Earlier today the Bedfordshire Rail Access Network (BRAN) team met with Network Rail, Richard Fuller MP, town and district Councillors and Govia Thameslink Railway to discuss the latest on the step-free project and the transport hub. The previous meeting took place on 3rd February and you can read a summary of that meeting here: https://julianvaughan.blog/2023/02/05/step-free-project-hits-the-buffers/
At the start of the meeting, there was a short discussion about the makeup of the ‘committee’. It is worth pointing out that I believe we are on the 4th Network Rail project team since Biggleswade station was awarded ‘Access for All’ funding in April 2019, which has made it more difficult to build working relations. Further, only the BRAN team, which represents the views of disabled people, has been present throughout the project.
Work on the bus interchange is making good progress along with surrounding walkways in the area of the new zebra crossing. There are a few issues that delayed the proposed walkabout of the interchange, but this has been re-scheduled for the week commencing 22nd May. Due to concerns about the lighting of the interchange on nearby residents, the lighting will now be centrally controlled and either dimmed or switched off out of bus service hours.
Coordination of bus and train services
At the last few meetings, I have raised the importance of coordinating the bus and train timetables so that bus services are a viable option for commuters. Since the last meeting in February, I emailed asking whether there had been any meetings at all between the rail and bus companies. As the rough completion date for the bus interchange has been known for some time, it is very disappointing to hear that as yet there have not been any. We were told today that a mixture of commercial and subsidised routes will serve the station, with the implication that commercial routes can do as they please.
While the nature of a privatised bus network means this is true, it does seem a very negative approach to not make an effort to coordinate public transport in the area – which would surely be beneficial to both the rail and bus companies. This part of the meeting ended with some not entirely convincing assurances that discussions will take place on this later in the year. We need to be doing far better than this if we are to get the full potential from the interchange.
Fiona from our team also raised the issue that when the station does become step-free, the timings should include a time allowance for station staff assistance for those with reduced mobility who are travelling by bus and then by train.
Work on the toilet block is also progressing, with a ‘snagging’ meeting due to take place on 8th June with an opening date shortly after that. At the moment there is likely to be an official joint opening of both the toilets and the bus interchange at a yet to be confirmed date in June.
At every meeting, I have raised the issue of what the staffing levels are going to be at the station, as this could potentially impact both the availability of the lift service and the hours that the toilets are open. Once again we were not given an answer, but I got the strong impression that there will be no increase in staffing levels at the station. There did not seem to be an appreciation that an unstaffed rail network discourages people from travelling due to safety concerns, as well as making the railway inaccessible to many people. We need a complete change of culture in the area. As it stands at the moment the new toilets may only be open when the station is staffed. These hours are set out below in a screenshot from the National Rail Enquiries website.
Lifts – timeline toward installation
We were presented with the latest timeline of all the steps that need to be taken before the lifts come into service. The good news was that the date has not moved back from the last meeting and remains December 2024. I would also say there is more confidence now that this date can be achieved. A number of questions were raised about the potential for the stages to be achieved over a shorter time and we were told every effort would be made to speed things up. At the moment construction will begin on site in February 2024. You can read more about the previous slippages to the timeline in the blog mentioned in the first paragraph, so I won’t go over old ground here.
I’m delighted that this Summer Biggleswade will have a transport interchange that links up bus and rail services and that we will finally have toilets at the station. However, the devil is always in the detail and unless we have some joined up thinking the potential benefits of the interchange may not be realised. I will continue to press for greater cooperation between the transport companies and will be keeping a very close eye on what they offer us. The government’s ‘Bus Back Better’ strategy has failed and bus services are getting worse not better across Bedfordshire.
In terms of step-free access at the station, it is good news that the timeline hasn’t slipped any further and that there is more confidence that the date can be achieved, but we have serious concerns that the lack of staffing will impact both the accessibility and usability of the new facilities at the station. If the station is unstaffed it will mean that for many people the station will remain inaccessible. A fully staffed and accessible rail network, linked with frequent and reliable bus services would bring huge benefits to Bedfordshire and the UK. Unfortunately, we are going in the opposite direction.
The BRAN team will be attending the opening of the bus interchange and station toilets in June, with our next meeting with Network Rail in the diary for September. You can get in touch with us via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you to the BRAN team for their support and advice.
Chair Bedfordshire Rail Access Network