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, particularly as Network Rail proceeds with electrification and I am in regular contact with both Network Rail and GWR on this (see below for more details). This is the latest update from Network Rail which follows the three-week closure earlier this month and confirms that at this stage, over halfway through the project, the work is on schedule. I also received this letter of apology in July from Mark Hopwood, Managing Director of GWR, which acknowledges the difficulties and the frustrations faced by passengers and sets out what GWR is doing to alleviate these problems.
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 process is causing disruption for travellers as the line is closed to allow Network Rail access to electrify the route.
As you will be aware, GWR’s programme of four-day closures started in March with bus services replacing trains between Pewsey and Theale. At the end of May, I received this update from Network Rail with details of the works they carried out during the first three closures and confirmation that at that stage the works were running to schedule.
Future closures are scheduled for the following dates but there may be changes and travellers should check the website for updates here:
- Tuesday 28 – Thursday 30 August
- Monday 8 – Thursday 11 October
- Monday 19 – Thursday 22 November (update: as work is on schedule, Network Rail has now indicated that this closure will only be during evening/night time – exact timings to be confirmed – but day time services will continue to run)
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 now, and why there would be no compensation for season ticket holders. I am pleased to say that GWR responded with the following offer for season ticket holders:
‘We have also been asked about compensation for season ticket holders, and we can now confirm that customers who have seen journeys extended by over 30 minutes will receive a goodwill gesture. This will be calculated at 25% of the daily rate for each weekday the work affects. Cheques will be sent out later in the year.’
GWR has now written personally to all season ticket holders, a copy of this letter can be read here.
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 would 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. Some overnight work is taking place and there are times when work is startiing 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. If season ticket holders want to make different arrangements during the closures they are able to buy season tickets for the periods around these dates. They are also able to change their tickets to travel from Didcot Parkway or Whitchurch if they prefer.
I 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 are also 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 BUSES
I am pleased that GWR has responded to pressure and put on an early commuter bus direct from Bedwyn to Reading leaving at 06.25 and stopping only in Hungerford. This aims to get travellers into Reading by 07.35. There are also non stop bus services from Newbury to Reading and from Thatcham to Reading and back again, during peak hours.
Rail replacement services will also operate from Newbury to Didcot, where there will be additional 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 at some of the stations along the line will be reduced during the closures to allow Network Rail to store equipment and supplies and to allow space for the replacement rail buses. Details are on the GWR website. Network Rail’s works at Reading Station’s multi-storey car park have now been completed and the car park is fully open once again.
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.
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