Bedford residents, councillors and MPs have called for further consultation on the rail link between Oxford and Cambridge as opposition to the proposed route mounts.
In January 2020, the government announced that East West Rail (EWR) Route E – through Bedford Midland station – had been chosen.
While there is universal agreement that an East – West rail link is vital to the infrastructure of the region, critics of the chosen route say it is the most expensive, will bring 24-hour freight trains through the heart of the town and will devastate the local environment.
One petition, calling for Bedford Borough Council (BBC) to review their decision to support the chosen route, has accumulated over 1,000 signatures in two weeks.
A preference for Route B, which would see Bedford bypassed in favour of a new station to the south of the town at Wixams, has been favoured by some opposition groups, however the English Regional Transport Association (ERTA) suggest that a route via St John’s station is most viable.
However, according to the report by Kilborn Consulting, commissioned by Bedford Borough Council in March 2019, “The location of the Wixams station, which has been fixed by recent work for BBC and is tightly constrained by signalling, electrification and developer requirements.
“In order to capture funding from the developer, the Wixams station will be built well before the EWR is under construction.”
Richard Fuller, MP for NE Bedfordshire and whose Brickhill constituency is one of the most affected, held a Zoom meeting with concerned residents on 19 February.
Resident Mike Barlow, of the Fighting East West Rail Route E Through North Bedford campaign group, shared his concerns over the transparency of the original consultation around costs, economic benefit to the Borough and his shock that Brickhill parish council approved a route through their parish.
Fellow resident Peter Norris told the group he had submitted a letter to the Mayor and to the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, last July/August to oppose the chosen route.
He said he had never received a response.
Mr Fuller has confirmed that he has requested meetings with EWR, Mayor Dave Hodgson and Grant Shapps MP to raise residents’ concerns.
A separate group opposed to the northern route, the Coalition of Parish Councils, claim that, “the necessary re-engineering of the station will lead to a decade of traffic congestion, tailbacks and problems as engineers attempt to create huge railway infrastructure in an already busy Bedford.”
Parish Council Chairman, Brent Fielder, said, “I wonder if the people of Bedford are prepared to pay the horrendous price of traffic, pollution, noise and disruption that this vanity project of the Mayor and Deputy Mayor will cost them?”
Brickhill Parish Council
Pressure is mounting on Brickhill Parish Council to withdraw their support for Route E.
At a tense parish council meeting on 4 February, residents pushed councillors for an Extraordinary Meeting to debate and review their support of the route, which, critics say, will see a train line through the middle of green belt land in the middle of the parish.
At the meeting, campaigner Mike Barlow, told councillors: “It’s disgusting. How can you look yourselves in the eye when you’ve actively not put the interests of your residents first?
“Can the parish council justify why they’ve supported the route that goes through their parish? I cannot believe that councillors have voted for something that will destroy this environment.”
In response, Deputy Mayor and Brickhill councillor, Charles Royden, said: “This was not a decision by the Mayor, this [East West rail link] was adopted by Bedford Borough Council for over a decade and has support of all political parties.
“It is not a party-political issue and we shouldn’t have misinformation.”
Cllr Royden insisted that there was no need for the line to run through Brickhill and that an alternative route can go, “north of Ravensden, north of Brickhill.”
He was contradicted by Mr Barlow, who said: “Charles, the map shows it goes through the middle of the parish.”
An Extraordinary Parish Council meeting will take place on Thursday 25 February.
An alternative perspective
Alongside the proposed routes A, B, C, D and E, ERTA have campaigned for a route via St John’s station in Bedford. In a statement ERTA vice chairman, Richard Pill, said: “We have strong reservations against Route E.
“We have made our calls for the original route with select pieces of new build to be looked at and included in future consultations.
“We are saddened that the Borough and others don’t appear very responsive or to be listening to our calls. The whole theatre unfolding is shambolic.”
Despite repeated calls by ERTA, their St John’s route was not considered as part of the 2019 consultations.
“We are calling on government, Bedford Borough Council, EWRC, EWRCo and the public to get behind the via St John’s options, use what powers they have to protect the corridor and plan now for a rail and leisure corridor, not one or the other.”
Residents and campaign groups have raised concerns over the amount of freight that they believe will be transported on the new East West route.
CPRE Bedfordshire, the Countryside Charity, say that this ‘major freight route’ was not made clear to residents at the time of the original consultation.
Paul Jenkins from CPRE Bedfordshire said: “The East West Rail Consortium promotes the new line as providing a major freight transport link connecting the principal East Coast ports to Cambridge, Bedford, Milton Keynes, Oxford, Swindon and beyond, carrying huge containers travelling to and from countries across the world.
“No other major conurbation across the Oxford – Cambridge Arc wishes to see this freight going through their town/city centres unless it has to.
“It is likely that freight traffic will operate 24/7, disturbing residents’ peace and tranquillity through the night.”
CPRE argue that by taking this principal rail line through the centre of town will not make Bedford a more attractive town in which to live and work.
The suggest that the Mayor, in supporting Route E, appears to be ignoring the environmental impacts of his decisions.
This is a view echoed by the Coalition of Parish Councillors. Spokesperson, Brent Fielder, said: “Every other major town and city along this new railway track has made sure that the line runs through a station either north or south of them.
“Not in Bedford.
“This is the only town where the Council have not only welcomed the disruption but have demanded that it be directed right through their town. Talk about turkeys voting for Christmas!”
In a comment to the Bedford Independent, EWR said it was too early to make assumptions about the amount of freight on the line.
“We have a study underway, and the upcoming consultation will provide communities with further information about freight on East West Rail.
Transparency of costs
At the time of the initial consultation, Route E was shown to the be most expensive of all five proposed suggestions.
However, since then EWR has amended its calculations and Route E now appears to the most cost-effective.
Campaigner Mike Barlow has called on EWR for transparency around their ‘reverse engineering of the figures’.
The Bedford Independent asked EWR for information on the cause of the significant change in projected cost of Route E, from initially appearing to be the most expensive, and now being the most cost-effective option.
Their spokesperson said: “During 2019 as the East West Rail project progressed, further work was carried out to refine the projected costs for the five route options on a like for like basis.
“This work sought to anticipate issues that other projects have faced and thereby reduce the risk of further cost increases later in the project.
“As a major infrastructure project progresses, more information becomes available that may have a bearing on cost predictions. It’s an important part of effective project management that relevant information is considered to inform cost predictions.
“More detail on this will be made available during the upcoming consultation.”
Bedford Borough Council – ‘freight is not the aim’
The Bedford Independent put residents’ concerns the council and received a statement from Cllr Michael Headley, defending their decision to back the route through the existing Bedford station.
He said, “We have to do the best for our Borough and it would be a kick in the teeth for our economy if we saw this 100mph high speed passenger railway linking Oxford and Cambridge just by-pass Bedford without stopping in the town.”
Cllr Headley described the East West rail link as a vital piece of new infrastructure for the area that the council has been lobbying for for nearly 30 years, with cross party support.
“The East West Railway company are building a frequent, fast passenger service that links Bedford with other key economies to our mutual benefit.
“Just like the existing railway, there may well be some freight trains but that is not the aim of the railway.
“Don’t forget that the rejected routes bypassing Bedford had looked set to kill off the Wixams railway station, causing an even greater hit to our Borough.
“These alternative routes bypassing Bedford would have caused an environmental impact, such as a threat to the RSPB Nature Reserve at Sandy.”
Mohammad Yasin, MP for Bedford and Kempston, said: “There are pros and cons to all of the suggested routes, and I know there are strong feelings on both sides of the debate with regard to Route E.
“That is why I am calling for a further consultation on the issue to ensure the public and all stakeholders get a fair hearing on this vital infrastructure project.”
Mike Barlow said, “We would like an even-handed reassessment of the southern routes, an investigation into the option of a route to allow diesel freight to bypass the town and a modelling of deisgns allowing in-out traffic at Bedford Midland for passenger trains or an exchange at Wixams.
“Essentially using existing urbanised route, rather than the creating a new one out of our green and pleasant land.”
The route will be discussed at the full council meeting tomorrow (Wednesday), followed by Brickhill Parish Council’s extraordinary meeting on Thursday.