By Phil Marsh

George Osborne confuses everyone over opening date of East-West Rail as he instructs the National Infrastructure Commission to get involved

Published: 19th March 2016

When exactly will trains start running? Pick a date between 2019 and 2024!

The East-West Rail project seems to have escaped the Network Rail financial imbroglio and associated Government sponsored reviews but following George Osborne’s intervention, there is some confusion as to when trains will once again run through Verney Junction, once the terminus of the Metropolitan Railway.

To recap, reported on a new round of public Consultation events last September held with the aim of finalising the design if the line between Bletchley, Winslow, Aylesbury and Bicester. This would then enable Network Rail (NR) to apply for planning consent via a Transport & Works Act order (TWA) by Autumn 2016 at the latest.

Just before Christmas, NR it was announced that a four-way consortium split into equal parts comprising of Network Rail, Atkins, Laing O’Rourke and VolkerRail would be constructing the East-West Rail Phase 2 (EWR2) linking Oxford, Milton Keynes and Bedford, and Milton Keynes with London Marylebone via Aylesbury and Princes Risborough.

The announcement said that the consortium was working on the outline design and construction programme for the scheme which includes a new station at Winslow, two new platforms at Bletchley, 18 new overbridges, 22 new footbridges or subways and changes to 97 railway crossings.

It was also said that once this was completed, they would consult with the Department for Transport (DfT) to agree the final design, construction timetable and costs.

They said:

Andy Milne, senior programme manager said that: We are an alliance of four equal parts working as one team. Never before on a project of this size has an alliance been convened this early. By scoping all aspects of the project now we will see potential problems early and be able to mitigate them. The earlier we do this work the greater value for taxpayers’ money we can deliver.

The line will connect with the Great Western, Chiltern, West Coast and Midland main lines in an outer London orbital railway. The first section of the project is due to be completed in December 2016 when Chiltern Railways’ services will operate between Oxford and Marylebone via Bicester. Currently they are operating from Oxford Parkway, a few miles outside Oxford to Marylebone.

The delay in the last section is because Oxford Council has imposed strict conditions on construction and then when and how many trains can operate as part of approving the planning application. They have not however, limited the amount or hours that articulated lorries can operate in the city!

George Osbourne’s intervention

On March 16th, the Chancellor George Osbourne wrote a letter to Lord Adonis who is Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission asking him to investigate and report back to the Government on the to be opened railway route.

But when will trains start running on what is now dubbed the Silicon Valley Line linking Oxford, Bicester, Milton Keynes, Bedford and eventually, Cambridge? The various websites, all run by partners in the East West Rail scheme suggest that it could be from 2019 or a few years later in the early 2020s. It has also been announced that the commencement of services will be made clear by early 2017.

What trains will be operating?

There is likely to be three trains an hour in each direction all serving Bletchley and Winslow running between Oxford and Milton Keynes, stopping at Oxford Parkway, Bicester, Winslow and Bletchley which may start from Reading creating another valuable link. Trains would take 40 minutes between Oxford and Milton Keynes and 84 minutes between Reading and Milton Keynes.

The second service pattern would see an hourly train between Reading or Didcot via Oxford and Bedford calling at Bicester, Winslow, Bletchley, Woburn Sands and Ridgmont. It would take an hour between Oxford and Bedford 60 minutes and 106 minutes between Reading and Bedford 106. The current all stations service between Bedford and Bletchley will continue as now.

The third route would bring an hourly service between Milton Keynes, Aylesbury and Marylebone calling at Bletchley, Winslow, Princes Risborough and High Wycombe. Trains would take 33 minutes between Milton Keynes and Aylesbury and 63 minutes between High Wycombe and Milton Keynes.

It is also highly likely that trains may continue to Heathrow once the western link has been built and the cross-country service between Southampton to Manchester will be rerouted via Winslow.

Unlocking growth or confusing the project?

The East West rail line is now subject to the following Terms of Reference set by The Chancellor: The aim of the review is to provide the Government with proposals and options for the long-term infrastructure priorities to unlock growth, jobs and housing within the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor over the next 30 years.

The area contains four of the UK’s fastest growing, and most productive, places. It encompasses global centres of research expertise in Oxford and Cambridge and advanced manufacturing and logistics in Milton Keynes. The review will make recommendations to maximise the potential of the area as a single, knowledge intensive cluster that competes on a global stage, whilst both protecting the area’s high quality environment and securing the homes, and jobs, the region needs.

The review will focus on the following areas and will lead to the production of an interim report: Review the economic case for investment in the Oxford to Cambridge corridor - including key planned infrastructure such as East-West Rail.

Wrong way round timeline?

The second stage of the work will lead to the production of a final report by Autumn Statement 2017 which is at odds with the final design being subject to applying for a TWA Order one year earlier!

The Infrastructure Commission headed by Lord Adonis has been instructed to work with Network Rail, Homes and Communities Agency, local government, business leaders, Local Enterprise Partnerships and any other stakeholder on the line of route.

Curiously the Chancellor’s instruction also says that;

‘The Commission will contribute towards, but will not seek to reopen or delay, existing work being undertaken by any of the groups listed above. This will include taking existing studies about enhancing this corridor, including the work of the East West Rail partnership. How this can be achieved after any TWA application has been made is not clear!


It gets more confusing when The Chancellor writes that ‘In making recommendations, the Commission should evaluate options for funding and financing in a way that minimises the tax payer burden, and ensures those that benefit most bear a fair share of the cost. The review will not look to reconsider investment already committed under established programmes, such as regulatory settlements, Control Period 5 (including the Hendy Review of CP5, and any follow-on activity) in rail.

So it seems someone has badly briefed George Osbourne on the East West Rail project when it seemed to have been moving towards a construction phase.

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