A recent Guardian piece on Welsh nationalism highlights the fact that the only major road linking south Wales and north Wales is the single-carriageway A470, “slowed to a crawl by tractors and hay wagons“, and touches on the complete lack of a north-south railway link within Wales.
In fact, there never has been a north-south main-line railway within Wales. It’s true that up to the 1960s it used to be possible to travel across Wales without passing through England, but those north-south lines were really little more than a network of local routes. What little long-distance traffic they did carry was mainly between regions of Wales and north-west England. All of them were winding single-track affairs unsuitable for high speeds or heavy traffic, not that there was much volume of traffic to start with. It was little surprise that the lines linking Afon Wen to Bangor, Carmarthen to Aberystwyth, and the meandering route from Merthyr to Moat Lane all succumbed to the Beeching axe. The only reason the Central Wales Line didn’t join them was that it ran through too many marginal constituencies.
There have been suggestions for reopening the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line, so that it would be possible to get from Cardiff to Aberystwyth without having to pass through England. But would that journey actually be any quicker than the existing route via Shrewsbury?
A more outlandish suggestion in the comments was for an “east border” line route running along the Welsh side of the border. This would be little more than a pointless duplication of the existing Welsh Marches line that runs along the English side of the border via Hereford, Ludlow and Shrewsbury, a line that as far as rail franchises go is treated as part of the Welsh network anyway. There is no economic point building a second, parallel line just a few miles further west for purely political reasons. It would be an equivalent of the Wutachtalbahn in Germany, built for military reasons purely to avoid passing through Swiss territory.
The best way to improve rail links between north and south Wales would be to upgrade the Welsh Marches line to allow higher speeds and increased capacity. It’s just that some people might balk at spending money on infrastructure in England even if it’s for the benefit of Wales.
The truth is that Wales exists as a nation culturally, but doesn’t really function as nation economically. With half the Welsh population living close to the English border, much of Wales has far closer economic ties with neighbouring English regions than with distant parts of Wales, and transport links reflect this. Pragmatic Welsh nationalism needs to accept this reality, and abandon pipe-dreams about ambitious north-south transport links that make no economic sense and will prove to be little more than costly white elephants.