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.
The good news is that electrification will 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.
However, the bad news is that the next stage of the process is going to mean disruption for travellers with closures to allow Network Rail access to electrify the route.
GWR has announced a programme of closures when bus services will replace trains between Pewsey and Theale. At present the following dates are listed:
- Monday 23 – Thursday 26 April
- Monday 14 – Thursday 17 May
- Saturday 2 – Thursday 7 June
- Saturday 9 – Monday 11 June
- Monday 9 – Thursday 12 July
- Monday 16 July – Sunday 5 August
- Tuesday 28 – Thursday 30 August
- Monday 8 – Thursday 11 October
- Monday 19 – Thursday 22 November
There are further dates under discussion and travellers should keep an eye on the website as it is updated here.
I recognise that this will mean delays and disruption for constituents travelling into London. Meeting recently with GWR and Network Rail, 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 now, and why there would be no compensation for season ticket holders. With the announcement of the further dates in July and August I am continuing to ask questions to make sure that these additional closures are justified.
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 will take more than two days to deliver meaning that they simply could not be carried out over a weekend. It has also been necessary to dovetail closures with electrification work taking place at weekends on the Bristol mainline.
The length of the closures will also allow other routine maintenance work to be carried out, saving costs and further disruption. These include track renewals, ballast work, level crossing work and other ancillary tasks connected to electrification. There will be some overnight work and times when work will start on Sunday evenings, potentially impacting on the last trains of the day, so that Network Rail can get as much work done as possible during the weekday closures. Season ticket holders will not get compensation but if they plan to make different arrangements during the closures they will be able to buy season tickets for the periods around these dates. They will also be able to change their tickets to travel from Didcot Parkway or Whitchurch if they prefer.
We now understand that South West Railway has confirmed that rail season tickets valid for one month or longer, between Hungerford, Kintbury and Newbury to London can be used for travel between Salisbury, Grateley, Andover, Whitchurch, Overton or Basingstoke without additional cost. In addition, car park season tickets valid for one month or longer for Newbury, Hungerford and Kintbury will be valid for use without charge at Andover or Basingstoke.
Travellers with valid rail tickets will also be able to use the Park & Ride at Mereoak on the south side of Reading, or travel on JetBlack1 and route 102 service buses.
Rail replacement services will operate to Didcot and to Reading, and there will also be parking available at Didcot Town Football Club for customers who choose to drive there. Didcot station car park is currently significantly reduced due to the construction of a multi storey car park but the Football Club is within walking distance of the station and there will also be a complimentary shuttle bus every 15 minutes between the Football Club and the station.
Parking spaces at some of the stations along the line will be reduced to allow Network Rail to store equipment and supplies and to allow space for the replacement rail buses. Details are on the GWR website. In addition, Network Rail has announced that Reading Station’s multi-storey car park will be closed from Monday 5 March for 10 weeks to all except season ticket holders and station staff while maintenance work takes place to the top two levels. There will be staff at the entrance to the car park to advise on availability of spaces but other drivers are advised to park elsewhere.
GWR and Network Rail assure me that there is now a communications plan in place and I hope you will find information clearly displayed in our local stations and on social media and GWR’s website but if you need any further details please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: The first closure last week was not without its problems – not helped by damage to the line near Westbury by an engineering vehicle not connected to the works in the early hours of 16 March which caused cancellations and delays to long-distance services from the west –