By Phil Marsh

Wolverton Works to be demolished by 2020 – will it also bring the end of the Royal Train?

Published: 22nd November 2016

Milton Keynes Council approves demolition of the World’s oldest railway works

Wolverton Works, the World’s oldest longest continually open standard gauge railway works is to be demolished within the next four to five years. The decision was made at a Milton Keynes Council Planning meeting on 17 November amidst some controversy when considering the St Modwen, Works’ owners, application.

This was because following a local planning referendum 18 months ago, Wolverton’s residents overwhelmingly voted to retain the buildings in any redevelopment. The whole Works forms part of a Conservation area, thought to be one of the UK’s largest as it includes a huge railway-built housing estate for Works’ employees.

Historic England refused to ‘list’ the buildings saying that they were already protected. Planning Conditions attached to the decision also breached more planning policies with only 10% affordable housing and a below par Section 106 planning gain fund demanded.

A brief history

The Works in its heyday a century ago, employed over 5000 people and was the very reason for Wolverton’s existence. It was built to service the World’s first long distance intercity line, the London to Birmingham Railway, who chose the greenfield site to locate their main Works in around 1836 because it was roughly half-way between London and Birmingham. It was also adjacent to the Grand Union Canal making it easier for building materials to be brought to site and ironically started the demise of the canal’s fortunes as railways transported goods.

The Works was also heavily involved in three war efforts, the Boer War and both World Wars. It built General Haig’s train and ambulance trains as well as repairing planes in WW2.

After British Rail ownership, Wolverton Works was bought in 2001 by Alstom to carry out acceptance and reliability modifications to their new train fleets such as the Pendolinos. When this work was complete, the French train builders sold the Works to the property developers St Modwen who leased the works to Railcare. They in turn entered administration in July 2013, just weeks before the 175th anniversary.

In September 2013, the Administrators sold the business to Knorr-Bremse, (KB) but only after half the 250 strong workforce had been made redundant. Since then, KB has quadrupled the workforce on the strength of a five year lease, which expires in 2018. The latest projects there include manufacturing Crossrail platform screens, in a refurbished workshop, and replacing every external Pendolino door. A new contract re-engineering Class 321 electric trains for Voith is about to commence bringing the overhead cranes back into use in the Lifting Shop.

Other workshops have been modernised and include a new carriage corrosion treatment unit while the traversers have been brought back into full use following electronic control panel upgrades. A new staff car park has been created near the Royal Train Shed.

Royal farewell?

The Royal Train has been constructed and based at Wolverton since 1869 and is now likely to be relocating after 150 years there. The existing Royal Train Shed was built in 1988 and will also be demolished to make way for housing overlooking the canal.

Some of the Royal Train staff now fear that the train will no longer operate if relocated from Wolverton but if it carries on, it is understood that Derby could be the new home - but the train may be retired and enter preservation.

Milton Keynes 50

Milton Keynes will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in under eight weeks time. The Council is looking to celebrate this throughout 2017 using the town’s heritage but curiously agreed to lose most of it! But the debate seemed to centre on the Council’s squeezed finances and the need to try and catch up on their housing targets set by Government.

Andrew MacLean, Head Curator of the National Railway Museum sent a statement to the planning meeting emphasising just how important Wolverton Works was to UK history, but to no avail.

They said:

St. Modwen said that the £100m Wolverton Works regeneration plans will support hundreds of current and future rail-related jobs for the town and deliver much-needed new homes and community facilities for Wolverton. In September, planning was approved for the construction of a Lidl store in an early phase of St. Modwen’s wider masterplan and construction will commence in spring 2017.

St Modwen say that the key features of the regeneration plans for Wolverton Works are:

Jobs: Provision of business space for Knorr-Bremse RailServices Ltd, protected for future rail-related employment use only

Supporting small businesses: New business space providing premises for small/ medium size businesses and start-ups

Homes for all: Up to 375 new homes - a mix for all ages, family sizes, needs and pockets

Funding for social infrastructure: contribution of c.£4m towards vital services of which £3m is allocated to education

Heritage value: Opening up what is currently a closed site, existing buildings’ facade retention and heritage features throughout public spaces

New community space: The potential to create a railway heritage centre – St. Modwen is discussing opportunities with Milton Keynes Museum

New open spaces: Provision of a new public square and multiple landscaped spaces equivalent, in total, to the size of 2 football pitches

Architectural identity: Use of a ‘Design Guide’ to ensure new buildings reflect the Conservation Area with pitched roofs, use of brick, terrace housing and other key features

War memorial: Publically accessible space allocated for a memorial

Gary Morris, Senior Development Manager at St. Modwen said: “ We have worked closely with Milton Keynes Council, local stakeholders and the Wolverton community to develop a sensitive design for the Works. Not only will these plans enhance the unique identity of the town and reflect its much-loved railway heritage, but they will also encourage further economic growth and regeneration for the town.”

Further planning applications will be brought forward in due course, to determine the exact designs of the new buildings.

Rail.co.uk comments:

In April, St Modwen wrote to Phil Marsh they would not get involved in the War Memorial and that it was for Knorr-Bremse to attend to. This was included into the planning application at the last minute to help garner votes. St Modwen also still says that only 300 jobs are at The Works. It is in fact around 480, Knorr-Bremse’s figures. Initially, there was to be provision for a Heritage Centre either. Network Rail has confirmed it is looking at the future of the Royal Train.

St Modwen also said that safeguarding jobs could only be achieved by demolishing the Works and building a new one. Nick Brailey, Communications Manager for Knorr-Bremse told Phil Marsh in February 2016 that they would ot be relocating if they had to remain in the existing buildings.

The future?

Whatever the pressures on the Council brought by St Modwen and Knorr-Bremse behind the scenes, it emerged in the planning meeting that Knorr-Bremse had not yet told St Modwen their requirements for a new Works. Once this has been established, a detailed planning application will be submitted for approval and no demolition will take place until all Approvals have been obtained. This will take up to two years.

The development will be delivered in phases to avoid business interruption to Knorr-Bremse. Once the foodstore has been built, phase two will see Knorr Bremse move to the west of the site say St Modwen ( where they already work ) and a new premises can be built for them. The final phase will be the new homes, and what is described as ‘potentially’ a community/ heritage centre and public spaces on the west part of the site in around 3-5 years’ time.

And finally

One key point which the Council, Knorr-Bremse and St Modwen are all silent on is the provision of a level crossing for HGV’s to access the site. It is known that the Office of Rail and Road do not sanction any new level crossings but as the new one will be inside the Works curtilage, it will be the Health & Safety Executive that approve it or otherwise. This was brought up at the Planning meeting by a local councillor but ignored by the rest of the meeting.

This also ignored locally agreed planning policies and any protection afforded by being inside a Conservation Area. Progress can be followed at www.wolvertonworksonline.co.uk .

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