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Friday, November 18, 2005

Travelling to see the World

If there is one thing that the recent publication of the updated MPs' register of interests has revealed, it is that politicians like to travel, as of course do their spouses. Right there at the top of the pile is the Prime Ministers' free 26-day stay at singer Sir Cliff Richard's Barbados villa in August along with his wife's speaking engagements in Washington, Australia, New Zealand and Florida. Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, has also been indulging his Formula One passion with free hospitality in Monaco and at Silverstone

Incidentally, I noticed in the list that Tory leadership contender, David Davis, published a list of donors to his campaign, which included Robin Birley, owner of Annabel's nightclub in London. This is the club in which David Blunkett first met the 29 year old blonde who subsequently caused substantial embarrassment for him. When Blunkett was Home Secretary, David Davis was his Tory shadow. It is on such coincidences that conspiracy theories are built.

Assembly Members live so much more mundane lives. Occasionally, one or two of them get to travel somewhere exotic with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association like the Falkland Islands, Lesotho or Canada but mostly they live out their travelling fantasies on the Welsh railway network, such as it is. With such limited horizons it is inevitable that their experiences will turn them into an authority on the subject and like the pub bore they will insist on droning on and on about the problems that they face getting to Cardiff Bay each week.

Questions to the Assembly Minister for Economic Development and Transport are an obvious time to pour out these accumulated frustrations, though that does not stop some AMs having their two pennyworth on other Ministers' question time sessions as well. What has sharpened the appetite of some members is that the Assembly is soon to get new powers over the railways. Thus on Wednesday when we reached question eight on the future of rail services in Wales, we all knew what to expect.

South Wales West Plaid Cymru Assembly Member, Janet Davies, started the ball rolling with a demand that the Minister use his soon to be acquired powers to achieve a step change and much-needed improvements to infrastructure, rolling stock and services. For her trouble she got a lecture on what the government was already doing:

Andrew Davies: We are already significantly improving rail services in Wales. We have reopened the passenger services on the Vale of Glamorgan line and, by early 2007, we will have passenger services on the Ebbw Vale line for the first time since the Beeching cuts. We have invested an additional £50 million in the Valley lines to improve the capacity and frequency of services. In December, Arriva Trains Wales will introduce a standard pattern timetable, which will improve the performance and delivery of services. Network Rail has also invested £400 million to upgrade the signalling on the Great Western line between Port Talbot and the Severn tunnel. That is a substantial investment, and I am sure that we will see a significant improvement in the level and the frequency of services provided over the next few years.

Leighton Andrews piled in next on the standard of the service offered by Arriva Trains to his constituents in the Rhondda. Plaid Cymru Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, then leapt to his feet to join in the attack on Arriva, however rather surprisingly for such a frequent traveller he seemed to lose his way a bit:

Ieuan Wyn Jones: I am sure that the Minister is aware that the improvement in the service between north and south Wales as a result of changes in the timetable from December will be welcomed, but he is also aware that we not only need more regular services but also faster services—and I would like to emphasise this—between north and south. It is a very lengthy train journey, especially if people want to undertake business in Cardiff and return to north Wales on the same day. I cannot understand how people can travel from Holyhead to London, for example, more quickly than from Holyhead to Cardiff. I do not understand why Arriva Trains insists that all Cardiff-bound trains have such frequent stops; that adds a lot of time to the length of the journey. Will the Minister discuss this issue with Arriva Trains so that we have a service that will unite north and south Wales, and so that people feel comfortable with this journey?

Andrew Davies: Why does the service have to stop so frequently? The reason is that it has to pick up passengers. [Laughter.]

Unfortunately, Ieuan did not know when he was beaten and persisted at length with his account of inconvenience and misfortune. However by now his plea for trains in North Wales to stop less often so as to get to their destination quicker, regardless of how many passengers were consequently stranded, were falling on deaf ears. We turned instead to the mysterious case of Llanharan station and why, despite promises that it would be re-opened by the end of 2005, the business case was still sitting on the Minister's desk awaiting a decision.
It's not actually an unreasonable point that Ieuan made.

There are plenty of services on the east and west coast main lines that have limited stops so as to get to and from London more quickly. These services are mixed with slower ones that stop at every station along the way.

So why can't Wales have a mixture of express and slower-running services.

Only someone wishing to go for cheap laughs, and perhaps one who doesn't have to use the service that often, would fail to understand the point Ieuan was making.
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