BFARe comments on Bedford council's reports on alternative East West Rail routes

The pressure group’s hybrid option would remove any threat of house demolitions in the Poets area
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At a special meeting arranged by Bedford mayor Tom Wootton at Borough Hall on February 6, Jon Shortland, head of planning and infrastructure, presented the results of three consultant reports the mayor had commissioned into EWRCo’s preferred Route E alignment and give other options, including Bedford For a Re Consultation’s (BFARe) hybrid alternative.

BFARE’s hybrid option would remove any threat of house demolitions in the Poets area, avoid the destruction of huge swathes of sensitive north Bedfordshire countryside and the engineering and environmental challenges which would result, and also allow through passenger and freight services to bypass the town centre. At the same time, connections with Thameslink and East Midlands services at Bedford Midland would be retained and the Council’s aspirations for town centre regeneration could still be achieved.

Mr Shortland’s report concluded there was “no clear winner” amongst the routes considered – “the southern options are almost as good as the northern” – but further work on each option could change these findings. His report maintained, however, that a four-track option north of Bedford Midland for Route E was achievable (it could avoid demolitions in Poets, but there would still be major noise and construction impacts). However, BFARe should point out that the idea of EWR services using the Midland Mainline tracks north of Bedford (the four-track option) has already been rejected by EWRCo on at least two previous occasions.

BFAReBFARe
BFARe

BFARe said: “We welcome the open and transparent way in which the alternatives have been considered and reported to the public by the council, but we are not satisfied the BFARe option was properly assessed or accurately reported. If it had been, our option would have been “the clear winner”.

“First of all, the consultant reports fail to take into account the implications of the Universal Studios proposals south of Bedford. The BFARe option is uniquely placed to serve this. Our proposals would allow faster, more direct rail services to this major national attraction, would bring forward a Parkway Station nearby and allow for additional direct rail connections from the East Coast Mainline near Tempsford without passengers having to change trains. This would considerably boost the GVA generated from the BFARe option compared with any of the others.

“Setting aside the Universal factor, however, the consultants’ economic assessment is biased against the BFARe option when it looks at the GVA benefits if there was a direct rail link between Bedford and Cambridge.

“Their model unjustifiably adds journey time penalties to the BFARe option compared with the other schemes e.g. it ignores our idea of a Bedford South Parkway Station at Kempston Hardwick and chooses Stewartby as the entry station from the Marston Vale Line. It also assumes that residents from some northern parts of Bedford would choose to go to the Stewartby station to catch a service to Cambridge, rather than stations in the town – or even at Tempsford.

“Overall, although there was little to choose in the consultant’s minds between the GVA benefits of any of the options (and the overall uplift to Bedford’s GVA was quite small), if they had not introduced these biases against the BFARe option, it would surely have scored higher than any of the others in terms of economic benefit.

“Looking at other assessment factors, the consultants haven’t looked at the landscape impact of each option, contrary to key national guidelines and the Council’s own Landscape Character Assessment. This is an especially serious omission given the sensitive, rolling landscape north of Bedford which Route E will devastate with vast cuttings, embankments and viaducts.

“A further but related assessment factor which is crucial given the climate emergency is carbon. The carbon penalty related to each route, both arising from construction and then during the operational life of the railway, has been ignored. The consultants say it is not possible to assess this at this stage.

“We are not suggesting that there should be a full carbon assessment of each option. However, it would not take much to rank each of the route options in order of likely carbon impact. The key element underlying a preliminary carbon assessment would be local topography for each route.

“EWR’s preferred route would clearly score much worse than BFARe’s because of all the engineering work it would need in terms of cuttings, embankments, and viaducts (carbon embedded in concrete production). Because of local topography, EWRCo have also designed their railway to the maximum permissible gradient for freight (1:80) which would limit freight capability to the lightest end of the freight spectrum and also means that operationally the route will be far more carbon intensive than BFARe’s flatter route. The steeper northern gradients will also deprive the wider network of an alternative freight path and will thus fall short of the strategic rail capability claimed by England’s Economic Heartlands and others.

“On construction cost, the consultants say that it is not possible to assess this either at this stage. BFARe considers this is a huge omission – there should at least have been a critique of EWRCo’s approach to costings, which at initial consultation stage said that Route E was the most expensive and then it became the second cheapest when Route E was chosen just 7 months later. Worse still, those lower costs emerged from work undertaken for EWRCo while the first consultation was being carried out. Despite all this, the consultants considered EWRCO’s approach was soundly based, which cannot be correct. This surely deserves re-examination.

“The reports also avoid looking at quite a number of construction impacts such as earthworks, haulage routes, work in a tightly built up urban area, noise, vibration and disturbance/severance, which will have a major impact on daily life. As an example, there will be enormous traffic impacts resulting from the need to re-route the Great Ouse Way (A6) near Aldi and Brewpoint to accommodate the new railway under the road. This disruption will be compounded by construction traffic needed to thread the rail line through from Bedford Midland and the work needed to create a deep cutting into the Clapham escarpment. Again some basic work would have shown how much better the BFARe alternative is compared with EWRCo’s preferred option. Our option would remove this issue completely.

“BFARe firmly believes a more rigorous analysis of alternatives to EWRCo’s Route E would clearly point to our hybrid option bringing about the best solution to serve Bedford and the Borough as a whole – “the clear winner” in Mr Shortland’s words. If there is to be a railway between Bedford and Cambridge, the best option for the long term should be sought, taking into account all the relevantfactors and weighing them fairly. Without completing a more comprehensive critique of the options, Bedford Borough Council will not be able to hold EWRCo fully to account – and they will be allowed to continue to press on regardless of local opinion and the real facts.

“We are doing further work to refine our proposals. We will also be meeting the mayor shortly, to outline our concerns and build on the work of the council’s consultants. The borough council needs to withdraw its support for Route E.”