The road to the creation of a modern Welsh transport system has been far from smooth.
In the past year two bidders suddenly pulled out of the race for a major rail franchise and central government axed an electrification scheme between Wales’ two biggest cities. But Transport for Wales chief executive James Price believes plans for the £5bn Wales and Borders rail franchise, including a capital works framework worth £700M to develop the South Wales Metro, has set Wales on a “journey of transformation”.
The Wales and Borders franchise includes the design and build of a metro-style service on the Core Valleys Lines and subsequent infrastructure management. Responsibility for these lines will transfer from Network Rail to TfW, though heavy rail infrastructure outside of the Core Valley lines will remain with Network Rail.
Price, formerly Welsh permanent secretary for economy, skills and natural resources, explains that the procurement process was outcome-led.
“We told the bidders ‘we don’t care how you do it’,” he says. The response from the industry was to provide solutions across the “whole spectrum” to produce the desired result.
“It indicates that when it is allowed to, the rail industry really can innovate,” says Price, citing the wide range of options the franchise bidders put forward.
“The problem with the rail industry is that there is no controlling mind and the industry is not allowed to work together to come up with new ideas.”
The organisation awarded the 15 year contract to a joint venture between French transport giant Keolis and Spanish-owned infrastructure consultant Amey. The JV will take over rail services from Arriva Trains Wales on 14 October.
Everyone is saying we are doing something no one else has done
The rail franchise contract was unusual as it includes the requirement for a construction partner to deliver the South Wales Metro, as well as run train services across Wales.
Tri-mode unit on the Rhymney line
The headline announcement from KeolisAmey’s plans which were announced in June was that Cardiff will get four new railway stations, every station in Wales will be modernised and the Core Valley lines will be upgraded. This includes the electrification of 172km of track.
Where do people live? Where do people work? How do they get there? These are the questions that must be asked when planning new transport infrastructure, Price says.
The main drive behind Transport for Wales’ strategy is the need to connect workers to jobs.
“Transport is a means to an end, not transport for the sake of transport.” Only KeolisAmey and MTR Corporation (Cymru), which was working with Bam Nuttall, were left in the running after Arriva Trains Wales pulled out of the procurement process last year. Another bidder, and Abellio Rail Cymru, dropped out following the collapse of its partner Carillion in January.
“Everybody is saying we are doing something no one else has done. The high-level challenge is making it work economically and socially. If it doesn’t deliver on economics then there is kind of no point,” says Price.
He echoes Welsh transport and environment secretary Ken Skates who said that Transport for Wales had “focused on outcomes” and “achieving value for money” instead of “rewarding bidders who put forward unsustainable financial offers”.
One of the main challenges is delivering quickly for a public that wants to see immediate change, he says. “How do we deliver for an impatient public, when lots of the industry is getting things wrong?”
One hold-up could be the cancellation of electrification work between Cardiff and Swansea, Price explains. Transport secretary Chris Grayling’s decision to scrap the scheme last summer will make it harder to fulfill the promise to get four trains an hour to Ebbw Vale in the Welsh valleys.
“We will deliver what politicians ask us to deliver, but Welsh ministers and politicians are disappointed [about the decision]. There’s a risk of communities feeling disconnected.”
The Wales and Borders contract aims to deliver an extra 294 train services across Wales on Sundays – an increase of 61% – and an extra 285 services on weekdays by the end of 2023.
Six hundred new jobs will be created to deliver the work and 30 apprentices will be taken on each year.
Transport for Wales will work with contractors “in a grown up and collaborative way,” says Price.
“If we have specified something that is going to cause a real problem and not benefit the customer then our contractor ought to feel confident tosay that.” Although, “collaboration doesn’t mean we lay down” he adds.
We can design contracts to get more SMEs involved and still drive down costs
He is also keen to involve more small and medium enterprises in the work (SMEs) and divide up large infrastructure contracts where possible. “We can design contracts to get more SMEs involved and still drive down costs,” he says.
“That does put more of a requirement on us as a client to be a smart client. To be more commercial than we have been in the past, and more technically savvy than we have been in the past.”
Transport for Wales is wholly owned by the Welsh government with a remit to advise and carry out projects.
It is not just South Wales that is set to get a metro service, and Transport for Wales is planning for the future as early stage plans for the North Wales Metro are in the pipeline.
Transport for Wales will invest in Wrexham General and Shotton Station to enable the project in the future, it revealed in the Wales and Borders announcement.
Early proposals show the metro will be cross-border, reflecting the economic connection between North East Wales and North-West England.
“We are still at a really early stage on that and working really closely with local authorities,” Price says.
“The stuff we have seen to date is nothing like what we will see in the end. The South Wales Metro was 10 years in the making, [the North Wales Metro] is maybe in year three.”
Improving bus services is the other focus for Transport for Wales. It is grappling with the best way to serve rural areas where routes could be deemed unviable due to low passenger numbers, even if they are essential for residents.
Transport for Wales is exploring how to use technology to make the service fi t the needs of the public, and expects to be offered the chance to run the service.
An Über-style, demand responsive bus service could be the answer, Price explains.
The on-demand service, which can be ordered via a mobile app, would be cheaper than a taxi and only slightly more expensive than a regular bus and would not be restricted by routes.
Separate trials of the technology are underway in Oxford and scheduled to start in Liverpool this year.
Echoing previous statements on becoming a “smarter” client he says, “Quite often the public sector does not use technology as well as the private sector, so trials have often been quite clunky.
“But why can’t we be even better than Über?” says Price.