Campaigners call EWR meeting “a tick-box exercise” but Bedford and Kempston MP says it was “constructive”

BFARe protesters outside St Cuthbert's Hall EWR meeting with Mohammed Yasin MP 15 October
BFARe protesters outside a meeting at St Cuthbert's Hall.

Bedfordians campaigning against the East-West Rail route have told the Bedford Independent a meeting with Simon Blanchflower, CEO of the East-West Rail Co (EWR Co), was nothing more than “smoke and mirrors” and a “tick-box exercise.”

The meeting, last week (15 October) was organised by Mohammed Yasin MP (Labour, Bedford and Kempston) so representatives from EWR Co could meet and talk with residents who are likely to be impacted by the chosen Route E.

While Mr Blanchflower was there to reassure residents whose homes face demolition if a six-track route is chosen, attendees say that he failed to answer questions beyond “we’re still looking at the consultation submissions”.

While Route E has been chosen as the route that EWR will follow, the exact ‘footprint’ the tracks will run is still being discussed.

One of the options causing most concern locally is whether there will be six or four lines to the north of Bedford.

If six lines are chosen then over 50 homes in the Poets area of Bedford will be demolished.

Nearly 50 more would also lose some of their land or gardens and Bromham Road Bridge would need to be demolished and rebuilt, just a few years after its recent upgrade.

Details of homes under threat in the Poets Area of Bedford
Details of homes under threat in the Poets Area of Bedford

Campaigners and others have argued strongly that only four lines are needed, including a rail consultation report commissioned by Bedford Borough Council.

Read: “No need to demolish Poets’ homes,” says rail consultant’s report into East-West Rail

However, the report by SLC Rail, specialists in rail projects, found that:

  • EWR trains could run on the existing lines, as in a standard hour of train services there are still 28 minutes, nearly half of the time, where the line is free and an EWR service could run.
  • It also shows that this free time could be extended to 40 minutes in the hour with some relatively minor changes to the track layout within its existing boundaries.
  • The report concludes that with efficient timetabling and some track layout adjustments it is possible to bring the EWR service through Bedford Midland without the need to demolish homes.
  • This would also be a cheaper option than the proposed six tracks.

Tour of Poets

The 45-minute meeting at St. Cuthbert’s Hall was attended by 44 people including Cllrs Ben Foley and Cllr Lucy Bywater (Green party, Castle), Cllr Louise Jackson (Labour, Harpur) and Mr Yasin MP.

Cllr Colleen Atkins (Labour, Harpur) was not at the meeting but did help with a tour of the Poets area with Mr Blanchford.

Bedfordians voiced disagreement that the new EWR project was good for Bedford.

In a statement sent to the Bedford Independent afterwards, Nikki Mellonie, from Bedford for a Re-consultation (BFARe), said: “The destruction of homes, decreasing property values decreasing, and the need to sell scheme being was breaking up the community.”

Ms Mellonie was the only attendee from BFARe at the meeting, while others from the group protested outside.

“As a resident of Brickhill, I walked away feeling angry on behalf of residents in Poets,” she added.

“They gained no reassurances and it’s very obvious that residents feel incredibly let down by Councillors Jackson and Atkins.

“The not knowing and for how much longer is quite clearly taking its toll on residents.”

In a joint statement after the meeting, Cllrs Jackson and Atkins said they’d been “clear from the outset” that homes in the Poets area must not be lost.

They added that they were pleased Simon Blanchflower and his team were able to see the area that would be impacted by a six-track line and hear what the Cllrs call “strong representations in favour of a four-track scheme.”

“We sincerely hope that EWR will listen.”

EWR Meeting Cllrs, EWR representatives and MP at Bedford Station
L-R Cllr Louise Jackson, Cllr Colleen Atkins, Will Gallagher (Strategy Director, EWR), Mohammed Yasin MP, Cllr Ben Foley, Simon Blanchflower (CEO EWR Co), and Cllr Lucy Bywater.

More meetings to come

Speaking to the Bedford Independent and others at Bedford Station after the meeting, Mr Blanchflower said that he felt the meeting went well and that meetings will continue.

“I was pleased to be in Bedford again to be able to meet in person with Mohammad Yasin MP and representatives from the local community, to understand their local perspective on current proposals,” he said.

He also confirmed that the EWR team are still analysing 9,000 consultation responses and that the EWR Co will continue to meet face-to-face with local representatives.

When asked about freight trains that may use the line, Mr Blanchflwer said that they still need more of an idea of what EWR’s role in the national freight strategy is.

“We continue to have discussions around the framework of the national freight strategy and what the role of EWR should or shouldn’t be in terms of the national freight strategy,” he said.

“We will need to close those down in time to make sure that those are reflected in the statuary consultation next year, so, as part of our overall assessment of the route, we can be clear on what the assumptions are around freight and they are built into that consultation.”

When pressed by media on how EWR is assessing the environmental impact of the route, following claims of “creative carbon accounting” at a recent council meeting, Mr Blanchflower said they’re still assessing the full environmental impact.

“For any project, you have to create a carbon baseline from which you can then measure. The team is currently working on that baseline based on construction and operation,” said Mr Blanchflower.

“We will then be challenging ourselves to see how we can reduce that baseline through the use of construction materials and how we build the railway. But also in the longer term to reduce operational carbon as well”.

Views heard

Mr Yasin too said that he felt the meeting was “very constructive” and that residents views “were heard”.

The Bedford and Kempston MP supports Route E, saying a new station connecting Bedford directly on the Oxford to Cambridge arc is “undoubtedly a very important and potentially exciting opportunity for our town.”

“It will attract jobs and enterprise and make Bedford a serious transport hub with great connections to the capital and the North,” he said.

But he warned that “there is no need to demolish homes” and there would be no support for EWR from anyone in Bedford if six lines are chosen and homes are demolished.

But comments from Mr Yasin that EWR has the full support of Bedfordians, if four lines are chosen, have been met with dismay.

Commenting on the ‘Protect Poets – Save Our Homes!’ Facebook group, Chris White said, “he [Mr Yasin] states that the people in town support the route. This is not true and his constituency have not been consulted.”

Mr Yasin did add, however, that while he feels reassured EWR is looking into all options, local people must continue to make their views heard.

“I could have held this meeting with just myself and local representatives, but I made sure that EWR Co. came to Bedford to speak with the residents,” he said.

“While I’m a little disappointed to hear that Mr Blanchflower is set to retire in March 2022, he will have chosen the alignment to complete the route from Oxford to Cambridge so now is the perfect time to make our voices heard”.

Speaking about his retirement, Mr Blanchflower said he feels he’ll be leaving the EWR plans with a “fantastic foundation for my successor to build upon”.