Comment

13.03.18

EWR: Getting it right

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 18

Peter Austin, delivery director at East West Rail Company (EWRco), argues that completing the link between Oxford and Cambridge as quickly as possible through an innovative delivery model will unlock unprecedented growth in the region.

The Varsity Line, linking Cambridge and Oxford, escaped closure by Beeching in ‘63 but, four years later, services were withdrawn regardless from the Oxford-Bletchley and Bedford-Cambridge sections. Car ownership was a factor, but the train service hardly matched the excellence of the academic institutions at the routes termini. The route was effectively run as two services that met in the middle, with only a handful of daily through services that took around 150 minutes for the end-to-end journey.

Despite the loss of its rail service, the corridor between Oxford and Cambridge has flourished. It’s home to over three million people, has more than 175,000 businesses and over 1.6 million jobs. Cambridge is a digital technology and life science hub; Northampton has high-performance engineering; Milton Keynes has many financial and professional services companies; and Oxford is a hub for bioscience, medical and physical sciences. Yet, like other parts of the UK, the region now suffers from a lack of affordable housing threatening its future prosperity.

This was recognised in 2017 by the National Infrastructure Commission. As well as recommending the building of between 782,000 and 1,020,000 new homes by 2050, the report also recommended substantial transport investment. The government was urged to commit £1bn to reinstate Oxford-Bedford rail commuter services and to commit to open the line between Bedford and Cambridge by 2030.

Funding for Oxford-Bedford was confirmed in the 2017 Autumn Budget, and works for this section are being delivered by Network Rail in alliance with Laing O’Rourke, VolkerRail and Atkins. The improvements will see two trains per hour Oxford-Milton Keynes, one train per hour Oxford-Bedford and one train per hour Aylesbury-Milton Keynes. The Budget also confirmed EWRco, a new arm’s-length body of the DfT, to deliver the rail link between Bedford and Cambridge and to oversee the whole scheme.

EWRco was formed to further the government’s desire to encourage third-party investment and infrastructure delivery on the network, and to help realise benefits such as greater innovation and cost reduction through efficiency.

These issues were explored in detail by the Hansford Review, to which Network Rail responded positively. Proactively supporting and facilitating contestability will help to break down the barriers perceived by many potential investors who find Network Rail a large and complex organisation to do business with.

As an arm’s-length body, EWRco can bring a singular purpose and a clear remit, a degree of independence and autonomy from the DfT, and the ability to attract expertise from the private sector. It can help to drive the project and deliver government ambition.

However, private sector agility can only be achieved if government empowers EWRco. Currently the EWRco governance is being agreed. It’s important to get this correct, for both government and the company, but it’s been a slow process and we have a railway to build!

We want to complete the railway from Oxford to Cambridge as quickly as possible to help drive economic growth, jobs and housing. We want to explore a different delivery model that is quicker and facilitates innovation. We want to make it easier for the private sector to deliver and finance infrastructure projects, helping them understand our complex industry and its risks.

Then there is funding. Can we capture a few thousands of pounds from each of the new houses built and the land value increase that the railway will facilitate to pay for the project?

Reinstating the Varsity Line is a fascinating project. It’s a pathfinder on many fronts, including investment, delivery mechanism and industry structure. The EWR scheme will open initially as a commuter railway, but we will also explore opportunities for faster services and freight in the longer term.

Getting this right will not only benefit the people living and working in the corridor but the whole industry. But getting it right requires the industry to be bold and supportive, to embrace contestability and to see this as an opportunity for the whole network.

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