The Great Western Rail Forum

19 min


Nestled in the stunning old railway quarter in Swindon lies a Grade II-listed building that itself is bursting at the seams with railway history. The building, which is architecturally unlike anything else in the town, was once part of GWR’s old Swindon Works, one of the largest maintenance centres in the world. Like many of England’s transport achievements in the 19th century, Swindon Works had Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s fingerprints all over it: the ingenious engineer, who at the time was overseeing the construction of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) between London and Bristol, was tasked with buying locomotives from a series of different manufacturers for the new line. Brunel then recruited Sir Daniel Gooch – who later became GWR’s first chief mechanical engineer (then known as ‘superintendent of locomotive engines’) in 1837 and its chairman in 1865 – to establish a central repair works site for the new yet mixed-quality trains. The 300-acre Swindon Works site, chosen due to its convenient location at the junction of the Golden Valley Line, finally opened its doors in 1843.

If you walk through the site nowadays, it’s clear that the ghost of locomotives past still lingers in the area: it stands tall as a striking homage to the role of the railway in the town’s development and prosperity. As well as a meeting point for engine and rolling stock enthusiasts alike, the modern-day Steam Museum plays an important social function in keeping the memory of Swindon’s railway community alive.

Mayor Tim Bowles

It goes without saying that there was no better place to host the Great Western Rail Forum (GWRF), the intimate networking dinner which once again brought out key players to discuss the many opportunities in the region on 11 July. Appropriately, the event’s 200 guests were taken through the museum’s entrance – its walls embellished in pictures and artefacts illustrating the genesis of Swindon’s railway history – before stopping to sip champagne next to the 4073 Caerphilly Castle, built in 1924 and taken into preservation in 1961.

As well as headline sponsors Heathrow Link Partnership (made up of Skanska, Porr, Mott MacDonald, and Alstom) and corporate partners RSK, AmcoGiffen, Centregreat, Keltbray, and Alun Griffiths (Contractors) Ltd, the dinner brought together panellists representing each facet of Great Western’s rail network. At the helm was keynote speaker Mark Hopwood, GWR’s managing director, who was followed by HS2 Ltd’s Rob Avery, consultant Ruth Bagley speaking at the invitation of the Heathrow Link Partnership, West of England mayor Tim Bowles, and head of engineering for Network Rail’s Western and Wales route Jane Austin.

Speaking to Tangent after the event – and perhaps still inspired by the Steam Museum’s infectious historical energy – mayor Tim Bowles reminisced about the major role transport has played in the Great Western region from day dot. We’re talking as far back as 1497, when Italian navigator John Cabot reportedly discovered the coast of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England after sailing from Bristol – back then a major maritime centre and monopoly port in the country.

Connectivity has been at the heart of what has made this region great for years

“Our connectivity into the Bristol and Bath city region has always been at the front of why we’ve been successful. For centuries, we have been on a direct linking route to London, long before modern-day transport,” recalled the mayor, who pointed out the importance of the Severn Estuary to the country’s trade and the many trips once carried out on SS Great Britain to New York after riding a GWR train into Bristol.

“Connectivity has been at the heart of what has made this region great for years. From my perspective, both our connectivity to the region and within it are critical to unlocking even greater economic potential. That’s why transport is one of the key things we’re working on strategically,” he added. “We know that our roads are congested; we have some of the highest levels of road congestion in the country. We also know that we need to be getting people to move out of the car for lots of reasons – not just because of congestion, but air quality and climate change. We need to make sure that we have those alternatives to move people around our region, and rail is at the top of my list. A new rail service within the region will help so many of my objectives – in terms of providing the connectivity we need, in terms of reducing carbon emissions, in terms of connecting people across the region.”

Mayor Bowles’ ambition to see a suburban rail network in place bodes well for the sheer number of projects either planned or already underway in the Great Western region: from the planned Western Rail Link (WRL) and the massive MetroWest project to the South West Rail Resilience programme and the construction of Old Oak Common station where Crossrail and GWML tracks converge, there is plenty to look forward to.

Some of these projects have been years in the making. Initial plans for the WRL to Heathrow, for example, date back to 2012, while intentions to reopen the Portishead Line (an element of the MetroWest programme) first came about almost 20 years ago. But the mayor is confident that the projects will come to fruition now that the region wields greater political power through the West of England Combined Authority, founded in 2017. “I’m able to make the case consistently to the secretary of state to get the initial funding we need for [these projects],” he explained. “These things would not be able to happen at this pace and scale, and with these commitments from government, had we not been a combined authority.”

There is, of course, already a lot to be proud of. Just last month, Network Rail wrapped up the latest part of the six-year Bristol Area Signalling Renewals and Enhancements project, Britain’s biggest-ever signalling upgrade. Throughout the years, engineers have moved old 1960s signalling equipment from the Bristol area, transferred operations to a digital control centre in Didcot, and installed two new rail lines between Filton Abbey Wood station and Bristol Temple Meads. With the bulk of the job complete, Network Rail is now planning follow-up works in the autumn around the Bristol Parkway area.

But with so many large-scale schemes on the horizon, the time we could spend celebrating past achievements is swallowed up by the determination to look forward. This coincides not only with the start of CP6 earlier this year, but with the devolution of the Wales and Western route from 24 June, which means route boss Mark Langman is now in the process of appointing his own senior team. As head of engineering Jane Austin put it, it’s the beginning of a long journey.

Western Rail Link to Heathrow

Back when consultant Ruth Bagley was chief executive of Slough Borough Council, she was dealing with several major businesses in the Thames Valley who lamented the lack of a rail connection between Heathrow and the Great Western region. There was a link to London, of course, but other economic centres were left starved of an easy route into the airport; it was a far cry from somewhere like Amsterdam, where the international Schiphol airport connects passengers not only to the capital but to several other destinations in the Netherlands.

“These businesses were saying that without enough access, it limited their prospect of investment and growth and their access to trade and export. And with lots of international businesses in the Thames Valley, access to Heathrow was one of their top criteria when making investment decisions,” Ruth told Tangent during a post-GWRF interview.

Associate and Chair of Western Link to Heathrow Working Group Ruth Bagley

In building a business case for WRL, Ruth – who now chairs the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce WRL Working Group – initially focused on the potential economic benefit to key areas like Slough, Reading, and Maidenhead. But as the case was developed further, it became clear that benefits would be much more wide-ranging: travellers from places such as Cardiff, Swansea, Plymouth, Penzance, Bristol, Bath, Oxford, and Southampton would all save a decent half-hour in their journey to the London airport. Alongside that, overseas tourists would have a much easier time getting to historical towns; students visiting universities would have better access to education, and universities themselves would be able to form tighter-knit research partnerships with international faculties; and, of course, fewer cars on the road would lead to a reduction in pollution.

Businesses were saying that without enough access to Heathrow, it limited their prospect of investment and growth

“In building the case, the case has also built my enthusiasm for the project,” said Ruth, who has campaigned for the project’s success tirelessly over the past decade. “The invitation from Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce to chair this group was really important. This work has developed over the last couple of years more and more; as we get closer to the possibility of delivery, it’s important to give it that one last push. After all the work that a lot of people have put in, all the energy I’ve put into it, I would not like to see it fail at the last moment.”

That isn’t to say there is a big risk of the scheme falling through, aside from the usual dose of turmoil in the uncertain political times we’re living in. While funding sources have not yet been agreed – a decision is expected in the autumn – the government has already earmarked cash to finance the project through to the end of the Development Consent Order (DCO) process (an application to the Planning Inspectorate is due in the autumn.)

Unsurprisingly, public and private support for WRL has also been consistently high, with the latest Network Rail consultation indicating that 72% of respondents are onboard. Those who disagreed were worried about construction disruption and the spillage of extra cars onto existing roads once a section of Hollow Hill Lane is shut down to make way for the tunnels; none of the concerns were linked to the railway itself (it’s also worth pointing out that both of these valid concerns are in the process of being addressed.) The extensive support that the Western link has enjoyed thus far stands in contrast to the high levels of concern expressed by campaigners against plans to build a third runway at Heathrow. Luckily for the WRL team, though, the two schemes are not co-dependent; in fact, the Heathrow rail link business case has always been based on a two-runway airport. “There are supporters of the WRL who actively oppose the expansion of Heathrow,” Ruth pointed out. “They can see the environmental benefits of something like the WRL, which will reduce the impact of the present airport and could help to mitigate the consequences of expansion.”

If all goes to plan, the expected timescales for the 6.5km-long link are as follows: an outline business case with modest adjustments will be resubmitted in the autumn, around the same time that funding is considered by government. Subject to enough confidence, the DCO application will then be made shortly after. The procurement process for the scheme’s contractors is due to run in parallel with the DCO evaluation, with expressions of interest timetabled for the turn of the year (either before or shortly after Christmas). Assuming that the DCO process takes its standard 18 months, a spring 2021 decision will allow the chosen contractor to wrap up construction by 2027, making way for services in 2028. No decision has yet been made on who will operate the line, so watch this space.

MetroWest

When Tangent asked mayor Bowles which project he was most looking forward to, he didn’t even have to think about it. “That’s an easy one: MetroWest is the most exciting for me. It’s something that we’ll build and build, and develop and develop, for many years to come. It’s a really positive legacy not just for myself, but for everybody else who’s been involved in this,” he clarified. “In years to come, people will wonder how on Earth this region was so successful when there wasn’t something like [MetroWest] in place!”

So let’s talk MetroWest. Absolutely jam-packed with opportunities for suppliers to get involved, the massive scheme consists of two phases: the first proposes the reopening of the Portishead Line to passenger services, a new station at Portishead, the reopening of the former station at Pill, and enhanced services on the Severn Beach- and Bath-to-Bristol lines. The DfT has committed almost £32m to complete the funding needed for the first stage, which will be added to the £500,000 earmarked by the West of England joint committee. In total, MetroWest Phase 1 is forecast to cost £116m. A DCO application will be submitted soon ahead of construction work kicking off in December 2021, subject to final business case approval.

Plans for Phase 2, which can be viewed online, include proposals to reopen the Henbury Line to an hourly spur passenger service; to build new stations at Henbury, North Filton and Ashley Down; to increase train services to Yates; and to potentially extend services into Gloucestershire. Priced at just over £42m, the second phase is expected to be funded by local authorities and, from 2021, by the DfT’s devolved Major Scheme funding alongside extra cash from the Local Growth Fund.

In years to come, people will wonder how on Earth this region was so successful when there wasn’t something like MetroWest in place

At the heart of the MetroWest network will be Bristol Temple Meads, which will act as a hub where passengers and commuters can access any part of the region all from one place. The recent four-tracking work in that area is essential to paving the way for this ambition. “It’s not simply about building some new lines and some new commuter stations; it’s about developing those lines, those commuter stations, the new stations, but also developing Temple Meads as a hub,” said mayor Bowles. “There are so many things falling into place.”

It’s not yet been confirmed whether the network will operate trams or trains; in fact, it could be both: the team has been looking at the benefits of Sheffield’s tram-train. “It will be really interesting if we don’t need to build heavy rail infrastructure to allow access to housing development areas,” argued the mayor. “We also have another challenge in some areas where building heavy rail could effectively be a detriment to our big industries. The opportunity to look at tram-trains and the way that they operate in a less invasive manner is really interesting. But those are for future stages; the priority at the moment is getting our current plans accelerated.”

Old Oak Common

Anyone living in London, the West Midlands, or the north of England will certainly have been told of the benefits that HS2 will bring to their lives (we’re sure you must have received quite a few information leaflets in the post.) But not as much is said about the impact that the brand-new high-speed line will have on the Great Western region.

Take Old Oak Common, for example, which will provide a major interchange for Crossrail and GWML services. According to Rob Avery, senior project manager for the scheme at HS2 Ltd, his organisation intends to turn the new station and its surrounding areas into a destination in itself. “They’re looking at transforming it into a significant residential and commercial area so that businesses will be set up there. With the main station site being a destination, you will then get a bubble effect – and because we’re right next to an existing railway corridor, that bubble effect can go all the way along the Great Western route, because you’d be able to connect directly all the way to Penzance and Wales.

Rob, who lives just south of Reading himself, believes that communication around the benefits of the new station to the Great Western region will be escalated once they lock down Schedule 17 approval in due course. “By then, people will visually know exactly what’s being built – and we’ll also have a contractor onboard. Having these elements in place will enable communications to increase,” he suggested.

Shortly before we spoke, the enabling works contractor – a Costain/Skanska JV – had just finished demolishing the former GWR sheds at the site. Whilst clearance works might not sound too exciting, they were a key milestone in the path towards construction work, not least due to the enormous size of the former sheds (they were big enough to accommodate more than 600 double-decker buses.) Impressively, the contractor has also succeeded in clearing the area despite the live railway environment surrounding it, with Network Rail assets still running through the site and the Crossrail depot to the north. “In simple terms, the structure is quite easy to knock down and works are quite easy to undertake,” explained Rob, “but undertaking those works in a constrained environment – where there are live railway assets nearby – adds additional pressure. We have to do things in a much more systematic way.”

More good news: the lion’s share of the material cleared has been recycled. “All of the material being generated onsite and all of the structural steel has gone offsite – contractors reuse that elsewhere. The excavated material has been remediated and is going back into the ground to be used as a basis for our foundation works next year. The track onsite will be utilised at another one of the HS2 sites to create some sidings, while some has been taken by Network Rail. A lot of the material coming out of the site that would normally be classed as waste is being recycled or reused pretty much straight away,” Rob told Tangent.

Timetable changes

All in all, guests at the GWRF networking dinner in July had much to talk about when it came to opportunities to get involved in the near future. In CP6 and beyond, the Great Western region is buzzing with anticipation.

But there’s one big change happening as we speak, too. Operator GWR is currently polishing off the final schedule changes ahead of introducing a brand-new timetable in December, expected to be the biggest service shake-up since 1976, according to TOC boss Mark Hopwood.

Interim South Western Railway managing director Mark Hopwood

“The planning is going well,” he told Tangent after the event. “It’s a big change for us: journey time improvements on all our high-speed services from London out to the Cotswolds, Bristol, South Wales, and the West of England, but also train frequency improvements as well. It’s about giving customers the real benefits of the schemes that we’ve been working on to add capacity and reduce journey time.”

At this point, timetabling has become a pretty sensitive subject in the country: after last year’s May timetable debacle, which saw thousands of passengers on the GTR and Northern networks stranded or significantly delayed, the public is right to be apprehensive. But Mark insists that the lesson from last year’s chaos – which did not affect GWR – is clear: “Don’t change your mind halfway through the process, and make sure you can deliver what was originally bid.”

“That is exactly what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re just in the final stages of firming up the timetable, and we will be going out to customers soon. We’ve started already, but we’ll be briefing customers more widely in the next few weeks and months on what they can expect.”

A new Network Rail

Acting as the backbone for all of these crucial infrastructure and operational upgrades will be a very different Network Rail to the organisation we used to know. For starters, the devolved routes – which came into effect in June – will mean a much stronger locally-led focus in regional decisions. But that is just the beginning.

“We are changing in CP6,” said head of engineering Jane Austin. “We will be assuring ourselves, before any of those projects progress, that we have the right contracting strategy in place, that we explicitly understand what the requirements are, and that we have all supporting data to enable us to develop a robust design that we can then build. That logic was lost on electrification.”

When it comes to its supply chain, Network Rail has promised to give companies as much upfront information as possible. Just before Jane spoke to Tangent, for example, the organisation had hosted a ‘supply chain day’ where companies were brought up to speed with the details and opportunities of upcoming projects.

But she also emphasised the role that suppliers must play in helping along these monumental changes: “They need to be thinking about innovation and change. If there are things that they’re not happy with or that they think can be done better, then they should be flagging that up with Network Rail so that we can change our standards and processes to get better value for money.

“We really need the supply chain to speak up, and we do need people to challenge us – because at the end of the day, this is taxpayers’ money. Our new ethos is ‘putting passengers first,’ and to put the passenger first we have to get it right the first time so that we don’t keep taking possessions. That’s really, really key, and the supply chain absolutely can work with us to help us get better at it. In fact, they play a massive role in it, because they’re accountable for delivering a design that is buildable and achievable and efficient.”

The Great Western might not be in the spotlight as often as London, the north, or the Midlands – but that’s not to say the region isn’t ready to deliver. The opportunity is here to get involved in building a shiny new network that will stand the test of time for decades to come.


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