The road to Wixams station

This is a much simpler article than it would have been a couple of months ago. Prior to the announcement of East West Rail’s route, there were two possible new stations just south of Bedford in the offing. Plenty of people confused them, but they were in fact entirely separate proposals. East West Rail’s possible Bedford South Parkway station, on the mooted route that would have by-passed Bedford to the south, could in fact have messed things up rather badly for the other proposed station, at Wixams. Had that route been chosen, almost certainly the Wixams station would have been forced to move from its long-planned site to further north, to act as a split-level interchange with East West Rail. But in the event, Bedford South Parkway is now a dead letter, and the story of Wixams becomes, all being well, much more straightforward. So, to start with: where is Wixams, and why is it being built where it is?

Part 1: Wixams – it’s somewhere in England

During WW2, Bedford was famously described on radio broadcasts as ‘somewhere in England’ – that is, it became famous after the war, as the whole point was to disguise where a chunk of the BBC’s programming was coming from. As previously discussed, even now it’s quite an apt phrase for the town, as it can be seen as containing an imperfect but still fair cross-section of all you might find across England. But it does mean that the phrase gets liberally plastered on anything and everything to do with local history – if there’s an exhibition, play, pamphlet or anything else about Bedford’s history, particularly its mid-20th century history, you can guarantee it will be unimaginatively titled ‘Somewhere In England’.

Historical railways south of Bedford, ROF Elstow in pink (Marston Vale Line purple, Midland Main Line yellow) . Image from Railmap. (Click to expand.)

But for this article, we do indeed need to start by looking back to wartime. In November 1940, on the instructions of the Ministry of Works, construction began just south of Bedford on Royal Ordnance Factory Elstow, Filling Factory 16, on the land bounded by the Midland Main Line to the west and the A6 to the east, between the villages of Elstow to the north and Wilstead to the south. The site was extensive, and ultimately contained 15 miles of railway for moving materials around, with its own connection to the Midland Main Line – the map on the right shows historical railways overlaid on a modern map, with the ROF Elstow lines in pink, giving an indication of where the site was (although you wouldn’t have seen similar on post-war Ordnance Survey maps, which omitted the site entirely for many years). But that’s not the railway connection we’re interested in today.

The site had an occasionally interesting history during the years after the war. Transferred to the Central Electricity Generating Board, latterly National Power, it was proposed as a location for the storage of low-level nuclear waste in the 1980s. Campaigners under the banner Bedfordshire Against Nuclear Dumping averted this, and judging by this flyer for a 1985 ‘family fun day’ in support of it, the campaign engaged people all across the borough and must have been very much in tune with the zeitgeist, coming in the same year as nuclear-themed conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkess was broadcast in primetime on BBC1, for instance. A brick monument was constructed to mark the ultimately successful resistance, locally dubbed the ‘Nirex Battle’, namechecking the body with responsibility for disposing of nuclear waste.

Despite the site seeing odds and ends of other uses, apparently including some of the buildings being used as commercial warehouse space, the layout and architecture of ROF Elstow seemingly survived recognisably into the 2000s, although in an ever-more dilapidated state (the aerial photo on this page clearly shows the layout of ROF Elstow, recognisable from the map of the old railway lines).

Map of Wixams by Greengage Environmental Consultancy – the site of the station is on the upper left corner. (Click to expand.)

Fortunately free of nuclear waste, the former ROF Elstow (its name switched to Elstow Storage Depot at some point in the intervening years) presented a large brownfield site with no obvious commercial use. Skip forward to the 2000s, and plans had been developed for the creation of a substantial new town, first to be called Elstow Garden Villages, and then Wixams. The name is taken from the nearby hundred of Wixamtree (hundreds being the small units used for local administration from before the Norman Conquest up to the late 19th century), although the site itself apparently sits within the next-door hundred of Redbornestoke.

Wixams is a substantial new town. It will be the third largest settlement in Bedford Borough, after Kempston and Bedford itself, covering 384 hectares and eventually comprising 6,000 homes. It is planned to have four ‘villages’, each with its own centre, as well as a town centre in its own right. The first village, Lakeview, welcomed its first residents in 2009, and while construction slowed for a while in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, building has more recently been carried on apace.

The brick monument to the anti-nuclear campaign has been re-built by the developers, a short distance from its original site and incorporating the time capsule that was placed in the original.

However, despite this progress, the long planned railway station for the new town has not yet been built. We’ll now look at the status of the station project.

Part 2: Do you know the way to Wixams station?

It was planned from the outset that Wixams would have a railway station, but the fact that it currently does not arises from a seemingly rather tortuous and long-running saga. To avoid getting bogged down in historical local politics and a lot of he-said-she-said, we’ll try and stick to the key facts.

The principal developers for Wixams, Gallagher Estates, were apparently talking in 2007 about a station being in place and open in 2015. They were planning to contribute something less than half the cost, and hoping the rest to come in from – presumably – national government. Network Rail’s plans for its Control Period 6 include a note to the effect that a station at ‘Wixiams’ (sic) might be built, but make it clear that the necessary finance is not coming from CP6 funds. Indeed, planning permission was granted (recorded in this cached copy of the Council’s review of 2011-12) and the station even appeared in a draft Thameslink timetable, but construction never commenced.

In 2018, the Council stepped in: Mayor Dave announced that the Council would allocate funds for the development of the station, to be recouped subsequently from railway revenues. The official statement quotes him as saying: “This is a crucial facility for Wixams and we cannot let this station just be lost to the community. I know from speaking to local residents just how important this is for so many people. That’s why, while it isn’t the job of councils to build railways stations and that was never intended in this case, I am stepping to make it our business. […] The station should have been made a condition of the development back when planning permission was awarded. It wasn’t, and in the absence of progress previously, we’re acting to make Wixams station a reality.” The Mayor was framing it slightly politically, as local politicians of course have to do (particularly those gearing up for a re-election campaign, as Dave was at the time): the original Section 106 agreements were struck within the frameworks that were applicable at the time, though we can now see they didn’t work out. The announcement was no doubt presented as it was in order to make clear that the arrangements dated back to Frank Branston’s time as mayor (2002-9), before Dave’s election.

The station’s position was long since fixed, with reference to the needs and development of Wixams (hence any move northwards to merge with Bedford South Parkway was so undesirable). It will have a ‘parkway’ role, potentially being a more attractive way for some travellers to get onto the rail network than driving into Bedford, with its limited car parking at the station, and a small number may also use it who currently board their train at Flitwick. Bedford Borough Council is funding the strategic outline business case, which will be put to Network Rail, and will include work to set out the track layout and basics of station design.

It’s planned that four Thameslink trains per hour will call at Wixams: these will be stopping rather than semi-fast services, so presumably the platforms will serve only the two slow lines (unlike stations further south such as Flitwick, which have a platform on each of the four running lines, fast and slow – but these date back to the Midland Main Line’s original extension from Bedford to London in the 1860s, long before today’s service patterns were established). At least one line will have to be slewed to accommodate a platform, either a central ‘island’ platform in between the two lines, or a separate platform for each track.

The Council has allocated £14 million of capital funding for construction of the station, and will recoup it from non-fare rail revenues – things like parking charges and rental from retail concessions, as Thameslink are not allowed under their franchise agreement to increase their fare take overall (any excess returning to the Government), and therefore that’s not an available route for recouping costs. That said, the suspension of rail franchises due to the coronavirus emergency is likely to translate into the permanent scrapping of the system, so the knock-on consequences for how the railway’s finances will work are hard to predict.

The targeted opening date is late 2023, although construction projects can be subject to delays at the best of times, never mind in the throes of a global pandemic. Hopefully though there will be minimal or no further delay, and the residents of Wixams will get to enjoy their new station as soon as possible.

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