Step-free project hits the buffers

Since we first started campaigning for step-free access at Biggleswade station I have sat in numerous meetings to discuss the many issues that have needed to be resolved. Without a doubt, Friday’s meeting with Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway, Richard Fuller MP and Central Bedfordshire Council was the most disappointing meeting I have attended to date.

In short, Network Rail took us through a brief PowerPoint presentation to tell us that the estimated completion date has now slipped back to December 2024 – and even this date is dependent upon arranging a suitable ‘possession’, a railway term for safe access to the track and the surrounding infrastructure for engineering work to take place. The likely date for the lifts to be in service is therefore early 2025, which is SIX years from when a successful bid for ‘Access for All’ funding was announced.

Explaining their reasons for the delay, Network Rail placed most of the blame on a four-month pause while reviewing our request to bring the additional steps to the new bridge back into the scope of the project. Network Rail had intended to remove this from the design to cut costs. However, this 4 month pause has inexplicably turned into an 18-month delay to the project, shifting the completion date from June 2023 to an estimated January 2025.

Further, and again we find this hard to believe, they now have issues with the ‘footprint’ of the lifts in relation to safety clearances to the platform edges. We find it incomprehensible that three years on from being supplied with detailed designs showing platform clearance (to the centimetre) with no concerns raised, this has suddenly become an issue.

Design drawings supplied to us in December 2020 showing the new bridge with lifts/ steps and the platform edge clearances (shown in centimeters)

In addition, Network Rail said that they had to move their design team onto other projects while this pause was in place. However much of the design work was due to be completed between January and August 2022. We first became aware of the removal of the steps (shown in the diagram above) from the scope of the project in July 2022 so much of the design aspect must have been completed. It is not credible that two sets of stairs, already present throughout all the early designs, are now the cause of such an extended delay.

It seems each setback or change to the scope of the project results in it going back almost to square one in what is a baffling, byzantine and opaque process, lacking any transparency. Multi-million pound projects such as the provision of step-free access to the station must be transparent and those public bodies in charge of the project should be accountable. If there is no transparency, it is extremely difficult to achieve accountability. I believe the public has a right to know what is happening and why it is happening. As per the Nolan principle of openness, “information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.” This is why I have posted regular updates since the start of the project.

Below are the series of timelines that were supplied to us at each of the meetings, starting with the oldest first:

Project timeline as of 18th January 2021

As you can see the original target entry date for the completion of the scheme had been brought forward from Autumn 2023 to a potential date of late Summer 2022. This acceleration of the project was made possible through the scheme being chosen to take part in the Department for Transport’s Project SPEED.

Project timeline as of 7th March 2022

One year on you can see that the completion date has slipped, but the Investment Authority has been received and the surveys and detailed designs are in progress. ‘Shovels in the ground’ are estimated to start on October 2022, with a completion date of June 2023. Obviously, this is considerably later than earlier estimates, but still ahead of schedule in comparison to the original forecast.

Project timeline as of May 2022

At the May 2022 meeting, the timeline presented to us hadn’t changed, although we were advised that they were looking at the scope of the scheme (outside of the core remit to provide step-free access) with a look at a ‘value engineered design’ – in English, cost-saving measures.

Below, we move on to the timeline as of July 2022. Nothing has changed in the timeline, with the estimated completion date still June 2023. We were advised that the scheme had been presented to the Network Rail Investment Authority panel on 7th June 2022 and was fully endorsed, funded and authorised for delivery. However, we were also advised that the steps to the additional bridge being constructed (the bridge that will accommodate the lifts to each platform) had been removed from the scope of the scheme.

Project timeline as of July 2022

The Bedfordshire Rail Access Network team, objected to the removal of the steps from the additional bridge. The reasons we objected were that, although the steps don’t impact the step-free route, their removal would mean that the station would not be ‘future-proofed’ for the increase in passenger numbers in the coming years and passengers would have to rely on the current steps to the platforms, which are not fit for purpose and create safety issues at peak times.

Regular users of the station will be aware of the crowding at the bottom of the stairs when two trains arrive at the same time. Our objection was backed by other stakeholders in the room with a consensus that the small saving resulting from removing the steps from the project was not worth the disbenefit to passengers using the station over the coming decades. Network Rail agreed to take this away and come back to us. We acknowledged that this would delay the project slightly, but felt the long-term benefit to the station users outweighed the cost.

Four months later Network Rail came back to us and stated that the steps had been brought back into the scope of the project, but that a number of hoops had to be jumped through again, including further financial reviews, a re-pricing exercise, and that re-authority for the project would have to be obtained. Therefore, as you can see from the timeline below, the ‘start on site’ and ‘entry into service’ dates now had a ‘to be confirmed’ label attached to them.

Project timeline as of November 2022

We were also advised that the design phase will recommence once these authorities have been obtained. *It is worth noting here that the ‘surveys and design phase’ which is shown in previous timelines as taking place between January to August 2022, had almost been completed before the initial removal of the stairs from the project.

We asked for an estimated date for the entry of lifts into service and were told it could be late 2023. Moving on to our latest meeting held on Friday 3rd February and we were presented with the timeline below.

Project timeline as of February 2023

The timeline shows that the predicted completion of the scheme is now December 2024, with a proviso that this is subject to obtaining access to the railway to complete the works. Further, the timeline includes a six-month period of ‘detailed design’. This is a similar length of time that was allocated to the surveys and design phase previously. This would seem to suggest that they have had to start from scratch and redesign the whole project, This is just not credible. It has been put to us that there is a difference between ‘initial’ design and ‘detailed’ design, While we understand that concept, how is it that this was never highlighted in all the previous timelines, which went from ‘surveys and design’ to ‘procurement of materials and plant’ to ‘main works on site’?

Further, there is a five-month gap between the end of the ‘detailed design phase’ and the start of works on site. A gap that was not present in previous timelines. Additionally, re-authorities for funding will be required as well as the need for ‘Station Change’ to be submitted to Govia Thameslink Railway and other rail industry bodies. So much for ‘Project SPEED’!

The BRAN team outside Biggleswade station in October 2021

Not to put too fine a point on it we feel that we (as representatives for disabled people) are being excluded and are not being provided with the full picture. While we have meetings every three months (we insisted that they be held regularly) we are not given any updates on problems or progress between these dates. At the moment it seems that the consultation with us is little more than a tick-box exercise.

On a more positive note, while Richard Fuller MP and I disagree on many things, we continue to work well together on this project and we were in broad agreement that the delays to the project were completely unacceptable. Richard suggested that we jointly write to Network Rail and the Department for Transport setting out our concerns, which I have agreed to do.

We asked once again about what the staffing levels would be at the station, once the lifts are finally in service. Unfortunately, Govia Thameslink Railway was again unable to provide us with any assurances that the station from the first train until the last train, or whether the lifts could be used if the station were unstaffed.

Bus interchange

The bus interchange is on course to be completed by April/May this year which is excellent news. However, we do have concerns about the poor levels of bus services provided to Biggleswade and the surrounding villages. We also said that to encourage people out of their cars and on to public transport, every effort should be made to coordinate the bus and train timetables so that they become a viable option for both commuters and leisure travellers. We said that this process should be open and transparent and that we would be happy to work with them on this issue.

Station toilets

Work will start on the new toilet block on Monday, with an estimated open date again around April/May this year. There will be a male, female and accessible toilet in this block which will be situated just to the right of the current taxi office.

The BRAN team presenting their petition to the DfT in November 2018

For much of the UK’s rail network to remain inaccessible to wheelchair and mobility-impaired users is unacceptable in the Century. The ‘Victorian infrastructure’ line is wearing thin after 150 years. It is likely that the problems we have encountered with the step-free project are being repeated elsewhere. Of course, step-free projects must offer value for money, but it has been proven that step-free stations return far more to the economy than the initial investment. The current governance of these projects seems excessively complicated. The residents of Biggleswade and people with disabilities across the UK deserve far better.

Our next meeting is on 15th May. However, we will be in contact with both Network Rail and the Department for Transport over the coming weeks. Do get in touch with us if you have any questions, our email address is below.

Julian Vaughan

Chair Bedfordshire Rail Access Network


5th February 2023

Further reading:

Inclusive Mobility: A guide to best practice on access to pedestrian and transport infrastructure

Rail Project SPEEDLaunched February 2021

Bigglesade Station Update: 16th November 2022

Biggleswade Station Update: 15th July 2022

Biggleswade Station Update> 9th May 2022

Equal Access on the railways: How much longer?

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