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Sunday, 19 August 2018
THE future of the Henley branch line is in jeopardy following the decision to put its electrification on hold indefinitely, say rail campaigners.
The work on the line, along with the Marlow branch line, is one of four projects to be deferred following an announcement by rail minister Paul Maynard on Tuesday.
Commuters and campaigners joined councillors and Henley MP John Howell in expressing disappointment at the decision.
Electrification of the line was originally due to be completed in December next year but had already been put back as late as 2019 before the announcement.
Mr Maynard said the decision would save money at both the Department for Transport and Network Rail, which is facing a £2.5 billion funding black hole.
The other electrification projects to be deferred are the lines from Oxford to Didcot Parkway, Bristol Parkway to Bristol Temple Meads and Bath Spa to Bristol Temple Meads. Patricia Mulcahy, who chairs the Henley Branch User Group, said: “This is a severe blow to our hopes for the future of the line.
“We have always feared that if the branch line was not electrified, and continued to rely on diesel trains, the long- term future of the line would be in jeopardy once the owners and operators of the diesel trains decided they were too expensive/difficult to service.
“Branch line users need to understand the seriousness of this situation, which is a threat to the economic future of the line and the people it serves.”
She said the announcement hadn’t come as a great surprise after Great Western Railway managing director Mark Hopwood had hinted at it in a recent meeting with passenger groups from Maidenhead and Marlow and then cancelled a meeting with her group at short notice.
“HBUG will now press for that meeting to happen as soon as possible,” said Mrs Mulcahy.
Town, district and county councillor David Nimmo Smith said: “Disappointing does not even come close to my view on this.
“I knew that the electrification from Paddington to Bristol was way over budget and very late but I had hoped that the promises to give Henley and Shiplake the kind of rail service being provided elsewhere would be delivered.
“We had heard recently that Network Rail was protecting its ability to electrify the branch line. All a sham.
“I will be taking this up with John Howell to see what we can salvage from this announcement.”
Mr Howell said he felt “very disappointed” and he would take up the issue with the minister as well as seeking assurances that the line would not be closed.
“I can understand why they have chosen this project to be deferred but it will still be disappointing for residents of Henley who wanted to see electrification of the line,” he said.
Oxfordshire transport campaigner Hugh Jaeger said: “The blow for Henley is that it was told back in February that electrification could be as late as 2019 and now it has been put back even further with no dates in sight.
“All the trains for the line have been ordered and cost millions of pounds each, so what are they going to do with them? There are questions over how well this project has been managed.”
Councillor Rodney Rose, deputy leader of Oxfordshire County Council said: “The council is disappointed at the deferral of GWR electrification, especially as revised timescales for completing the project have not been confirmed, although we understand that Government needs to prioritise funding for the most beneficial rail projects.
“Oxfordshire’s top priority is East West Rail and the early delivery of this project that Government has already committed to would demonstrate that badly needed investment in the railway is able to come forward to meet Oxfordshire and national growth needs.”
Mr Maynard said holding back on the electrification projects would allow newer and bigger trains to be introduced on the lines without requiring “costly and disruptive electrification works”.
He said: “This will provide between £146 million and £165 million in this spending period, to be focused on improvements that will deliver additional benefits to passengers.
“We remain committed to modernising the Great Western main line and ensuring that passenger benefits are achieved.
“This decision underscores the Government’s approach to wider rail investment, that passenger outcomes must be delivered in conjunction with achieving the best value from every pound spent.”
Mark Langman, Network Rail’s Western route managing director, said: “The Great Western main line is undergoing a huge rail investment programme to enable new and upgraded trains with more seats and faster, greener journeys.
“The programme remains complex and challenging but good progress is being made.”
Great Western Railway says a new timetable for the Henley branch line will go ahead as planned in May despite this week’s announcement.
The timetable will introduce a half-hourly shuttle service during off-peak times, replacing the current service which runs every 45 minutes.
A GWR spokesman said: “We will move to shuttle diesel services on the branch line during 2017. These trains will connect with brand new electric trains on the main line, taking advantage of the extra capacity into Paddington.”
Neil Gunnell, of the Henley Trains action group, said the new timetable would benefit a large majority of local residents and businesses by providing more frequent service with consistent connections.
He added: “Further, when the London to Reading main line electrification is competed, evening rush hour improvements to a more regular and fast service are on the cards.”
The timetable has been criticised by commuters in Wargrave, which will be missed out by every other shuttle, meaning it will only have an hourly service.
GWR had promised to restore the full half-hourly service to Wargrave once the branch line was electrified.
Philip Meadowcroft, founder of the Wargrave User Group, said: “Ever since I formed WUG I have seriously doubted whether the electrification of the Henley branch line would occur.
“This news means that GWR’s idea to introduce a 30-minute shuttle that will curtail services to Wargrave between 10am and 3.30pm becomes even more unacceptable since the prospect of an all-station 30-minute shuttle becomes an even more distant mirage.”
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