Electric Trains Must Not Shock Rural Economies

I’m no Michael Portillo, but it’s fair to say that I have a massive soft spot for trains.  The civilised, efficient service that we enjoy in most parts of the country most of the time is by far my first choice to get from A to B.   Also living in Oxfordshire, with my parents being in Wales, and my mother-in-law in Cornwall the vast majority of my rail trips are on the Great Western lines.

I have no reason to doubt that the electrification of the Great Western line will bring a more reliable and quicker service to those areas.

However, that does not mean that I, or anyone else, should let Network Rail have the run of the countryside in carrying out their upgrade works.  The potential impact of the bridge closures in Oxfordshire (and I dare say further down the line once the works begin) will be dramatic.

For communities like Faringdon in rural Oxfordshire there is no plausible alternative to car travel.  Even people like me who love trains remain reliant on cars, since we have no station and very limited bus services.   The increased flexibility and reliability of car travel have allowed more people to feel comfortable living further away from jobs and services.  It has also allowed people who can’t find work locally to travel to take up jobs they might not otherwise have.  Therefore if a main road is suddenly closed, the impact is huge.

20140604_084432The proposal to close the A417 between Wantage and Faringdon for 4 months in the run-up to Christmas will have a dramatic effect on local people’s lives.  Extra petrol costs and extra childcare costs will make it even harder for working people, already struggling to make ends meet, while late arrival at work and home for months will put strain on employment and family relationships.

Cuts in home visits by carers or relatives who can’t get around as easily, and major difficulties for emergency services caused by a closure like this could result in increased suffering for the most vulnerable.

The economic impact on the businesses in the communities along the A417, as well as the inevitable reductions in visits to Faringdon and Wantage town centres, will be significant.

Therefore while I support the electrification of the Great Western line, Network Rail and Oxfordshire County Council must fund adequate replacement bridges to keep our rural roads and economies open.  6000 vehicle journeys on the A417 are not just travelling for fun – a 4 month closure will be a body-blow to the local area and will cause misery in surrounding villages who will suffer the worst effects of a diversion.

What is perhaps most disappointing about the situation is that neither Network Rail nor OCC have made any attempt to engage with the communities affected before notifying the press of their decision.  A consultation would have helped residents understand the issues and might have resulted in a less adversarial outcome.  Moreover, OCC’s website setting out the process to apply for a temporary road closure makes it clear:  It is in the public interest that we must process your application before it can be granted.

That application includes a consultation obligation, and therefore one wonders whether the way in which OCC has pre-approved Network Rail’s application may prejudice the application and make it legally unsound?

The decision by OCC to approve the closure of the A417, rather than force Network Rail to build a second bridge, is procedurally flawed and substantively barmy given the negative impact on the local economy.

The good news is that the petition against the decision is gathering strength, and local media are showing a keen interest in the issue. A417 BBCSouth Pic

Bad decisions have consequences, and the consequences for our community are too grave to allow the closure of the A417 to pass without a fight.  Until OCC do a deal with Network Rail that keeps the A417 open, we’ll keep fighting.

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