The East West Rail Company has already looked in some detail at the challenges of providing an alternative route for vehicles when, as seems likely, the London Road level crossing is closed because of safety linked to the new rail services to Milton Keynes and Cambridge.
We’ve extracted the pages of information from the Consultation Technical Report so that the details are easy to find. The pages can be viewed if you click here.
View the alternatives for the probable permanent closure of the level crossing.
The East West Rail project has published details of 6 options that it is considering for the resolution of the issues at London Road level crossing in Bicester. Each option involves closing the existing level crossing because it says there are safety concerns linked to the crossing being closed for up to 50 minutes in each hour when the new rail services begin (probably in 2025).
As the Public Inquiry into Phase 2 of East West Rail begins today in Milton Keynes I have been looking at the latest station usage data. Estimates of Station Usage for 2017-18, for all stations in Great Britain, were published by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) in December 2018. There were almost 2 million entries and exits at Bicester Village station representing 51% increase in usage compared with the previous year. East West Rail Phase 1 was completed in December 2016 and the latest estimates include the first full year’s data for Chiltern Railways’ Oxford to Marylebone train service.
Annual Estimates of Station Usage – data from orr.gov.uk
Change since 2016-17
Nationally, usage was flat while the general trend across the south east was down. Several years of above average fare increases are now clearly having an impact. Yet on the Chiltern route, Banbury, Leamington Spa, Warwick, Warwick Parkway, Solihull and High Wycombe all showed small increases. Bicester North showed a 14% drop in usage while Birmingham Moor Street and Snow Hill also saw small decreases. On the North Cotswolds line and other routes into Oxford usage also fell.
It is clear that most of the 1.35 million increase at Oxford will be due to commuting on the new Chiltern service, particularly from Bicester. The 14-minute journey is attractive compared with the congested A34. While Oxford will have seem some growth from further afield, opening of the new Westgate shopping centre will also be a factor.
Locally there has also been some abstraction from Bicester North to Bicester Village. Despite the more limited car parking facilities, the train service between Bicester Village and Marylebone is now clearly preferred. And commuting to Oxford looks set to grow further when the service increases to 5tph from Bicester with EWR Phase 2 from 2023. Back in 2007-08 the equivalent figures for Bicester Town and Bicester North were 52,000 and 911,000 – how things have changed in 10 years…
The East West Rail scheme should be good news for Bicester overall. However, as residents will be aware, Network Rail have ignored the London Road level crossing in all of their consultations for Phase 2 of the scheme (EWR2). Officially the position of Network Rail and local councillors is that there are no plans to close the crossing.
When the line through to Bletchley, Milton Keynes and Bedford reopens from 2023 it will result in at least 3x as many trains running (with the prospect of more to come in future).
Whether or not the road is actually closed, when the crossing is closed for 45 minutes in an hour (as seems likely) the net effect will be similiar. EWR2 significantly impacts on the level crossing, increasing congestion and effectively cutting off Langford Village from the town centre.
We have made it clear that simply closing the crossing (as many residents fear), or doing nothing is not an option. We and many others have been pushing for clarity on the issue. A solution is needed that will allow an accessible route into town to be maintained whilst removing the conflict between road and rail at the level crossing.
The LVCA is objecting to the EWR2 scheme not just because of the lack of a solution at London Road but also due to the lack of electrification.
Network Rail say in their statement of case to the forthcoming Public Inquiry that “the extended closure times are comparable to other busy level crossings around the UK which are considered to operate safely”. Some improvements to signalling are planned to be implemented as part of EWR2 which could reduce the cumulative barrier down time by 25-40 minutes per 24 hour period – i.e. up to 2 minutes per hour could be saved. These improvements could be implemented by 2022.
However, I will be pointing out that running just one extra train each hour wipes out any time savings. We already know there will be more trains than originally planned; building 1 million houses in the region will surely mean even more trains, and the railway through Bicester already has the capacity to handle more trains – both passenger and freight.
Network Rail say they are “committed to working with Oxfordshire County Council (as the Highways Authority) to secure a permanent road solution (overbridge or underpass) for London Road Level Crossing”.
As I have said, such a solution appears not to be funded. And as was posted on this site in 2017 a replacement bridge or tunnel at London Road could cost more than £60 million. The cost is no doubt considerably more than it would have been, had it been implemented in 2015. Yet if a solution is delayed beyond 2023 the cost will sky-rocket.
Whilst no announcement on funding was forthcoming in the Budget on 29 October, it does seem that things could be moving forwards at last and the elephant in the room is not going to be ignored. Getting it right first time is often the best and most cost effective way.
At the AGM I gave an update on the proposed Expressway between Cambridge and Oxford. This new type of ‘smart’ expressway will feel more like a motorway with signage on a blue background and some ‘Smart’ motorway features. It will have emergency refuge areas, a variable speed limit, active traffic management but no hard shoulder.
In November 2017, the National Infrastructure Commission published its report “Partnering for Prosperity” which talks about designing transport to unlock major housing growth. The report says that for the arc from Oxford to Cambridge to maximise its economic potential… “current rates of house building will need to double – delivering up to one million new homes by 2050″
Opportunities for growth include expansion of Milton Keynes to a population of 500,000 and development between Bicester and Bletchley, unlocked through the combination of East West Rail and the Expressway, with the potential to grow to city-scale.
Key to this Expressway is closing a 30 mile gap in the national strategic road network between the M1 at Milton Keynes and the M40. On 12 September 2018, the Government announced the preferred corridor for the Expressway from the M1 at Junction 13. It would broadly follow the route of East West Rail via Winslow and likely pass south of Bicester to the M40 and continue eventually to Oxford and Abingdon.
The preferred route could be announced in 2020 – the first time the public get to have a say. The Expressway could cost £3.5bn and open by 2030.
It strikes me that there is no debate and no joined-up thinking on whether this motorway-on-the-cheap is a good idea, let alone whether a million homes is even feasible. Are there enough water resources to support another 2.4 million people regionally? Another 300,000 homes in Oxfordshire in the space of 30 years would more than double the existing housing stock, built up over hundreds of years! Councils have already been asked where they might put these extra houses. Local Wildlife Trusts say that the corridor selected is possibly the worst option and have launched a Judicial Review. Covering the countryside in concrete could be a catastrophe.
Langford residents suffering ongoing delays and problems at the London Road level crossing may wonder what is being planned to address this, especially in view of the increased number of passenger and freight trains that will eventually run when the East West Rail link to Bedford and beyond becomes operational.
A road bridge is planned to replace the level crossing on the ring road at Charbridge Lane, but the London Road crossing is more challenging. A report published in January 2017 by Network Rail for Oxfordshire County Council, titled “Development of Identified Options for London Road Level Crossing, Bicester – Key Findings”, outlines the problems involved and the options available. Two potential underpass options are being considered, with cost estimates varying between £61 million and £65million, and a bridge option is also under consideration at a cost of up to £44 million. A copy of this 3-page report can be downloaded from the OCC website.