Boost for plans to reopen old rail tunnels for walkers and cyclists

(Title Image: Graeme Bickerdike via Youtube)

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes the rich and diverse network of historic industrial infrastructure across Wales and notes the potential of re-opening disused railway lines and tunnels across Wales – but also recognises the practical and financial challenges of bringing such infrastructure back into use.
  • Calls upon the Welsh Government to seek ownership of such infrastructure which would aid funding applications.
  • Calls on the UK and Welsh Governments to play its part in exploring the practical opportunities for re-opening such infrastructure across Wales.

Hidden gems

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said that while there were plenty of physical reminders of Wales’ industrial past, the infrastructure left behind is ripe for restoration to boost tourism and active travel describing abandoned railway lines and canals as “hidden gems”.

The Rhondda Tunnel between Blaengwynfi and Blaenrhondda is one of those gems, having been closed by the UK Department of Transport in 1970. The Rhondda Tunnel Society was established to press for it to be reopened to pedestrians and cyclists, linking the Afan Valley to the Rhondda Fawr.

“I and many others envision the tunnel being the focal point of cycling events and running events, and there have been examples of these happening: Bath tunnels have been one of these cases, where we’ve seen them being used as a focal point for 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and full marathons. It’s not just simply an opportunity to walk through them or cycle through them. They could be used for other events, which bring more into the community.”
– David Rees AM

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) mentioned plans by the Llangollen Railway to work on joint ticketing with bus companies in the area following an extension to Corwen. A trust has also been established to restore a tramline near Chirk.

Ownership and community ambitions

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) said the Rhondda Tunnel Society’s ambitions have been hampered by questions of ownership of the tunnel itself.

“I also understand that correspondence was sent to the Welsh Government in 2017 from the UK Department for Transport offering ownership of the Rhondda tunnel and £60,000 to reflect savings to that department in survey costs. The UK Department for Transport are still waiting for a reply to that offer. So, I really hope we can end the stalling now and make some progress.”
– Leanne Wood AM

Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) supports a similar project to reopen the Abernant Tunnel between Cwmbach and Merthyr Tydfil. Its reopening would provide a direct, traffic-free route between Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil which currently doesn’t exist and often forces cyclists onto the A465. A local company has been instrumental in maintaining the tunnel so reopening could provide sustainable, skilled local work.

Several other AMs either celebrated the industrial heritage in their constituencies. Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) mentioned the Caerau-Cymmer Tunnel, while Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) mentioned a peaceful local woodland which developed at Llanhilleth quarry.

Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn) said the former Navigation Colliery in Crumlin has become a local landmark, while Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) spoke in favour of reopening the Cardiff-Creigau railway line which could be extended towards Beddau and Llantrisant.

Not as easy as it sounds

Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), said he didn’t need any persuading in supporting the principle of the motion, but it was important to invest money – in terms of walking and cycling – in areas where there’ll be an immediate return; there was no point reopening tunnels if they’re not connected to a proper active travel network.

He couldn’t commit to the Welsh Government taking immediate ownership of old tunnels and then seek funding opportunities – this was the wrong way around and the £60,000 offer from the UK Department of Transport was “risible”. But while several AMs contested this, there was a bit of good news for Rhondda Tunnel and Abernant Tunnel campaigners:

“The Minister for Local Government and Housing and the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism and I have jointly agreed to fund Sustrans to lead a partnership bid for assembling external funding for the reopening and running of the Rhondda and Abernant tunnels.

“Clearly, the funding would need to come from a wide range of sources and can only be achieved with a wide range of bodies working together, and this includes the community, who I pay tribute to again for championing this cause. I do believe there are practical things that we can do….to make this opportunity a real one, but it is not easy, and we cannot do it alone.”
– Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters

Vote

Backbench members debates are usually uncontested, but there was a vote this time with the government abstaining.

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