When nostalgia doesn’t quite pay off
One of the tell-tale signs that an office clear-out is overdue is when you can’t turn around in your chair without knocking something over.
That was the situation the other day – and it’s how an old feasibility study quite literally fell into my lap.
As is widely known, the Mumbles Train, the world’s first recorded rail passenger service took its last lamented journey sixty years ago.
There have been recriminations ever since about that decision. Many of these get aimed at the local authority although it was actually private owner-operators, South Wales Transport Ltd, who closed it down.
Anyway, back in 2008, our outfit was jointly commissioned to help in some research into a possible reduced-scale ride. This would be on a single track using two linked carriages and run between Oystermouth Square and Mumbles Pier.
If you’ve ever visited a place called Seaton Tramway in Devon on your travels then you’ll have a ready idea of what I mean. If not, then please bear with me.
Basically, the brief was to assess how much of the former route was still usable – which turned out to be very little – and whether extending the seawall out into the bay was a viable solution.
Although a large number of folks, including those who weren’t born before its demise, insist that bringing back the Mumbles Train is a no-brainer, we quickly found the practical reality was a tricky proposition.
First, the estimated cash resources needed to build out the seawall, lay track, install overhead power cables and buy new rolling stock came out as £9.5 million or thereabouts. That’s without probable compensation claims for noise & nuisance and compulsory purchase costs.
Remember, these are prices from over a decade ago. You could probably more than double that figure today; and we’re just talking about a section amounting to some 15% of the former route.
OK, it’s only money but the associated market research on annual visitor numbers didn’t bring good news either. Indeed, none of the commercial scenarios produced anything like a reasonable return.
The team concluded that it would only be possible to get the necessary borrowing in place if the deal included a very significant public subsidy from the outset.
Another downside is that mandatory safety fencing would create a new physical barrier between the promenade and the sea. A quick polling exercise came back with markedly negative public reaction.
My take on things at the time – and now - is that while this kind of project is technically achievable, it’s unlikely to result in either the level or the kind of benefits that popular opinion expects. This is equally the case for a small stretch or the entire line.
What we need to remember is that the Mumbles Train hey-day happened at a time when transport options were a lot more limited and total UK car ownership numbered less than half a million. Today the figure is 38 million and reversing that trend will need more than re-instatement of a seasonal attraction.
That’s not to say that I’ve written off the idea entirely. I’m hoping that the next stage of the Swansea Metro project will move things in the right direction in terms of re-establishing rail as our preferred means of local transport.
In the meantime, I’m keen to meet up again with the guys who took me on an impressive virtual reality ride around the city a while back. Clever use of historical footage could yet bring back some Mumbles Train memories.
If anyone has a feasibility study in mind, I’ll be tidying up the office.