BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Let trains take strain as Gwent valleys marooned
IT will be a depressingly familiar picture for many across Gwent.
The station is open, but where are the trains?
For years many people, particularly in the Gwent Valleys, have lamented about the lack of stations near their homes, and then when they make it to one, find that the service is so infrequent they might as well have not bothered in the first place.
At Pontypool and New Inn station, for example, the only station for the whole of the Eastern Valley, the train runs to Newport and Cardiff just once every two hours for the greater part of the week, and drops off even more at evenings and weekends.
For residents in Blaenau Gwent they’ve got a choice of Ebbw Vale Parkway or Llanhilleth, but nothing in between until you reach Abergavenny.
For many it’s simply not good enough.
On market day in Abertillery town centre the feeling was unanimous.
“I think it’s terrible,” said 49-year-old Amanda Jones, from nearby Six Bells, of public transport at the top of the valley. “There’s nothing. Nothing at all. Everything seems to go to Ebbw Vale. It’s hard to get here or Brynmawr, even from Six Bells,” she said.
“I think it’s shocking you have to take at least two buses to get to Cardiff, it’s not like it’s that far really,” her daughter, Charmaine Jones, agreed.
Stallholders Emma Walters and John Hogh are taking the heads off prawns at their Flinstone’s Fresh Fish store.
They come up to the town for market day every week from Blackwood.
“It’s not easy for people to get here and get back home,” Mr Hogh says.
“We’ve just had a lady come here buying fish for six different people who can’t make it here. And the weather’s relatively good at the moment,” he says, as the drizzle begins to fall.
“Better transport would be better for us, obviously, because it would bring more people to the town.”
Over at her recently opened Cafe Express vintage coffee shop in Victoria Road, Angela Brooks felt just as strongly.
“It’s like we’re on an island up here, we might as well be on Anglesey,” she said.
“I worked in Cardiff for a long time and I don’t think people can believe how we live up here. It’s like we’re foreigners.
“I have to be flexible with my staff’s hours, not get too upset if they’re late, because the public transport is so unpredictable and infrequent.
“I’ve had an opening for some work for seven weeks here and I can’t fill it because the schoolkids who want to do it, they can’t get a bus to get them here on time, then back to college, say.
“It’s right across the Valleys, not just here.
“My daughter lives in Pontnewynydd, she travels for nearly five hours a day round trip to Cardiff for work at Debenhams. It’s scandalous. It’s no wonder people don’t work, with the time and expense you can see why.
“If I worked in Cwmbran, for example, and finished at half past five, if I didn’t get my daps on and run for the bus at twenty to six then I’d have to wait until twenty to eight for the next one. I’d be stuck.”
It’s issues like these that Sewta, the South East Wales Transport Alliance, the regional transport group, want to address in their latest report on their vision for the region’s railways in 2030, which is currently out for public consultation until September 30.
The plans are certainly ambitious – more than 20 new stations across South East Wales, line extensions, more trains and more frequent services on existing lines.
In Gwent the proposals include plans for new stations at Abertillery, Crumlin, Caerleon, Llanwern, Pye Corner and Coedkernew/St Mellons, as well as joining up Caerphilly and Newport via a new station at Machen, and extending the line from Ebbw Vale Parkway into a new Ebbw Vale Town station.
It would see increased services along the Rhymney and Ebbw Valley lines, as well as the Chepstow and Abergavenny main lines taking in stations like Severn Tunnel Junction, Cwmbran and Pontypool and New Inn.
The project would cost nearly £20 million a year to run and would rely on funding from people like the Welsh and UK governments and partner agencies like Network Rail.
The plans received a positive response in Abertillery, with ‘about time’ being the prevailing sentiment.
And that was echoed by many of our politicians.
“We’re living through challenging economic times, but with big projects like the rail electrification programme now going ahead, it’s important communities in places like Torfaen see the benefit of investment in our railways too,” the borough’s AM Lynne Neagle said.
“For instance, I’d like to see the number of trains stopping at Pontypool/New Inn increased, and it’s high time that station, as well as Cwmbran, was made fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. I also believe we need to look at innovative solutions to better connect people in isolated places in the north of the borough to the rail network – whether that means looking at adapting existing bus routes, or over the longer term investing in really ambitious programmes like the Valleys Metro proposals.
“It’s essential that we have a healthy public debate about the future of our transport network in South-East Wales – undoubtedly, Sewta’s rail strategy will form an important part of that discussion.”
Blaenau Gwent’s Alun Davies agreed.
“I believe the multi-million plan to join up transport links in south-east Wales is the cornerstone of bringing economic vitality to Blaenau Gwent.
“I have campaigned long and hard to see the Ebbw Vale rail link extended to the town centre and the electrification of the line, and to see this at the forefront of the Welsh Government’s agenda is fantastic news.
“Additional plans to increase the frequency of trains to Cardiff will mean that we could have a train every 15-20 minutes to the capital, and I have been working closely with Blaenau Gwent Council to ensure their plans result in the best possible service for residents.
“The Ebbw Valley line has been hugely successful and it’s important that we capitalise on this. There is significant demand locally for the Abertillery spur and I will continue to push for this project to ensure the town benefits from the popularity of the line.
“I am fully supportive of the SEWTA plan and look forward to working with the Welsh Government to turn it into a reality.”
And according to one expert, the opportunity is too good to miss for the region.
“People talk about a knowledge-based economy, now what does that rely on?” Dr Jonathan Deacon, reader entrepreneurship and marketing at the University of South Wales, based at Newport’s City campus asks.
“It’s based on people and the ideas they have, so it is reliant on moving those people around.
“But people don’t just want a job, they also want a nice place to live. We have a lot of those in our region. If you’re a big international company looking to invest here that could be appealing if you could get those people from the nice places to live to work easily and in comfort. It fulfils that concept of a work-life balance.”
By comfort he doesn’t necessarily mean luxury, but clean, frequent, air-conditioned transport would be a minimum requirement.
And where’s the evidence? “The Paris Metro, Boston Metro, where people are being brought into the city to work, then back out to the green spaces to live. Closer to home you have the Dart, feeding Dublin. Certainly in the Dart’s case it is also cheap to ride, you’d be mad to take the car to work, almost.
“And there is also strong evidence that there is demand for this. Look at a station like Severn Tunnel Junction, it’s at capacity. You can see people’s cars parked all over the villages around there. Why not add more stations? They don’t have to be much but somewhere to keep you dry, keep you informed, somewhere to lock your bike up.”
That for Dr Deacon is a key. To make it fully integrated, perhaps, there would need to be a push from individuals themselves to walk or cycle to pick up public transport, as long as the facilities are there for them to do so.
“Overall, the sooner we get moving on this the better,”he says.
And the benefit, he says, would not just be to take people away from the Valleys, but to bring people in. That’s something stressed by Abertillery Cllr Dickie Jones, who said: “The station could really boost tourism. We have fantastic green space here. I know it might sound far-fetched, but why not have a hotel in the town too to link up with the station and encourage tourists to come here?”
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Having considered the South East Wales Integrated Transport Task Force Report, the minister for economy and transport (Edwina Hart) asked Mark Barry to look at the proposal of a metro system in more detail. The report, which is due in the autumn, will build on Mr Barry’s previous work and focus more on the impact of a metro system on the economic growth and regeneration of key locations across South East Wales.”
lTo find out more about the plans and to have your say visit sewta.gov.uk
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