We continue to call for the UK Government to devolve responsibility for the funding of rail infrastructure and the direction of Network Rail to the Welsh Ministers, so that we are able to achieve the opportunities that a modernised rail network can deliver for Wales.
Electrification and the wider modernisation are our key priorities for rail in North Wales, as part of an integrated system that connects the region and the rest of the country, across our border to England and beyond allowing us to maximise the economic opportunities that arise on both sides of the border.
Following November’s successful Rail Summit, joint working arrangements have been established between North Wales Economic Ambition Board, Mersey Dee Alliance and Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership. The bodies have set up a Task Force and their immediate priority is to identify their requirements in terms of rail infrastructure and service improvements, and consider ways to secure investments. We are fully supportive of this taskforce and developing the Strategic Outline Business Case for electrification of the North Wales Coast Main Line with the partners which I intend to submit to the Department for Transport shortly.
We are also working with Merseytravel to deliver the re-opening of the Halton Curve which would improve connectivity between Liverpool and North Wales, via Liverpool Airport and Chester, and to examine the feasibility and business case for increasing frequency on the Wrexham to Bidston line which will be considered for inclusion in the next Wales and Borders franchise.
Despite rail infrastructure remaining a reserved matter, we are using our powers under the Railways Act 2005, to provide financial assistance to improve the existing rail asset across Wales in order to achieve the service improvements the network needs to see. However, under the current framework the delivery of major enhancements remain outside our direct control, and this hampers our ability to deliver a step change in the quality of services across Wales.
In North Wales, in 2013, the Welsh Government agreed to provide £44 million of funding for the North to South Wales Journey Time Reduction Project which was scheduled to be completed by Network Rail in February 2015. The project has been blighted by a number of set-backs, which have been caused by Network Rail’s failure to plan, and which have led to a reduction in scope, an increase in cost and a delay in delivery of the project.
Significant risks to the project continue to emerge late in the process such as problems with trackworks between Rossett and Saltney, and the need to upgrade a level crossing at Broad Oak. Between Shrewsbury and Gobowen, up to 2 miles have now been de-scoped from the project by Network Rail due to the late identification of a bridge that cannot accommodate the intended higher line speeds. Network Rail has also now determined that the intended line speed increases cannot be achieved in the middle of the line because of two existing level crossings. This reduction in scope, increase in cost and delay in delivery is not acceptable and I have written to Sir Peter Hendy to raise my concerns, as it is likely that following completion of the project in the summer, the additional benefits of the scheme will be less than that anticipated at its outset.
My Officials are reviewing further opportunities to reinstate some of these potentially lost benefits and are also reviewing other Network Rail proposals in this area more generally, our initial findings suggest that Network Rail are still inadequately planning North Wales schemes, and I continue to press them to enhance and improve railway infrastructure in Wales in a timely and cost effective manner. I have also asked the UK Government for assurances that Network Rail will work with the Welsh Government to assist us in delivering our major enhancement activity.
The experience of the North to South Wales Journey Time Reduction Project seeks to highlight the need for further devolution in this area and we of course continue to make the case for the funding of rail infrastructure and direction of Network rail to be devolved to the Welsh Ministers as is the case in Scotland.