Oxford-Cambridge Arc: What does a new regional transport plan mean for Bedford?

Image Credit: Paul Gillett, Geograph - CC BY SA2.0

In the third of a series of articles on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc (OxCam Arc), the Bedford Independent looks at the impact regional developments could have on Bedford Borough’s transport infrastructure.

On Thursday (25 February), England’s Economic Heartland (EEH) unveiled its transport strategy. EEH is a sub-national body responsible for connectivity plans, bringing together local authorities spanning the OxCam Arc area and beyond.

EEH’s transport strategy – Connecting People, Transforming Journeys – took over two years and runs to 78 pages.

Key takeaways for Bedford Borough residents include:

● A revised ambition to achieve a net zero transport system by 2040
● Support for electrification of East-West Rail and more EV charging points
● Making the Bedford Western Bypass a dual carriageway and planned A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvements are identified as key road investment priorities
● EEH endorses a station for Wixams, the Bedford to Milton Keynes Waterway Park and 5G fibre infrastructure along East-West Rail

The Oxford-Cambridge Expressway is absent. The government ‘paused’ funding for it at the last budget. Although it survived a legal challenge from wildlife charities, it has faced strong local opposition.

Mayor Dave Hodgson is chair of EEH’s strategic transport forum and commented in a press release:

“Our focus must now be on turning words into actions. The strategy will require investment – from Government, from our partners and from the private sector – but as a region we offer investors a significant return on their initial outlay.”

Bedford Independent interviewed EEH programme director Martin Tugwell. He leads a team of nine professionals working on behalf of the local authority partners.

“Fundamentally, we’re there to make sure and work on behalf of our partners to make our voice heard within Westminster and within Whitehall, so that there’s a very strong voice about the importance of investing in this part of the world.”

On the transport strategy, Tugwell was asked for his key points for borough residents.

He highlighted continuing work with local partners, like Bedford Borough Council, ‘to understand what improvements we need in local connectivity to support and complement’ East-West Rail.

Besides support for a station at Wixams and the dualling of Bedford Western Bypass, he brought up improving the Midlands Main Line. The area was described as having ‘lost out in many respects’ at the last line franchise award.

EEH supports restoring the Midland Main Line services which were previously cut.

Tugwell (below) also revealed that Highways England were submitting the development consent order to gain effective planning permission for the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvements.

EEH programme director, Martin Tugwell

The transport strategy was shaped by two public consultations. The first used a ‘more open set of questions’ to get feedback on local people’s transport priorities.

Tugwell said these had shown ‘quite powerfully’ public hunger for greater decarbonisation ambition.

In 2017, transport emissions amounted to 47% of the heartland’s total CO2 emissions. This compares to 37% nationally.

Future local connectivity studies and a minimum five yearly review of the transport strategy will seek further public engagement. All EEH meetings are also publicly recorded and open to members of the public.

While government ‘holds the cash’, Tugwell commented, EEH is there to ‘make the best possible case’ for connectivity investment in the region.

Tugwell was positive about EEH’s relationship with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps:

“Now, the Secretary of State for Transport has been very clear, you know, he wants to be able to hear from the local partners about what’s important for them, what’s the investment priorities.

“And they’ve been very consistent, both the secretary of state and his ministerial team, to say, ‘who better to know what’s important for their local area than the local partners?’ ”

EEH also holds responsibility for improving digital connectivity.

Tugwell said that an ongoing focus was delivering 5G connectivity along the Bicester-Bletchley part of East-West Rail.

Installing it at the same time as the line would produce the ‘prize’ of substantial savings made.
EEH are also pushing for the 5G fibre infrastructure to be specified in future East-West Rail plans.

Cycling and Ongoing Developments

EEH’s transport strategy commits to improving the heartland’s cycling and walking options.
This includes supporting the ‘creation of a pan-regional network of greenways’ and making the national cycle network ‘segregated where possible’ from roads.

Cycle lane sign

Sustrans oversees the network and their 2018 Paths for Everyone report set out a vision of ‘a UK-wide network of traffic-free paths for everyone, connecting cities, towns and countryside, loved by the communities we serve’.

East of England network development manager Rosalind Bacon said ‘an extensive audit’ had found the Varsity Way cycle route to be of ‘mixed quality’.

She added: “We will be working with local authorities, cycling and walking groups and local residents to draw up Network Plans in 2021, with solutions to improve all routes.”

Work was completed last year to add a dual carriageway to a 3km stretch of the A421 in central Bedfordshire and a cycle path next to it.

In the town centre itself, the council’s Transporting Bedford strategy is behind current works to remodel the High Street.

Read: Partial closure of High Street until November 2021 as improvement works begin

The Bedford Independent raised the topic of recent controversy concerning freight on East-West Rail. EEH’s transport strategy supports increasing freight rail movements.

Tugwell said it was better to build a new railway with the ‘ability to deal with freight’ than later.

However, he said Felixstowe-Nuneaton need to be electrified at the same time as East-West Rail’s built. If that happens, ‘the market will want to take freight trains, first and foremost’ through there instead.

Future articles in this series will dig deeper into the Arc’s potential impact on Bedford Borough by looking at East-West Rail and the environment.

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