Unfortunately, I have little positive to say from today’s meeting to discuss progress on step-free access at Biggleswade station. Unless things change and change quickly, there is a very real possibility that Biggleswade could become another ‘Luton’ and face endless delays while each party waits for everyone else to act – a reminder that Luton station was due to have been step-free in Control Period 5 between 2014-19.
Attendees at the meeting included, Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC), Biggleswade Town Council, Richard Fuller MP – and Fiona and me from the Bedfordshire Rail Access Network.
It became clear very quickly that to there has been very little, if any communication between Network Rail and Central Bedfordshire Council regarding the upgrade of Biggleswade station, as only one of the five options shown to us contained any reference to the proposed Transport Interchange. It seems that not only are the two biggest stakeholders in the project (Network Rail and CBC) not on the same page, they seem to be on different trains, heading in opposite directions!
Network Rail advised us that they had only been made aware of the Interchange plans in the last two or three months. As plans for an Interchange have been circulating since 2011 something has gone very badly wrong here! CBC representatives then showed us a basic plan of the bus interchange, but advised us that it was at the very early stages and would rely on money from the Housing Infrastructure Fund, with no firm date given for receipt of the money, other than by 2024.
Having been shown four previous options at a meeting that took place over a year ago, it’s clear two options have been ruled out – those being bridges and lifts at the extreme North or South ends of the platforms. Another option to just add on lifts to the current footbridge presents a number of problems due to the lack of space, both in terms of platform width and the size of lifts that could be installed in that area.
The option that seems the most favoured by the Network Rail design team seems to be lifts to both island platforms a little to the South of the current buildings on the Southbound platform. There are three variants to how the new footbridge and lifts would be accessed – two starting from a right turn immediately after the ticket machines at the station entrance and the third with an entrance where the current bike storage is located.
However, all of these options involve the use of ramps, with either a 1 in 17 or 1 in 20 gradient which is far from ideal. Further, there is no access to the lifts to or from the Eastern side of the station. This will result in a long detour for mobility impaired passengers coming from the East of Biggleswade. We only have one chance of getting this right and to ‘future proof’ the station – and it strikes us as penny pinching that only two lifts are being considered. Further, there seems to be no direct access to or from the proposed bus interchange.
On behalf of the Bedfordshire Rail Access Network team I made it very clear that none of the current options on the table were satisfactory and that were extremely disappointed at the lack of progress and joined up thinking between Network Rail and Central Bedfordshire Council. Richard Fuller MP also set out how disappointed he was with the lack of detail in any of the options, lack of detail of any costings, lack of any sign of liaison between Central Bedfordshire Council, GTR and Network Rail and no detail on what definitively can and can’t happen with the current infrastructure.
It seems we have moved forward very little in the last year, in technical terms the project has moved from ‘GRIP 2’ to the beginning of ‘GRIP 3’ (GRIP stands for ‘Governance for Railway Investment Projects’ – there are eight stages). GTR stated that the budget from the ‘Access for All’ funding is based on only two lifts. We believe that three lifts are required as a minimum with potentially in addition a shallow ramped access from the Eastern side of the station. GTR stated at the meeting that additional revenue sources should be looked at, such as developer S106 funding or matched funding. These issues all risk delaying an already slow moving project.
I asked the question lots of people will no doubt be asking and that is; “when will we have step-free access at Biggleswade?” Both Central Bedfordshire Council and Network Rail would not give any guarantee that it would be any earlier than 2024, although they hoped it would be sooner. At their current rate of progress and lack of co-operation there is little cause for optimism.
In summary what we heard today was simply not good enough and both Richard Fuller and I are in agreement. This can’t be allowed to drift any longer and Richard has set up another meeting in a months time with the same attendees – with an expectation that real progress will have been made.
On a brighter note we did meet GTR’s new Head of Accessibility and we will be updating her on a number of issues around the GTR network in terms of the accuracy of the station access information currently provided. It was also nice to find out that I’m not the only person that researches the ‘Access Map’/National Rail Enquiries/ ‘Google Earth’ at the same time to check out accessibility issues!! Fiona also raised the ongoing issues with ‘booked assistance’ and frequent delays waiting to alight trains, although we lacked the time to go into these any other issues in any great detail.
As always, happy to work with people from across the political spectrum, where we can and do find common ground. There is still much work to do. The Bedfordshire Rail Access Network’ team have insisted we continue to be at the table for all future meetings and we will be keeping a very close eye on progress, or lack of it.
Chair Bedfordshire Rail Access Network
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