The branch is running a campaign to restore passenger services to the 18-mile freight railway line between Ebbw Vale and Newport. This line lost its passenger trains in 1962, not so much because of lack of usage but more because passenger trains were a nuisance alongside the heavy freight traffic of the time.
In contrast, the Glamorganshire valleys either retained their passenger trains (Rhondda, Rhymney and Taff Valleys, plus lines to Barry and Penarth) or have had them restored since (Cynon and Llynfi Valleys).
In its industrial and social history and in its topography, the Ebbw Valley is quite similar to, for example, the Cynon Valley. Passenger trains in the latter have been an undoubted success since they were restored in 1988, and we see no convincing reason why trains to Ebbw Vale should be any less popular.
In 1991 a consultant's report, commissioned by the former Gwent County Council, recommended against the reintroduction of passenger services. Apart from the fact that the world has moved on since 1991, we believe the report was flawed in a number of ways. It proposed running to Abertillery rather than to the larger town of Ebbw Vale, and also considered the option of opening as far as Newbridge only. The conclusion was that revenue support at a high level would be needed, but some of the reasoning behind this conclusion is questionable. For example, one reason cited was the lack of young women commuters to Newport/Cardiff, compared with the situation obtaining on the Cardiff valley lines. They did not, apparently, enquire why this should be so, which might have led to the conclusion that lack of suitable public transport had something to do with it! The report made some recommendations about rail development in other parts of the county, but none of them was taken up by Gwent CC.
The former mining valleys of South Wales have had some notable successes in securing inward investment and jobs, but in most cases the latter have not been sufficiently numerous to replace all those lost by colliery closures. Those seeking jobs must therefore either leave their home valley altogether or be willing and able to travel to work; and it is the coastal belt which tends to attract the larger developments. If people in the Western Valley (a local name for the Ebbw Vale valley) are to have access to these, adequate public transport will be essential, otherwise only car owners will be able to avail themselves. This factor alone ought to be sufficient for the local authorities to press ahead.
There are, of course, other benefits as well. The trains would be accessible to all - young, elderly, disabled, for shopping and leisure travel as well as commuting to work. Major developments are taking place at the site of the 1992 Garden Festival just south of Ebbw Vale, and these could generate inward traffic. And at Newport the trains would link with those of the national and European rail networks.
On 28th September 2006 a 'Start of Main Works' event was held at the Crumlin site offices. Serco Rail's ballast cleaning train was demonstrated in action and an exhibition display showed details of the work to be done. The latter indicated that Cross Keys and Risca stations (the latter to be known as 'Risca and Pontymister') will have two platforms and all other stations will have a single platform in stage 1. It is evident therefore that the 'dynamic loop' will extend for some 3 miles from the vicinity of Risca to that of Cross Keys. Completion of the project (stage 1) is scheduled for 3rd quarter 2007.
Stage 2 and possible later additions were shown on the map in the exhibition, and in the case of both Llanhilleth and Newbridge projected passenger figures were quoted for 'when a half-hourly service operates' (stage 2). This implies, probably correctly, that usage will be lower with just the hourly service to/from Cardiff, by-passing Newport. Meanwhile those wishing to reach Newport will be expected to transfer to a bus at Rogerstone (unless of course they elect to travel by bus throughout!).
It is understood that funding is not yet in place for stage 2 and the concern remains that if stage 1 does not do well enough in attracting usage, pressure may be applied to abandon stage 2. We have always regarded stage 2 as essential if the newly-opened line is to realise its full potential. It would include an hourly service to Newport as well as that to Cardiff, so giving a half-hourly frequency in most of the valley, and some additional stations, notably Cwm and Pye Corner (Bassaleg). Other possible additions are to extend to Ebbw Vale centre, and to rebuild the short spur to Abertillery. Both are desirable, and the former could be considered essential.
Nevertheless start of actual construction is a significant milestone in this long-running project and we look forward to the trains actually running in a year's time.
It has emerged that the Ebbw Vale line reopening scheme has become a victim of the rail industry's out-of-control cost escalation. Phase 1 (Ebbw Vale to Cardiff hourly) will not now commence until 2007, and instead of a lengthy double-line section in the central part of the route, most of it will be built as single track with single-platform stations. This will preclude a half-hourly service and eliminate freight paths. This hardly inspires confidence that phase 2 will ever be funded. That was to include building back into Ebbw Vale town, and to Abertillery, with two trains per hour in the valley - one to Newport and one to Cardiff. We regard this later phase as essential if the railway is to fulfil its potential.
Past experience amply demonstrates that when a reopening scheme is built with minimum capital exenditure, subsequent expansion is much more expensive than it would have been if provision had been made at the outset. In the case of Ebbw Vale, the second phase will now be a bigger construction job which will have to take place on a working railway, and this in itself will add to costs.
On the anniversary of the Corus announcement of steelworks cutbacks and closures, the National Assembly announced a £93m package of 'recovery measures' for the Ebbw Vale area, of which £15m is for introduction of a passenger train service on a single line between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff.
Phase 1 involves an hourly service from an Ebbw Vale Parkway station (close to the Ebbw Vale Garden Festival site) to Cardiff, but avoiding Newport. This is because of alleged signalling problems: apparently Railtrack don't have faith in their 100 year old box controlling Park Junction and would prefer to lock it in either the Cardiff or Newport direction. This plus alleged lack of capacity in the tunnels west of Newport Station is the reason for this surprising route. An hourly frequency will also necessitate a passing loop or stretch of double track, though this has not yet been specified as far as we know.
A later phase 2, would involve the relaying of track from Aberbeeg (on the Newport to Ebbw Vale line) to Abertillery and providing a half-hourly service to Newport and Cardiff. The latter would involve an hourly service from both Ebbw Vale Parkway and Abertillery. So running into Newport is also seen as crucial. Extension from Ebbw Vale Parkway to Ebbw Vale Town is seen as a further desirable development.
We warmly welcome this recognition of the role of railways in regeneration. We have been campaigning for this reopening for many years. We shall, however be keeping a close eye on the scheme to try to make sure that the hoped for half-hourly service and the planned extensions will also happen.
EBBW VALE COMES A STEP CLOSER
In August the Ebbw Valley Rail Study Phase 2 Final Report was issued. It proposes a two-stage approach and appears to offer a way forward, subject as always to a funding package being assembled.
Corus have indicated that the final freight trains carrying products from the works will run in September 2002, though after that some machinery may be removed by train. The SRA has stated, very commendably, that they wish a freight capability to be retained post-Corus; we too have advocated this, as it will help to attract other industries to the valley. The study observes that rebuilding the line to passenger train standards, and constructing the stations, would be taking place on a non-operational railway, thus reducing costs and time. It is noted that, by providing a passing loop at Risca, an hourly service at minimum cost could be introduced quite soon after the last steel train has operated, but this option is not recommended because of the subsequent disruption which would occur in upgrading to double tack for the projected half-hourly service. Such disruption would be costly and would have a negative effect on patronage just as it was building up. So the preferred approach is to construct the full (stage 1) scheme at the outset, with a projected commissioning date of 2nd quarter 2005. It appears we must accept the logic of this, if reluctantly. Use of class 158 trains is envisaged; a change from the 1999 proposals which suggested buying (not leasing) new trains, but still a high quality option for this type and length of journey.
Stage 1 would consist of two trains per hour between Newport and Ebbw Vale Parkway (i.e. Victoria, south of the present steelworks), with stations at Rogerstone, Risca, Crosskeys, Newbridge and Llanhilleth. Although the west-facing curve at Ebbw junction is highlighted on the map, regular use of it appears to have been dropped from the proposals, which refer to alternate trains running to & from Cardiff but via Newport rather than via the direct curve. Stage 2 (or rather, 'possible later phases') would include building into Ebbw Vale centre, rebuilding from Aberbeeg to Abertillery and additional stations at Cwm and Pye Corner (Bassaleg). The logic of doing it in two stages, with the first stage making use of what partly exists already, is fair enough; but for the scheme to realise its full potential there must be a commitment to press on with the second stage. Stage 1 will entail most passengers from the large population centres of Ebbw Vale and Abertillery having to access stations by bus or car, whereas phase 2 will make the stations directly accessible on foot for many more people (though bus links will still be needed to outlying areas). For these reasons we are not happy with the Stage 2 timing currently promulgated by the TIGER consortium, which puts it in the 2010-2021 (sic) period! Effort needs to be devoted - and we are sure it will be - to improving substantially on this timing.
Railtrack's contribution was to announce that it would not have resources to do the work required (even Stage 1) until 2007-2010. The rejoinder from the consultants was that a 'Special Purpose Vehicle' (SPV) would be used to overcome Railtrack's lack of resources. How successful this is, given the reported UK-wide shortage of (e.g.) signal engineers, remains to be seen but it demonstrates a determination not to allow the scheme to be kicked into touch.
Funding remains an outstanding issue, but the recommended approach is to make use of RPP funding, Objective 1 and some of the money allocated to aid regeneration of areas affected by Corus closures. It will be essential to get the service specification built into the PSR for the new Wales & Borders franchise to ensure long-term stability.
We have now had three consultants' reports giving a positive view of the scheme. The National Assembly members for the constituencies involved are pushing strongly (with the Member for Blaenau Gwent refusing to accept at this stage that the start of passenger services should be any later than 2004), and the TIGER consortium has it in its Strategy Plan. So perhaps we should now feel cautiously optimistic that our long-running campaign will at last bear fruit - that is, as optimistic as it is possible to be in the present climate and rail industry structure. But there is positive news from the latter also; in August Valley Lines ran a special train (an inspection saloon) for decision makers over the Vale of Glamorgan and Ebbw Vale lines. A most commendable initiative by Valley Lines, and doubly so in that it is evidence of a TOC showing interest in Ebbw Vale at last. But we still await an official announcement that the scheme is definitely going ahead, and TIGER's schedule suggests that we won't get one until about mid-2002.