Planes, trains and automobiles: The big Welsh Government gridlock
Delyth Jewell MS writes about the disconnect in Welsh Government’s transport plans
This article appeared in Nation Cymru 04/03/2023
“Our transport system is one of the most important national assets we have. It connects people to one another, binds communities together and enables businesses to grow and expand.”
So, what happens when a transport system is not fit for purpose?
The statement above was made by the Welsh Government as recently as 2021. Yet in the two years since, we’ve seen the biggest hike in rail fares, and an announcement to cut emergency funding for buses. We should be making it easier for people to use public transport, but instead, more obstacles are being put in their way.
We know, of course, that funding for public services has been squeezed hard of late, but these cuts are particularly hard to take when we know that Wales is being robbed of £5bn from England’s high speed railway project.
Sorry, I should say ‘England and Wales’s high speed railway project.’
Because even though not one inch of track is being laid in Wales, the project has been classed as an ‘England and Wales’ project.
This matters - because under the devolution settlement, if Westminster spends money on ‘England only’ projects, they have to send the equivalent money to the devolved nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, via a calculation known as the Barnett formula. It’s not a fair formula, but Westminster have decided to start ignoring it at their whim.
So, in this instance, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been paid quite a bit of money, because, clearly they do not benefit from a high speed railway line that is solely within the borders of England.
And Wales? Wales does not get its share of funding, because a decision somewhere in Whitehall was made to class this project as ‘England and Wales.’
Yes, you’ve read that correctly. A railway project that is being built solely in England has been classed as though it were of benefit to Wales, on the basis that people in the north of Wales will now be able to get to London more quickly, despite the fact that it’s also been shown that HS2 will economically disadvantage Wales.
Suddenly, those cuts to public transport seem even more off.
Let’s look at what’s going on with buses.
If you use buses to get to work, to college, to your medical appointments, then you should be very worried about what’s happening in Wales at the moment.
During the COVID pandemic, we couldn’t use public transport like we normally would. The amount of people who were allowed on the bus was severely restricted – and this meant that bus companies needed support to keep the routes running.
While there are no restrictions on numbers in buses any more, bus companies haven’t seen a return to pre-pandemic bus usage. It’s not surprising – when people are forced to find alternative ways of travelling, it will take longer to encourage people back. So the bus companies – especially those who run routes furthest away from our towns and cities – have been relying on the Welsh Government for support.
And people are still using buses – in fact, three quarters of public transport journeys are made using buses.
But the Welsh Government has said it will be cutting this additional support. This will be nothing short of a disaster for the people who still rely on buses to get around Wales. People in the poorest areas will be hit hardest by reductions in bus services, making this a social justice issue. Bus access is also a key economic issue: it determines whether people can access work. Further cuts to services could truly leave people isolated in their communities.
There are problems (yet again) with a lack of funding from Westminster, but the Welsh Government has also blamed this impasse on the fact that the numbers of people using buses haven’t risen to what was seen before Covid19.
We know that we all need to change our habits – but I wish that we could see more encouragement from the government to help us to do the things that are right for our planet. Wales has set an ambitious goal to reach net zero by 2050, and thanks to Plaid Cymru, they are exploring the possibility of bringing that goal forward to 2035. If we are to reach that milestone, public transport has a vital role to play. My concern is that, if those options to use public transport aren’t there, more people will keep using their cars and choking our air with smoke. That will be bad for our communities, and bad for our environment which is already facing a climate catastrophe.
If we want people to use buses and trains more frequently, then it’s incumbent on the government to ensure that there are services that are reliable, frequent, and to use. That will take investment. Clearly, Westminster isn’t doing what’s right for Wales when it comes to transport (it never does). So it’s even more important that the Welsh Government does everything it can to make this situation easier for people to make the right choices.
And that is the reason that my party, Plaid Cymru, took a debate to the Senedd recently. We called on the Welsh Government to extend the emergency funding for buses, and also to bring forward long-term secure funding to maintain bus routes, so that our bus companies aren’t having to rely solely on emergency funding.
Our public transport system is creaking under the strain of a lack of investment and care. Billions are taken from our taxes to finance high-speed rail projects that are of no benefit to us, whilst our bus services are cut to the bone. Yes, we need greater funding, and we need further powers. But we can’t just wait for Westminster to reform its regressive ways. We need solutions made in Wales, so our message to the Welsh Government is to keep our buses running, to keep our communities connected, and to keep Wales moving.