Welsh Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from the South East Wales Transport Alliance (Sewta)

Sewta welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Inquiry on Cross-Border and Rail Connectivity.

Sewta is a consortium of 10 local authorities; the councils of Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Newport, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Torfaen and Vale of Glamorgan. Sewta works with stakeholders, including the likes of Network Rail and train operating companies, other partners and the Welsh Government to improve regional transport in South-East Wales. Sewta represents the regional transport interest of 1.4 million people and is the largest of the four transport consortia in Wales.

In our 2010 Regional Transport Plan one of our overarching objectives is to improve connectivity by sustainable transport between South-East Wales and the rest of Wales, the UK and Europe.

Our response will use the headings set out in your invitation to respond to the Inquiry, and our position can be summarised as follows:

Cross border bus services—we highlight the variances between tendered services, who subsidises such as services and those which are provided on a commercial basis by bus companies

Cross-border rail services—we note the level of input into the original specifications for each of the three franchises, the challenges such specifications have caused and the potential for improvements to be made.

Infrastructure—we record the potential for rail infrastructure improvements to be made with the greater devolution of Network Rail, and possible opportunities to use local government borrowing powers to improve road infrastructure but highlight the need for clarification on whether English authorities have the same opportunities.

Background

1. Setting into context the issues associated with cross-border transport infrastructure, it is important to note the level of traffic, in terms of people commuting to work, for leisure or education and flow of goods between England and Wales.

2. For example, in Monmouthshire we know that the last statistics suggested that some 3,000 people commute each day between Monmouthshire and Bristol. There is also the potential for this demand to increase should the proposed housing development for the Severnside areas of Monmouthshire, Llanwern and 5,000 houses planned for the Forest of Dean occur.

3. This level of cross-border traffic, of both people and freight, supports the position of Sewta in one of its objectives to improve connectivity by sustainable transport between South-East Wales and the rest of Wales, the UK and Europe.

The extent to which cross-border public road and rail services are currently provided for and accessed by the Welsh population

4. Cross-border bus services are currently provided in a number of ways:

Tendered services subsidised by Welsh local authorities (notably Monmouthshire County Council).

Tendered services subsidised by an English local authority (such as Herefordshire County Council or Gloucestershire County Council).

Tendered services jointly subsidised between Welsh and English authorities.

Commercial services.

5. In addition there are a number of commercial coach services which run between England and Wales.

6. Supporting the bus service is a concessionary fares system. Welsh bus pass holders, irrespective of their home authority area, can travel on any bus service which starts in Wales and which finishes in England—and vice-versa. This again tends to be services which start in Monmouthshire and finishes in one of the English border counties. There are no time restrictions for Welsh pass holders.

7. English pass holders have the same concession, except that pass holders are only able to travel from their local area into Wales, and make the same return journey into their home area. Neither English or Welsh concessionary bus pass holders however can travel on buses which start and finish in the other country. English pass holders cannot use their passes until 0930 on Monday to Fridays, and at any time on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank or Public Holidays.

8. For rail services, there are currently three routes which cross the English-Wales border. The Marches (Hereford-Abergavenny-Newport) line; Chepstow (Gloucester-Chepstow-Severn Tunnel Junction) line and thirdly the Great Western Main Line (Pilning-Severn Tunnel-Severn Tunnel Junction. Services on them are provided by three separate franchises.

9. The Wales and Borders franchise, currently operated by Arriva Trains Wales, runs broadly a two hour service on the Cardiff-Holyhead route and an hourly service on the West Wales—Manchester route respectively, and a broadly two hourly service on the South Wales to Cheltenham service along the Chepstow Line, with an additional hourly service every second hour.

10. The Cross Country franchise, currently operated by Arriva Trains, provides an hourly service between South Wales and Nottingham, though not every station in the border counties (eg Severn Tunnel Junction, Caldicot, Chepstow and Lydney) currently receives an hourly train service. In addition one train a day under the same franchise runs from Cardiff via Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction to Bristol, before continuing northwards.

11. The Great Western franchise currently operated by First Great Western provides an hourly London to Swansea service, with additional peak services to provide an half hourly frequency in the morning and late pm peaks. On Mondays to Fridays there is also an hourly London to Cardiff service, thus providing an all day half hourly service between London and Cardiff.

12. The franchise also provides a Monday to Saturday half hourly service between Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, before continuing on towards either Bath and the South Coast, or Taunton. However, not every station in the border counties (eg Severn Tunnel Junction, Pilning and Patchway) currently receives a half hourly train service.

The arrangements currently in place to co-ordinate cross-border road and rail transport service provision

13. The specification for the Wales and Borders franchise was originally set by the former Strategic Rail Authority, whilst the Cross Country and Greater Western franchises were specified by the Department for Transport.

14. For each franchise, it would be fair to say that there was a variance in level that the interests and objectives of the likes of the Welsh Government, local authorities in Wales, and England, and regional transport consortia such as Sewta, were included in the final specifications.

15. For example, it is often reported that the original Wales and Borders franchise was not specified to allow any significant growth in passenger demand, with also the service on the Chepstow Line being one of the few inter-regional within the whole franchise not to have a specified hourly service.

16. Similarly the Greater Western Franchise originally specified a reduction in the service on the cross-border Cardiff to Bristol routes.

17. Despite these failings in the original specifications and some improvements to the service, particularly on the Cardiff to Bristol route, passenger demand on the three cross-border routes has been strong and exceeded all rail industry forecasts.

18. Management of the Wales and Borders franchise is the responsibility of the Welsh Government, with the Department for Transport maintaining some interest and management of those cross-borders services within the franchise. Direct management of the Cross Country and Great Western franchises still sits with the Department for Transport, who also maintain an interest in those cross-border services as defined as such within the Wales and Borders franchise.

19. We understand there is dialogue between the Welsh Government and Department for Transport over the Cross Country and Great Western franchises but are not aware of the frequency, extent or content of such discussions.

20. A further point to make in relation to the three franchises concerns the specification to consult with stakeholders on timetable changes.

21. The Wales and Borders and Cross Country franchises have a formal requirement to consult on timetable changes, and we have welcomed the decision of the Cross Country franchise operator to increase their service to some stations on the Chepstow Line.

22. Despite this, we would however suggest there is the potential for the two franchise operators on the route to work more closely in terms of timetabling services to provide overall a higher level of service within the franchise’s respective specifications.

23. No such formal requirement to consult on timetable changes exist within the Great Western franchise. This omission from the requirements, which when combined with the deficiencies in the original service specification has caused challenges in the life of the franchise.

24. We must acknowledge however that the operator of the Greater Western franchise has undertake a degree of informal consultation with local authorities, regional transport consortia and local rail user groups to the extent that increases in the level of service on the Cardiff to Bristol route has been secured, above that which the operator is contractually obliged to run.

25. For rail services, we are also aware of bi-annual cross-border forums hosted by the Welsh Government with the English local authorities. However, no Welsh authority or any of the regional transport consortia is invited to these meetings and furthermore we do not receive any specific direct feedback from the meetings.

26. Notwithstanding, good relationships exist between English and Welsh local authorities within Sewta, and Monmouthshire County Council meeting a number of times each year with the West of England Partnership, Gloucestershire County Council, North Somerset Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Councils.

27. In the past two years, this has also seen these organisations come together, with economic forums in Wales and business groups in the Great Western Partnership to lobby for electrification of the Great Western Main Line and development of a high speed rail service between London and South West England and South Wales.

28. More recently, Sewta, Monmouthshire County Council, the West of England Partnership, Gloucestershire County Council, North Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire councils met and regularly liaised over identifying common themes to inform our organisation’s respective responses to the Department for Transport consultation on a replacement for the Greater Western Franchise.

29. Dialogue also exists with Herefordshire County Council in terms of services on the Marches Line.

30. The cross-border local authorities meetings and early meetings of the Great Western Partnership did see attendance from the respective government agencies in England, such as the South West Regional Development Agency and Government Office for South West, and Welsh Government. Attendance of these bodies at recent meetings of the Great Western Partnership has declined, which in the case of the South West RDA is due to their abolition.

31. Turning to subsidised bus services—particularly those where there is a joint subsidy between English and Welsh local authorities, regular dialogue between the authorities take place to secure agreement on the level of service, funding and tendering arrangements.

32. For commercial services however, we are reliant on maintaining a regular dialogue with those operators which provide such services and again this is predominantly led by Monmouthshire County Council. We would also be advised of any changes to bus services through the bus registration process administered by VOSA.

33. Looking forward, authorities in Wales await with interest the results of the Department for Transport’s intention to decentralise certain aspects of specification of rail services to local authorities in England.

34. Sewta and Monmouthshire County Council will be responding to the current Department for Transport consultation in due course, but in our response to the Department for Transport’s Greater Western Franchise consultation we observed that whilst the principle of decentralisation is largely sound, issues such as level of funding, need to maintain decision making at a level where there exists a sufficient level of democratic mandate (ie local or unitary authorities, and not perhaps parish or community councils).

35. We also argue that there also needs to be an acknowledgement that one of the strengths of the rail system is that it’s a national network, and devolution does of course offer the potential, perhaps unlikely, for a decision made at a local level to run contrary to a national objective. An issue which is perhaps most pertinent with those cross-border services.

36. However, our greatest concern should devolution of rail services be given to English local authorities and regional transport groups, concerns again how cross-border service provision and aspirations are met. We would expect again that the likes of Welsh Government, local authorities and regional transport groups in Wales are fully consulted by both the franchise operator and English local authority on any rail service scheme which has the potential to improve or have an impact on passengers in Wales.

The potential impact on Wales of the plans for a High Speed 2 (HS2) Rail service between London, the Midlands and North of England

37. Our only observation on the High Speed 2 Rail Service is that linkages to existing rail lines (particularly in London) needs to be carefully thought through.

The funding of cross-border transport infrastructure

38. For the road infrastructure, it is important to make the distinction between the different responsibilities for certain roads. There are those cross-border roads which are the responsibility of the relevant English local authority and Welsh Government/South Wales Trunk Road Agency (SWTRA), such as the A465 between Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, or those roads like the A466 which links Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire which is the joint responsibility of the local authorities.

39. Those different responsibilities do then have a bearing on the funding arrangements and management plans for the respective road. It is generally the case that because of funding constraints, those roads which are solely the responsibility in Wales of a local authority, enjoy less funding in terms of maintenance and improvement than say that of those roads under the responsibility of the Welsh Government and their agents in SWTRA.

40. Recently, Welsh Local Authorities have been given a commitment from the Welsh Government to use prudential borrowing under the Local Government Borrowing Initiative on capital highway improvement investment under the main objectives of improving the condition of the asset, and improving the functionality of the highway—such as a Making Better Use scheme.

41. It is not clear however, if English local authorities also have a similar prudential borrowing initiative and if so, how this could be aligned with the Welsh initiative for improving the cross-border highways infrastructure.

42. Turning to rail infrastructure, the first point to make is that the funding of Network Rail’s activities, as set out by the Office of Rail Regulation and Control Period documentations, still combines spending for Wales with that of England.

43. Although Network Rail in the publication of their route plans, and move to greater devolution and setting up a Wales unit, does provide an indication of spending within Wales, it is not totally clear how funding of cross-border routes is or current looked after or will be dealt with in the future.

44. It is important however to make the point that the end users of the road and rail infrastructure, such as freight companies and commuters, will by design often benefit from improvements to cross-border routes and particularly those in another country.

The progress made on improving co-ordination between the Welsh Government and Department for Transport on cross-border issues and matters of strategic importance

45. From a low base with the original no-growth specification of the Wales and Borders franchise, and problems which arose with the initial specification for the Greater Western franchise it became increasingly important for bodies within Wales, such as the Welsh Government, to increase their dialogue with the Department for Transport.

46. We would suggest that engagement with the Department for Transport, and lobbying of them by the Welsh Government has led to schemes like electrification of the Great Western Main Line through to Cardiff, and through to Swansea, and electrification of the Valley Lines receiving far more coverage than they would have say 10 year ago.

47. Mindful of what happened at the last award of the Great Western franchise specification, we were therefore pleased to note the discussions that appear to being taken place between Welsh Government and Department for Transport officials on the specification for the Greater Western franchise which will be awarded this year.

48. That said, we would suggest there remains the opportunity and potential for much better dialogue between the likes of Welsh Government, Department for Transport and local authorities on cross-border rail services, to achieve pan-agency support for improvements in services, with a view to achieving better value for money and use of available resources.

49. We are not aware of the extent of the dialogue that has taken place regarding road services and road infrastructure. For example, the Welsh Government has recently begun a public consultation on alleviating congestion on the M4 between junction 23 at Magor and 28 at Castleton around Newport, but we are not aware that the likes of the Highways Agency and English local authorities have been engaged to seek their views and opinions on the transport problems along the adjacent roads which feed traffic into the M4.

50. A key aspect of the cross-border road infrastructure is of course the two Severn Crossings, and whilst aware from what has been reported in the press of discussions about the future toll and concession arrangements, we again have not been directly involved in any discussions between the Welsh Government and UK government over the future of the tolls.

April 2012

Prepared 5th March 2013