East West Rail Link
|Proposer||East West Rail Consortium|
|Website||East West Rail Consortium|
|Cost estimate||£270 million (Oxford/Aylesbury – Bedford)
£530 million (whole route)
|Completion date||2024 (Oxford – Bedford)|
East West Rail Link
East West Rail Link is a planned railway route linking Didcot, Oxford, Bicester, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Cambridge, Ipswich and Norwich in England using part of the former Varsity Line (and thus provide a route between any or all of the Great Western, Chiltern, West Coast, Midland, East Coast, West Anglia and Great Eastern main lines, avoiding London). The western section from Oxford to Bedford was approved by the Government in November 2011, with completion of this section expected[a] by 2025. Although most media attention is focussed on passenger services, the route is expected to be just as important for freight.
The plan is divided into three sections:
- "Western section" from Oxford to Bedford on existing lines, including the mothballed section between Bletchley and Claydon Junction; the scope of this section originally included a branch line to Aylesbury;
- "Central section" from Bedford to Cambridge using some existing lines together with a new section;
- "Eastern section" from Cambridge to Norwich, Felixstowe and Ipswich on existing lines.
It was initially promoted by the East-West Rail Consortium, a consortium of local authorities and interested bodies along the route and has since been adopted by the Department for Transport and will be delivered by Network Rail and a private sector franchisee.
The link is promoted by the East West Rail Consortium, which was initiated by Ipswich Borough Council in 1995 and has since been chaired by both Buckinghamshire County Council and Oxfordshire County Council. Ipswich Council and its neighbours were particularly concerned about poor services within East Anglia and the links to London. Some success was achieved east of Cambridge, at least partly through the efforts of the group.
In May 2006 the Department of Transport announced specific plans for Bletchley railway station. The document stated that "it is likely" that Bletchley area renewals and network simplification will take place "by 2010", "to include a high-level platform" for Bedford trains. "The network will be suitable for the later addition of any 'East-West' link to and from Oxford and for the operation of through links from either Oxford or Bedford to and from Milton Keynes".
In March 2007, a study (funded by the East West Rail Consortium) declared at p. 38, 5.1 A very good operating and business case exists for [a "base case" for a] 2 trains per hour passenger service between Oxford and Milton Keynes, and an operating case also exists for the Aylesbury spur which would bring further economic and strategic advantages to the subregion. Capital cost for the base case is between £100m – £135m. The base case and the Aylesbury options should be further considered in the next phase of work.
In April 2008, the Department for Transport responded to an e-petition for support on East West Rail by reiterating that they would encourage private funding.
In the 2011 Autumn Statement by Chancellor George Osborne, the East West railway between Oxford, Aylesbury Vale Parkway and Bedford was adopted by the Department for Transport, and £270 million was committed to the scheme to fund its development. This was confirmed in July 2012 when the Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening, announced that the Western section of East West Rail (EWR) would be part of the government's strategy for rail transport.
Phase 1 – Western Section
The western section will link Oxford and Bedford via Bletchley, with connections to the West Coast Main Line and the Midland Main Line. It will use the Oxford to Bicester Line, a renovated section of the Varsity Line from Bicester to Bletchley, and finally the Marston Vale Line from Bletchey to Bedford. The existing Cherwell Valley Line will form a link to the Great Western Main Line at Didcot Parkway railway station. Passenger services to Milton Keynes Central (via the WCML) and Aylesbury (via the existing freight line from Claydon Junction) were also planned.
The first part of this work, re-doubling the Oxford to Bicester Line and reconnecting it to the Chiltern Main Line, was largely in completed in 2015 (and fully operational from December 2016); the remaining work from Bicester (and Aylesbury) to Bedford has been greatly delayed, and is scheduled for completion in 2024.
In February 2008 the consortium published a business case for re-opening the western section of the route funded by Milton Keynes Partnership (MKP), South East England Regional Assembly, South East England Development Agency and the consortium.
In March 2008, a £2 million engineering survey of the existing and removed tracks was launched, and those undertaking the engineering survey stated that a 100 mph (160 km/h) link between Oxford and Bletchley could be achieved for around £190 million. If construction had started in 2009 as they then hoped, the upgraded / re-opened line could have been in service by 2012.
In November 2008 the Milton Keynes Partnership, Chiltern Railways and the consortium formally agreed to take their proposals forward together. Chiltern Railways would take the lead on the upgrading of the Oxford-Bicester section with its Project Evergreen 3 and the Milton Keynes Partnership would lead for the rest of the line to Bletchley.
In December 2008 the commissioning of a further report, to take the project forward to GRIP Stage 4 (single option selection), was announced. This was to encompass work to analyse the additional requirements (as outlined above), not previously considered in detail, to GRIP Stage 3 equivalent, as well as revisiting the future requirements for the existing Bletchley-Bedford line.
According to section 3 of the October 2008 Progress report, during 2008 a number of proposals from other parties emerged which might have a significant impact on the project:
- an aspiration to use the route as part of a strategic freight route
- an aspiration to provide longer-distance north-south passenger services avoiding Birmingham, which could use the western section as part of its route
- a proposal by Chiltern Railways to run Oxford-Bicester-London passenger services via a mooted new south-to-east chord to the existing Chiltern line.
Section 3 also states that there is some uncertainty over various parties' requirements for the existing Bletchley-Bedford railway.
Infrastructural assessment investigations would be taken forward in parallel with this work funded by £2 million of contribution, half directly by the Department of Communities and Local Government and the other half in varying proportions from various local authorities' Growth Area Funding allocation. Work to clear vegetation from the redundant section of line for the infrastructure assessment started in January 2009.
Design and service pattern considerations
The February 2008 report identified two options defined from different perspectives, the "Regional Rail" option (the best commercial case) and the "Local Rail" option (as identified by the requirements mainly of local authorities and business interests). As part of existing upgrades, a new bay platform has been provided at Milton Keynes Central, which will be able to receive the local services. The infrastructure between Oxford and Bletchley required by both options is essentially the same. The spur from Calvert to Aylesbury is only included in the Local option, though about 20% of southern part of the route has already been reinstated under the Aylesbury Vale Parkway project. The line from north of Wolvercote Tunnel (just north of Oxford) through Bicester to Bletchley would be enabled for 100 mph (160 km/h) double-track running. The Oxford-Wolvercote Tunnel section, and the Aylesbury-Calvert line if also provided, would be 90 mph (140 km/h) single-track working. A new high-level platform would be provided at Bletchley, with new stations (under the Local option only) at Winslow and Newton Longville.
Both options would see the present hourly "all stations" stopping service between Bletchley and Bedford reduced to every two hours (apparently conflicting with the stated aim of improving stopping services), but with an additional hourly semi-fast service stopping only at Woburn Sands. Both options would provide two services per hour over the Oxford-Bletchley section: under the Regional option, both services would serve Milton Keynes Central via the West Coast Main Line; under the Local option there would be more stops than the semi-fast Regional Rail service, and one service would continue semi-fast to Bedford instead, with an additional Milton Keynes Central train serving Aylesbury via Bletchley. A further possible hybrid option was identified based on the Regional Rail option, but with the additional hourly train serving Aylesbury working through to Bedford.
Following a joint travelling exhibition by the Consortium, Milton Keynes Partnership and Chiltern Railways in April 2009 the May EWRC 2009 publicity leaflet and current (June 2004) website cite the following proposed service patterns:
- Oxford to Bedford: 1tph (train per hour) stopping Oxford-Bletchley, semi-fast Bletchley-Bedford (fastest through journey 43 minutes)
- Bletchley to Bedford: 1tph stopping all stations (fastest through journey 42 minutes)
- Oxford to Milton Keynes Central: 1tph stopping all stations (fastest through journey 47 minutes)
- Aylesbury to Milton Keynes Central: 1tph stopping all stations (fastest through journey 33 minutes). This could potentially be an extension of a service from London Marylebone via High Wycombe.
Additionally, since December 2016, Chiltern Railways have provided 2tph between Oxford and London Marylebone using the section between Oxford and Bicester as part of Chiltern's Evergreen 3 project. The necessary chord between the Oxford–Bletchley line and the Chiltern Main Line has been completed and the service commenced [initially from Oxford Parkway] on 26 October 2015.
In the 2011 Autumn Statement by Chancellor George Osborne, the East West railway between Oxford, Aylesbury Vale Parkway and Bedford was approved and funded, with £270 million committed to the scheme. A new station was to open at Winslow and a high-level station built at Bletchley. The Bicester Village to Bletchley and the Aylesbury to Claydon Junction sections were to be upgraded or built to a 90-100 mph line speed. At that stage it was due for completion in 2019.
On 16 July 2012, the East-West Rail Consortium made the following announcement:
"The Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt. Hon Justine Greening MP, today announced that the Western section of East West Rail (EWR) will be part of the government's strategy for rail transport, confirming not only funding for the project but also for electrification of the Oxford to Bedford part of the route. EWR will provide an electric link between the electrified Great Western, West Coast and Midland main lines. This further investment in the project upgrades it to form a key part of the new ‘Electric Spine’ passenger and freight route between the South Coast, the East Midlands and Yorkshire".
Developments and announcements
On 10 January 2013 Network Rail announced its intention to construct the western section between Bedford and Oxford, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, as part of their five-year strategic business plan (2014–2019). The target date for train services to be operational on this section was December 2017. Electrification of the line between Oxford and Bedford was also included in the budget and target completion date was March 2017.
In November 2013, The East West Rail consortium pledged an additional £45M to the project. The chair of the East West Rail joint delivery board, Councillor Janet Blake presented a letter to Transport Minister Philip Hammond, confirming the financial commitment from the Board .
In March 2014, Carillion and Buckingham Group announced that they were to undertake construction of the new link, commencing with the Oxford to Bicester stretch, with a contract value of £87 million, but later that month Network Rail stated that there would be a delay in the completion of the line by two years until 2019.
In early April 2014, Network Rail acknowledged that the busy level crossing between Woburn Sands and Milton Keynes is presenting "a headache". The report goes on to say that the crossing near Bow Brickhill (Brickhill Street in Milton Keynes to the A5) will be replaced with a bridge.
In May 2014, Network Rail announced that the line will be opened to 125 mph (200 km/h) running, the current top speed for InterCity services. It is proposed that CrossCountry services, along with Chiltern Railways and London Midland services will use the route.
In July 2015, Sir Peter Hendy was appointed Chairman of Network Rail "and asked by the Secretary of State to conduct a thorough review of the enhancement programme in England & Wales to see what can be delivered in an affordable and timely way within the funding period to 2019". The report states [p15] "During CP5 development work will continue into the full re-opening of the route between Bicester and Bletchley [...] and delivery will be started as soon as possible". However, in the Table [p37] that lists in detail the revised work programme, the route is shown as one of the "Projects with significant delivery in CP5 and completion in CP6". [CP6 is 2019 – 2024]
As part of the Budget of March 2016, the Chancellor, George Osborne, wrote to the National Infrastructure Commission to ask them to develop proposals for unlocking growth, housing and jobs in the Cambridge – Milton Keynes – Oxford corridor. The letter made reference to the East-West Rail Link, raising the possibility of further development of the line in the future.
In May 2016, the Department for Transport revealed that it 'is considering a new franchise to operate services on the east-west rail link' and that 'development of the proposed franchise will start in 2018 (including a competition period)'.
By August 2016, it became clear that Network Rail considers the project to be 'no longer the third most important project in the country' (after HS2 and Crossrail) and that delivery of the core of the Western Section (Oxford to Bedford via Bletchley) might slip beyond 2024, with the connection to Aylesbury due even later. Cllr Rodney Rose, chair of the East West Rail Consortium suggested that the main causes of the delay include delays arising from rail electrification difficulties and fiscal uncertainty arising from the UK's decision to leave the European Union. However, in November 2016, Cllr Rose was able to draw attention to remarks by the new Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling MP, that suggest that project remains in the Government's expenditure plans.
In December 2016, the Transport Secretary announced his decision to privatise the line. A new entity will be responsible for track and infrastructure, as well as operating train services: this, he believes, will deliver an Oxford-Cambridge service at an earlier date than is realistic for an overcommitted Network Rail.
The section from Oxford through Bicester Village to the Chiltern Main Line is operational. Chiltern Railways began service from Oxford Parkway (to Marylebone) on 26 October 2015, and from Oxford station on 11 December 2016.
The central section
There is currently no suitable route from Bedford to Cambridge using disused trackbed because key sections of the route have been re-used for other purposes since the Bedford to Cambridge line closed in 1968. These include the Ryle Telescope as part of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway, National Cycle Route 51 and also housing at Potton and Sandy.
In March 2016, Network Rail announced that the link would connect to the East Coast Main Line ECML via (or near) Sandy. In the 2016 Autumn Statement, the chancellor announced £10 million of funding to continue to develop planning for the route.
The possible Stansted Airport link would use the East Coast Main Line via the Hertford Loop Line and the Hertford East Branch Line to the West Anglia Main Line heading north and would involve the creation of a route between Hertford East station and Hertford North in Hertford, which presents significant difficulties, and a new chord near Rye House railway station.
The Eastern section
The track in this section is all in place and operational: from Cambridge to Norwich, Felixstowe and Ipswich. The plan would see more services on the existing Felixstowe Branch Line, Ipswich to Ely Line, and parts of the East Suffolk Line and Great Eastern Main Line. An hourly service in both directions between Cambridge and Ipswich was started in 2004. There is also an hourly passenger service between Norwich and Cambridge operated by Abellio Greater Anglia.
A section of Felixstowe Branch Line was doubled in 2009 to allow freight trains to pass each other at Derby Road in Ipswich and there were plans to double of 8 km of route from Nacton to Trimley together with other work as part of the Felixstowe and Nuneaton freight capacity scheme. The "Bacon Factory Curve" in Ipswich was completed in March 2014 to allow trains from Felixstowe to continue to the West Midlands without reversing at Ipswich.
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- as of November 2016