First and foremost, it’s worth noting that powers over transport are devolved to the Welsh Assembly. The government of Wales act 2006 gave the Welsh Assembly the power over Welsh public and local transport systems. This means that the policies discussed in Plaid’s transport manifesto will be chiefly relevant to Welsh voters at next year’s National Assembly elections, rather than voters at this year’s general election.
There is no evidence in this manifesto regarding how the various schemes proposed are to be funded. Much of the transport policy is a recycling of old ideas; for example, the public ownership of the railways, a fuel duty regulator, and rail electrification. Some of this – rail electrification, for instance – is already going ahead, but these are expensive and complex infrastructure projects which cannot occur overnight, nor even within a five-year term in government.
New routes for rail, buses, and planes
The reopening of railway lines, which Plaid advocates, is also a major long-term project. Even if the route has not been built over, ownership of the land may have transferred into private hands. On top of this, such schemes will have as many opponents as proponents; consider the current controversy over HS2 in the North of England.
Plaid makes no mention of the potential role of light rapid transit, such as trams, guided busways, or bus rapid transit in the proposed South Wales Metro. These could all complement heavy rail routes and could be much cheaper and quicker to construct.
The party talks of retaining free bus passes, but do not say if they will pay a fair reimbursement rate to encourage operators to retain or expand the commercial bus network. The retention of early morning and late evening bus services is to be welcomed, and should be expanded to include Sunday services. The Bwcabus proposal – which aims to expand the Welsh government’s door-to-door bus service – is also to be applauded, but it must be well-funded to succeed. Such funding should be continuous and not time limited. Plaid’s proposal for a multi-modal Smartcard – like London’s Oyster card – is both desirable and achievable.
The current options for “London Airport Expansion” appear to have ruled out a new airport in the Thames Estuary, as Plaid says it will not support a new airport to the east of London. If Plaid is supporting expansion of Heathrow (the nearest option to South Wales with direct motorway and rail access), then it should be explicit about this.
Fuel rebates for rural areas
A fuel duty regulator, a position Plaid would like to instate, would have prevented motorists from enjoying the recent benefits of lower crude oil prices, as it would have increased the fuel duty. Most former proponents of this scheme such as the Scottish Conservatives have now gone very quiet. The “Deep Rural” fuel duty rebate scheme, which Plaid want to introduce in Wales, is expensive to administer and delivers small benefits to very few people.
Many rural motorists fill their tanks when they visit nearby towns especially if there is a petrol station at the supermarket. It would be better to exempt rural petrol retailers from business rates, to encourage them to remain in business and so keep a modicum of competition in the rural petrol and diesel retail market. This, together with better availability of fuel in rural areas, would benefit both local residents and tourists.
Plaid’s plan to encourage more electric vehicles by increasing the number of charging points has potential in urban South East Wales. But in other parts of the nation, “range anxiety” is likely to be a limiting factor, especially since an electric vehicle’s range is also affected by the extra power needed to climb steep hills, like those found throughout inland Mid- and North Wales.
The argument for the Welsh Transport Commissioner (a reference to the Traffic Commissioner) to be based in Wales is a valid one. At present the commissioner – who is also responsible for the West Midlands – is based in England, something Plaid would like to change.