On right track with electrification

Journalists working on most regional newspapers in the UK try to stay neutral when it comes to reporting the news, particularly politics. Occasionally though the editor will decide an issue is of such importance to the community that he or she will throw the newspaper’s weight behind a campaign to fight for it. For the journalists it means a slightly different dynamic comes into play.

In 2009 the UK Government announced it would electrify the main railway line running between London and Swansea, saying this would speed up journey times between the two cities. In October 2010, after the arrival of a Government determined to cut spending, the future of the scheme was thrown into doubt. The bad news for Swansea that electrification would end at Cardiff was confirmed on St David’s Day 2011.

In South West Wales there was an understandable outcry, particularly from business. The decision was seen as cutting Swansea adrift from hopes of inward investment and economic renewal. It suggested the city was second class. The Government may not have intended sending those messages, but that was how many in the area saw it.

Picking up on the mood, an Evening Post editorial said the decision had been “a bitter blow to the people of South West Wales” and it would campaign for the Government to reconsider.

A few days later Prime Minister David Cameron came to Cardiff and I had a chance to ask him about the decision. He told me:

“It [electrification to Swansea] doesn’t lead to any meaningful increase in train speeds, so it wouldn’t be a good use of the money.

“So better would be to look at electrification of the valley lines between Cardiff and other parts of the valleys and I think that makes better sense. That’s the reason for getting on, going to Cardiff but as I say not ruling out Swansea for the future.”

After a month filled with adverse comment in Wales about the decision, I met the Prime Minister again when he visited Swansea. His message had changed subtly:

“We are funding the electrification of the Great Western main line and we are looking at extending that to Swansea.”

To me the first message seemed a dismissal of changing course again with an uncashable sop added, while the other suggested a more meaningful commitment to keep the situation under review.

Today, following a concerted push by the Welsh Government, business and individuals from across the political spectrum, the UK Government has changed its mind and reinstated plans to electrify the line to Swansea.

For those who say Governments never listen, here is a good example of a strong business case being put to one and having an effect. Of course the U-turn, announced as part of a £9billion package of rail investment across the UK, might have something to do with the Government trying to spur sluggish economic growth.

A statement from Chancellor George Osborne released with the announcement said:

“This Government is making more funds available to invest in rail projects than at any time since the Victorian era, and shows that the Government is committed to delivering on its promises to support investment in public infrastructure that will support economic growth.”

Whatever the reason – and I suspect the promotion of soccer team Swansea City to the English Premier League last year did not harm the cause – the decision is a good one for a region where GDP is way below the UK average.

We are not privy to what really changed the Government’s mind, but a BBC video interview with Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan hints the biggest plaudits should go to those people in Wales who put together a business case and lobbied the Government so effectively. But if the Evening Post’s campaign – or even me raising the issue with the Prime Minister directly – played a miniscule part in getting the result I’d be delighted.

Usually regional journalists have to sit on the sidelines and relay what is going on. Occasionally, when the cause is right, it feels good to go into bat – even if it is just for one ball.

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