On Thursday 14th February 2019, we saw the opening of the Newtown bypass. This was a momentous occasion for Mid Wales. It was over 70 years ago that the need for a bypass was first suggested. During the past 7 decades, the bypass has been on and off the agenda at various points in time. I believe that the bypass has the potential to transform the economy of towns such as Newtown, Llanidloes and Machynlleth.
The campaign for a bypass began in the 1940s. In 1949, the then Montgomery County Council published an advert which called for school boys aged 16 or over to consider putting themselves forward to record the number of vehicles travelling through the town between Friday September 2nd and Sunday September 4th 1949 in an effort to assess the need for a Newtown Bypass.
We should pay tribute to the many people, especially those that are no longer with us, who have campaigned for a bypass over the past 7 decades including those 30 people who joined me in handing in a 10,000 strong petition to the National Assembly for Wales back in March 2011.
The bypass itself includes a number of large structures, including 4 new roundabouts and 7 main bridges. For a major project like this to be completed within 3 years from start to finish is amazing in itself. There has been widespread support for this project from the community and there was a great interest in the construction works.
I was particularly pleased to take an interest in the development of the largest of the new structures, the bridge over the middle Dolfor Road. The bridge is a multi-span reinforced concrete structure, with two piers and two abutments. 90 metres in length and standing 20 metres tall, the bridge has nine pairs of steel beams which weigh 35 tonnes each. A magnificent example of structural engineering.
It ought to be acknowledged that people who live near the new bypass and construction sites have been incredibly patient over the past 3 years and that some landowners have had to make sacrifices and give up land belonging to their families for generations in order to allow the project to proceed.
Since the opening of the bypass, contractors have continued on site with drainage works, planting and landscaping at various locations; the erection of permanent fencing and removal of temporary fencing. Seasonal planting by the landscaping team is continuing into 2020 and over the next four years this will be monitored and managed under contractual obligations.
A few safety concerns on the bypass have been brought to my attention including the absence of arrow signals directing drivers to lanes before roundabouts where two lanes return to one. I have raised this with the Welsh Government and was informed that a road safety audit had been completed. The project team raised the same issue suggesting additional road markings. Bizarrely however, the recommendations have not been accepted by the auditor based on the lack of evidence that no accidents have occurred. I strongly believe that safety measures should be in place before accidents happen, this is just common sense. I have taken the matter up again with the Minister more recently, and I have been assured that officials will be setting up a camera to monitor a month’s worth of vehicular activity and the video footage will be reviewed to determine if there are a significant number of incidents and the project team will discuss the next steps based on the findings.
The question has once more been raised of reinstating the roundabout at McDonalds junction and also a pedestrian crossing on Dolfor Road among other traffic improvements in and around the town. I have raised this with Powys County Council who will soon be taking over former trunk roads through the town.
I have experienced resistance from both Welsh Government and County Council for a roundabout to replace the lights at McDonalds junction on the grounds that the original roundabout did not work effectively due to being too small and secondly, that pedestrians need to cross at this point which is safer with lights. The Council is currently monitoring traffic flows and changes to traffic behaviour as drivers establish different routes in and out of the town.
Newtown Town Council undertook a public survey last year for the naming of roundabouts and structures along the bypass. I also met with the Transport Minister to discuss potential names. I am pleased that the Welsh Government agreed to name four key roundabouts along the route after local historic figures from the community, these being, Robert Owen, David Davies, Pryce Pryce-Jones and Laura Ashley. Just before Christmas the Transport Minister updated me and informed me that quotations for the roundabout signage to display the names of each roundabout are now being sought.
Urgent progress now needs to be made on other much needed projects including the construction of the new Dyfi Bridge at Machynlleth to address a major pinch point on the A487.
The Dyfi Bridge was never designed to carry the current volume of traffic. The road is also often closed due to frequent flooding, causing traffic to take a diversion of up to 30 miles. The bridge was closed yet again in the Autumn so it is imperative that this pinch point is resolved at the earliest opportunity.
During the recent flooding, there was a failure to monitor the flood levels by CCTV, and the flood barrier gates on the trunk road should have been opened for road access much earlier when the flood waters had subsided to a safe level.
I can’t stress how important it is to improve the reliability of crossing the River Dyfi and to improve access to key services including employment opportunities, healthcare and education for the people of Machynlleth and the surrounding area.
I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to take up these practical issues with his officials but it is essential that a decision is made on the long term viability of the project at the earliest opportunity so that urgent improvements are made to this stretch of road infrastructure in Montgomeryshire.
I have questioned the Welsh Government Minister for Transport, Ken Skates, a number of times during 2019 on when he will be in a position to make a decision on the project and he has informed me that the Dyfi Bridge project has seen a number of changes to its scope in the development phase. As a result, he requires a revision of the final costs before being able to make a decision which is expected shortly.
The local campaign for a Pant-Llanymynech bypass has also been rumbling on for decades and the lack of progress is creating significant concern for residents, preventing tourists from visiting and spending their money in Mid Wales, and affecting local Mid Wales businesses who rely on exporting their goods across the border.
Many people live, work and access public services on different sides of the Welsh-England Border but our existing governance arrangements do not incentivise improving those links. A long term solution can only go ahead if the UK and Welsh Governments work together on this crucial cross-border scheme.
Therefore, I welcomed the commitment by the new UK Government that they will deliver a Pant-Llanymynech Bypass and an ambitious Marches Growth Deal to improve transport networks and boost economic growth across the Welsh border.
I pressed for this commitment to be included in the Conservative Party's manifesto for the recent General Election so I am delighted that the new UK Government has committed that it will work with the Welsh Government and councils on both sides of the border to negotiate a Marches Growth Deal that will deliver much needed road improvements, boost local economies and cooperation between communities in England and Wales.
Other Transport Schemes
On other transport and highway matters, I have had discussions to initiate a number of smaller schemes to resolve traffic flows and safety concerns in the county including the duelling of road sections at Llangurig and Llanidloes along with improvements at Moat Lane Crossing near Caersws. A public consultation event is being arranged by the Welsh Government for this latter scheme which could potentially include a roundabout. There is a growing interest once again for a significant improvement scheme to upgrade the road between Welshpool and Shrewsbury. Earlier this year the Cefn Bridge over the railway at Trewern was restricted due to traffic control following impact damage to the bridge itself. This caused major disruption to businesses and commuters as well as visitors to the area. Having raised the urgency of the bridge repair with Network Rail and with the Minister in addition to raising questions in the Senedd chamber, the repairs were finally completed in July.
People’s expectations of Wales' rail service are simple. As the passenger watchdog Transport Focus put it: “Passengers tell us that their top priorities for the new Wales and Borders railway are getting a seat on reliable services that provide good value for money.”
Sadly, during 2019, my email inbox from frustrated rail commuters has significantly increased. Frustrations of cancelled trains, leaving students attending college in Shrewsbury stranded, or people not being able to get to and form work.
The responsibility for Welsh rail services under the railway franchise that was operated by Arriva Trains Wales and now Transport for Wales has been a matter for the Welsh Government since 2006 and it has abjectly failed to take responsibility or take appropriate action to address the issues with capacity on Wales-only rail services over the last 13 years.
There were insufficient efforts from the Welsh Government to work with the previous operator on the state of the rail fleet in the 12 months before the handover to Transport for Wales and there was a complete lack of an effective handover strategy built into the procurement process for the new £5 billion franchise to ensure that issues in relation to quality of the rolling stock were addressed from the very beginning of the new franchise agreement.
Over the last year, we continue to see cancelled trains, delayed trains, lack of staff, signalling problems, capacity problems, lack of quality information to passengers, and overcrowding, and this is unacceptable by anyone's standards. This is not the ‘transformational’ improvement to services that Wales was promised by this Welsh Government and neither does it represent the additional capacity or the vision of future rail services in Wales.
In addition to my role as Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire and Shadow Minister for Economy & Infrastructure, I also Chair the National Assembly's Economy, Infrastructure & Skills Committee. In Spring 2019, the Committee published its report into the rail disruption which has affected passengers, highlighting a number of possible causes and potential remedies. The Committee's clear message to Transport for Wales was that if a similar level of disruption is experienced by passengers in the future then they must be adequately compensated as it will be some time before the full fleet of shiny new trains arrives.
I have been informed that a new fleet of trains is being built specifically for the Cambrian Line and will be introduced from 2022. These trains will deliver increased capacity for passengers but will also run with faster acceleration, allowing services to meet the timetable more reliably. However, until the new trains are introduced, I will continue to call for Transport for Wales to make progress on improving their level of service; to increase the frequency of services to one train per hour throughout the day; and make improvements to facilities at stations. As well as better trains, more capacity and better fare and ticketing options, we must see a rail service which integrates effectively with the other modes of transport we use on a daily basis and a transport system which isn’t viewed in isolation but contributes to cross border economic growth and better supports other public services.
I will continue to keep a firm focus on Transport for Wales’ performance and plans to increase capacity and improve service levels on Welsh rail routes, and will be examining this issue again early in the new year as the Government Minister and CEO of Transport for Wales attend the committee which I chair for further scrutiny.