Carmarthen-Aberystwyth railway will be a marathon, not a sprint

(Title Image: Histor’s Eye)

Back in September, the full feasibility study for re-opening the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth railway – ordered as part of a budget agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru – was published (full report – pdf, executive summary – pdf).

The two towns are only 50 miles apart, but if you want to travel between them by rail it’ll take you about 6 hours via a significant eastern detour first.

Of course, with the introduction of the TrawsCymru network, there’s a permanent public transport link along the western coast. It’s been free to use at weekends and connects with rail services at either end. Whether it’s enough in itself to meet passenger demand along the route depends on who you ask.

The report certainly said reopening the railway – which would probably be one of the most significant non-London rail projects since the reopening of the Borders railway in Scotland – is possible. However, because it said it could be done, it doesn’t mean the conclusion was that it should be done.

If anything, the feasibility study has kicked it into the long grass.

Tyranny of BCR

The report concludes that the project would only be economically viable and guarantee a return on investment (a benefit-cost ratio/”BCR” of 1.0) if it cost a maximum of £333million and carried double the projected number of passengers.

The actual projected cost – which includes an optimism bias – was put at £755million, while it was estimated the route would carry anything between 460,000-556,000 passengers a year by 2037; that’s fewer than the number of people who used Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil stations alone in 2016-17.

It’s worth pointing out though that passenger projections have often been underestimated, with both the reopened Ebbw Vale line and Borders railway far exceeding expectations.

While the bulk of the former line remains intact, the remaining engineering challenges are significant, more so because of the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR’s) policy – backed by rail unions – of “no new level crossings” , meaning most of the crossing points (147 of them according to the report) would have to be replaced with a bridge. 16.5km of cycle routes would have to be redirected and at least one completely new tunnel would need to be built to enable the line to get in/out of Aberystwyth (with a tunnel diversion away from the Gwili Valley Railway also suggested).

It’s the sort of outcome that must’ve been expected by even the most optimistic supporter.

A long-term project

The rail link should be re-approached as a long-term project, possibly as part of a wider 30-50 year plan for Welsh infrastructure.

It’s hard to think of many significant new road projects in Wales once the Newport and Deeside situations are sorted, the Third Menai crossing is built and the A40 and A465 are dualled. The need for completely new roads might also be reduced with increasing automation and improved driving efficiency that comes with it.

Once they’re all done (or permanently mothballed), the capital funding will be freed up for other projects and Carmarthen-Aberystwyth could (and perhaps should) be one of them.

There are a number of ways the costs might be reduced or the economic case made stronger to the point where a railway becomes not only feasible but necessary.

One way might be to reopen it as a Swiss-style modern narrow gauge railway. Yes, it would mean having to change trains at either end instead of having a through service to Swansea, Cardiff etc. but it might reduce the engineering costs, improve service reliability by allowing more double track and get around some of the ORR’s requirements. It could also be a showcase project for new types of trains and could, if it works, be applied to other lost routes in the Valleys, north-west and elsewhere.

One of the proposal’s key weaknesses is the low population density directly along the route. Despite there being three university towns, Carmarthen, Lampeter and Aberystwyth have fewer residents combined than Bridgend.

The direct reach of the proposed railway could be increased by having a “hub and spoke” bus service; so the proposed station and Pencader, for example, could have a limited stop bus link to Llandysul, Newcastle Emlyn, Cardigan and Aberporth, likewise from Lampeter to Aberaeron and New Quay.

However, fully solving the problem would require decisions that might be unpalatable to supporters of the project- namely, trebling or quadrupling the size of the towns and villages along the route to increase the number of potential journeys by increasing the population density. A carrot and stick approach would see the infrastructure built at the same time as, or before, any development.

So, does the feasibility study mean the rail link’s “dead”?

Maybe not, but it’s going to need some hard-headedness, imagination and long-term strategic thinking to see anything done.

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