If you were presented with a project that offered reduced journey times, improved connectivity between growing conurbations, new routes for rail freight traffic, regional growth and benefits to local communities with the potential for creating 12000 new jobs, less road traffic so less pollution and congestion, what more would you want? Writes Colin Carr

Well, that’s what the proposed East West Rail (EWR) is offering and it’s a ‘no brainer’ as they say. Liking no brainers, The Rail Engineer visited Bernard Hulland, Network Rail’s project development manager, at their offices in Milton Keynes.

EWR is not a simple concept as it has aspirations to link Oxford, Bicester, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, Aylesbury, Cambridge and beyond into East Anglia. It is a major project that establishes a strategic railway connecting East Anglia with Central, Southern and Western England bringing with it the inevitable challenges and opportunities for the railway engineering community.

Old railways revitalised and upgraded

Bernard explained that the East West Rail project was originally promoted by the EWR Consortium consisting of local authorities and other organisations with an interest in improving access through this growth area. In 2012, the ‘Western Section’, comprising Oxford to Bicester and Bicester/Princes Risborough to Milton Keynes/Bedford, was included in the High Level Output Statement by the Department for Transport. It became a commitment for Network Rail to deliver during Control Period 5 (2014-19) although the Bletchley to Bedford upgrading ismorelikelytobedoneinControlPeriod6 forming a third phase.

The ‘Central Section’ will run from Bedford to Cambridge, while the ‘Eastern Section’ will take the route out to Norwich and Ipswich.

The first phase of the ‘Western Section’ extends from Oxford to Bicester, refurbishing approximately 14 miles of a low speed, single line route currently used for local passenger and some freight traffic. Much of the old double track was removed in the 1970s and the associated embankments and bridges have been allowed to decline so they need to be restored to modern standards.

In fact, this part of the project is based upon an existing project developed by Chiltern Railways, formerly known as the Evergreen 3 scheme. The original main aim of the Evergreen 3 scheme was to provide Chiltern Railways and its passengers with a new route from the city of Oxford into London’s Marylebone Station. It will be the first new rail route from a city into London for 100 years.

The EWR project is not changing this aspiration but it is raising the specification for the route between Oxford and Bicester from a single line with loops to a 14-mile two-track railway to accommodate both the half hourly Chiltern Railways service and the later introduction of half hourly EWR services to Milton Keynes and Bedford. The work throughout the route has been let to a joint venture between Buckingham Group and Carillion, contract value £87 million.

Work is already underway to create a new chord linking the line from Oxford into the Chiltern main line and there will be an extensively upgraded Bicester Town station to accommodate this route alongside the main Chiltern line. In addition, Islip station will be fully refurbished with new platforms and car parking to cater for the two tracks and the expected rise in volume of passengers.

A new Oxford Parkway station is being built at Water Eaton alongside the existing Park and Ride facility. This work will be completed by spring 2015, when the station will act as the terminus until a new track layout is completed between Oxford North Junction, near Wolvercote, and Oxford station. A new platform will be constructed at Oxford station and the work is expected to be completed by the following spring in

EWR route [online]2016.

Removing level crossings

At present there are thirty-seven level crossings catering for different needs along the route between Oxford and Bicester. All except the Bicester London Road crossing, which will become a refurbished full barrier level crossing, will be removed. Some will be replaced by bridges, some will have the right of way amended and some will disappear altogether.

The existing signalling system for the route is totally inadequate and it is being replaced by Siemens which is installing a modern Solid State Interlocking (SSI) system. This will largely be controlled from the Marylebone signalling centre with the Didcot signalling centre being responsible for the Oxford end of the route.

Flood modelling

Much of the route is in the River Thames flood plain and, as many will recall, flooding in this area featured quite prominently throughout last winter. Network Rail procured the services of Wallingford HydroSolutions (WHS) to review the plans for the project so that they do not aggravate the flooding problem in the area and, most importantly, to ensure that new assets are not exposed to flood risk and potential failure.

WHS has identified a number of locations that would benefit from further detailed flood modelling. For example, the closure of some redundant crossings and their associated structures, the construction of new access roadways and the creation of new track formations all have the potential to create additional flooding problems. The modelling was used to design mitigation measures, such as compensatory storage areas, to help control the flood risk identified. The modelling has also been used by WHS to help Network Rail identify areas where compensatory storage could be discounted or reduced in area and depth. This has been crucial in some areas of the scheme that pass through protected archaeological features. It has been estimated that for this first phase of the EWR project, the benefits of this modelling work has saved the project more than £100,000 so far.

Removing level crossings

At present there are thirty-seven level crossings catering for different needs along the route between Oxford and Bicester. All except the Bicester London Road crossing, which will become a refurbished full barrier level crossing, will be removed. Some will be replaced by bridges, some will have the right of way amended and some will disappear altogether.

The existing signalling system for the route is totally inadequate and it is being replaced by Siemens which is installing a modern Solid State Interlocking (SSI) system. This will largely be controlled from the Marylebone signalling centre with the Didcot signalling centre being responsible for the Oxford end of the route.

Flood modelling

Much of the route is in the River Thames flood plain and, as many will recall, flooding in this area featured quite prominently throughout last winter. Network Rail procured the services of Wallingford HydroSolutions (WHS) to review the plans for the project so that they do not aggravate the flooding problem in the area and, most importantly, to ensure that new assets are not exposed to flood risk and potential failure.

WHS has identified a number of locations that would benefit from further detailed flood modelling. For example, the closure of some redundant crossings and their associated structures, the construction of new access roadways and the creation of new track formations all have the potential to create additional flooding problems. The modelling was used to design mitigation measures, such as compensatory storage areas, to help control the flood risk identified. The modelling has also been used by WHS to help Network Rail identify areas where compensatory storage could be discounted or reduced in area and depth. This has been crucial in some areas of the scheme that pass through protected archaeological features. It has been estimated that for this first phase of the EWR project, the benefits of this modelling work has saved the project more than £100,000 so far.

Flooding and other environmental issues will always play a significant role in such a picturesque and environmentally sensitive area as the Chilterns and it is not surprising that bats in Wolvercote Tunnel, badgers throughout the area and of course, our good friend the Great Crested Newt have all demanded a certain amount of attention. In fact, the newt has ensured that about 30km of special newt resistant fencing has had to be installed.

This phase of work will also bring important conurbations such as High Wycombe into the scheme offering further transport links to Oxford and onwards as well as starting to introduce additional pathways for freight traffic.

image [online]The second phase, which is between Bicester/Princes Risborough and Milton Keynes/Bedford (although as already stated, Bletchley to Bedford upgrading is likely to be completed after 2019), has significant potential to further enhance these and many more options. The sum of two million pounds was raised by the consortium group to enable Atkins to carry out a detailed feasibility report for this route, outlining the work that would be required to enable the following pattern of train service to operate efficiently and effectively:

  • Oxford to Milton Keynes – 1train/hr;
  • Oxford to Bedford – 1train/hr;
  • Aylesbury to Milton Keynes – 1 train/hr;
  • Bletchley to Bedford – 1 local train/hr;
  • Spare capacity to be built in for additional passenger and freight traffic.

Structural assessment of viaduct

This second phase was sold to the DfT and now forms part of the CP5 package of work. It will require the mothballed line, last used in 1992, to be brought back into use. This includes the lightly used Bletchley Viaduct with its prestressed concrete beam structure, completed in 1962. Core samples are currently being extracted from the structure to assess its condition and ability to carry future loading requirements. In addition, a large amount of vegetation has been cleared from the disused section of line so that a topographical survey can be undertaken. This phase is planned to be completed in 2019, which is the end of the financial period.

Further extension, over the proposed EWR ‘Central Section’, from Bedford to Cambridge, has not yet been defined in detail but definition is imminent. Unfortunately, parts of the old railway now have structures such as radio telescopes and housing developments built on them, especially in the Sandy and Cambridge areas, so at present plans are aspirational. However, there is the potential for a radical new railway and the will certainly appears to be there.

Whilst all this is going on there are plans being developed for the HS2 route to come near Aylesbury and to cross the East West railway between Bicester and Bletchley. Whether this will happen remains to be seen as it’s not quite a no brainer with estimates in the billions! However, costs for the Oxford, Aylesbury to Bedford part of the scheme are in the region of £270 million, with the completed EWRL scheme estimated at approximately £530 million.

The benefits outlined earlier and the opportunity to create new alternative routes for freight and passengers alike, plus the added potential benefits for commuters and land developers, mean that this ‘no brainer’ really does appear to have the basic credentials. It will also enable railway engineers to use their brain and ingenuity to ensure that the many challenges that will emerge will be met with skill and effective solutions, as always