Whilst progress on Phase 2 of East West Rail from Bicester and Aylesbury to Milton Keynes and Bedford should be good news for Bicester, it will come with a sting in the tail. The plans notably ignore the impact on London Road level crossing (but this is not a surprise since it was previously discussed as part of Chiltern Railways’ Evergreen 3 project).
There was a Public Inquiry in into that scheme in late 2010. The Inspector, in his report on the Inquiry, dismissed closing the London Road crossing without replacement because…
London Road is the only route out of Bicester to the south and the resulting diversion would be at least 2 km long and on roads not suited to accept additional traffic. Options for a bridge over the railway were explored but dismissed due to lack of space without causing major disruption.
The solution, as we know, was to retain a level crossing with updated and upgraded CCTV control equipment which is monitored from Marylebone.
The traffic delays due to 4 trains per hour crossing London Road (in 2016 and 2026) were modelled for Chiltern Railways in 2010. The model assumed a typical 2 minute crossing closure time for each passenger train – 8 minutes each hour. The effect of East West Rail (in 2026) assumed 8tph resulting in 16 minutes closure each hour (20 minutes with additional 2tph freight).
In my experience currently the level crossing barriers are down for maybe 14 minutes in each hour. The closure time varies: 2-3 mins for a train to Marylebone is typical or Oxford-bound 4-5 minutes was normal. Oxford-bound has been reduced slightly following some signalling modifications. Under 4 minutes delay is now possible. I have never experienced the level crossing being closed for only 2 minutes for a train in either direction though!
The average closure time may well increase further when you run more trains. Recently I was held up on two occasions for 2 trains – 1 each way – and each time I saw the full closure sequence. The first occasion when the Oxford-bound train arrived first I was delayed for 7½ minutes in total, although the first train had cleared the crossing within 4 minutes. On the second occasion the London-bound train passed first and I was delayed for 5½ minutes.
More trains means the gap between trains inevitably becomes smaller but the signaller will not want to annoy people further by only opening the barriers say for just 1 minute before closing them again. Barriers will simply stay closed for multiple trains.
I suspect 40 or even 45 minutes closure each hour may now be on the cards post 2023; especially if you factor in freight. There will be at least 3x as many trains, including freight. Some will run to/from Bicester MoD depot sidings if only to reverse – the diverted refuse trains (4 trains daily run to/from the Greatmoor incinerator near Calvert via Aylesbury) which will have to come via Bicester instead when the Aylesbury route is shut for rebuilding. This alone translates to 16 relatively long slow trains over the crossing daily!! And longer, slower trains take more time to cross.
The average journey time along London Road (between Market Square and Rodney House roundabout) increased by up to 32 seconds as a result of the Chiltern scheme. Even with East West Rail (worst case – assuming 3 minute closure per train) the model predicted only a 60 second delay!
The maximum vehicle queue length was also assessed in the model – the longest was 39 vehicles southbound in the evening peak (1700-1800) under the worst case condition. Curiously adding in the EWR2 effect shortened the queue to 37 vehicles! Often the queue from the level crossing at peak times extends back beyond Market Square and also along Launton Road currently – effectively causing gridlock.
Other objectors had suggested that the delays at the level crossing would be unacceptable. However, the inspector noted delays of the scale indicated by the model were usual for driving at peak times did not cause serious consequences. The possibility of providing a road bridge over the railway in London Road was considered by Chiltern Railways but rejected because:
- None of the options provided an entirely satisfactory solution;
- All had considerable adverse property impacts; and,
- The land and property costs involved in acquisition of land and demolition of existing properties could not be justified.
No reasoned case was put to counter that view. The local highway authority raised no objection to the scheme proposal.
In respect of the modelling:
Neither the method nor the findings were the subject of reasoned challenge
The inspector concluded…
I find that the Scheme proposal would be acceptable in respect of its effect on traffic flows in London Road Bicester.
I note too the unchallenged finding that the modelled difference in road network performance in Bicester generally that the Scheme would cause would be negligible. There is therefore no need to pursue alternative highway arrangements.
At the Inquiry the inspector seemed surprised that there were no objections from the highway authority – Oxfordshire County Council. Given the evidence presented I could not disagree with the conclusions.
There will be a Public Inquiry into East West Rail Phase 2 – likely in March/April 2019. Although London Road level crossing was outside the scope of recent consultation, local residents will be represented at that Inquiry. They will make the case that a solution to the crossing conundrum needs to be progressed urgently, funded and implemented by 2023, before the line opens through to Bletchley, Milton Keynes and Bedford.