Ahead of Peloton’s East-West Main Line webinar series, Tangent Rail sits down with Cllr Alexander Nicoll , chair of the East West Rail Eastern Section Group and a member of Suffolk County Council. We discuss the wider benefits of the East West Main Line, the importance of sustainability in construction, and how Covid-19 has impacted the delivery of the new line.
The highly anticipated expansion of the East-West Main Line, due to connect Oxford to Cambridge and ultimately other key destinations both west of Oxford and east of Cambridge is well underway.
Cllr Nicoll started by telling Tangent: “We are very keen on the vision of the major rail link for passengers and freight connecting both from the east through to the west and beyond but also making better sense of connections along the way.”
New lines are bound to improve the rail connectivity for both freight and passenger transport. However, increased freight on the new or upgraded lines can also help ease congestion on the roads. Last week Tangent interviewed Maggie Simpson, director general of the Rail Freight Group, to find out the role of freight on the new line.
In terms of Suffolk and the wider eastern region Alexander explained that the East West Main Line will deliver specific benefits such as reducing traffic congestion on the A14 and other major roads. “We very much see the railway as part of a decarbonisation agenda in terms of taking freight and some cars off the roads,” he explained. “It also gives the chance for pedestrians to travel by rail more frequently, with a greater diversity of destinations.”
Benefits extend much further than just rail
Other benefits of the new main line include better access to housing, the creation of new housing and boosts for the regional economy. Despite these important advantages, Cllr Nicoll described the biggest benefit as simply two words: rail connectivity. “All of the aspects of the project have started to focus on the narrative that we are building a new mainline for the whole UK, running East-West,” he noted.
“This new main line will be the major contributor to enabling the two sides of the UK, both commercially and in terms of the movement of people, to be much better connected.”
From the outset there has been intense pressure for any new construction and upgrades to deliver the vision of the East West Main Line to be sustainable and environmentally-friendly. Cllr Nicoll explained to Tangent what has been put in place to ensure the construction is focused on safeguarding the environment.
“It is no secret that we would very much like this to be a railway project that embraces electricity as the power mode,” explained the Councillor “Diesel locomotion which causes problems for the environment must ultimately give way to cleaner forms of power. This will not happen overnight and change must encompass the need not to slow down or compromise the movement of freight by rail. Network Rail and others are studying existing and potential technology to move this issue forward as part of the wider decarbonization agenda which is so important to many people.
Cllr Nicoll insisted: “We don’t want to be part of a railway vision that is investing in yesterday’s technology and fails to take a lead in things involving the environment.”
Enhancing existing lines protects wildlife
Wildlife disruption is a key concern for large amounts of the public whenever there are plans for major construction, including new rail. However, in the East section, most of the improvements are along existing train lines.
“Our improvements are more about enhancing the existing infrastructure and removing pinch points so that more trains can run and more frequently. So, in that sense, we do have an advantage that we are not going to be impacting the countryside to quite the extent which might be the case if we were starting completely from scratch,” added Cllr Nicoll.
We do have an advantage that we are not going to be impacting the countryside
Additionally, the new line is expected to help bigger cities meet their sustainability goals. Freight and passengers that would have previously needed to unnecessarily travel nearer to or through London will be able to use the new mainline.
Covid-19 generates issues for travel
Covid-19 has disrupted all sectors in the UK, not least the rail industry. Tangent was told: “If you talk to any rail company, they have seen a decline in use of the railways in terms of passengers. Thankfully, freight volumes have not declined. Commuting habits have changed as well so, when we come out of the Covid-19 restrictions, a lot of people will be working remotely and in different ways.”
Despite concerns around the future of travel, there is optimism that the Eastern section will still progress and is following a detailed timetable towards completion. There are further hopes that the prestigious and reputable commercial, academic and tourism destinations along the mainline will contribute to the vitality of the new railway line just as it will help drive that all important connectivity for people and freight.