The South Wales Metro: More than a railway – a regional accelerator?
Stuart Pearson, a construction lawyer at Cardiff-based law firm, Capital Law, outlines the plans for the South Wales Metro and discusses how it’s not simply a highly anticipated infrastructure project, but a strategy to transform a region that is ready to take the next step on the national and international economic stage.
While HS2 and Crossrail dominate the national rail headlines, far less has been heard nationally about the South Wales Metro, the highly anticipated large scale infrastructure project that aims to integrate heavy rail and the development of light rail and bus-based public transport services and systems in south east Wales around the hub of Cardiff Central.
In spring 2018 the Welsh Government announced its intention to award the contract for the design, delivery and operation of the South Wales Metro – a key element of the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal – to KeolisAmey.
The £738 million Metro project is the cornerstone of the £1.2 billion City Deal, creating a transport infrastructure that will help enable the social and economic objectives of the Cardiff Capital Region.
The award follows a procurement process undertaken by the newly established Transport for Wales on behalf of the Welsh Government, and the contract includes the wider operation of the Wales and Borders rail network.
According to the Welsh Government: “Metro is a new transport system that will transform the way we travel around the Cardiff Capital Region. It will provide faster, more frequent and joined-up services using trains, buses and light rail.”
“Metro will bring benefits to passengers, link communities together and help transform the economy. It will have a positive social, economic and environmental effect. It will also shape our region’s identity.”
A region ripe for change
For those unfamiliar with the region of south east Wales, a little context here may be useful.
The Cardiff Capital Region is a vibrant economic entity with real scope for continued future success. It is home to the largest TV production centre outside London, and boasts one of the most rapidly expanding financial services sectors in the UK. It has hosted global events such as the Ryder Cup, NATO conference and the Volvo Ocean Race, and a major international convention centre is being developed in Newport. In addition, Cardiff University now ranks in the top five UK Higher Education institutions for research.
However, the picture isn’t quite so positive everywhere in the region. In total there are 10 local authorities in the Cardiff Capital Region (Blaenau Gwent; Bridgend; Caerphilly; Cardiff; Merthyr Tydfil; Monmouthshire; Newport; Rhondda Cynon Taf; Torfaen; and Vale of Glamorgan), some of which, particularly Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil in the south Wales Valleys, are the most economically deprived areas in the UK.
According to the Cardiff Capital Region website: “Gross Value Added, which is a measure of goods and services produced in an area, is one of the lowest in the whole of the UK. There are also connectivity issues across the region, which make it more difficult for people in Valleys communities to access economic opportunities.”
The reasons for the socio-economic decline in the Valleys and surrounding areas are of course linked directly to the demise of the south Wales coal and steel industries – a bleak economic picture mirrored in villages, towns and cities across the UK that were built upon the shoulders of heavy industry.
While the implementation of the South Wales Metro is key to maximising the potential of prosperous urban environs like Cardiff and Newport, a huge part of its raison d’être is to breathe life back into Valleys communities and reintegrate its financially and culturally disenfranchised populace.
With all of this in mind, there is widespread recognition that in order to achieve any of this, the Cardiff Capital Region needs major investment in its infrastructure to maximise its wider fiscal potential and enable it to play a larger role in the UK economy as whole.
The Metro & Me report
In late 2018 a new report was published which highlighted the challenges and opportunities presented by the South Wales Metro.
The Metro & Me report was led by Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning and has been authored by leading academics and regional figures, including Professor Mark Barry from Cardiff University and Geraint Talfan Davies, co-Founder of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, as well as being supported by Capital Law.
The report examines the planned Metro transport scheme and how it could improve regional planning, housing, economic development, design, green infrastructure and culture.
Professor Mark Barry from Cardiff University, who wrote the foreword and contributed towards its creation, says: “As exemplified by the collection of essays in the Metro & Me publication, we must view the Metro as more than a transport project and as catalyst for change, so we can begin to develop a region fit for the 21st century and our future generations. I am optimistic that we can, and in fact, we don’t have a choice. We must.”
More than a railway – a regional accelerator?
As part of the Metro & Me report, Brian Morgan, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Cardiff Metropolitan University, considers how stakeholders in the region could work together to maximise the economic benefits from the Metro project.
He states: “The Metro project is hugely important for Wales but, now that the tender has been won, we need to set down some challenging targets in order to maximise the regional economic impact.”
In particular Professor Morgan highlights the need for a programme team – the Metro Growth Team – who would be established and charged “with maximising the economic benefits and ensuring that every growth opportunity is harnessed”.
Particular points of note include “identifying business development prospects adjacent to Metro stations and interchanges; identifying skills needs and apprenticeship opportunities during the roll out and maintenance of the track; working with the supply chain to maximise local content; looking at regeneration possibilities along the main commuting corridors; and developing synergies with the Valleys Regional Park and the airport.”
He goes on to say: “In effect, the Growth Team will need to help put in place a coordinated investment plan to enhance the longer-term catalytic impacts of the Metro in both the construction phase, the roll out of services and the longer term utilisation and future development phases.”
Key factors for success
In a project of this scale it is imperative to concentrate on outcomes. What is the end goal? What are we trying to achieve? And how can project goals be amplified to maximise economic benefits to local communities?
On a practical level the South Wales Metro will aim to deliver the kind of integrated transportation system that will service the region for many decades to come – fully integrated, high frequency, connected, extendable and reliable (like the examples showcased in the international role models section below). But in more macro terms, to be considered a success, it will need to facilitate development and regeneration enabling south east Wales (and beyond) to fully compete economically on a national and international level.
According to Professor Morgan in the Metro & Me report, “significant economic benefits will be linked directly to the total amount of capital investment that the Metro will generate. The initial £800 million of infrastructure investment will provide a direct boost to local employment during the construction phase. The impact multiplier effect for construction investment in Wales is significant and is higher than most other forms of investment. However, the proportion of activities utilising Welsh firms within construction supply chains will need to rise significantly in order to maximise the local economic impact. Procurement rules for the construction phase of the Metro will need to be used judiciously in order to create the potential for many more jobs in the area.”
Professor Morgan continues: “But the construction phase is only the start of the process and the potential impact of the Metro on the Welsh economy will be much greater. Increased rail capacity and improved connectivity can raise productivity and improve the working of the regional labour market but it will also bring wider potential benefits by facilitating the growth of business clusters in the Cardiff Capital Region and facilitating ‘agglomeration economies1’”.
Professor Morgan goes on to discuss a ‘virtuous circle’ – where “improved connectivity enables more economic activity to take place in urban centres where high-density agglomerations of activity can lead to greater creativity and higher productivity.”
Due to the scope of the Metro project and its ability to create agglomeration economies, Professor Morgan says it is useful to distinguish between the medium-term economic impacts and the wider, long-term ‘catalytic’ impacts.
Medium-term impacts include the creation of the metro lines themselves, which will not only improve the lives of citizens that utilise their services, but also have the potential to generate economic activity around transport hubs and along the new transport corridors. Professor Morgan also notes that “the potential medium-term impact of the Metro project would depend on the amount of local sourcing embodied in every element of the development.”
However, it’s the longer-term catalytic benefits of the Metro as it becomes truly embedded in the regional economy and attracts further investment that will shape the region for decades to come.
International role models
It is important to remember that while the South Wales Metro is an ambitious and large scale infrastructure project that will cost hundreds of millions of pounds, it is by no means breaking the mould, and thus its success is eminently achievable. There are dozens of international examples of truly innovative, integrated and successful transport systems that have transformed the cities they inhabit and that south east Wales should be looking to emulate.
Hong Kong is one of the finest examples of this; immaculately clean, well signposted, cheap, regular and convenient. There is no timetable as trains run every few minutes – and the airport express departs every 10 minutes. All transport can be utilised with an Octopus card, which can also be used in convenience stores and restaurants, creating a city that is truly connected.
Tokyo’s super-fast, incredibly punctual system boasts 102 lines which transport 14 billion passengers every year. Meanwhile in Seoul, three different companies, two of which are state funded, transport almost 7 million passengers a day on nine lines, all with mobile phone service, WiFi, TVs and full climate control.
In Madrid – which is home to the sixth longest Metro system in the world, incorporating 21 lines and 396 stations – over 1.5 billion passengers use the service every year, which is impressive when you consider the population is just 6.5 million. Some of its stations are so large they can be used for public events – one even has a 200m2 archaeological museum.
Other examples include: Copenhagen, which has a driverless rail system that runs 24 hours a day; Montreal, whose transportation systems affords it the status of having one of lowest carbon footprints in world; and Sao Paolo, which is small but carries 3.3 million passengers each day.
The London Underground (the first of its kind and 11th busiest in the world) is currently in the midst of the multi-billion pound Crossrail project that is building a new railway up to 40m deep through the heart of the capital. The Elizabeth line will stop at 41 accessible stations, 10 newly built and 30 newly upgraded, and is expected to serve around 200 million people each year.
Phase 1 of the work on the South Wales Metro is already in progress. According to the Welsh Government, the extension to Ebbw Vale town and further capacity enhancement on that line, as well as other station enhancements across the network, are already complete or in progress.
Metro Phase 2, which will continue until 2023, will focus on modernising the core Valley Lines and the wider South Wales rail network, significantly upgrading the current rail stock and providing a vastly improved service for travellers.
Beyond 2023 plans for future phases have yet to be outlined, although the possibility of extending the Metro region is likely.
- Economies of agglomeration are cost savings arising from urban agglomeration, in other words a mass or a collection of things, a major topic of urban economics.