East West Rail delivery could be delayed by seven years
The East West Rail Western Section, between Oxford and Bedford and Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, may be delayed by three to seven years after a Network Rail draft recommendation suggested the project should be delivered in three phases instead of two.
Local authorities in the East West Rail consortium understand that plans to deliver a route between Oxford and Bedford could be pushed back for completion in 2022, resulting in the Aylesbury-Milton Keynes track sent to 2024 and enhancements to the Aylesbury-Princes Risborough line delayed until 2026.
Network Rail launched a consultation into phase 2 of the project – which included plans to upgrade and reconstruct existing and mothballed sections of track linking Bedford to Bicester and Milton Keynes to Princes Risborough – in September.
By that time, phase 1 of the Western Section of East West Rail was already well underway, with track laying completed between Oxford Parkway and the Chiltern Main Line and upgrades between Oxford and Oxford Parkway due by spring 2016.
The whole project was due for completion by March 2019.
But the consultation, which closed on 16 October, had already started amid concerns that East West Rail was running behind schedule after the Office of Rail & Road (ORR) approved plans to ‘reprofile’ missed GRIP 3 milestones from November this year to August 2016.
Although the ORR’s deputy director claimed this change received support from operators, Chiltern raised concerns that the delay would put extra pressures on the timescales for the delivery of the project’s phase 2. RTM has asked Chiltern for comment on today’s delay recommendation, but has not yet heard back.
Network Rail’s most recent recommendation to split the project into three phases emerged shortly after a first round of public consultation on proposals – although it was publicised just days after rumours that East West Rail documents from the Hendy Review had been leaked.
The consortium understands that the recommendations are based on both cost and deliverability issues, but its local authorities are seeking further discussions with Sir Peter Hendy and the government.
Cllr Rodney Rosey, chairman of the joint delivery board for East West Rail Western Section, said the group wants to understand Network Rail’s position and stressed the “critical importance” of the project to the local and regional economy.
“There is real concern about the effect on the economic momentum if East West Rail isn’t delivered on time, and risk to investment in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.
“To this end, we have sought discussions with [Hendy] and Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne. Before any decisions are taken, we need to ensure that the government is fully aware of potential implications that any delay could have on the economy, job creation and planned housing growth,” he said.
Consortium members are also developing practical solutions to reduce the cost and deliverability barriers within the scheme.
Counter-recommendations drafted so far include deferring the electrification of the Bedford-Oxford line and starting passenger services using diesel trains for now.
Cllr Rosey noted that Iain Stewart MP, who chairs the APPG for East West Rail, had already raised the delay issue in Parliament but is now reiterating the case for the railway with transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin.
MPs in regions along the line have also been asked to support the drive by raising concerns with the Department for Transport.
“Government decisions on rail investments are expected to be announced in late November or early December, and we’ll do our utmost to influence the outcome. This is not just about the railway, but about the real benefits that it will bring to the people in our communities,” Cllr Rosey concluded.