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Railwatch 084 - June 2000

By Michael Weinberg

The case for the East-West rail link

The case for the East-West rail link was spelled out for the Government in detail by Phyllis Starkey, Labour MP for Milton Keynes, in March.She spoke as the chair of a parliamentary group that contains 30 Conservative and Labour MPs representing constituencies along the route.

Dr Starkey said: "The re-opened East-West rail link would be a critical and strategic addition to the national rail network.It would be crucial to relieving congestion on both the road and rail networks. It would encourage sustainable economic regeneration.

"It would be widely supported and it could be delivered quickly and would be excellent value for money."

However Government action was needed now in order to progress the scheme, she stressed.She emphasised the links the line would create with other main lines and important towns along the route, relieving rail and road congestion in the whole south-eastern part of the country, by providing an orbital route round London for both passenger and freight traffic.

"The cross-country road alternatives are not particularly good and anyone who has used them knows that.The A420 from Oxford to Swindon is known as the road of death because of its record of road traffic accidents.

Growth triangle

"Many town centres are heavily congested, so journey times from town centre to town centre are much higher. A direct East-West link is an attractive alternative.?

She referred to the major sustainable growth area in the Milton Keynes, Northampton Bedford triangle which together with the heavy development pressures in Cambridge and Norwich would require direct rail links if the plans were to be activated successfully. "It would serve an estimated additional 400,000 new homes along the route."

Dr Starkey touched on the optimistic feasibility studies which have been carried out and the economic benefits of the scheme estimated to be of the order of £80 million.The East-West link was vital for the regeneration of Bletchley. It is also a crucial element in the local authorities' transport plans.

"It has been endorsed as a priority project in draft regional planning guidance for the south-east and east of England planning organisations.

Upgrade needed

"It has also been incorporated in the strategic plans of the new regional development agencies for the south-east and east of England, both of which have now become members of the consortium pushing the route and are keen to be involved in partnership promotion."

Going on to the technicalities of the scheme, "the Bedford to Oxford section, with the Aylesbury link, can be delivered quickly. The trackbed already exists and simply needs upgrading to allow travel up to 75mph."

She said: "The existing Bedford to Bletchley route is hardly any faster than it was 150 years ago. With increased speed, it would become a much more attractive alternative.No statutory powers would be required to open this section, so there is no need for a process under the Transport and Works Act 1992 or a public inquiry. The western end of the project has pre-qualified for the rail partnership fund, which is administered by the shadow Strategic Rail Authority."

She mentioned the heated debate in Bedford about the inner and outer routes and said: "There is general support in Bedford for the inner route, serving the town centre. However, that will require a process under the Transport and Works Act 1992 because of the need to fill in the gap."

Several train operators were interested in running services along the route causing some confusion about the appropriate funding mechanism.

"Originally, the local authority consortium was advised by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising that it should pursue funding on its own, without the involvement of a train operating company.It is now being advised by the shadow Strategic Rail Authority that such involvement is fundamental to a successful bid. At the same time, the franchise replacement process has added complexity to the issue.

"The Government, and to a lesser extent the rail passenger partnership, have created the mechanisms of franchise replacement to persuade the private sector to invest in the national rail network.The East-West route provides an excellent opportunity, with a number of private train companies seriously interested in putting their money into the system.

Action now

"However, the window of opportunity is very small. Once the franchises have been re-let, there may be no further opportunity for 10 years. The councils and MPs who support the route cannot afford to let that opportunity to benefit the people and the communities that they represent, slip through their fingers.

"The East-West route is in line with Government transport policies and priorities and with their planning priorities. It could be an early demonstration of the benefits of that policy, but the Government must ensure that it goes ahead." Dr Starkey concluded by making four requests of the Government: "Firstly, I ask the Government to recognise the local, regional and national benefits of the East-West rail link.

"Secondly, I ask them to support the consortium's initiative in seeking to work in partnership with the private sector to develop major rail infrastructure schemes.Thirdly and most crucially, I ask the Government to instruct the shadow Strategic Rail Authority and the train operating companies to deliver the East-West route in consultation with the consortium, which includes Railtrack, via the franchise replacement programme, or a combination of franchise replacement and the rail passenger partnership, with a commitment from the shadow Strategic Rail Authority and the train operating companies that the west end of the route will be operational in three years and the complete scheme in five years.

Land sales

"Fourthly, I understand that Rail Property Ltd is trying to sell some of the sites that are essential to the reopening of the route, especially land near Bedford St John?s station. I ask the Minister to instruct Rail Property Ltd to suspend its efforts in marketing those sites until the East-West route has been reopened."

Junior transport minister Beverley Hughes said: "It is important that a clear business case is made for such a large and expensive proposal before it is considered for public funding. I understand that the funding gap for the total project would be about ?£70million .She suggested a phased approach might be a way forward.

The Government was supporting investment proposals that produce wider significant benefits for both integration and modal shift. through the rail passenger partnership scheme, where bids are assessed on five key criteria. (The RPP funds amount to £100 million for the whole country for three years! Not enough).

The minister announced that a bid had been received under the scheme to reopen the Bicester-Bletchley section.

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