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Ebbw Vale-Newport rail link put back into next decade

Western Mail: Aug 12 2006
Martin Shipton

THE Assembly Government has been accused of making misleading statements over the opening of a much-heralded railway line.

Documents obtained by the Western Mail suggest that train services between Ebbw Vale and Newport may not start before 2012, despite Assembly Government claims they will begin operating in 2009. It will also cost almost £30m, which the Assembly Government has never explained how it intends to fund.

The new line is regarded as an essential ingredient in the regeneration strategy for Blaenau Gwent, and was a significant issue in the recent double by-election campaign.

Last month the Assembly Government told us further works, beyond those under way on the line between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff, would not be required before a service could be run into Newport in 2009.

But serious doubts have been cast on the accuracy of that statement.

Earlier this year the South East Wales Transport Alliance produced a long-term rail strategy for the most populous part of Wales.

It refers to the planned opening of the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line next year, adding, "Further double track initially proposed to allow a second hourly service to Newport has not been provided under the initial reopening works".

The investment programme outlined in the report for 2005-09 refers to the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line, but makes no mention of the spur to Newport. Instead, the Newport works are earmarked to go ahead in 2012-13.

The report states, "The half-hourly service (with one train going to Cardiff and another to Newport) will, most rationally, require the reinstatement of plans for double track to Aberbeeg (an additional seven miles) with two-platform stations at Newbridge and Llanhilleth."

The report says the extra infrastructure works needed before the Newport branch could open would cost £27.3m at 2002-03 prices, or £28.6m in 2005 prices.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Network Rail recently removed the track at the point where the Ebbw Vale line turns towards Newport, and is said to expect the Assembly Government to pay for a new track to be laid.

The board of Sewta, comprising representatives from 10 councils, has called on the Assembly Government to provide funds so that the Newport line could open in 2009.

A Network Rail spokeswoman said, "We are in close discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government to develop their aspirations for an Ebbw Vale to Newport service. Significant infrastructure enhancements are required for this project to proceed."

Trish Law, the Independent AM for Blaenau Gwent, told the Western Mail, "I am extremely dismayed to learn that the Ebbw Vale phase two Newport spur may not now be completed for another six or seven years. I cannot overstate the importance of the Newport link. In a statement to the Assembly as recently as July 14, Transport Minister Andrew Davies suggested that phase two would be completed in 2009.

"We were delighted at the prospect of the line between Ebbw Vale and Newport being open in time for the Ryder Cup in 2010. It presented Blaenau Gwent with the potential to exploit tourism opportunities while also providing local people with a long-awaited direct rail link to Newport.

"Furthermore, it is disturbing to learn that there is no financial commitment for phase two from the Welsh Assembly Government."

Mrs Law said she would be pressing Mr Davies to ensure funds were made available so the Newport rail service could be opened in 2009.

An Assembly Government spokesman said, "Sewta is an independent consortium of local authorities on transport, and is not a decision-making body - the Assembly Government is!

"As has been previously explained, there is currently insufficient capacity to provide a regular passenger train service to Newport, and extensive engineering works are required to remove this constraint.

"It is anticipated that the earliest all these works will be complete is 2009/early 2010, when Network Rail completes the first stage of the re-signalling of the main line at Newport.

"When the capacity constraints have been removed, the Assembly Government will review the service provision with Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail and in conjunction with Sewta decide the best way to then provide a service into Newport."