East West Rail 2021 consultation: plans for the Poets

Introduction

This is the first in a series of articles looking at the proposals in East West Rail’s current consultation exercise, and what they might mean for Bedford.

This blog will particularly look at sections B, C and D of the project, as the consultation calls them: that’s the Marston Vale line, the stretch of line through Bedford St Johns and Bedford stations, and the stretch of line that goes around the north of town to head east towards Cambridge.

By far the most well-known and controversial aspect of the proposals for Bedford is the suggestion that houses in the Poets area could be demolished to make way for two new tracks, just north of Bedford station. So that’s where we’ll start, and further articles over the next few weeks will cover the other parts of the line.

The existing four tracks of the Midland Main Line, looking north from the Bromham Road bridge as seen on Google Earth (imagery captured before the recent electrification works). The ‘Poets’ area is to the right, Granet Close and Beverley Crescent to the left.

“Route E or not Route E?” – that is not the question
EWR’s proposals to demolish properties in the Poets area came shortly after a period of acrimonious campaigning by residents around the north of Bedford who had noticed the decision announced a year previously to build the new line to Cambridge near their part of town (‘Route E’ in the consultation held a couple of years back). This blog has covered that campaign previously.

The danger is that campaigning to protect homes in the Poets area becomes lumped in with the wider campaign against Route E. A campaign to save homes in the Poets could potentially succeed. The campaign against Route E as a whole, and to secure a ‘re-consultation’ (which the campaigners hope would deliver a result more to their personal liking) is far less well-founded, and has little prospect of success – at least, if it continues making its current arguments.

Route E can be built without demolishing homes in the Poets area. Campaigners would be well advised to concentrate on pushing for that option. The overwhelming likelihood is that Route E will be built in some form or other – the question for Bedford now is what form it takes.

This section of the article will run through the various options that have been developed for the line just north of Bedford station. Unfortunately, EWR’s main consultation document only outlines one of the possibilities, their ‘emerging preferred option’. For the other options, you need to look at the very lengthy Consultation Technical Report (PDF). This problem of important and useful detail being squirrelled away, and requiring readers to work hard to track it down, is a shortcoming throughout the consultation.

As will hopefully be clear from the various maps, we’re talking here about the stretch of line that runs north from the Bromham Road bridge, to where the new route will diverge to the east (after which it will go under the by-pass, then over the river, the A6 and Clapham Road on a viaduct, before going into a cutting under Carriage Drive).

There are five options for this stretch of line, under the following descriptive headings:
• Four Track
• Five Track Eastern
• Five Track Western
• Six Track Eastern
• Six Track Western.
In these headings ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ describes where new tracks would be built, relative to the existing four tracks already in place: so, ‘Five Track Eastern’ means one new track will be built, to the east of the current four tracks, giving five in total. In the ‘Four Track’ option, no new tracks are needed and no properties will have to be demolished.

Before we look at each option, two quick points to keep in mind. Firstly, the ‘Western’ options would be much more expensive and disruptive to build, as all the operation and infrastructure of the existing lines would have to be moved westward to allow EWR to take over one or two of the current ‘slow’ lines (the eastern pair of the four tracks currently in place). So while it’s not impossible they could be selected, these are probably the least promising options.

Secondly, EWR have calculated the amount of space any new tracks will need on a ‘reasonable worst-case’ basis: this means they have worked out the most land they could plausibly need. This is important, as it’s almost certainly more than they would really use, and they acknowledge that with future survey work, the estimate of land needed could be reduced. In particular, their proposed 5.5m separation between their preferred two new eastern tracks and the existing tracks seems obviously excessive. Reducing the width of the ‘corridor’ needed for new tracks would not make it possible to build them without any demolitions at all, but could potentially reduce the number of affected properties substantially.

Four Track

This is likely to be the option of greatest interest to campaigners in the Poets area, as it would mean no demolitions are needed. EWR’s Consultation Technical Report makes clear that it would be possible to build the new line with only the existing four tracks, and outlines the engineering and operational compromises that would have to be made.

Firstly, to accommodate East Midlands expresses without getting in the way of EWR trains, a new platform could be needed at Bedford on the southbound ‘fast’ line (which is currently a non-stop line – that and the northbound ‘fast’ were in fact originally ‘avoider’ lines for Bedford station, and platform 4 on the northbound fast line only got built in the late 1990s). A new platform on that line would be a good outcome for Bedford, and avoid the current clashes between southbound East Midlands expresses and Thameslink trains competing for platform space. (The proposals for redeveloping Bedford station as a whole will be covered in a future article.)

An alternative would be a new set of points to enable these trains to access platform 3 nearer the station. The new points would mean reducing the speed limit for non-stopping trains from 125mph to 110 mph. Or the points could be built on straight track further north, avoiding the speed limit reduction but requiring the rebuilding of Bromham Road bridge… again. Unfortunately quite a few permutations that would support a four track solution would require major work on the bridge. One might say it was a foul-up not to incorporate the future needs of EWR when the bridge was rebuilt for electrification works, although given the chronology of the two different projects it’s not clear whether this would really have been feasible.

The bridge also makes a difference to speeds for EWR trains heading north out of the station: with the current bridge, they would be limited to 25mph until they had passed it; with a rebuild, it could be 40mph.

The current Bedford North Junction would need to be modified so that EWR trains can diverge eastwards. Existing points would have to be moved to new locations.

Using the existing four tracks would also give a steeper gradient to the new line as it rises to clear the A6, and a tighter radius to the curve of the bridge. EWR observe that this could restrict the accessibility of the line to “some” freight trains, but do not quantify how many, or how much of a problem this would be. This is an instance where a firm decision on whether or not the line will be built for freight would be helpful in adding clarity – although the fact that this option restricts the line’s usefulness to freight, but this does not automatically rule it out of consideration, further demonstrates that a decision on freight has not yet been reached.

The tighter and steeper curve would also limit trains’ top speeds over this stretch, although they would still be able to attain 80mph. Overall, the slightly slower speeds available via the four track option would extend journey times by an estimated one minute, which EWR expects would have a “marginal” impact on how many people choose to use the line, but not zero. What’s not explored is how this might shake out taking into account areas where speeds might be improved, for instance by achieving better speeds than the planned minimum through Bedford St Johns (see future article).

Clearly then, there is a case to be made for the four track option. In engineering terms, it is feasible. How it compares to the other options in terms of the operation of the railway will be considered below.

Five Track Eastern

This option would see a new track built to the east of the current four, on the side of the line bordered by the Poets area. Under their excessively wide projected corridor, EWR estimate that 17 properties would likely require demolition, plus a further 28 that are attached to the properties which are likely to require demolition; also, 51 properties may lose part of their garden or parking area. However, no figures are given for what would be needed under a narrower, more realistic corridor – but almost certainly it would be fewer.

EWR’s assessment of this option is overall pretty unsurprising: it would provide somewhat more capacity than the four track option, but would also still have some of the constraints around capacity, line speeds and how the tracks enter Bedford station.

Five Track Western

To build the new track on the other side of the line, to the west of the existing tracks, some properties would still require demolition – but, obviously, not the same ones. Residential properties on Granet Close would be affected, and residential properties on Beverley Crescent and Queensbury Close might lose some of their gardens. The figures are 11 properties likely to need demolition, plus 16 more attached to them, and 14 more losing garden or parking areas. Again, how much lower those figures could be with a narrower construction corridor is unknown.

Like the other five track option, this provides some extra capacity that would be useful for EWR, but as noted above the cost and effort involved in moving the existing lines ‘across’ by one weigh heavily against it.

Six Track Eastern

This is the option EWR want to build, and the one that requires the maximum demolitions to make way for two new tracks to the east of the existing ones. This totals 28 properties likely to be demolished, plus another 25 that are attached to them, and 44 losing garden or parking areas. Again, with a narrower and more realistic ‘corridor’ these figures could be lower, but we don’t know by how much.

Six Track Western

This option would require 21 demolitions to the west of the existing line, with another six attached properties at risk, and 27 losing garden or parking areas. Again, it’s unclear what these figures would be with a narrower ‘corridor’. There are also possible variations on this option that could see those figures taken as high as 30, 29 and 75 respectively, although again remember that the western options are the most expensive and disruptive to build and therefore least favoured.

Why does EWR argue the six tracks are needed?
So, those are the possibilities. But if four tracks can be made to work, why is EWR arguing for six? It’s worth looking at this in some detail.

Essentially, their case relates to the capacity and reliability of the finished railway. With six tracks rather than four, EWR trains won’t have to use physically the same tracks as trains on the Midland Main Line (MML), the line that runs north of Bedford towards the East Midlands. If there are delays on the MML, EWR trains won’t be disrupted by having to wait for late-running EWR services to clear the tracks, and vice versa.

This isn’t a trivial point. The whole of the MML between Leicester and Cricklewood has been officially designated ‘Congested Infrastructure’ – one of only three places in the country where this designation has been applied. The upgrade of the MML, which has involved electrifying it and reintroducing a fourth track north of Bedford, has helped things, but the ‘Congested Infrastructure’ designation remains in place, and it’s the area around Bedford itself that is a particular bottleneck.

At the moment, the MML has capacity to carry six trains per hour (tph) in each direction, and will start doing so from the timetable change this May (it was previously five tph). Additionally, between Bedford and Kettering it can take three freight trains per hour, although there are currently only two paths per hour outside the peak, and one during peak time (note: just because a freight ‘path’ is available in a timetable doesn’t mean a train always actually runs – the actual number of trains in any given day is usually lower than the number of paths available). The freight on the MML is not container freight – the structures around the line aren’t physically big enough to accommodate tall container freight trains. Instead, it’s mostly aggregate trains, which are heavy and slow moving, and therefore harder to fit in around passenger trains.

Unfortunately, this is probably the biggest obstacle to securing the four track option for Bedford, and avoiding homes being demolished. EWR’s analysis so far indicates that with four tracks being shared with EWR services, the MML probably couldn’t accommodate its current two freight trains per hour, and certainly couldn’t provide its theoretical current capacity of three per hour. In other words, delivering EWR on the existing tracks might not be possible without degrading the freight capability of the Midland Main Line – and building new lines that mess things up badly for existing lines is unlikely to happen. This could be the decisive factor counting against the four tracks option.

The five track options aren’t quite as bad: two freight trains per hour would be fine, and three might be doable. However, the wider problem of the service being fragile, with delay on EWR likely to ‘infect’ the MML and vice versa, would remain.

The eastern six tracks option, and properties it might affect.

Conclusion
So, where does all this leave us? Bedford generally, and Bedford Borough Council in particular, have strong cause to make the case for the four track option. EWR proposed the route through Bedford station on the basis of using the existing tracks and secured local consent, including the support of the Council, on that basis. We are well justified in sending the clear message to EWR that the onus is now on them to make the four track option work.

In particular, EWR should investigate the practical issues outlined above in time to present evidence at the next round of consultation (the ‘statutory’ consultation, which will be the one that determines the official decision to proceed with the line): in particular, the actual width of the rail corridor needed for each different option, the overall timetabling impacts of different options along the route including slower speeds north of Bedford and faster speeds around Bedford St Johns, and more precise modelling about the capacity that would be available for different types of services under all the different options. From the consultation papers, it’s clear that this work is in progress.

If the eventual answer is that a fifth or even sixth track north of Bedford is indeed needed, it will certainly place the Council in something of a bind, through no fault of its own. Responsibility for this mess lies squarely with EWR. Indeed, if EWR cannot deliver its planned route on the basis on which it was selected, isn’t that the strongest possible case for a re-consultation on the entire route? Possibly it is – certainly it would be stronger than some of the flimsy pretexts currently being used to make that case in some quarters, and there would be a certain irony to freight capacity being the decisive factor… but on the MML, not EWR. However, routing the line away from Bedford station would still carry the absolutely enormous problem of the new route by-passing Bedford, not to mention the substantial delay any re-consultation would bring to the project as a whole. The prospects of the route as a whole being revisited are slim indeed.

What we can say for now is that it’s not over until it’s over: there is a case to be made for the four track option in both principled and engineering terms, and it appears to be the best route to averting the demolition of dozens of homes.

EWR’s table of the maximum number of properties potentially affected by each option.

A note on comments
Settings on this blog are configured so that your first post will require approval, and thereafter you can post without comments being reviewed. Factually based comments are welcomed: these articles have been compiled by one person, and with the sheer volume of information involved, I’m bound to have missed / misread / misunderstood something at some point, so points of clarification and polite correction are welcome.

However, comments that make or rely on unfounded claims will not be published. Any that are made by readers who are already able to post comments without prior review will be deleted. I’m happy to publish views I might disagree with, but will not allow this blog to be used for the promotion of fake news.

Further articles in this series will follow shortly.

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16 thoughts on “East West Rail 2021 consultation: plans for the Poets

  1. Thank you so much for these professional and literate comments concerning EWR through Bedford.
    I am a strong supporter of Route E and was aghast when I saw that EWR had possibly held back their 6-track desire until they’d achieved approval for said Route – something which they may not have obtained had they have been transparent at the outset.
    I will read the blog again, but I would comment that:
    1. No mention has been made of the Bromham Road impact and road gradient from traffic lights if the bridge is widened for rail purposes. The bridge has only been open 10months (as April 21)
    2. The Bedford north bypass has been open 5-years and is future proofed for 2 new tracks on the east (and with a junction some 400m south there would be no property impact)
    3. 6 trains/hour per track are mentioned but, with appropriate signalling, that figure should be able to be higher.
    4. One other comment is that currently (or rather scheduled from Real Time Trains on a July Wednesday) the MML south of St Albans on its 4 tracks, will host 36 passenger trains per hour (ie 7:30 to 8:30) plus one freight. Of those 36 trains, 16 of them go to/from north of Bedford. On a very very simplistic track capacity basis, EWR could operate 20 trains per hour over a short (c.half a mile) 4-track section for the same 4-track utilisation as for south of St Albans!

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    1. Thanks Ray – all good points. On the St Albans comparison I suspect the fact there would be a major junction involved means the North Bedford capacity would be lower, but one wonders whether some more capacity could be squeezed in with sophisticated signalling than the EWR condoc suggests.

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  2. The sensible route in my opinion is for a west to north curve on the east side where E-W passes under MML and 6 tracks from there to Bedford Hbf. The appx 1.5 miles of trackbed released can be used for housing etc more than compensating for homes demolished elsewhere, and presumably some income from land sales. A station at St Johns is not imperative and another 4 minutes can be cut off the E-W journey. North of Bedford Hbf you need a tunnel under Poets/A6/ Ouse etc emerging N E of town. Dont say tunnels cannot be done, its done on Crossrail/Thameslink/Eurostar/HS2 with no questions asked. OK so you dont want a tunnel then just raise the E-W 2 tracks on a viaduct above MML/A6/Ouse. No property demolition involved/public happy.. Dont say it cannot be done, its done at Manchester Ordsall curve. My case stated…..for a faster, modern E-W rail route. Border rail was done on the cheap, now a bottleneck needing doubling/electrifying. Dont make the same mistakes..

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  3. I am not a railway expert, merely a commuter and Poets resident. I still can’t understand how south of the station the 4 lines can (only just probably) support MML + Thameslink + the odd freight, whereas we are told the 4 lines north can’t support the same MML services, less services on EWR and the odd freight. Add more platforms to the station and you remove a whole host of capacity issues.

    A lot of supporters of route E will turn against the plan by this six track decision.

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    1. Fundamentally you’re right that this six-tracks plan makes it very hard to support the route locally. It’s really difficult to argue “this is great for Bedford… apart from those people having their homes knocked down.” Doesn’t sound great.

      In terms of capacity, I think the big difference is that north of the station will be a junction, rather than trains just running straight up and down. Having to change points and wait for signals always needs more time, so means fewer trains. You can see this south of the station – in the evening peak, Thameslink trains are regularly delayed coming into Bedford by having to wait for just-terminated trains to move out to the sidings. And that’s theoretically not supposed to be a problem.

      Up to a point, more platforms can actually be helpful for capacity over constrained lines, as it gives signallers options for places to park trains and let others past. But not indefinitely – there comes a point when you’re just trying to run too many trains for the tracks available, which appears to be what EWR are worried about.

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  4. Surely they have to look at this long term. II have heard talk that Kettering or beyond may become the new terminus for Thameslink and the closing of the sidings at Bedford, and with a growing population all the housing developments in towns on the line to the north and with the possible re-opening of Oakley, Sharnbrook and other closed stations also the re-opening of the Peterborough to Corby line. And with governments chasing us petrol and diesel car owners off the road. With all this talk is capacity constraints and the four track solution going to have to be looked at again sooner rather than later.

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    1. Hi John – do you have sources for any of that? I’m not aware of any basis in fact to suggestions that Thameslink might go to Kettering (indeed, given the introduction of the dedicated new EMR services, that seems really unlikely), or that Oakley, Sharnbrook or a route from Corby to Peterborough might be reopened. But if there are meaningful proposals in the works I’d be glad to hear about them.

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  5. Firstly, thanks for the article. Seems balanced and sensible to me, even if I don’t agree with all details.
    A few thoughts: there are other ways of dealing with a fast line platform for EMR services to London, including building a new platform face to the north of the existing platforms, and making the current platform 3 a bay platform. The EastWest technical report indicates that a fast line platform would be advantageous for both four and five track options. Given the other advantages to Bedford of having a fast line platform (improved EMR train services from the north and to London), finding the most persuasive case for such a platform is really important for Bedford.
    The technical report, as you illustrate, talks of five track options with the southbound slow and EWR eastbound sharing a track. I would have thought if EMR passenger services were still on the fast line, then for freight only the existing midland mainline could cope with a very short stretch of bi-directional slow line in the way it did all the way from Sharnbrook to Kettering until very recently, especially since freight often (usually?) has to stop to find a route through Bedford station at the moment.
    While you talk about the proposed 5.5m separation between new tracks and existing, you don’t mention that they are planning an even more excessive 9m from the nearest rail to the edge of the property they talk about needing to have clear. Further, there doesn’t seem to have been any consideration of reducing the gap between the existing fast and slow lines for the short distance where demolitions of the Poets estate are at stake: obviously and frustratingly that would require re-doing some of the recent electrification work, but the implications of the disruption of the exsiting lines would be considerably reduced if it was the slow lines only (and moreso if a fast line platform had already been built at Bedford).

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    1. Thanks Ben. I like the idea of shifting the fast line platforms northwards – hadn’t thought of that, though there’s a similar arrangement of a bay platform and (presumably) new through platform at Nottingham, now I think about it. Might be a bit of a schlep from the new concourse, but that’s the sort of detail that would need addressing later on.

      I deliberately didn’t get too far into the detail about the corridor width, so it’s good to have elaboration here in the comments.

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  6. Living in the poets is very special it has a real community feel about it its very quiet we’re near to Sainsbury’s and the town centre. People are very friendly and there a lot of families in this area.

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  7. John — this is fantastic work. Exceedingly well thought through, factual and balanced. The Bedford campaign is very poorly organised at the moment, especially in comparison to the Cambridge campaign. The reason for this is twofold. First so much of the Bedford discourse has shifted into political attacks as opposed to anything rooted in the underlying materials. Second, other than bashing any politician that disagrees with them (us?) — it’s actually not very clear at a central level what we in Bedford should be pushing for. We have a real opportunity to shape the railway to best serve Bedford. The Facebook group has become so toxic that it’s enlightening to see work like this. Hopefully this can help inform some of the Bedford campaigns going forward.

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    1. Thank you Tom, that’s very kind and I’m glad you found it worthwhile. Interesting re the Facebook group (and sadly not surprising) – I didn’t attempt to join, as I suspected my name would be recognised from “discussions” in We Are Bedford and the like!

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  8. Thanks for a good analysis. It seems to me that if EWR is viewed as a 100 year infrastructure project then that takes us to the time when road transport as we know it today will be a thing of the past. So 6 tracks are inevitable, its just a question of when EWR opens or when the practical issues as rail use increases demands it.

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  9. Eventually, at least in theory, HS2 comes along and frees up a bit of capacity on the MML with fewer trains from Nottingham/Derby/Sheffield (probably just 2 an hour from Leicester?). There’s a good case for saying that, given how long it will take to complete EWR, if it’s somehow completed before HS2 phase 2b, you can probably wing it with 4 tracks for a year or two (?). Of course if HS2 2b is then binned (not out of the question) you’re then left in a bit of a mess.

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