I have been following the progress with the East West Rail project with interest. I was particularly pleased with the announcement of £1 billion funding in the Budget on 22 November last year. This is in addition to £100 million announced in the November 2016 budget. And approximately £45 million raised by local authorities along the route.
In January Network Rail held a third round of public consultations on Phase 2 of East West Rail (EWR2) – the project to reopen the line between Bicester and Aylesbury to Bletchley, Milton Keynes and Bedford. I knew that electrification had been cancelled previously; one of the main reasons being due to delays with the Great Western electrification scheme. This meant, for want of a better phrase, potentially there not being anywhere to plug the wires into at Oxford when EWR2 is completed.
However, the railway has been planning for future electrification for more than 50 years, even where there was no prospect of electrification. When the M40 was constructed, the bridge over the railway near Wendlebury was built with sufficient clearance. The branch line from Oxford had only recently reopened to passengers with an experimental service only 6 or 7 trains each way. That foresight meant there was no need to rebuild the bridge when the line was opened through to Marylebone in 2015. Imagine the cost of the disruption saved!
At the consultation I was told that the bridge carrying Bicester Road over the railway in Launton is not now being rebuilt. This is one of six on the route which will have insufficient clearance for 25kV overhead wires and which will present an obvious barrier to future electrification.
Big boxes, but no wires
It strikes me as a particularly crazy and short-sighted decision. The line is still being rebuilt for freight with increased clearance for the largest containers. Is it really that difficult to include the necessary clearance for overhead wires at the same time?
What is even more ridiculous is that, rather than saving money, it has actually cost more. The need to have a further round of consultation about new plans, delays to applying for legal consents and the need to redo environmental assessments has meant more cost for less benefit. It means diesel trains being used for the foreseeable future. According to the Rail Minister Jo Johnson speaking on 12 February, the Government wants all diesel-only trains gone by 2040. Yet the Department for Transport is cancelling electrification. On 6 March the Oxford Mail reported that “East West Rail and Expressway to Cambridge will increase pollution” referring to the decision to continue with diesel trains for the foreseeable future.
Lack of Vision
This is not the only short-sighted decision that we will regret – we have come to regret the line being closed 50 years ago and in Bicester particularly, the lack of a suitable solution for London Road level crossing.
Before the line was rebuilt and the service via Bicester Village to Marylebone began in 2015, both the planning and highways authorities were persuaded by Bicester Village that the new rail link would reduce traffic. Anyone living locally knew four trains an hour across the level crossing would increase congestion (let alone 10 tph or more we are likely to have from 2023. Before 2014 there were only 10 trains per week!
Residents feel they are not being listened to. A bridge or tunnel would allow the level crossing to be closed but still provide a permanent route into the town from the south.
Barely three weeks ago on 17 February, an accident at Barns Green level crossing near Horsham, West Sussex killed two people. They were struck by the third train of four to use that crossing in a short space of time. I mentioned this as a timely reminder that level crossings are the single largest risk to life on the railway. London Road will be only level crossing on the route from Oxford to Bletchley. It has been assessed and deemed safe and suitable for the proposed service that will run when EWR2 is completed.
More trains, more traffic, more people means more risk
It is safe – if used correctly. But we all know that with increases in road and rail traffic (and the longer trains that will be needed with vast new housing developments along the line) our level crossing will be closed for longer. It will increase congestion further.
More people will use the crossing. Consequently the risks will increase. Inevitably increasing in future to a point where the overall risk will no longer be acceptable. Residents fear it will result in closure of the crossing on safety grounds. But without a suitable alternative route for vehicles and pedestrians into town, not just Langford Village but the new developments at Graven Hill and Wretchwick Green face being cut off from the town centre. It does nothing for our ‘Healthy New Town’ credentials.
A solution for London Road level crossing is needed now. It needs to be completed before 2023 when EWR2 opens. The £60+ million estimated cost is considerably more than it would have been before 2015. But if it is delayed the cost will sky-rocket further; it really cannot wait any longer.
How much money does EWR need?
The £1.1 billion or so available for EWR2 is enough money – not just to rebuild the railway from Bicester and Aylesbury to Milton Keynes and Bedford – but enough to complete electrification as originally planned; to provide a permanent solution for London Road; and to rebuild Oxford station as well. This is presumably what the National Infrastructure Commission had in mind in their specifications for the “high quality commuter railway” that East West Rail should be. All of these are required if East West Rail is to be a success and all should be funded.
Nobody seems to want to answer how much East West Rail is costing. The Oxford Mail reported last week the project will cost about £520 million. What exactly is the £1 billion promised by the Chancellor on 22 November 2017 going to be spent on?
This DfT ‘penny pinching’ will end up costing the taxpayer more for less benefit, particularly in the context of the stated aims of eliminating diesel cars and diesel-only trains. The railway has been planning for the future; why is the DfT being so short-sighted?