Villagers in Magor have reason to cheer. After 10 years of campaigning, members of this small community in southern Monmouthshire believe they are close to achieving a first for Wales: a walkway railway station that eschews a car park in favour of pedestrian and cyclist access.

Long backed by the local MP and Senedd member, the Magor campaigners recently received a vote of confidence from the Welsh Government and have now been offered a seat at the planning table.

Unlike the trend in recent decades to construct parkway stations on the edge of towns – encouraging rail commuters to start their journeys by car each day – the plan for the new Magor station is to encourage so-called ‘active travel’ (walking and cycling).

The proposals mark a resounding local endorsement of more forward-thinking transport planning that considers the wider issues of sustainability and climate change.

“I think this is a model for the future,” said Ted Hand, chairman of the MAGOR (Magor Action Group on Rail) campaign. “It ticks every box – environment, active travel, and joined-up transport.”

The station, when built, could cut up to 80,000 local car journeys made by local commuters to the nearby Severn Tunnel Junction station each year, Mr Hand said.

For geographical and population reasons, walkway stations probably couldn’t be constructed in every city, town or village. But the Magor campaign symbolises a shift in how transport networks are beginning to be planned and built in Wales.

Environment vs convenience

This shift is one that involves a careful balancing act – namely, between choosing progressive policies and ensuring people can make reliable, reasonably-priced journeys that are no less convenient than current car-based trips.

Environmental concerns play an important role, and the Welsh Government says it has made it a priority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with plans to develop a so-called decarbonisation pathway for all sectors of the economy.

It estimates that transport currently causes 17 per cent of all emissions in Wales.

Key to this plan for a greener future, then, will be finding ways to end people’s reliance on the car.

When the Welsh Government launched a consultation on its new Llwybr Newydd (New Path) strategy last November, deputy transport minister Lee Waters told the Senedd that lawmakers had spent 50 years creating a transport system that prioritised car use.

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While he acknowledged that the car-centric system had made life easier for people by bringing “individual freedoms and flexibilities”, Mr Waters argued the “culture of car dependency” had also “locked in deep inequalities” – not least for the 23 per cent of people in Wales whom, he claimed, had no access to their own vehicle.

The deputy minister also cited the “environmental harms” caused by decades of ever-increasing car use.

On its own, however, a crusade against the car would simply deny the majority of people in Wales their most convenient way of getting from A to B.

Even without the ongoing pandemic restrictions and recommendations to not use public transport, the truth for many Welsh people today is that they could not rely solely on public transport for the most basic journeys such as travelling to work, to the supermarket, or to visit family and friends.

The proposed solution, then, is to promote and foster ‘behaviour change’ on a massive scale for both the public and the decision-makers.

If they are to consider changing the way they travel, commuters will need to be able to access public transport options that are at least as convenient and cost-effective as their current car journeys to and from work.

Residents of both rural communities and urban areas will need to feel connected to jobs and opportunities.

This means that encouraging people in Wales to leave their cars behind first requires a massive government effort to construct and invest in a modern public transport network.

To adapt the famous line from the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

The National Wales: An illustration of transport plans around NewportAn illustration of transport plans around Newport

Work is already under way on the South Wales Metro, which will connect the 10 council areas that comprise the wider Cardiff Capital Region.

The five-year Metro project promises more rail services and greener trains along the main commuter and leisure routes from the South Wales valleys.

At an earlier stage of development is a North Wales Metro plan, and Clwyd West MS Darren Millar called last month for more parity in funding for transport projects in the north, arguing that his constituents were “sick of being the poor relation” when it came to Welsh Government investment.

In the Newport area, the 2018 scrapping of plans for a new motorway bypass paved the way for a special transport commission to design sweeping changes to the city’s travel network.

Four new railway stations – some of which had already been proposed in the Metro plans – and an integrated bus network would, if built, give commuters and Newport residents a more reliable and sustainable alternative to being stuck in traffic on the M4, the commission argued in its final report last autumn.

Since then, the Welsh Government has endorsed the commission’s recommendations, which won support from Senedd members across the political spectrum, despite some lingering calls for the M4 ‘relief road’ decision to be reversed.

The commission also championed the walkway station plans in Magor, to the delight of campaigners there.

Such investment in public transport will be “accelerated” in the near future, a Welsh Government spokesman told The National.

“Delivering our Metro systems will be a vital part of this,” he said. “It needs to be easier to make journeys involving different modes of transport, for example being able to make a journey on a bus and a train using a single ticket and with timetables that join up.

“Our transport system must connect people and communities, not just to work and education but also to social and leisure facilities. It must do this in a way that contributes to our efforts to tackle the climate emergency.”

Cross-border tensions

Projects like the Metro systems and the proposals in Newport naturally require a great deal of planning and investment, but there is also a need for enormous amounts of collaboration between ministers, local government, and transport companies.

For transport links in the east of Wales, these challenges include cross-border elements, too.

As ministers in Wales define their future plans for transport investment, the question over devolution remains ever pertinent – particularly when it comes to rail.

The Welsh Government is currently responsible for internal rail services, and has been working to expand and nationalise local travel within its Transport for Wales franchise.

But the power to invest in and build railway infrastructure – the very rails on the ground – lie solely with Westminster, and ministers in Cardiff Bay have little say in the operation of services running between Wales and England.

The Welsh Government says now is the time for it to take control of the nation’s railways.

“To deliver an integrated transport system we need to hold all the levers,” the spokesman said. “This is why we are pushing the UK government to give us further powers on rail infrastructure and further say in cross border services.”

For its part, the Westminster government has repeatedly pledged to follow through on its 2019 campaign promise to “level up” all parts of the UK, including Wales.

A current Union Connectivity Review of the rail network, led by Sir Peter Hendy, is taking evidence from all four nations and will form the basis for future UK railway investments.

“We are accelerating Britain’s recovery from coronavirus by investing in vital infrastructure across the UK, helping get businesses back on their feet, creating jobs and levelling up our country,” a UK government spokeswoman told The National.

“We have already committed a record £1.5 billion to the Welsh railways over the coming years, and the Union Connectivity Review is currently looking at how best to enhance transport links across the United Kingdom to improve connectivity.”

Case for further devolution

But while the Welsh Government recognises the importance of “collaborative working” with Westminster, it argues that its vision for a modern transport network would be best secured if it was granted full control of Wales’ railways.

“We believe the most effective way to meet our ambitions is through the full devolution of the railway, which we outlined in our response to the Williams Rail Review undertaken by the UK government,” the Welsh Government spokesman said. “The devolution of powers in this area would give us the best opportunity to achieve our goals for the transport system.”

The future of rail infrastructure also leads to the question of its funding, and a dispute is ongoing about whether Wales has been getting its fair share of investment.

The UK government has promised £1.5 billion for operations, maintenance and renewals of the Welsh rail network in the period from 2019 to 2024.

The Welsh Government, however, claims that sum is dwarfed by a wider, decades-long pattern of underinvestment in Wales’ railways on the part of Westminster.

“Under current spending plans, a conservative estimate of the underfunding of Welsh railways from 2001 to 2029 is £2.4 billion, and this figure could be more than £5 billion,” a Welsh Government spokesman told The National, adding: “The full devolution of the railway must be accompanied with a fair funding settlement.

“This would allow us to deliver improvements for passengers across Wales, creating the transport system we want to be available to people.”

These arguments are perhaps representative of the wider questions surrounding devolution in Wales today. Does the nation currently have enough powers to build for the future and, if it doesn’t, should it be ministers in Wales – or Westminster – to take the driving seat?

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