Metro-Going-Nowhere

A recent report by global data-crunchers INRIX revealed that Cardiff has the worst traffic congestion of any UK city outside of peak hours. Those who have the dubious honour of living and working here will have suspected as much, given that getting from A to B by car within the city at any time of day or night is invariably a problematic ordeal, always one trivial incident away from complete gridlock and often downright impossible. It’s hell out there. There are two main reasons for the scandalous Cardiff traffic chaos that creates so much misery, frustration, pollution, waste and ugliness while rendering routine mobility sheer torture for pedestrians and cyclists as well as motorists.

The first is historic. Cardiff was not built with the future in mind and was considered of no importance in itself when hasty, unplanned communication arteries were laid out at the start of the Welsh coal boom. The only transportation that mattered to the coal barons was the transport of the black stuff from the mining valleys to the coast for export, meaning Cardiff was segmented by a mesh of north-south freight railways acting as highly inconvenient barriers, especially as they supplemented existing obstacles of three north-south rivers plus docks and canals as well as the east-west iron curtain of the London to Swansea mainline. To this was added high-density workers’ housing, crammed between the railways in tight grids of narrow streets with dimensions suitable for a horse and cart, and certainly not for the ‘Great Car Economy’ subsequently imposed by Big Oil in the 20th century. To avoid residential streets becoming clogged and dangerous rat-runs, an endless litany of desperate ‘traffic management’ measures has gradually turned most into humped, pinched, camera-monitored one-way or no-through roads that in effect put them out of use for through-traffic, so piling further pressure on the hotch-potch of overloaded trunk roads slotted in piecemeal over the years. Such is the incoherence of the resulting road system, no two points in the city have a straightforward connection and often one has to head south to go north, east to go west, north to go south or west to go east. On top of this, a never-ending sequence of short-sighted decisions by the council and local planners has only hastened the bringing of Cardiff to a standstill: disconnected, far-flung housing developments, countless out-of-town shopping precincts, hosts of junctions with traffic lights to serve yet more retail parks, new roads constructed without pavements at all, not one single dedicated cycle lane. Total dependence on the car has been dumbly built into Cardiff’s very fabric.

Which leads me to the second, and prime, reason that traffic congestion is so bad: the city has got a pathetically inadequate public transport system that hasn’t been fit for purpose since the 1950s. Compare the modern, comprehensive rapid transit systems taken for granted in over 200 cities across the world – from Chennai to Chicago, Chongqing to Caracas – with Cardiff’s derisory offering of a few sporadic, unreliable cattle-trucks running on an anaemic skeleton of left-over lines nobody got around to ripping up – and wince in embarrassment. Then contrast the innovative, popular tram/light rail systems constructed over the last 30 years within the UK in Birmingham, Edinburgh, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield with Cardiff council’s pitiful attempts to entice people away from the car: a couple of ‘park and rides’ and a few bus lanes, introduced to a backdrop of savage cuts to timetables and routes and an impossibly inconvenient re-positioning of city-centre bus stops at the behest of corporate profiteers. All that’s been achieved is the precise opposite: car use in Cardiff keeps increasing year-on-year, bucking the downward trend going on in more civilised cities elsewhere.

I wrote about Cardiff’s traffic over six years ago (!) on this blog (see http://tinyurl.com/hyx3sq4 ). The article includes a proposed ‘rail map of the future’.

Then five years ago the Welsh government launched its ambitious ‘South Wales Metro’ public transport project. The Assembly has nominal responsibility for transport (although vital powers over rail ownership, road law, strategic infrastructure and overall fiscal control are still held by London). Even the complacent, lethargic Labour administration of Carwyn Jones could no longer ignore the all-too-evident monumental traffic dysfunctionality. The CBI and the Institute of Directors were getting restless: Something Must Be Done. All that’s happened since is five years of grandiose pronouncements, airy waffle and clapped-out jargon oozing out of both the Senedd and County Hall, during which time torrents of scarce public money have flowed into the coffers of various ‘consultants’ and ‘experts’ and a comfy new gravy train guaranteeing lots of all-expenses-paid ‘meetings’ called Transport for Wales (TfW) has been established. Meanwhile, not one shovel of earth has been shifted and we are no nearer knowing routes, lines, connections, modes of transport, frequency, pricing or even where the money to pay for it is coming from. Mind you, a snazzy livery has been chosen, visionary videos and alluring animations have been produced and many appealing maps have been drafted (nicking quite a few of the ideas in my rail map – but I don’t care, I’m used to having my work purloined, plagiarised and perverted). Yes, after five years we have got an Imaginary Metro!

One can only conclude that this is just another example of the tragic stasis that has afflicted the post-devolution ‘Welsh’ Labour party, paralysed by the nonsensical contradiction of a political position that lambasts London policies while simultaneously insisting Wales must be subject to them for ever more. Such fundamental insanity at Labour’s core means every utterance from the Welsh government or Cardiff council has to be treated as either wishful thinking, feel-good spin or mendacious clap-trap. The very fact that minister in charge Ken Skates feels obliged to pretend that the currently ongoing ‘procurement process’ (i.e. paper-work and more TfW meetings) counts as ‘phase 2’ of the Metro, and that the completion of long-planned minor improvements to the railway line between Ebbw Vale and Newport constituted ‘phase 1’, shows how this Metro is little more than grown men playing with train sets.

The scheme comes unstuck immediately because of its underpinning ‘city region’ philosophy. What Cardiff cries out for is a public transport system linking the various parts of Cardiff (as per my map). What the valleys cry out for is a public transport system linking the various valleys. What is definitely NOT needed is further encouragement and enablement of Cardiff’s crippling dominance over the valleys. One of the root causes of the transport mess is the fact that formerly lively, thriving valleys’ towns have been so comprehensively stripped of economic activity and amenities that people have to go to Cardiff for everything, from a job to a pair of socks to a night out, while Cardiff has been relentlessly pumped up like a tiny-testicled gym-bunny on steroids at the expense of the rest of Wales. Effectively, there’s been a ‘city region’ for decades, and it’s the problem not the solution. Meanwhile the council pursues size as an end in itself for reasons it can never explain or justify, so I will: craven, conformist compliance to the bankrupt tenets of conservatism, corporatism, competition and consumerism by principle-free size queens, inadequates and mediocrities on the make. Ooh, I feel better for that.

Looking at the cost of this fantasy Metro, we are told that £600 million (£325 million from the Assembly, £150 million from the EU and £125 million from the UK’s Department of Transport) has been set aside for the next five years. What will that buy? Answer: some more bus lanes if you’re lucky. It’s chicken-feed. Here is what ‘our’ UK government has spent on London’s already pretty excellent transport system over the last five years:
~Tube line improvements and extensions: £8 billion
~Crossrail 1: £16 billion
~Thameslink: £6 billion
~East London line £1 billion
~HS1: £6 billion
And here is what will be spent in the next five years:
~Crossrail 2: £32 billion
~HS2: £80 billion
Total: £150 billion!! Allowing for the fact that London has triple the population of Wales, if Wales got a proportionate, fair cut of UK transport spending it would receive £50 billion, or £5 billion a year. That would build a proper, viable, enduring Metro! But, of course, Wales is systematically denied access to the UK’s vast riches and must make do with a pared-to-the-bone annual allowance of humiliating pocket money, so there’s just this piddling £600 million available. I think it’s safe to assume that nobody reading this article now will live long enough to ever board the hi-tech tram from Ely Mill to Beddau of my dreams. Let’s face it: when time-scales are this vague, flexible and distant there is no time-scale; and when there is no time-scale there is no project. It’s all rather like a recent piece of Welsh government legislation, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act of 2015, which contained 56 pages of abstract cravings for universal happiness and sunny days and not one single concrete measure that would make the slightest difference to Welsh life. It read like a cross between If I Ruled The World and a long, dull sermon by a vapid vicar coming to the conclusion that badness is wrong. This is what the Labour Party in Cardiff Bay has been reduced to without socialism, radicalism, commitment to Wales, ideas, ideals and idealists: drawing up a fuzzy bucket-list of empty platitudes and calling it action.

No, there will be no Metro. What we will get is more of the same old failed tactic: minor enhancements, modifications and modernisations as and when they’re affordable. There will be the usual token gestures and glib nods in the direction of sustainability and the common good while actual policy will push Cardiff in the opposite direction. Right now, for instance, the faction-splintered Labour council is allowing speculative developers to massively extend built-up Cardiff by 20% into what remains of the ever-shrinking ‘green belt’, and thus guaranteeing further exponential growth in road-use, congestion and pollution. They say one thing and do the exact reverse: Trump didn’t invent post-truth – it’s old hat in this neck of the woods.

Another example is the electrification of the mainline between Paddington and Cardiff, a long overdue £850 million upgrade of the very last inter-city route in the UK to be electrified, authorised by London in 2009 (electrification as far as Swansea has been postponed until 2024 – i.e. won’t happen). After years of haggling, in which the Tory government tried to extract the cost from the Assembly’s crumbs even though Wales has no control over Network Rail, work got underway in the Cardiff area in 2014. Bridge after bridge is having to be demolished and replaced to accommodate the overhead line equipment, with more dire consequences for traffic movement. Epic queues ripple across the city from each closed bridging point and there is no end to the disruption in sight (Splott Bridge, for instance, has just been closed to two-way traffic for two years. Tip: avoid at all costs). When the project is finally completed, a decade of horrendous extra congestion will have been imposed on Cardiff in order to shave 25 minutes off London-based businessmen’s arduous journey to their hotel room or weekend Bay apartment. Such are the priorities of Westminster, and though electrification is welcome it does nothing for Wales and will make no impression on Cardiff’s clogged arteries. What’s worse is that the project has made the Metro even more difficult to achieve by blithely destroying extant local tracks in Adamsdown and Splott that would have been vital links in any Metro structure (ref my map) and by not including any platform provision or track allowance for the future local stations between St Mellons and St Fagans along the mainline that are supposedly fundamental to the Metro. Likewise, the 1km of new road currently being built between the Butetown tunnel and Ocean Way (a section of the A4232 that will still leave 3km to go to complete Cardiff’s southern by-pass, started 40 years ago – it’s taking longer than the bloody Pyramids of Giza!) is also undermining any hope of a Metro by obliterating more useful track beds that could have linked the ridiculously detached next-door neighbours Butetown and Splott/Tremorfa. Yep, with that trademark Brit combo of incompetence and negligence, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing – and cares less. Expect an over-excited Ken Skates to label electrification as ‘phase 3’ of his never-never-land Metro.

Cardiff is thus the victim of a triple whammy of misrule from the usual sources: the council, the Assembly government and the UK government. There are readily available solutions, beginning soon with the council elections this May: boot Labour out of County Hall, topple Carwyn’s mob in the Senedd and then declare independence and secede from the UK. Unfortunately, these remedies require brains and courage – attributes in short supply in contemporary Wales. So, until Wales is free, or my legs are amputated (whichever comes first, the tingles are getting worse), the best way for me to get around Cardiff will remain what it has ever been: Shanks’s pony.