East West Rail (EWR) is a curious creature, born out of Chris Grayling’s tenure as Secretary of State. The philosophy behind it was that taking forward the delivery of a new East-West route linking Oxford and Cambridge provided an opportunity to deliver a new way of developing the rail network. It would be a vertically integrated operation, taking a fresh look at all aspects of the industry, strongly focussed on its customers and the community it serves, delivering major advances in customer service and productivity, and capturing development gain from new housing and development along the Oxford – Cambridge arc.
In many ways, it could be argued to be a precursor for Great British Railways, although a relatively small entity parachuted into the middle of the Network Rail system would inevitably pose a number of challenges.
The first stage involves reopening the Bicester – Bletchley section of the original Oxford – Cambridge line, which was opened as long ago as 1851 and closed as a through route at the end of 1967, ironically the same year that Milton Keynes was designated as a major new town. It’s a measure of the widely perceived irrelevance of the rail network in the late sixties that these events coincided; happily, it’s almost inconceivable that this would happen today.
The Bicester – Oxford section has already been comprehensively rebuilt, with a new station at Oxford Parkway, as part of Chiltern Railways’ new Marylebone – Oxford route – an example of a genuinely impressive private sector initiative, reflecting the terms of the long-running Chiltern franchise and the entrepreneurial flair and drive of Adrian Shooter. EWR is now storming ahead with rebuilding the section to Bletchley, including a new station at Winslow and high level platforms at Bletchley, and, if all goes well, a half-hourly Oxford – Milton Keynes service should be introduced around the end of 2024.
However, it’s difficult to see the sense of setting this up as a discrete operation. Signalling will be controlled by Network rail – anything else would be madness – and I would guess that infrastructure maintenance would be contracted out, too. It would be equally crazy to procure a small, separate fleet to operate the service. The initial half hourly pattern will need only four trains in use, which reportedly will be two car diesels, probably leased from West Midlands Trains. Furthermore, it isn’t realistic to have separate train crew and marketing for such a small operation, and the only station initially controlled by East West Rail would be Winslow, an unlikely location, to say the least, to lead transformational change in the industry’s customer interface!
The proposed separate operation of the route has already caused tensions within the industry. There are constraints at both ends of the initial service. A few months ago, Network Rail managers at route level were quite resistant to running the trains to Milton Keynes, suggesting termination and interchange at Bletchley, because of track occupation on the West Coast Main Line slow lines. In reality, there is capacity, and the constraints on slow line operation are primarily about speed differentials between 75 mph intermodal trains and stopping passenger services, so this seemed to some extent to be an emotional resistance to EWR as an external organisation. Happily, this appears to have been resolved – not getting through to Milton Keynes would have made the Oxford service virtually pointless.
There are problems at the Oxford end too. The Chiltern service pattern requires use of both the terminating platforms there, and I would guess that Chiltern will be resistant to altering its timetable to accommodate an interloper. I’m sure this will be sorted out too, but it’s another example of unnecessary friction.
The next stage of the project is to extend services to Bedford. This includes taking over the local service between Bletchley and Bedford. This is a poorly used 16 mile route with ten intermediate stations, and a journey time of around 42 minutes. The rail service has been completely suspended for most of the pandemic, replaced by an even slower bus service. Conventional analysis of the benefits of the current service could well be negative, as the time savings for the handful of passengers on most trains are probably exceeded by the time lost by road users waiting at the twelve level crossings!
EWR’s plans would certainly reduce journey times and increase revenue, although one option is decidedly courageous, with the existing ten stations “consolidated” into five new stations. It’s quite a rational proposal, but very brave. The Chief Executive is quoted as saying they’ve had “rich feedback” on these proposals – I imagine they have!
One element of the scheme has been kicked into the long grass. It was originally proposed to operate an Aylesbury – Milton Keynes service, but this has been dropped, at least for the time being. In truth, it’s not really a major market.
EWR are also developing route options for a new railway from Bedford to Cambridge, a major project costing between £5-6 billion. It will be interesting to see whether a future government backs this or whether it’s considered unaffordable. Part of Chris Grayling’s original thinking was that the project would leverage private sector investment, but there’s been no sign of this yet.
EWR may prove to be more cost effective than comparative Network Rail infrastructure schemes, although this will probably be difficult to demonstrate one way or another, as it will be like comparing apples with bananas. However, setting it up as a separate operator looks misguided, given its small scale. It’s probably time for Ministers to rationalise EWR, keeping it as an infrastructure development company, and transferring its future operation to an appropriate train operator – Chiltern, with its entrepreneurial and innovative track record would be the obvious candidate.
The Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline is now around 900 days overdue and still slipping. I would guess there are similar tensions within government to those which delayed the Integrated Rail Plan.
I can understand that there may be hard messages for London and the South East, given “levelling up” and public expenditure constraints, together with the likely permanent drop in commuting. So, for example, remodelling just north of Croydon or Woking flyover will be at best indefinitely delayed, and I would guess that Network Rail has already been told to put these schemes on the shelf. But is it too unreasonable to ask that the government sets out its intentions for future investment in the network honestly and clearly, on a timely basis?
Photo credit: Paul Bigland.