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.
On Sunday 15 December the biggest timetable change since 1976 is being introduced which GWR says will bring faster, more frequent services with more seats across our region. Around three quarters of journey times will be changing as new services are added in and old ones altered as part of these improvements.
As part of these changes, there will also be some changes to fares. According to GWR, there will be stricter rules governing the timing of off peak trains resulting in some of the current off peak morning and evening services becoming subject to peak charges. I have raised the concerns of rail passengers with GWR and my understanding is that this is to bring services in the Kennet valley into line with GWR’s charging policy in other areas. I was pleased to be able to negotiate special off peak rates several years ago on some of our local services and it is disappointing that GWR has now decided to take this concession away. You can read the letter from Mark Hopwood, MD of GWR, here.
There will be other options including cheaper advance fares and I have pushed for a larger allocation of these discounted tickets to be available to customers in West Berkshire. Off peak tickets will still be valid on TfL Rail trains to Reading which stop more frequently but run four times an hour, and overall it is still the case that the new timetable will provide more trains with more seats and shorter journeys. I will remain in close contact with GWR and keep this page updated as and when I hear more. Further information is available on the GWR website.
I am very aware of the challenges that faced travellers as Network Rail proceeded with electrification and I was in regular contact with both Network Rail and GWR over this period. Notwithstanding the disruption that was caused, electrification is now providing more reliable and faster services, with newer and bigger and more environmentally friendly trains. The new trains are now running on the network between London and the West Country and since January new electric trains started to run between Newbury and London. I was on the platform at Newbury Station in June to see one of the first bi-mode Intercity Express Trains (IETs) coming through. Running on both diesel and electric, these are a welcome addition to the local network as they mean passengers to and from Bedwyn do not have to change trains in Newbury.
As you may have noticed the lifts at Newbury Station are now working. This took much longer than planned but I am pleased that after much pressure they are now in operation and open 24 hours a day. As work starts on the Market Street development it is even more important that the station steps up as the ‘gateway’ to Newbury and I have been pushing Network Rail to increase litter picking, tidy up maintenance areas and manage vegetation more efficiently and effectively.
FUNDING FOR STATION IMPROVEMENTS
West Berkshire Council and Hungerford Town Council were 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. 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. Last year we set up the Western Rail Link All Party Parliamentary Group which I co-chair with Tan Dhesi, Member of Parliament for Slough. Sir John Armitt, the Chair of the National Infrastructure Committee, attended our meeting in February where MPs from all sides of the House spoke about why this project is long overdue and so important.
The benefits are substantial and involve only just over 6 kilometres of track, with very few land or technical obstacles to overcome:
- reduced journey times, bringing them in line with road travel times – around 26 minutes from Reading and six minutes from Slough
- 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.