A combination of global factors has greatly enhanced the possibilities for a train line returning to Pontardawe. This is according to the CEO of the Amman Valley Railway Society (AVRS) and S9L (Swansea 9 Lines). Brexit, Climate change, the recent pandemic and other factors have all combined to making a new transport system within the valley ‘more likely than ever’.
Captain Mike Smith spent most of his time at sea before transforming his efforts in recent years to developing railway links between local communities. The latest plan being an ambitious 266 mile addition to current routes in South Wales.
Swansea 9 Lines
The ‘Swansea 9 Lines’ link is a part of that project and an exciting prospect to us in Pontardawe. The proposal would see a Pontardawe and a Rhydyfro station linking to Clydach, Morriston and Swansea whilst venturing through the Amman valley to Ammanford the other way. Joining the heart of the valley line and looping around to Pontarddulais and Morriston. Creating a figure 9 sketch as you can see from the picture.
“re-opening and developing the line from Gwaun Cae Gurwen through to Pontardawe is a fairly simple one” Mike tells me. “The track-bed itself goes to Clydach and the boundary. The existing tunnel for Pontardawe and Trebanos is in fairly good condition for a single-use track. The route is clear, we have worked as an association to ensure it has remained like that”.
AVRS began in 1992 and Mike believes that the association is beginning to see the fruition of these plans. In 2006, as the new gas line was installed in Trebanos an additional £100,000 was spent ensuring that the gas line was taken underneath the track bed. This was to ensure the line remained available for such future projects at the request of the AVRS.
With land ready and waiting, a country committed to reducing Carbon emissions and a UK government supposedly intent on investing in infrastructure projects. It is clear to see why there is optimism that now could be the time we see trains return to these parts. There appears one large stumbling block: ‘money’.
“We realistically need the Chinese” the Captain tells me. Jingye Group bought British Steel earlier this year and Mike feels that it will be companies like this who will fund the development. “The owner is the 8th richest man in China. Since 1988 they have developed a positive take on Steel, employing 23,000 people in China and they have saved 2,000 jobs in the UK.”
“There are numerous projects within manufacturing plants across the UK which are coming to an end in the next couple of years. The country needs to replace these with new projects, it is likely to be Chinese money which drives it. A project like this will tick the boxes to keep factories running and create a post-Covid boost to the economy”.
“The Swansea Tidal Lagoon could be key. It is likely that there will be Chinese investment for the Lagoon to go ahead and we see from past projects that there is often an investment in the wider area. This is something which I could see developing.”
The Chinese are also instrumental to the grander plan of the project. “We can quite easily lay standard rail from GCG up to Trebanos but with some routes we are looking at VETS (Virtual Eco Trams) and we need the Chinese technologies for that. They are way ahead of the rest of the world with these.”
In 2017, China launched the world’s first ‘trackless train’ using virtual rail lines which can link onto existing roads with ease, these are the VETs Mike speaks of. It is this technology which the AVRS wants to see here in Wales.
“If we were to use VETs for the whole line then the whole Swansea 9 line could be developed within 2 to 3 years. The plan has been delayed slightly which in some ways has been a blessing because the technology has improved so much over this time. We can use ex-train lines and some existing ordinary roads which makes the development easier. The price is about a quarter of a usual train carriage.”
“The VETs are self-steering, reach 35 miles an hour, although the 9 line loop would probably stay under 30mph and average about 25mph. They can be with or without a driver, solar panelled and as frequent as required”.
In China, the first VETs (or Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) as they call them) take 10 minutes to charge and could run for 15.5 miles but the technology continues to improve.
Brand-new, top of the range, eco technology sounds ideal but any plans require a juggling act. The heritage of our train lines and our physical trains themselves, is something which many people cling onto. “We wish to incorporate the heritage of each communities’ trains and trainlines with the newest of technologies. The Swansea 9 Lines would pass through incredible scenery and would be a huge boost to tourism, linking the populous South to the heart of the valley line”.
It is for this reason that ‘Plan A’ would see hard track and standard rail from Trebanos to GCG with VET links as against simply using the new technology throughout.
The complete project will include the return of a Swansea to Mumbles Eco-tram as well as linking Cardiff airport to West Wales in a more sustainable and effective manner.
“Over time the running costs and capital costs can pay for itself – over an estimated 24 years. We have had accountants investigate it and they agree. At an annual passenger uplift of 3 million it becomes fiscally viable whereas continued ‘potching and patching’ will not. There will be an overall feasibility plan which will be made by Network Rail, SBCR and Transport for Wales and my inclination is that the whole project will be complete by 2032, possibly 2028. It is an easy system to install.”
Will it happen?
The fact that the line has been deliberately kept clear is obviously a major positive for the proposal. A lot of the route is managed by Sustrans who will be key. They have been instrumental in developing old railway lines into cycle routes and Mike is confident that cycle routes can be laid adjacent to the proposed track bed which could keep both parties happy.
Politically, it ticks all the boxes and has the backing from both Pontardawe councillors. Linet Purcell stated “Myself and Anthony would be very pleased to see this proposal finally come to fruition, and would be happy to offer any practical measures of assistance such as offering letters of support should they be required. “
Other lines across Wales have reopened with a greater demand than first predicted. Previous developments here have been rejected because of lack of population. As that grows and with this proposal being a segment of a much larger one, there is real hope that we could see a train platform in these parts once more.