Who should own the railways in Wales?

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, differs greatly between the governments in Cardiff Bay and Westminster.

Lawmakers in Wales insist the full devolution of the nation's rail infrastructure would mean projects could be prioritised and planned on terms that would best suit the Welsh people.

They claim, too, that the rail question illustrates a wider pattern of chronic underinvestment in Wales and other parts of the UK. The current system, they argue, favours the already prosperous regions of London and the south east of England.

But UK ministers say the current rail model works well enough, and Westminster is more than happy to sanction schemes in Wales if the business case is strong enough.

Devolving rail infrastructure may sound like a boon to Wales, claim UK ministers, but if things went awry the Welsh Government would be left to foot the bill on its own.

The issue has been debated at a series of sessions with the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, coinciding with an ongoing review of transport links within – and between – the four nations of the UK.

Ministers from both governments say relations between themselves are positive and productive, but there is little sign of any middle ground when it comes to the question of devolving railway ownership to Wales.

With the exception of the devolved Core Valleys Lines, the railway infrastructure in Wales is currently the responsibility of Network Rail, a public sector organisation that is in turn owned by the UK's Department for Transport (DfT).

Generally, that means the railway lines, signals, tunnels, bridges and overhead wires in Wales are all owned and maintained by Network Rail.

The Welsh Government believes the current ownership model is an obstacle to their plans to improve transport options and reliability.

Its work on building integrated Metro systems in both the south and the north of the country would be more easily delivered if the Welsh Government could "hold all the levers," a spokesman previously told The National.

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And when transport and economy minister Ken Skates appeared before the Commons committee, he told MPs that the current model of funding rail projects had led to "a halo effect of investment being concentrated around London".

The Union Connectivity Review, mentioned earlier, is seeking to address inequalities in UK government spending on transport.

Its interim report found Wales to be one of the lowest areas for productivity and economic output.

In Mr Skates' view, neither the Welsh Government's transport plans nor the prime minister's so-called "levelling-up agenda" can be realised without a "revolution" in the way Westminster allocates funding.

Full devolution of the railway infrastructure would let ministers in Wales decide alone how and where to spend money and build tracks, he said, based on "more than just the benefit-cost ratio" prized by the UK Treasury.

The Welsh Government, in control of railway spending, would then fund projects "in the interest of equality," driving up investment in areas of Wales that most needed it, he told the committee.

But UK ministers have challenged the notion that Wales needs to take ownership of the railways.

Wales Office minister David Davies told the Commons committee that "most of the [traffic] travelling on the rail network in Wales is going between England and Wales". 

He added: "It’s going across the UK and therefore you could make a strong argument it needs a UK authority, body [or] government to be looking at this."

DfT minister Chris Heaton-Harris said the present "balance" of infrastructure, under the stewardship of Network Rail, "probably works pretty well".

He told the committee: "I think the passenger won’t give a monkey’s who actually is running the railway service as long as it’s running competently, resiliently, and on time."

Their evidence came with a warning, too, that responsibility for the railways could be a curse as well as a blessing.

Yes, the Welsh Government could spend the money on its own projects – but it would also have to pay for the network's maintenance, the UK ministers said.

"There is an element of risk," Mr Heaton-Harris told the Commons committee. "If the Welsh Government wants to take on rail infrastructure, it has to also take on the financial risks."

Citing last year's derailment near Stonehaven, in Scotland, the minister said the Welsh Government could end up being liable for the enormous costs of funding repairs if any such catastrophe were to happen in Wales.

"I would gently suggest the current structure works pretty well for everybody," he added.

In his evidence session, however, Mr Skates said the Welsh Government wanted devolution of responsibility for the railways – not independence from the UK.

Handing those spending powers to Wales would help redress what he described as a wider pattern of rail underinvestment by successive Westminster governments over three decades, he said.

The Welsh Government estimates underfunding of the nation's railways from 2001 to 2029 is anywhere between £2.4 billion and £5.1 billion, based on comparative spending in England.

"There has been huge underinvestment, and that's not a party political point," Mr Skates said.

He added: "That could be addressed through devolution and a fair funding settlement.

"In the absence of devolution, we desperately need to see attitude change...that enables that levelling-up agenda to be pursued."

Failure to do so would mean a concentration of investment and opportunities away from Wales, Mr Skates told the committee.

In his evidence, Mr Davies said the UK government was committed to investing in Welsh rail. Work on two key projects was progressing at speed, he added.

A proposal to overhaul the freight lines around Newport and convert them for passenger trains had been accelerated, Mr Davies said, and a final decision could be made as early as November.

That scheme was the brainchild of the South East Wales Transport Commission, tasked with finding alternatives to the scrapped plans for an M4 relief road. If completed, it will tie into the eastern reaches of the Welsh Government's South Wales Metro.

Mr Davies said he felt "very positive" about that project and another in the north, where proposals to upgrade the coastal line between Crewe and Holyhead are at an early stage of consideration but should be finalised in early 2022.

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