Can Porthcawl be reconnected to rail?

                                       (Pic: porthcawlandthegreatwar.com)

Tourist season is coming, and thousands of people from near and far will soon begin descending on the south Wales coast to take advantage of any sunny days we’ll have. In Porthcawl’s case it’s almost certain most of them will arrive by car.

Porthcawl remains one of the largest towns in Wales without a rail connection. Blackwood in Caerphilly county would probably be the winner, while there are plenty of others to mention like Mold, Caernarfon, Llangefni, Abertillery, Pontardawe, Cardigan and Monmouth.

Plans to re-establish rail links to Llangefni, Caernarfon and Abertillery are at various stages of development or have at least been discussed formally, ditto the potential re-opening of the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth line (Making tracks in west Wales). Mold would be relatively easy to do as well.

When it comes to Porthcawl, however, while re-establishing a rail link has been mentioned on-off since the branch line closed in 1965, there’s never been any serious attempt at getting it off the ground. That’s not surprising as most of the former branch line has disappeared under the M4, Grove Golf Club, the South Cornelly bypass and the A4106 dual carriageway in Porthcawl itself.

The reason why I’m doing this now is because Porthcawl is included as part of the Metro project in south Wales, with the map showing a fixed connection between Bridgend and the town.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be a rail link; I think the most likely outcome will be a bus rapid transit route to and from Bridgend and on to Cardiff (via the A48) as an enhanced X1 service.

A word of warning : I’m no engineer so most of this is back of a fag packet stuff and there could be nasty surprises I hadn’t considered. Also, this has to be read on the assumption there there was an unlimited pot of money which meant a fixed rail connection could be put forward as a serious option….

Things to Consider

Where to connect? – AFAIK the old branch junction faced Swansea. I’d imagine this time most passengers from Porthcawl would want to go to Cardiff or Bridgend. Of course there’s no reason why you couldn’t do both somehow.

Service patterns – The south Wales mainline is already overcrowded so trying to fit in a Porthcawl service would be tricky, particularly between Bridgend and Cardiff. Any journey between Bridgend and Porthcawl would probably take 7 or 8 minutes. Would it be a shuttle between the two towns? Or a redirection of an existing service?

Potential passenger numbers – I’m under no doubt that a Porthcawl station would be well-used from the start by locals alone. There’s a definite tourist market and you sometimes hear people ask at Bridgend station if there’s a rail service to Porthcawl – imagine their disappointment when they’re told to trudge down Station Hill to get a bus or a very expensive taxi journey.

How much are locals willing to sacrifice?
– Some of the potential route options could cause ructions in Porthcawl and further afield. For example, if you wanted to build a station as close as possible to the old one, Porthcawl would probably have to sacrifice the northbound carriageway of the A4106 and reduce it to single carriageway. There would be demolitions and CPOs galore as well as the prospect of a rail line crossing through environmentally-sensitive sites.

Construction costs – As many of the possible options involve completely new alignments, the cost of building would be significantly more than simply reopening a disused line. I’m going to base the costings on the Borders railway in Scotland, which was built for about £5.2million per km. When you add a standard 15% contingency to that, it rises to £6million per km.

Possible Options

Option 1: Rebuild part of the Original Route

  • 4.8km to Nottage/Park and Ride; 5.8km to town centre
  • Potential cost : £28.8-34.8million.
  • Two proposed stations:
    • Pyle South/Pyle “Platform 3” – with a foot connection to services to Swansea and west Wales at the existing Pyle station.
    • Porthcawl – either as a “park and ride” station near Nottage or located in the town centre near the old station.
  • The town centre option would require reducing the A4106 to a single carriageway.
  • It requires a major crossing of the M4 – whether over or under. This could prove disruptive.
  • Most of the former alignment through South Cornelly has been build on, so the line would probably have to be fitted in alongside the bypass.
  • It would cross Grove Golf Club and Danygraig Holiday Park, which would either require significant compensation or possibly even complete relocation. A “cut-and-cover”tunnel (similar to the one in Llanelli) could be constructed through the golf course but it would add to overall construction costs.


Option 2: A new route via Stormy Down


  • 6.3km to Nottage/Park and Ride; 7.3km to town centre
  • Potential cost : £37.8-43.8million.
  • As option one, only one proposed station at Porthcawl – either as a “park and ride” near Nottage or in the town centre near the old station.
  • The town centre option would require reducing the A4106 to a single carriageway.
  • It passes through land protected for minerals extraction in Bridgend’s Local Development Plan.
  • The quarry workings require a major viaduct to be constructed at its narrowest point, while due to a change in gradient, major earthworks (i.e. embankments and cuttings) would also be needed.
  • Crosses a site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) near Stormy Down.
  • Would probably enable the highest line speeds, but people wanting to connect to Swansea services would have to change/double back on themselves at Bridgend.

Option 3: Eastern approach via the Vale of Glamorgan Line

 
  • Variant (a) – via Merthyr Mawr : 7.9km in length; potential cost £47.4million.
  • Variant (b) – via Tythegston : 8.7km in length; potential cost £52.2million.
  • Variant (c) – passing to the north of Porthcawl, with possible future extension westwards : 7.8km via Tythegston (£46.8million); 7.5km via Merthyr Mawr (£45million).

  • All of these options would require major earthworks and that probably add another £10million to the estimated construction costs.
  • A station would be provided for Porthcawl either near Sandy Bay (regeneration site), or a “park and ride” to the north of the town near Zig Zag Lane.
  • Crosses through Merthyr Mawr near the “dipping bridge” which would provoke serious outrage from conservationists; similarly, the line would pass through the edge of the Merthyr Mawr sand dunes.
  • A Sandy Bay station would probably require numerous demolitions of properties along the route in Newton, as well as the acquisition of part of the Trecco Bay holiday park.
  • If a double junction were provided near Island Farm it would enable direct services to both Cardiff (via the Vale) and Swansea/west Wales (via Bridgend).
  • An extension westwards to link up with the South Wales mainline would provide an additional diversionary route and enhance freight capacity, possibly leading to a major freight facility being provided at Port Talbot or Bridgend.


Which option would be best?

Probably a new route via Stormy Down. It’s the least contentious in terms of what it crosses – apart from a difficult to reach SSSI and the South Cornelly quarries – would probably offer the fastest journey time and would probably be the easiest to build in the shortest timescale.

In terms of broader considerations – like the potential of creating an additional diversionary route between Port Talbot and Bridgend – then a line from Island Farm to the north of Porthcawl would be better.

Either way, it’s not going to happen as a bus rapid transit route would be easier to build and less controversial. Nevertheless it can’t hurt to put a few more options on the table.

Owen