Given our proximity to one of the busiest rail lines in the country, protecting and enhancing rail services to and from West Berkshire has always been an important local issue for me. My campaigns have included getting an extra service to reduce over-crowding on evening commuter trains, fighting to keep the late-night service from London, better access to platforms in Newbury, supporting the decision on electrification of the Great Western mainline and pushing for new hybrid or ‘bi-mode’ trains to allow no-change connections from Bedwyn to London, and persuading GWR to allow railcard holders to use their off-peak cards on an earlier morning train from Hungerford to London.
I am very aware of the current challenges facing travellers as Network Rail proceeds with electrification and I have been in regular contact with both Network Rail and GWR on this (see below for more details). This is the latest update (August 22) from GWR Managing Director Mark Hopwood which is confirmation that there is light at the end of this particular tunnel:
‘A quick reminder that the next stage of Newbury electrification work is next week and runs from Tuesday 28 to Thursday 30 August. This will be followed by a four-day closure from Monday 8th to Thursday 11 October.
There was a further four-day closure planned for November. However, Network Rail have now confirmed that they can complete the programme working in the late evening and overnight and they will no longer need to close the line during the day. We will be updating all our customer information, and we are delighted that progress has been so good.
We are now starting to come towards the end of the Newbury electrification programme. Intercity Express Trains have started to operate in the Kennet Valley, and with work also starting next week on the new sidings for Bedwyn we are making good progress on bringing the new trains and the additional capacity our customers need.
Thank you for your continued patience and support.’
Mr Hopwood’s letter of apology received in July acknowledges the difficulties and the frustrations faced by passengers and sets out what GWR is doing to alleviate these problems. His email of August 22 also outlines the goodwill payments that have now been agreed for all season ticket holders impacted by more than one hour. Cheque payments are being made in two tranches, one due in September and one once the work is fully complete.
Notwithstanding the disruption that has been caused by the closures, electrification will ultimately mean more reliable and faster services, with newer and bigger and more environmentally friendly trains. GWR will be able to run new Electrostar trains direct between Newbury and London Paddington, and also extend the operation of the bi-mode Intercity Express Trains (IETs) beyond Newbury to Bedwyn and stations west. Each IET offers up to 24% more seats than the current High Speed trains which should mean over 4,500 extra seats every day between Newbury and London as from January 2019.
Meeting with GWR and Network Rail back in March, I stressed the importance of good communication to allow people to plan ahead and minimise problems as far as possible. I challenged them on why this work was being carried out during the week, why we were only being told about it at such a late stage, and why there was no compensation offer for season ticket holders. It seems that the options for weekend-only working would have meant many more closures, roughly three times as many, and would have prevented a lot of other weekend work taking place. In addition a number of elements of the work would take more than two days to deliver meaning that they simply could not be carried out over a weekend. It was also necessary to dovetail closures with electrification work taking place at weekends on the Bristol mainline. The length of the closures has also allowed other routine maintenance work to be carried out, saving costs and further disruption. These have included track renewals, ballast work, level crossing work and other ancillary tasks connected to electrification. Some overnight work has taken place and at times work has started on Sunday evenings, potentially impacting on the last trains of the day, so that Network Rail could get as much work done as possible during the weekday closures.
I was pleased that GWR responded to pressure and put on an early commuter bus direct from Bedwyn to Reading leaving at 06.25 and stopping only in Hungerford, aiming to get travellers into Reading by 07.35. There have also been non stop bus services from Newbury to Reading and from Thatcham to Reading and back again, during peak hours.
Any further updates on the two remaining closures will be on the Network Rail website here although the nighttime working over the period 19 – 22 November should not impact on daytime services. If you have any further concerns please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
FUNDING FOR STATION IMPROVEMENTS
West Berkshire Council and Hungerford Town Council have been successful in bidding for funding for improvements to two local stations from the Customer & Communities Improvement Fund. Supported by the DfT, this fund was established to recognise and back projects identified by the communities where GWR operates, with projects requiring local authority match funding. GWR announced at the end of June that two schemes in West Berkshire will benefit to the tune of almost £100,000:
- Hungerford Town Council was awarded £25,000 for waiting shelter improvements, increasing capacity on the London-bound platform of Hungerford Station
- West Berkshire Council was awarded £70,000 for new waiting shelters and increased cycle parking at Newbury Racecourse Station
WESTERN RAIL LINK TO HEATHROW
I am strongly in favour of this scheme, proposed by Network Rail, which will enable passengers from West Berkshire and all points west to travel by rail to Heathrow more easily, speedily and directly, without the need to go via London. I am working with a number of other MPs, both locally and across the west of the UK, to generate support for this project. On May 1st we held the inaugural meeting of the Western Rail Link All Party Parliamentary Group which I co-chair with Tan Dhesi, Member of Parliament for Slough.
The benefits of the project are substantial and involve only just over 6 kilometres of track, with very few land or technical obstacles to overcome. Travel times are expected to be around 26 minutes from Reading and six minutes from Slough. Benefits will include:
- reduced journey times, bringing them in line with road travel times
- improved rail access to Heathrow from the Thames Valley, South Coast, South West, South Wales and West Midlands
- provision of an alternative form of transport for passengers and the airport workforce currently travelling by car and coach
- easing congestion on roads and lower CO2 emissions equivalent to 30 million road miles per year on some of the most congested stretches of the UK’s motorway network
- generating a predicted £800 million of economic growth across the Thames Valley and surrounding areas
We are fortunate to have a number of truly global businesses based in West Berkshire and this new rail link will bring Newbury closer to the rest of the world. As we leave the European Union, we need to create opportunities around the world to do business and the western rail link will help build that vision of a global Newbury.
Looking at the Western Rail link proposal with Minister Jo Johnson and Tan Dhesi MP