Wales has a fraught relationship with its train services.

Whether it's long delays, cancellations, or journeys that are standing-room-only, most of us will have silently cursed Transport for Wales - or previously, Arriva Trains Wales - at one time or another.

Routes can range from inconvenient to downright baffling. Travelling between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth - two towns just 40 miles apart - famously takes more than six hours by train, on a journey that'll take you across the border to Shrewsbury, England, before doubling back.

Railway engineer Gareth Dennis made headlines in Wales this week, after his ambitious hypothetical plan to fix the Welsh train network resurfaced.

Gareth also lectures in rail infrastructure at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, and hosts a weekly Youtube show called RailNatter.

The National asked him about his radical design, the UK Government's controversial HS2 project, and just why the Welsh rail network seems so uniquely chaotic in Britain.

What's wrong with the Welsh rail network?

"The problem with the current Welsh rail network is that it isn't a network - it's several separate branches that are totally unconnected from each other," Gareth says.

He sees the network in Wales as "four discrete chunks", and because connections between these chunks are limited, travelling between them can mean wild detours - the most extreme of which being that six hour, border-spanning trip between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.

The National Wales:

For Gareth, these problems stem from two factors: Our hilly, sometimes mountainous landscape, and our past as the coal capital of Britain, fuelling the British Empire as it brutally colonised countries across the globe.

"When you look at the the rail map of Wales, you can compare it to some of the railway lines on the coast of Northern Africa, for example, or South America, or indeed, in Australia as well," he says.

"These are railway lines built by a colonial power to extract - certainly in south Wales - enormous volumes of coal, and then send it around the world to fuel the fires of the Imperial machine."

Welsh coal reached its peak in 1913. An eyewatering 36 million tonnes of coal was extracted in Wales that year - roughly equivalent to the weight of 5 million elephants - with the docks at Barry and Cardiff becoming the busiest coal ports in the world.

"That's not to say Wales was guilt free in the broader British Empire," Gareth notes.

"But it's certainly the case that the whole Welsh railway network was built as part of that process to extract mineral wealth from Wales and fuel the Empire.

READ MORE: Vesting Day: How Welsh miners celebrated coal nationalisation

"You can just look at that map - it's all these fractal branches that really don't care much about connecting up people.

"That network was never built, really, to provide passenger connections."

Later, there was the "Beeching Axe".

In 1963, former chemical company director Richard Beeching published The Reshaping of British Railways, an infamous report that set in motion the most drastic public transport redesign in Britain's history.

Beeching, who had also worked as a weapons designer, had looked to cull any train lines that were failing to turn a profit.

The National Wales:

Above maps sourced from RailMapOnline, which can be accessed here.

He'd been set to the task by Ernest Marples, the Conservative UK Government's transport minister, despite having no prior experience in the sector.

"I have no experience of railways, except as a passenger," Mr Beeching famously told journalists at the time.

He closed down thousands of train stations across Britain - including some 150 in Wales - and cut around 5,000 miles of track.

The trainline connecting Carmarthen to Aberystwyth, which had been in operation since the 1800s, was among the casualties.

Reopening the Carmarthen - Aberystwyth line

Calls for the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth line to be restored have been consistent for decades, and in recent years the Welsh Government has been exploring the possibility of doing so.

Estimates put the cost of reopening the line somewhere between £620m-£775m, and in 2020, then-Welsh Transport Minister Ken Skates made the case for the project in a letter to his Wesrtminster counterpart, Grant Shapps.

"The problem you've got, is that it's a very thin and broadly spread out population in that area," Gareth says.

"Far better would be to reorient - or frankly, bring back under state control - the bus network in that area.

"The advantage of buses is not only that you don't need any fixed infrastructure - you can introduce improved bus services next week - but buses also have flexibility.

"You could have, say, the Number 1 bus, and then the 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D - they can fan out and collect up all the different, smaller population centres on the route. 

"A railway goes along one set route, and because of the spread-out nature of the population between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, it'll miss the majority of them."

He says, too, that compared with the "immense cost" of building and running new train stations, improving bus services is "basically free".

"I'm saying this as a rail engineer - railways are often not the right solution, and buses can be an incredibly good solution, because of that flexibility.

"Bus services in that area should be brought into Transport For Wales, and should be made part of the network - fully integrated with the train timetable."

The National Wales: A Carmarthen train arriving in Aberystyth,1962 (Picture: Ben Brooksbank)A Carmarthen train arriving in Aberystyth,1962 (Picture: Ben Brooksbank)

How could we make Welsh train services work?

Gareth came up with his design, he says, by looking at Wales's major population centres - places with more than 5,000 people - and figuring out how you could connect them up most effectively.

"That analysis - rudimentary though it is - shows that the right connection is actually at the border side of Wales.

"Not quite the border, actually, but following the core up Merthyr, Brecon, and then steering round, taking you up towards Oswestry.

"Not only does that connect several populations that are not currently on the rail network - substantial populations - but it also serves to quite usefully connect all of the current branches of rail network.

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"They can get connected up by this line in a way that's much more effective than the Aberystwyth - Carmarthen connection."

Since coming up with his design last year, Gareth's done some more thinking on the specifics - where new stations could be located, the lengths of new railway that'd need to be built - and intends to present an update on RailNatter in around a month's time.

HS2: Does it benefit Wales?

The UK Government's much-delayed (and much-cut) high speed rail project, HS2, has become a bone of contention in Wales.

Though not a single piece of HS2 track will be laid here, it's classed as an "England and Wales" project, meaning that the Welsh Government - unlike its counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland - will receive no extra transport funding, as it would if the project was considered England-only.

At the same time, our patchy devolution settlement - train services are devolved, but control over our railway infrastructure is not - means that Wales is estimated to have missed out on around £514m in railway investment over the past decade.

This has led to calls for HS2 to be reclassified as England-only, on the basis that the project "has no benefit" to Wales, allowing us to access £5bn through the Barnett Formula - the calculation which decides how much money each region and nation of the UK should receive.

The National Wales: HS2 rail lines map (Picture: Cnbrb)HS2 rail lines map (Picture: Cnbrb)

"I think we could have a long discussion about whether Barnett consequentials are good or bad - my personal opinion is that it's absolutely hopeless at distributing resources to Wales and Scotland," Gareth says.

"It's worth saying that Westminster's own economic analysis falsely predicts substantial benefits from HS2 for Scotland, and then -wrongly - no benefits for Wales.

"Yet the money is there for Scotland and not Wales, which doesn't make any sense.

"At the same time, they're also calling HS2 an England and Wales project - and yes, it is actually - but their own analysis doesn't say that.

"None of it really makes any sense, so there's no wonder that this has become such a heated topic.

"To cut through this: The reason HS2 benefits Wales more than Scotland, is because Scotland's only benefit is that it gets faster trains down into England, and because of the recent cuts to project, they're getting even less.

READ MORE: 'The Treasury has a patronising approach to Welsh public finances'

"Wales gets a substantial benefit from HS2 even in its current form, after the cuts, because of the capacity release at Crewe, at Manchester and at Birmingham New Street - three stations where the majority of long distance services into Wales travel through.

"The example I use is Aberystwyth, because trains there not only rely on platform space within Birmingham New Street, which is at a desperate premium at the moment, but they also run along the very congested line from Wolverhampton into Birmingham, which is full of long distance services that HS2 will take off and put onto its own lines.

"There's a potential to enhance services through to Aberystwyth, then, improving frequency and reliability on a service has always been pretty unreliable.

"Without the major, and very, very expensive work at Birmingham New Street, you couldn't achieve those uplifts - and the same applies with trains that run into Wales through Crewe, through Chester, and through Manchester Picadilly.

"Those benefits do not preclude the fact that there are clearly substantially greater benefits to investing in for example, the South Wales Metro, and in the metro-fication of the North Wales Line.

"It's not a case of either/or, and I get frustrated when I see campaigners for better transport in Wales incorrectly stating that there are no benefits to Wales from HS2 as part of their arguments - their correct arguments - that the devolution and funding settlements for Welsh transport are, at best, unfair.

 "I vigorously support them in that, but I wish they wouldn't use the idea that HS2 doesn't provide benefits as part of that argument - because if there's one thing wrong with their argument, the UK Government has the potential to undermine them."

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