modes and interoperability of trains. The TEN-T budget covers 2000-2006 but only limited funds have so far been made available for Wales.

51. Since 1996 there have been a number of initiatives from the European Union to quick-start economic impact. The Commission's Marco Polo funding initiative promoted alternatives to road freight, and the TEN-T Priority Project for Directorate General for Transport and Energy—the Van Miert Report[82]—identified 29 projects to be pursued under the TEN-T initiative. In December 2003 - the Growth Initiative from the European Council proposing TEN-T gave it further impetus.[83] The North Wales Main Line qualifies for such funding as it meets three of the priority areas of EU policy. They are improved access to ports; links to peripheral areas including the Republic of Ireland and the fact that the North Wales Main Line has a lower performance standard, in terms of line speed, than comparable routes elsewhere in Europe. This funding should extend to line speed increases.

52. The TEN-T upgrade projects are contained in a new co-decision dossier being considered for legislative approval by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.[84] Consideration of those upgrade projects is currently at an early stage. However, the benefits of such projects can be seen on the A55 which runs parallel to the rail line. It had been designated as a Euro Route, and that classification enabled it to attract funding for significant improvements.[85]

53. We recommend that the Secretary of State for Wales consult with his Cabinet colleagues to ensure representations are made to the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament for funding for the upgrade of the North Wales Main Line as part of the Trans European Network initiative.

11   Q97 Back

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14   Q3 Back

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42   Q114 Back

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44   Q311 Back

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49   Q2 Back

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51   Q330 Back

52   HC Deb, Session 2003-04, 19 January 2004, col 1076. Back

53   Q111 Back

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55   Q332 Back

56   Ev 55 Back

57   Ev 91 Back

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76   Holyhead, Chester, Crewe and Manchester Rail Electrification - MDS Transmodal for Chester, Clwyd and Gwynedd County Councils, British Rail and GMPTE. Back

77   Q348 Back

78   Q349 Back

79   Q355 Back

80   Q356 Back

81   European Commission, February 2002 Back

82   The Trans European Transport Networks "TEN-T". Revision of the Community Guidelines, High Level Group, Group Van Miert report. Legislation on the Revision of the TEN-T guidelines European Commission October 2003 Back

83   A European initiative for growth - investing in networks and knowledge for the growth of jobs- Final report to the European Council, European Commission 21 November 2003 Back

84   Amended proposal for a decision of the European Parliament and of the Council of Ministers amending the amended proposal for a decision of the European Parliament and of the Council amending decision No 1692/96/EC on Community guidelines for the development of the trans - European transport network presented by the Commission pursuant to article 250(2) of the EC Treaty . COM (2003) 564. Back

85   The Transport Framework for Wales, Section 6, The Transport Strategy pp 40-42, National Assembly for Wales, November 2001. Back

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