We are living through unprecedented times and my work has been dominated by the effects of the pandemic, so it was a welcome change to attend the latest Zoom meeting today regarding progress on step-free access at Biggleswade train station. Attendees at the meeting included lead designers and sponsors from Network Rail, Richard Fuller MP, GTR management and representatives from Central Bedfordshire and Biggleswade Town Councils.
A number of options were considered in previous meetings, discussed in a previous blog here. These meetings resulted in one option being chosen to go forward to the Department for Transport for approval, the draft design of which is set out in the diagram below.
An option report, containing all the information compiled on the scheme to date and the reasons behind the preferred option, was forwarded by network Rail for review and sign off by the Department for Transport (DfT) on 22nd June. The response from the DfT is expected imminently.
To give an idea of where we are in the timeline from start to end, below is the ‘Governance for Railway Investment Projects’ commonly known as ‘GRIP’ (the UK rail industry process for infrastructure projects) for Biggleswade station.
In the next few days, once the option has been approved by the DfT, we will be at ‘GRIP 4’ on the chart. There didn’t seem to be a concern that it wouldn’t be signed off, but you never know! As you can see there is some way to go and detailed design and a tendering process still needs to be carried out before any actual construction work begins. Richard Fuller and I both queried the length of time required for these stages, currently estimated to be completed by early to mid 2022. We raised the fact that step-free improvements are a tried and tested process, completed many times previously and it should be possible to avoid lengthy delays. I got the impression that Network Rail are being cautious, rather than give us an unachievable date which they would later have to backtrack on. Network Rail agreed to look at previously completed lift installation schemes to get a benchmark timescale and would aim to beat this benchmark if possible. We will have a better idea of timescales at our next meeting.
There are a number of potential risks for the project. A potential second wave of Coronavirus could cause issues with supply chains and the project will be required to work within the timescales of the operational railway. Major works within the project construction will be done when there are planned engineering works on the line and it is vital that the project is ready for these gaps. The availability of an adequate power supply will need to be checked, as this has been an issue for previous projects, where it was only discovered at a very late stage that there was not enough power for the kit that was being installed! Fortunately, Network Rail are already aware of this and other issues such as the lift design.
I asked again that the new bridge be ‘future-proofed’ for a potential Eastern span at a later date (bearing in mind the potential for significant future development to the East of Biggleswade) and they confirmed that this will be taken into account. There is still work to be done on plans for the proposed bus interchange, which is vital to promoting an integrated transport network for the area. However, as the entrance to the step-free option being put forward is not located in the proposed area for the bus station, any delays shouldn’t directly affect the step-free project.
Projects like this always face setbacks and I asked that there is transparency when these occur. There will be ongoing consultation, including public consultations as the project continues and as I continually remind everyone, the views of people with disabilities must be heard and acted upon, before and not after the work has been carried out.
It is too early to hazard a guess at a completion date yet (other than it must be completed by 2024) but all parties are working well together and Richard Fuller and I are pushing for the process to be sped up as much as possible. Our next meeting is set for early September and we are likely to have a clearer timescale at that time. When I receive further updates I will post them on my Facebook page which you can follow here.
Due to the pandemic I have had little time to carry out any activity on the wider issues of step-free access across the UK rail network, but will do so as soon as more time becomes available. We are a long way from truly step-free access and the rail network remains a ‘no-go area’ for many people with disabilities as well as those with restricted mobility and parents of young children. Bedfordshire also lacks an adequate and safe cycle network which would provide a viable alternative for commuters and I will continue to push for improvements in this area.
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