East West Rail: the next steps

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

In January, five route options for the central section of East West Rail were published as part of a public consultation on the next phase of the scheme. Stephen Barker, engineering director at the East West Rail Company (EWRCo.), tells more on the next steps of the scheme.

For decades, creating a new East West Rail line between Oxford and Cambridge had seemed both obvious and a long way off.

Fond memories of the old Varsity Line aside, the vibrant economy, educational excellence, and scientific innovation – which flourish in the region – have been put at risk by a lack of investment in infrastructure designed to support housing growth and link economic centres.

Communities have been crying out for safe, fast, and environmentally efficient transport, while local authorities and government recognise that villages, towns, and cities must be linked in a way which supports their individual ambitions on economic growth, housing demands, road traffic, and air quality.

In late 2017, the EWRCo. was set up by the Department for Transport to accelerate the delivery of East West Rail, bringing forward the benefits of the scheme and building on work already undertaken. We are a non-departmental public arms-length body, and we are on schedule to assume full client duties for the project at the start of Control Period 6 in April this year.  

For the area between Oxford and Bedford, the project largely involves reinstating and upgrading lines mothballed in the 1960s. The Oxford to Bicester section opened in 2016 and is now operated by Chiltern Railways. Last year, enabling works began on the section from Bicester led by the East West Rail Alliance. This will connect Oxford and Bedford, Milton Keynes and Aylesbury. The public enquiry into Network Rail’s TWAO application for this section is currently underway, following which the inspector will provide a final recommendation to the secretary of state for his consideration. If granted, the TWAO order would allow major construction to begin later this year.

Between Bedford and Cambridge, there was no mothballed line to follow: the previous alignment having been built over. This gave us a fantastic opportunity to explore route options for the region and, as I write, we’re out for consultation on the five most promising options – three of which take a route through south Cambridgeshire via Bassingbourn, and two of which take a northerly route via Cambourne. Each route option involves constructing a brand-new rail line around 50km in length, along with two to three new stations. The economic and social benefits of each are clear and must be balanced against the inevitable challenges around cost – which range from £2bn-£3.4bn – and delivered in such a way as to minimise potential negative environmental impacts.

Our remit stretches beyond delivery and we’re working across the industry to create a better delivery model. In February, we hosted a market engagement event, asking potential development partners to join us at the earliest possible stage to help us create this innovative and improved delivery model. Similarly, we’ll be working with the rolling stock market to explore alternative ways of powering our trains. 

Our discussions were incredibly positive and will inform our approach as we move towards launching the formal procurement process in the coming months, with the goal of awarding initial contracts in the second half of 2019. We are also hopeful that at around the same time major construction activities will commence on the second phase of the project between Bicester and Bedford, pending government approval.

After years and perhaps decades of uncertainty, the future is looking bright for East West Rail; and collectively at EWRCo., we’re excited about what lies ahead.


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