Burns backs more buses, trains and bicycles to bust congestion on at Brynglas

A Government Commission has concluded that the alternative to the axed M4 scheme in South East Wales is a sustainable and integrated network of new railway stations, rapid bus routes and cycle corridors.

According to the overarching finding of a report published yesterday, South East Wales needs significant new transport options.

Led by Lord Burns, the South East Wales Transport Commission was appointed by the Welsh Government to make recommendations for the future transport network in Wales following its decision in 2019 not to build the £1.6 billion M4 relief road. The planned scheme would have re-routed the M4 motorway to avoid the two-lane bottleneck at the Brynglas tunnels at Newport, but was opposed both on environmental grounds and affordability.

Cycling UK’s policy director Roger Geffen, along with campaigner Hugh Mackay, submitted evidence at the public inquiry into the scheme arguing that the Welsh Government had failed to make the case for the new motorway, because they had not considered alternatives that might tackle Newport's congestion and pollution problems more effectively while causing less damage.

Announcing his decision to scrap the scheme, First Minister Mark Drakeford said that the project was too expensive, but that he would not have gone ahead even if it was affordable because of the impact on the Gwent Levels, a wildlife habitat bounded by the Severn and Usk estuaries. The Commission’s task was to look at alternative solutions to the problem of congestion on and around the M4 in Newport.

The recommendations are structured around the concept of a ‘Network of Alternatives’. This is designed to give people and businesses new, credible transport options that do not involve the motorway or using a car.

Referencing the acute congestion problem on the M4, particularly on the approach to the Brynglas tunnels, the report refers to congestion as a symptom of a broader problem of the lack of good transport alternatives to the motorway, with existing rail, bus and active travel networks failing to accommodate the range of journeys that people make.

The Commission’s recommendations to integrate rail, rapid bus networks and separated cycle lanes whilst making it easier for people to combine public transport and active travel, are music to my ears.

Gwenda Owen, engagement officer in Wales, Cycling UK

The report identifies an increasing need for new sustainable transport options, focussed on regional, medium-distance travel, particularly trips starting or ending in the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol – the most common journeys on the motorway – with the focus on integrated journeys central to the recommended network approach.

The estimated cost of building the additional rail stations, rapid bus routes and cycle corridors recommended by the Commission is between £590 and £840 million, approximately half the price of the original M4 scheme. However, who would pay for which element of these works, and when, is unclear.

The Welsh Government welcomed the report but said it would require the UK Government to "play its part" in funding rail works, though last month Prime Minister Boris Johnson reignited a row with the Welsh Government suggesting that he would find a way to restart the abandoned M4 scheme.

The recommended changes to the rail network include creating a new South East Wales "rail backbone"by significantly increasing the capacity and flexibility of the South Wales Main Line, and transforming access to the rail network by increasing the number of stations between Cardiff and the River Severn from three to nine.

Answering questions at the launch of the report yesterday, Lord Burns conceded that “anything involving rail always takes a long time to achieve”, but suggested that other recommendations, such as the creation of new rapid bus and commuter cycle corridors across Cardiff and Newport, could be possible within five years. He cautioned, however, that: “This is a network – you’ve got to take this as a whole. Individual interventions don’t work.”

In addition to providing alternative options, the report also recommended action to change people’s preferences, with the introduction of a workplace parking levy.

Responding to the report, Cycling UK’s engagement officer in Wales Gwenda Owen said:

“Too often people jump in their car automatically because they don’t think there’s an attractive, efficient alternative.

"Of course, not every journey in South East Wales can conveniently be cycled, but the Commission’s recommendations to integrate rail, rapid bus networks and separated cycle lanes whilst making it easier for people to combine public transport and active travel, are music to my ears.

"But vision and ambition aren’t enough, so we now need to hear whether, and if so how and when, the Welsh Government plans to implement these recommendations.”