Saturday, January 13, 2007

Two Thousand Metres Of Lake

It would be nice to think that any level of individual or collective incompetence on the part of the Tocs, Roscos and Briscos (as the jargon describes the thirty-plus companies that make up our railways) could be overcome by the various quangos, and indeed gos, that have responsibilities in this field. Would that wishes were horses…

Take for example the old Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge, a line that already figures heavily in the history of Britain’s railways for the sheer boneheadedness of its closure. Admittedly in 1967 the intermediate towns it served were rather small, but in the very same year plans were announced to incorporate one of these, Bletchley, into part of a slightly larger settlement by the name of Milton Keynes

Indeed, forty years on the line runs right down the middle of a major growth region whose internal road links are poor. As well as the benefits to the development of the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc, the line would provide a strategic bypass for London itself; the line has junctions with the West Anglia Main Line, East Coast Main Line, Midland Main Line, West Coast Main Line, Chiltern Main Line and Cherwell Valley Line (or to put it another, is connected to Liverpool Street, King’s Cross, St. Pancras, Euston, Marylebone and Paddington), allowing many journeys that currently go through London to instead skirt around it.

Of course, after forty years there are some issues to be sorted out before the line can be reinstated…

  • CambridgeSandy: This is the most difficult section from an engineering standpoint, not least because two housing estates and a number of radio telescopes occupy sections of the original line. A new route to bypass the obstructions is feasible, however and trains could be rerouted down ECML via Letchworth as an alternative.
  • SandyBedford: The trackbed here is in some state of disrepair but could be reinstated largely on the original alignment.
  • Bedford – Bletchley: This section of the line remains fully in operation, albeit single-tracked. The extension east would pose some problems in Bedford (in that it cannot serve Bedford Station itself and would require Bedford St Johns Station to be relocated) but the majority of the section is up-and-running anyway and would only need to be dualled.
  • Bletchley – Bicester: At Bletchley, a new high-level platform would be required to allow through trains to stop, but the line continues on for a time as freight and the trackbed remains in situ onwards to Claydon Junction, from where a freight line links the Chiltern Main Line to Bicester
  • Bicester – Oxford: Originally closed, this short section was reinstated in 1987 and is fully operational.

So all it requires is a bit of money and some elbow-grease? Hardly. For all this forgets the enormous range of political issues involved;

  • Using ECML as a bypass for the CambridgeSandy section would mess up GNER’s precious timetables, and in any case the existence of such a strategic link would likely require some of their trains to make an additional stop at Sandy for connections.
  • Chiltern Railways are already creeping their line northwards from Aylesbury towards its former junction with the Varsity Line. If that line were reinstated, they could run through from Aylesbury to Bletchley and steal some local business from Silverlink.
  • Similarly, passenger reinstatement of the freight line from Claydon Junction to Bicester would provide a route for Chiltern through to Oxford, stealing business from First Great Western.

Nevertheless, given the number of interested governmental parties both along the route and beyond, one might expect a united front to bring down such petty concerns in the interest of passengers. But then, I’ve not reached the real anecdote yet.

For that, we must look to the 2012 Olympics. Faced with the prospect of government funds being sucked away to the smoke, London’s outliers are now faced with a mad scramble for scraps from the top table. To this end, Bedford is putting together a bid to serve as a host town for training camps and the like. Inspired by that bid, a group of private investors assembled a proposal for a rowing lake at a new gravel quarry east of the town. This was enthusiastically taken up by Bedfordshire County Council and planning permission was granted in May.

Which is fine, except that the lake will cut straight across the existing trackbed, creating a 2km long obstruction that is essentially unbridgeable. This development of course appalled the campaign organisation set up to promote the Varsity Line and its members, particularly Bedfordshire County Council…

Joined-up (n.) form of thinking characterised by strategic concerns; prob. mythical

1 comment:

Edis said...

What's more the Oxford-Cambridge line wasn't even on the Beeching list, I believe .. and the flyover at Bletchley to carry one main line over the other had just been constructed...