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Is electrification of rail lines just a bridge too far?
NETWORK Rail needs to modify, raise or rebuild 29 rail bridges in Oxfordshire by 2018 to make room for new, overhead electric wires. PETE HUGHES looks at the impact and complexity of the £1bn project
BETWEEN 1838 and 1840, Isambard Kingdom Brunel forged his Great Western Railway across the country, from London to Wales.
Nicknamed “God's Wonderful Railway”, the project was endorsed by an Act of Parliament, and is now more important than ever, ferrying commuters to and from the capital.
Trains are as beloved as ever, but, inevitably, the technology has changed to improve efficiency and meet environmental concerns.
As early as 1979, British Rail proposed electrifying the line from Paddington to Swansea, but in November the project finally arrived in Oxfordshire.
To make room for the new overhead electric wires, track owner Network Rail (NR) has to increase the distance between trains and bridges.
- COMMUNICATION: Parish council vice-chairman Robert Green, front, and Steventon residents concerned about the bridge closure and its impact on the village
However, that will require entirely rebuilding some bridges, including arterial roads like the A34, A338 and A417.
Work began with Fulscot Road Bridge, South Moreton, near Didcot, in November.
Originally due to take four months, that road closure was extended to a year because of unforeseen engineering challenges, which it would not comment further on.
And last month the company revealed it will have to close the Grade II listed bridge at Steventon High Street for eight months from next January to August.
The firm says there isn’t any other way it can increase the gap, but villagers disagree.
- DISRUPTION: The Grade II listed bridge at Steventon High Street will be closed for eight months
Steventon Parish Council believes Network Rail could increase the gap between train and bridge by lowering the track rather than raising the bridge by having to rebuild it.
The firm chose that method with a listed bridge at Bourton, near Shrivenham, but said track lowering in Steventon would create a flood risk on the line.
Parish council vice chairman Robert Green said: “The real reason is that track lowering will mean disruption to services.
“That means they will have to compensate the operators like First Great Western, which is costly.”
The parish council is not prepared to give up without a fight and has drawn up an action plan to look into Network Rail’s decision.
This includes commissioning an expert report on the flooding risk of lowering the track, at a cost of about £1,500 and lobbying English Heritage to support having a smaller distance between the wires and bridge.
And it will urge Network Rail to consider not electrifying some sections of wire in the hope this would allow a smaller distance between the wires and bridge as there would be fewer health and safety considerations.
The alternative is putting up with what Mr Green calls “huge disruption” to village life for eight months.
He said: “There is no plan for any compensation, and God knows what the traffic congestion will be.”
He is also concerned the closure was announced last month without prior notice to the parish council.
Mr Green said: “Their communication with parish councils and Oxfordshire County Council has been awful.”
The county council has yet to comment.
The company has spoken of the difficulties in being precise about such a large and complex project and pledged to improve communications, including through its website.
Network Rail spokesman Sam Kelly said: “Network Rail acknowledges this is a listed bridge.
“We have employed Alan Baxter Associates to consider all practicable options for Steventon High Street Bridge.
“Having established that reconstruction is the only viable option, Alan Baxter Associates is now working with English Heritage to develop the most appropriate design for the reconstruction.
“Listed building consent will be obtained prior to work being carried out.”
The firm has promised to tell communities at least four weeks prior to closing any roads.
- For updates visit networkrail.co.uk/great-western-electrification/oxfordshire
MODERNISING HINKSEY FOOT BRIDGE
OXFORD City Council has called on The Equality and Human Rights Commission in its battle against Network Rail over a footbridge in South Oxford.
The rail firm was given permission to demolish Hinksey footbridge, above, and replace it with one without ramps by a planning inspector.
Bob Price, the leader of the city council, has said Network Rail should put ramps on the bridge, which currently only has steps, because of equal access legislation.
This will enable cyclists, wheelchair users and mums with push chairs to easily use the bridge. Network Rail was refused planning permission for the new bridge by the city council, but this was overturned by a the independent Planning Inspectorate in April.
Under the Oxford and Rugby Railways Act 1845, Network Rail does not have to seek planning permission to replace the bridge, but merely needs prior approval.
Network Rail says it only has funding for a like-for-like replacement of the bridge.
A similar footbridge in Whitehouse Road was refused permission by the council on the same grounds, and this is set to go to a planning appeal.
Rough ride for NR over traffic routes
Wantage MP Ed Vaizey branded Network Rail “insensitive and incompetent” in April after it announced that it would have to close Fulscot Road, South Moreton bridge for six months longer than planned.
The main road to Didcot from South Moreton, closed in November, will now stay shut until September.
But South Moreton Parish Council has taken issue with Oxfordshire County Council (OCC), over its “dangerous” traffic diversions, sending vehicles down roads villagers use to walk children to school. The county council has yet to comment.
Parish council clerk Roger Templeman, pictured, said: “Why did OCC agree to close the road without having diversion routes for pedestrians considered, and with the roads in too poor a condition to take the increased volume?
“Both OCC and NR have shown incompetence in the handling of the affair, but believe it was within OCC powers to stop it.
“For Network Rail’s part, I do not believe that Fulscot Bridge was a time-critical element in the overall electrification programme and could have been put back one year to allow a proper engineering assessment of the bridge abutments and stability of the approach road embankments. It is frustrating that nobody appears to be able to be brought to account.”
Network Rail spokesman Sam Kelly apologised that the work over-running.
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