I hate driving; I really do. It’s dead, unproductive time spent sitting behind the wheel, either stuck behind some truck or caravan or with my eyes fixed on the speedometer lest I stray over the limit and get an envelope with a large bill in it from Gogplod a few days later. I must say that I felt a lot safer in the days before councils in the North East of the country started arbitrarily reducing speed limits on perfectly safe roads, and Gogplod started enforcing them with greater alacrity than ever before: in those days I could keep my eyes on the road, where they ought to be. But that’s not the topic of this post.
I much prefer taking the train, and would do so all the time if I could. When the system works well, there’s nothing better than being whisked to my destination in comfort, being able to get my laptop out and do some productive work or even just read a book for the length of the journey. Buses are less comfortable and you need to keep your wits about you so you don’t miss your stop, but there’s still a lot to be said in their favour.
But this is Wales.
We are, by and large, a sparsely populated rural country. Even our most significant population centres are small by European standards. Last week I was talking to a French colleague who works near Cambridge, and he mentioned having heard of Aberystwyth and he assumed, based on its university, its cultural significance and its clearly being the largest settlement in its region, that it must be some huge city. I explained to him that in fact it really wasn’t, and speculated it was about the size of Huntingdon, the fourth biggest town in the county. When I got home I looked up the figures, and realised how dead wrong I’d been. In fact, it’s barely half the size of Huntingdon, but almost exactly the same size as St. Ives – that is to say, St. Ives in Cambridgeshire – which I expect that hardly anyone reading this has ever heard of.
I visit Aberystwyth quite often; we have most of our Ein Gwlad steering committee meetings there, since it’s nice and central, and I frequently engage with the Computer Science department at the university there. I go by train when I can, but typically it’s just one train every two hours. I’m fortunate that, living within reasonable reach of Shrewsbury railway station, the total journey time (including travel to the station) is reasonable, but the winding single-track line is still not significantly faster than taking the car, and nine times out of ten the only sensible thing to do is to drive there.
It’s all in the numbers
Public transport is a great solution when there are large numbers of people or goods that regularly need to get from Point A to Point B. Where the numbers of people are small, however, that just rarely if ever happens; outside the major urban centres, at any given time of day, you’d be hard pressed to find any two places within Wales between which more than a handful of people want to get at any given time. A public transport network providing a reasonably frequent service, under these circumstances, would be prohibitively uneconomic to provide.
And yet being able to move people around the country is vital for both economic reasons and for reasons of public well-being. People need to be able to travel to work, and their life opportunities are greatly enhanced if they can access a wide enough area that they are not tied to a single employer. Employers, for that matter (and I speak as one), need access to a reasonable labour market so that they have a decent chance of being able to find people with the skills that they need within a reasonable commuting distance of their locations (something that I’m still struggling with – I still have a number of vacancies in Wrexham that I’m trying to fill). We can’t afford to have a general hospital in every small town, so people need to be able to travel to regional centres of care, whether by car or ambulance, safely and in reasonable time.
Over on the Institute for Welsh Affairs website, Josh Miles of the Federation of Small Businesses has set out eloquently why investment in roads is critical in order to give small businesses in Wales – accounting for over 60% of employment – a reasonable chance to succeed. Large companies like Amazon can set up on the edge of a city, have new roads built to their doorstep at huge public expense, and yet shut up shop and disappear overnight. The real, grass-roots businesses run by Welsh people, who keep their profits in their communities, have to do what they can with the public infrastructure that’s available to them; and all to often that puts them immediately at a major disadvantage to their competitors in other, better-connected parts of the world.
The future’s bright, the future’s tarmac
We are on the cusp of a revolution in road transport. Driverless cars, and zero-emission cars powered by hydrogen or batteries, are in all probability less than a generation away. I can’t wait for the day when I can summon a self-driven, hydrogen-powered buggy that will come to my front door and take me to Aberystwyth. This isn’t just a pipe-dream – I know, first hand, people and companies who are developing these technologies. When that day comes, though, the buggy will still need a decent road to travel along. The idea that Wales can skimp on its road network and still be ready for the future is a fantasy that may get people excited in the more extreme parts of the Green Lobby, but it doesn’t correspond to reality.
Wales needs good roads. And you can expect Ein Gwlad’s transport policy to affirm that and plan accordingly.
Stephen is a Physics PhD with a keen interest in economics, having spent his entire career working for various high-technology businesses in Wales and Silicon Valley – including the one he founded himself. He was born in Cardiff, spent his primary school years in Eifionydd and his secondary school years in Welshpool and Wrexham – and his parents hail from Rhuddlan and Llanelli – so he is well acquainted with the country from end to end but considers himself a Wrexham man. He works in the town, while living just over the border in Shropshire with his English wife.