It’s been a week dominated by rail in both Wales and Westminster, and the contrast in the fortunes of transport secretaries at opposite ends of the M4 couldn’t have been starker.
In what Wales’ first minister, Carwyn Jones, dubbed a “landmark moment in the future development of Wales,” the political week began with the unveiling of ambitious plans by KeolisAmey – the new operator of the Wales and Borders rail franchise together with the South Wales Metro – to transform the Welsh rail network.
The numbers are impressive: KeolisAmey is set to spend £800m on new trains and £194m on stations, add almost 300 services to the lines across Wales between Monday and Friday – as well as on Sundays – and recruit more than 600 staff. The contract, worth £5 billion over a 15-year period to 2033, will begin in October this year.
The journey to this point hasn’t been all plain sailing. Last summer, officials in Cardiff Bay locked horns with their counterparts in Westminster over funding and delays in the tender process for the new franchise, which Welsh Government said was caused by the prime minister’s decision to call a snap general election. Ultimately, the bidding, reviewing and awarding process was drawn out over a longer period than anybody had anticipated.
Ken Skates, Wales’ transport secretary and the man at the centre of the positive media coverage this week, was clearly keen to maintain the upbeat tone when he addressed AMs in the Senedd. He was congratulated and given a warm reception from large parts of the chamber, in spite of some tricky questions on out-dated rolling stock and profit-making margins.
It’s been a week that’s continued to give for Mr Skates. Cue Thursday’s announcement that KeolisAmey plans to move both its UK and global rail headquarters to Wales, from London and Paris respectively. Add to this that the majority of the network’s new trains will be built at a factory in Llanwern by rail experts, CAF, it’s been a pretty impressive boost for Welsh jobs all-round.
With the all-important economy brief also part of his ministerial portfolio, it gives Skates all the more reason to be buoyant this week and could well be the catalyst that encourages him to enter the race to replace Carwyn Jones as first minister and leader of Welsh Labour in the autumn.
The praise this week has been high, and while I was at the Welsh Transport Forum on Thursday evening, it was clear that there is a collective positivity around the vision for rail in Wales. But with high praise comes high expectations. With talk of a future rail network that will be the envy of the rest of the UK, KeolisAmey, Transport for Wales, Welsh Government and Mr Skates all have a lot to live up to, particularly given the experiences of similar ‘transformative’ new rail franchises in England.
The upbeat tone of discussions and media coverage in Wales are a far cry from those across the border, where the UK government’s transport secretary, Chris Grayling, has faced a barrage of criticism and growing calls for his resignation. Rail timetable changes implemented just a few weeks ago have led to repeated delays and cancellations across large parts of England’s network in what has been referred to as a “shambles” by the Labour party and an “absolute disaster” by normally-loyal government backbenchers.
If Grayling thought his week could only get better after a tough time at the dispatch box in front of angry MPs on Monday, he found himself at the forefront of another highly-charged debate on Tuesday as he announced the publication of the Airports National Policy Statement to pave the way for a third runway at Heathrow.
A week is a long time in politics, as they say, and it may be Ken Skates smiling this time, but politicians are only too aware that they are often at the mercy of events.
Carolyn Pugsley, director, Freshwater UK
Freshwater is an integrated communications agency delivering public affairs services, with a particular specialism in rail.