By Phil Marsh

Fate of Wolverton, the World’s oldest standard gauge railway works to be decided this month?

Puiblished: 2nd October 2016

Demolition, redevelopment or retention of Wolverton Works - decision imminent

St Modwen, owners of Wolverton Works are nearing the end of their three-year planning project to demolish or regenerate the 37 acre site leased to and operated by Knorr-Bremse. In its half yearly report to shareholders St Modwen describes itself a property developer while in its planning application it states it is a leading regeneration company.

St Modwen received planning consent to build a Lidl store on some disused land on the site adjacent to a Tesco, also built on Works’ land. This decision was taken in August just days after St Modwen lodged a revised outline planning application 15/02030/OUTEIS with Milton Keynes Council. The application is likely to be considered in this month and is the subject of a fierce debate locally.

The revised plans show that 99% of the Works will be demolished with just five workshop facades remaining as a gesture towards the location’s history, the oldest building was built 151 years ago. One of the traversers will remain as a visual aid to how the Works’ operated in a nod to history with houses or flats will be built between the remaining facades.

What will be left?

St Modwen propose to retain the two Lifting Shop and Wheel and Axle shop ends plus the east façade of the West Paint Shed. A small section of the Incident Repair Shop will remain as a small heritage/community centre but St Modwen are unable to give any more details of this saying that this will only be possible when a detailed planning application is made after being grated outline consent.

After the furore their initial plans provoked, St Modwen engaged heritage consultants Purcell as their ‘expert advisers’. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Purcell largely endorsed their client’s original wholesale demolition aspirations. They cite that other UK railway workshops are more important and historic than Wolverton, ignoring the fact that Wolverton predates all the others and that the Royal Train will be celebrating 150 years at Wolverton in 2017.

Royal train to leave Wolverton after 150 years

Rail.co.uk asked Network Rail, owners of The Royal Train, in July about the train’s future and they confirmed that they had been in discussion with the relevant parties concerning its future. Rail industry sources have suggested that the 40 year old Wolverton built train will be relocating to Derby as its current home, the 1988 built Royal Train shed will be demolished - with associated local job losses.

A year ago, Knorr-Bremse invited Phil Marsh from rail.co.uk to visit the site to document which historic railway artefacts should be salvaged from the Works. These were photographed in 2015 but despite repeated questions to Knorr-Bremse and St Modwen, neither has replied with any information as to items suggested for conservation other than saying in May they have a plan for them.

Invest or relocate say St Modwen – refuted by Knorr-Bremse

St Modwen has continued to insist that without providing a new railway facility, Knorr-Bremse will relocate with hundreds of job losses. But another 60 or so jobs have been created for a Crossrail contract bring the workforce to nearly 500, four times the level of three years ago when they assumed control of Wolverton. And Nick Brailey from Knorr-Bremse told Phil Marsh in February 2016 that they would not relocate if they had to remain in the existing buildings.

The workshops which St Modwen say are beyond economical repair and no longer fit for purpose have been reroofed, new plant and machinery installed such as a corrosion treatment bay and every available shed has been brought back into use. This is evidenced by photographs taken from the air on 12 September when a new staff car park can be seen under construction to enable all staff to park on-site.

Flying visit over the heart of Wolverton

Due to the lack of engagement by St Modwen and Knorr-Bremse, the author flew over Wolverton Works to see first-hand what was going on within the Works’ boundary. This aerial viewpoint clearly demonstrated why the Works and surrounding housing estate built by the London North Western Railway really is the heart of Wolverton’s Conservation Area. If Milton Keynes planners authorise St Modwen to demolish the Works, the heart of Wolverton will be ripped out and the rest of the Conservation area becomes meaningless.

The revised planning application says:

…..Partial demolition of existing buildings and development of new buildings to create new business floorspace, up to 375 residential units, a new foodstore, new community facility….

The applicant’s historical assessment says: “Today, the reduction of maintenance and repair at the Works has resulted in its operations being focused at the western end of the Site, whilst much of the railway workshops in the eastern end has since become redundant and fallen into disrepair. This provides an opportunity to consolidate the existing railway maintenance works whilst redeveloping the rest of this extensive Site.”

St Modwen’s 35 page ‘Built Heritage Statement’ contains some fundamental errors such as stating the Works was built in the 1840s, but it opened in 1838.

They would say that wouldn’t they!

The report also says:

“The majority of historic railway buildings that exist today were erected during the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when many other railway works were established around the country. As such, the buildings at Wolverton are not considered architecturally rare, or of particular aesthetic interest when compared to other railway works in England; notably Crewe, Derby, Swindon and York.

From our findings, it is considered that all of the railway-related buildings at the Site have little architectural detailing considered of interest as to warrant listing at a national level. It is important to note that none of the extant built structures within the Site were erected when it was initially established in the 1840s, whereas those surviving in the other railway works maintain a greater historic interest.”

Therefore, the removal of identified railway-related buildings on the Site would not be considered to cause material harm to the overall Wolverton Conservation Area. The revised proposals by Purcell will see the retention of key building facades, which in combination with other features, such as the transverses, will provide public spaces the evoke the essence of the site’s railway heritage.

World’s oldest railway Works

This ignores the fact that Wolverton is the World’s oldest remaining Standard gauge Railway Works and that the sum of the remaining buildings is far greater than their individual importance. This heritage report ends tellingly with:

Their work has ensured that whilst there will be a degree of harm to the significance of the Wolverton Conservation Area, this level of harm will be less than substantial,

In another part of the application St Modwen’s agents, G L Hearn ltd clearly states:

That Knorr-Bremse currently employs around 400 people and that the buildings present some fundamental challenges to modern railway-related operations such as existing building heights prevent the useof more modern cranes to lift carriages from bogies and entire rakes of trains cannot currently be driven into existing buildings due to their orientation.

The Lifting Shop can accommodate a ten carriage train but the operational railway shunting arrangement on the access line into Wolverton Works is limited to just eight carriages, a fact ignored by St Modwen.

Strabag’s SF02 road-rail milling units

And the developers also say that it is economically impossible to obtain the correct levels on the rails inside the sheds for the precision work needed to be carried out. STRABAG has developed a road-rail machine which has drastically reduced the cost and time of correcting incorrect rail levels. This can be driven to any location on a public road and then it will put itself on rails to mill them to the required levels. Far cheaper and easier than demolishing a shed and rebuilding but not considered by St Modwen.

They say that using a traverser to move single carriages between the workshops is inefficient but are ignoring the fact that all carriages are worked on individually as renovation work requires access to carriage end connections, electrical and brake pipe connections so have to be split from other carriages to enable the work to be carried out. The only time a train is worked on is for electrical and/or safety validation after works have been completed.

Local referendum decides planning policy = democracy in action?

A year ago in a local referendum, locals overwhelmingly voted to retain the historic buildings when asked about future planning policy and as a result, Local Planning Policy W3 clearly states that residents require the retention of the existing buildings but not necessarily in rail use. This has been ignored in the revised application.

Should Milton Keynes Council approve the Outline Application, it will not only destroy the Conservation area but be an undemocratic decision going against the local wishes.

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