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Winning public confidence in Welsh rail – an interview with Network Rail’s Bill Kelly

6 min

Following a landmark near £350m of investment to beef up the nation’s railways, Network Rail’s route director for Wales and Borders, Bill Kelly, is excited to restore public confidence in transport. Quadrant Transport finds out more

While the fall in passenger numbers may have been an understandable disappointment for rail planners along the Welsh network, the sudden relief to pressures on lines around the country provided Bill Kelly and the Network Rail team with an opportunity to be agile.

“Instead [of passengers], we’re moving a lot of freight – much more freight than we’ve done previously, so it’s been essential for us to keep the railway running in that sense,” Bill Kelly, route director at Wales and Borders for Network Rail, tells Quadrant Transport.

I guess in terms of looking forward, we have used the opportunity to review some of the work banks, just being able to think about all of the work we could possibly do

“I guess in terms of looking forward, we have used the opportunity to review some of the work banks, just being able to think about all of the work we could possibly do. Because the network is not as busy, we have used that as an opportunity to bring some work forward, and complete some maintenance and enhancements ahead of schedule.”

Looking forward, Bill continues, the next year will be very much defined by how the pandemic rolls out in the coming weeks. As cases rise and a potential ‘second wave’ of infections could hit Wales and the wider UK, an increase in regionalised lockdowns and a discouragement to use public transport could present another opportunity to work on renewals and enhancement projects for when passenger numbers start to grow once again.

Bill Kelly, Wales and Borders director, Network Rail

“Do we go into a second lockdown? If so what impact does that have on the industry? What impact does that have on passenger numbers? I think those things are still very much unknown, and so our plans are the continue doing what we would have done next year, again looking for opportunities where we can be a bit more efficient and a bit more effective with the time, if we’re not as busy as we ordinarily would be,” Bill said.

Bill Kelly will be speaking during next week’s Wales Transport Week, on 28 September – 1 October. Click here to register!

Enhancing the network – digitally and structurally

Although in the short-term renewals and maintenance works have grown in the vacuum left by scaled-back passenger services, the multi-year vision for the future of Welsh rail was further built on in July when almost £350m in government funding was committed to projects around the Welsh rail networks – including £3m committed to the continued digitisation and rollout of the European Train Control System (ETCS) on the Cambrian rail line.

Quadrant Transport interviewed Toufic Machnouk, head of the ETCS rollout on the East Coast Main Line, prior to August’s Innovation in Signalling online webinar. Toufic highlighted that whilst a digital network might not directly correlate to increased capacity on the network, greater efficiency brought about by the smart ‘sat-nav’ style in-cab driving system can reduce log-jams, allow more services to be directed to higher-demand areas in real time, increasing agility and the like.

“I would endorse what he’s saying,” Bill Kelly agreed. “This is the thing about new technologies, is it’s developing all of the time.

“Any opportunity to embrace that and look for opportunities to deploy that across your network does two things: one, I think it makes your services more efficient and more effective in terms of current services. The second is it gives you an opportunity to identify where you might be able to increase capacity, the route to be able to do that, and to meet the passenger needs.

“So I think there’s a huge opportunity for us, not just on the Cambrian, but across the whole of Wales in the coming months and years; particularly for how we develop that technology and deploy it across the route.”

Kelly added that he recently spoke to James Price, chief executive of Transport for Wales, who agreed that “any opportunity” to embrace the wider capabilities of ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) has to be a good thing and is something to be explored.

Cardiff Central station, c. I loves the ‘Diff, Flickr

And, on the nuts and bolts side of upcoming projects, a fleet of exciting improvements has been committed to industry, including: £5.8m to Cardiff Central station; £2m to the next phase of development work on service improvements between Cardiff and Swansea, Chester and Llandudno Junction, and the Severn Tunnel and Cardiff; including the exploring of additional services on the lines.

So I think there’s a huge opportunity for us, not just on the Cambrian, but across the whole of Wales in the coming months and years

Bill explained: “When we look at enhancements and to improve essential service times, that’s primarily about improving the performance of the track.

“Therefore we will do what we can to try to implement that. And anything to do with enhancing track speed – particularly between Cardiff and Swansea, which has always been quite topical in that regard – the commute time from Swansea to Cardiff, and Cardiff to London, has always been topical. Anything you can do in that space to improve journey times is always going to be well-received.

“It’s always been something that’s been on our radar, and I think it’s fair to say that we’re going to give it even more focus in the coming months and years to make sure we get the best possible outcome for passengers.”

Future investments – and making 2021 a success

During Quadrant Transport’s interview with CECA’s Ed Evans earlier this month, the CECA Wales secretary said building back from the pandemic could help realign funding for projects all around Wales – and away from a Cardiff-centric draw of infrastructure spending,

Bill noted that nationally, Wales’ investment funding received in CP6 was “the highest we’ve ever had put into the network.

Success for me is about running a safe, efficient railway

“And if you look at some of the projects involved in that, you look at electrification work all the way through to Cardiff. The Metro in terms of investment there through TfW and Welsh Government; but there’s a whole host of projects ongoing on with CP6, which will be a significant spend – and as I said, as a record-breaking amount of funds.

“Certainly from people that have worked in the industry for many many years have said that is a record-breaking investment for CP6.”

What does success look like for Bill and his team in 2021? For the Wales and Borders route director success is confidence – in passengers coming back, and projects being delivered: “Success for me is our trains running on time every time. Success for me is passengers coming back to the railways with confidence; it’s incumbent on us as an industry to encourage passengers, and to build the trust to come back and use this fantastic network.

“Success for me will be delivering all of the project we’ve said we’re going to deliver, on-time and on-budget, and we absolutely intend to do that. Most of all, success for me is about running a safe, efficient railway.”