Hundreds attend informal East West Rail information sessions

Residents at the East West Rail drop in session at Kings House, Ampthill Road, Bedford (25 May). Image: East West Rail Co
Residents speak to a representative from EWR Co at the drop in session at Kings House, Ampthill Road, Bedford (25 May). Image: East West Rail Co

Drop-in sessions, designed to give Bedford residents a clearer picture of plans to create an Oxford to Cambridge rail line through Bedford have seen hundreds of visitors.

364 Bedfordians have attended the sessions hosted by East West Rail Co (EWRCo) at Wyboston Lakes and Kings House Conference Centre on Ampthill Road.

The Bedford Independent learnt yesterday that a further eight sessions are planned, although dates and locations are still to be confirmed.

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Hannah Staunton, Head of Communications at East West Rail Co, said: “This is a really good opportunity, outside of formal consultations stages, for people to come and chat with the team and have any questions answered that they’ve got.”

East West Rail has been criticised previously for a lack of information available to residents which Hannah defends as purely down to there not being as much information to share at the start of projects like this.

“As the project’s grown, as we’ve got more certainty over what we think the right solution might be, we’ve shared more and more… Comparing the 2019 consultation and 2021 consultation we’ve had significantly more information. I think that’s a given.”

Unanswered questions

EWR’s new CEO Beth West has also said that she hopes to “create something which supports the future of [Bedford’s] communities” and that “it’s really important to keep talking.”

Read: East West Rail Company announces new Chief Executive Officer

Beth West
Beth West, CEO at East West Rail Company

The sessions seem to be doing just that, with a team of representatives from almost all EWR departments on hand to answer questions from attendees.

Residents outside the event from protest groups BFARe and Protect Poets said they were pleased to see more events for residents to discuss the issues.

However, one of the protesters, Claire Burton, said she believes there are still a lot of unanswered questions that need to be officially recorded and answered in further official consultations.

“Why were different route costs changed? What is the best value for the town? What are the costs of other options? What are the environmental impacts? Will there be diesel freight or not?

“My house is affected and none of us knew until much later in the process. I do read lots of information and I never saw anything about the initial consultation.

“Why were we not told?”

Speaking to the Bedford Independent in March 2021, EWR said they carried out a six-week, early-stage, non-statutory consultation, with a series of workshops for parishes that sat close to the route options.

At yesterday’s event, Hannah maintains that consultations and events like this will continue.

“Of course, you [residents] should still come down and talk to us, write to us, email us, let us know your thoughts and keep engaging with this process.

“We want to build this railway to make people’s lives better and to do that we really have to keep in touch with people. So, please do keep engaging with the project, we’d really love to hear from you.”

Claire Burton (left) and other protesters from Protect Poets at EWR drop-in session 25 May Kings Arms Bedford
Claire Burton (left) and other protesters from Protect Poets at the EWR drop-in session on 25 May at Kings Arms, Ampthill Road.

Council has influence

Cllr Ben Foley, Castle Ward (Green), also attended yesterday and agreed that people need to keep engaging with the process to make sure their voices are heard.

Speaking further about the process as a whole, Cllr Foley did add that he and his council colleagues will do what they can to support local people.

“When it comes to the formal processes of East West Rail, we’ve got to wait for them to make their decisions, but at the same time, there are issues we can still influence them on.

“We’re having regular meetings with them and talking about things like, how they’re going to minimise disruption… also what sort of measures they can put in to give back to the community.

“There are also questions about Bedford’s main station which the council has far more influence over than the rest of the scheme.”

When asked if Bedford Borough Council’s Executive Committee are doing enough to represent the views of Bedfordians to EWR he said he isn’t sure.

Green Party councillors for Castle Ward (l-r) Ben Foley and Lucy Bywater

“When I talk to them I feel listened to, but whether I’m being given that impression and then will ultimately be ignored or whether I am really being listened to I can’t tell until things move on.

“It certainly doesn’t just constantly feel like I’m talking to a brick wall. The questions where the council has more influence, it feels like there’s a chance to persuade at least.

“Where the council has less influence we just have to wait and see what East West Rail comes up with.”

Vanessa Ralph, Land and Consents Director at EWR Co, confirmed there will be more opportunities for Bedfordians to record views formally and they will be scrutinised.

“The next steps are to make some decisions and to consult further on those decisions, which is another opportunity for the public to feed into the proposals,” she said.

“Following that, there is then the DCO (Development Consent Order) application… once the application is made there’s a period for the Planning Inspectorate to examine the application.

“We would expect, following that, they would submit a report to the Secretary of State making a recommendation for a decision.

“The Secretary of State then has a few months to decide whether to grant consent or not.

“There are strict legal requirements to comply with and there is a need for the Planning Inspectorate to examine the application properly and ensure our evidence stands up to scrutiny, and there are publicity arrangements around the examination in particular, so people should be well notified.”

The Bedford Independent will publish the future informal session details, and future consultation dates, as soon as they become available.

You can read all our articles about EWR here.

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