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Railwatch 069 - October 1996

Turbo-charged campaign

By Trevor Garrod

Fast new Turbo trains from London Marylebone took most of the RDS delegates to our reopening conference at Bicester in June.

Marylebone of course was threatened with complete closure in the early 1980s. Yet modern Turbos now run from there through to Birmingham Snow Hill which was itself reopened in the early 1990s.

In the audience at Bicester was Adrian Shooter, director of Chiltern Trains now run by a management buy-out team, called M40. The new team has pledged to buy new trains to boost the service from London to Birmingham, via Bicester.

Some of the 85 delegates to the conference came from Oxford on the rail service which was reinstated in 1987. But a few came by road from the Midlands and East Anglia, underlining the need for the East-West rail route through Bicester.

The need for good train services was recognised by Councillor Les Sibley, Deputy Mayor of Bicester, who welcomed RDS.

Oxfordshire County Council's achievements and plans for rail were outlined by public transport officer Dick Helling. These had included contributing to the cost of a new station at Haddenham and Thame Parkway and reopening the line from Oxford to Bicester Town. The council aimed to reduce from 43% to 31% the numbers of people coming into central Oxford by car and to encourage good quality local public transport.

The dualling of the road between Oxford and Bicester in 1990 had led to loss of traffic on the railway and speed restrictions on some parts of the line had not helped. Investment in infrastructure would be more likely if the line was part of a wider scheme involving reopening to Milton Keynes.

Mr Helling dealt at some length with Kidlington, an expanded village of 14,000 people north of Oxford. Market research, a public meeting and exhibition all showed a very positive local response to the proposal for a new station and the county council allocated some funds in its 1996/7 programme.

However, privatisation put obstacles in the way. Thames Trains, trying to cope with all the changes forced upon them, were delayed in preparing a submission for planning permission. The Franchise Director then expressed a desire to vet any agreement between the council and the train operator to ensure that there were no long-term cost implications. The council will probably now have to fund the project completely but was still referred to Railtrack which initially wanted to charge an excessive amount for design work.

There was hope for Kidlington, however, as Railtrack had agreed to share the work with another company which undertook design work for the council. A bid for funding from the Capital Challenge fund would be made on the basis that the new station would improve the environment.

A new station at Grove (formerly Wantage Road) on the main line west of Didcot would serve a catchment area similar to that of Kidlington. Again, Railtrack had quoted a hefty sum just to study the project but had subsequently agreed a more realistic figure.

Our other guest speaker, Jim Steer of the consultants Steer Davies Gleave, began by paying tribute to RDS for its initial groundwork which had influenced the consortium of more than 25 local authorities to commission an East-West rail link study. The first stage of the study had established general principles and looked at three corridors, concentrating on strategic journeys rather than purely local ones.

At present the car dominated the market although coaches had recently tried to increase their share. Three of the counties concerned, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire, were predicted to have some of the highest population growth in the country over the next 15 years and a 50-60% increase in car traffic might be expected.

Some people argued that London CrossRail would diminish the case for an East-West rail link across the South Midlands. However, the consultants' studies had shown that, while it would benefit travellers from some parts of East Anglia to Reading and Aylesbury, it would not have a significant impact on most of the region.

An East-West rail link would give substantial benefits for journeys of 50-100 kilometres, especially in the central corridor, and so the study concluded that this should be the focus of attention. The northern corridor showed some opportunities, especially for Corby, and had more freight potential. It was important to find a low-cost way of providing a local Bedford-Corby-Peterborough service. A link along the central corridor would remove up to 2,000 car trips a day from road and give considerable non-user benefits.

There was a problem in knowing who would operate the services under the new system, and the consultants had been unable to hold discussions with potential operators. However, Mr Steer suggested two overlapping services: from Oxford to Peterborough via Sandy (a shorter route than via Corby) and from Birmingham to Ipswich via Milton Keynes and Royston. The overlapping services must interconnect at strategic stations - of which Sandy was not one.

The route would cost between £40 million and £90 million, and this did not include cost of land purchase, although it did include building 10 miles of new railway. Taking it via Hitchin rather than St Ives would be more economical. Profitability would be comparable to the long-distance Regional Railways services developed over the past 10 years.

How would the new services be funded? The Franchise Director and the Department of Transport needed to give more thought to this, and the former did have powers to put in money. A form of cost-benefit analysis was surely needed.

It was hoped that Railtrack would join the consortium, while the Government Office for the Eastern Region had been "pretty supportive." The second stage of the study, expected to take place in the second half of 1996, would look at any serious obstacles and work out ways of funding.

A lively discussion ensued on issues raised by our speakers, and papers circulated on finance, the effects of reopening Haddenham and Thame Parkway and arguments used by opponents of reopenings.

A full conference report is available at £1.50 (post free) from our Sales Department, 89 North Wallington, Fareham, Hants PO16 8TJ.

Note: contact details (postal and email addresses, along with telephone numbers) in old editions of Railwatch out of date. Click CONTACT US for latest contact details.

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