The South Wales Metro is hampered by public disbelief and cynicism according to a key expert involved in the project.
Professor Mark Barry, of Cardiff University, said the public “doesn’t believe” the huge upgrade to public transport across south-east Wales is actually coming.
The metro project will see a system of heavy and light rail, trams and new buses crossing the region with several new train stations.
But delays to the project and a lack of investment in public transport stretching over decades have left people cynical about the plans, Prof Barry said.
In a briefing on the South Wales Metro with Cardiff council’s environmental scrutiny committee, he said: “People don’t believe the metro is coming. My mother doesn’t believe it.
“It is coming, but in the meantime people are getting very cynical. I’m not quite sure how we manage that. I’m pretty sure in 2024, when we have all these brand new tram-trains, people are going to be genuinely shocked. But we’re not going to have any shiny new stuff for another three to four years.”
Prof Barry is credited as the man behind the vision of the metro project, which covers the 10 council areas in south-east Wales: Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Newport, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Torfaen, and the Vale of Glamorgan.
Councillors on the environmental scrutiny committee heard updates on the metro during a meeting on Tuesday, January 5. Several questioned the transport professor if coronavirus was delaying work or threatening funding.
The pandemic could lead to a “six to 12 month” delay in getting new trains, Prof Barry said, due to problems with staff working in factories making the new rolling stock. Pacer trains are still running across the region — cheap, creaky trains from the 1980s that were only supposed to last for a couple of decades.
Cllr Emma Sandrey said: “Given that Pacer trains have recently been given another extension, do you think this undermines public perception of the priority of public transport?”
Cllr Tom Parkhill said: “Nobody in my ward [Llanishen] believes the metro is coming. Over the last year my ward has seen significant worsening of public transport.
“The frequency of train services has gone down in Llanishen and Thornhill. We’re struggling with the bus services, with lesser frequency then previously. Is there urgency in Welsh Government with these projects?”
Replying to the concerns, Prof Barry said that Transport for Wales and the Welsh Government had made significant progress behind the scenes. Although it would take another “three to for years” before the public sees new trains running.
He said: “I know they have committed to a huge investment in rolling stock. It is coming. Some of the manufacturing has been delayed because of Covid but I’m absolutely convinced that Transport for Wales is working as hard as they can to bring this stuff forward as quickly as possible.
“We haven’t had anything nice and shiny in this part of the world for decades. We’ve been told, and I’ve been guilty as anyone else, of promising apple pie and jam. But we’re now in the beginning of the detailed design phase for some of the infrastructure.”
Construction work is now underway on the £100 million metro depot at Taff’s Well, north of Cardiff, on the Garth Works Industrial Estate. The depot should be ready next year and will employ hundreds of staff.
Prof Barry said: “You can already see the depot being built for the tram-trains. So there is a physical manifestation of a real project. It’s just the fact that these things do take a long time.
“While there is frustration and disbelief, we have gone from a heretical project less than 10 years ago to Welsh Government taking the bull by the horns on a non-devolved matter, creating Transport for Wales — a massively complicated procurement — now dealing with the enormity of Covid, and in the middle of a design of a whole replenishment of rolling stock and infrastructure to support doubling the capacity and frequency of the Valley lines.”
The South Wales Metro project will electrify about 170km of track, upgrade most stations and signalling, and upgrade the Core Valleys Lines to Aberdare, Coryton, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney and Treherbert.
The metro should mean passengers have quicker journeys, better connections, and more frequent, reliable and accessible services.