Friday, 19 August 2022

Unsightly railway gantries may have to stay after all

PROTESTERS who want “unsightly” gantries to be removed from the railway line through Goring fear Network Rail has sidelined their concerns.

The company, which installed the structures as part of the Great Western main line electrification project in 2014, had promised to explore alternative designs that might be less obtrusive.

It came up with several ideas which it was due to present at a public meeting in January but this was called off at the last minute after the Goring Gap Railway Action Group said none of them was suitable.

Network Rail then said it would go back to the drawing board and it was hoped that fresh proposals would be presented in June or July but this did not happen.

Now the company says it is in discussions with Natural England and the management board of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and will meet the action group at some point in the autumn.

It has always said that it might not be economically viable to come up with suitable replacements.

Ian Haslam, who chairs the action group, said: “The state of things is pretty disappointing. Network Rail has said nothing officially to us and there has been a lack of communication. They said at the start of the year that they’d come back with new designs for consultation but it has gone very quiet since then.

“In correspondence we’ve seen, they’ve changed their vocabulary and are talking about ‘mitigation measures’ rather than an outright change of the design, so we’re wondering whether they’re reneging on their offer.

“One can only speculate as to why that might be, but they’re over budget in so many areas and have cancelled parts of the electrification project in other parts of the country so I imagine they’re looking to save money wherever they can.

“It’s all very worrying for us because we don’t know where we stand.”

The group says the unpainted steel gantries, which stand at intervals of about 100m in order to support overhead power cables, give the impression of a “tunnel” through the open countryside on either side of Goring.

Although railway improvements are “permitted development”, meaning they don’t typically require planning permission, the group says Network Rail was legally obliged to consult residents first because the work is in an AONB.

Members also say development in an AONB must conserve or enhance its surroundings but the gantries do neither, so they may launch a legal challenge if they cannot negotiate an acceptable solution.

They asked Network Rail to install wire headspans, which have a much thinner profile, but the company says this is an outdated design which is inefficient and dangerous to maintain.

A number of alternative designs exist and have been used in other countries but these may be too expensive.

Network Rail has also proposed painting the gantries light blue to blend in with the sky or screening off the tracks with trees but the group says this wouldn’t reduce the impact.

In March, Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne said electrification should be scaled back in favour of battery-powered “hybrid” trains so that overhead lines wouldn’t be needed.

In July, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said new trains on the Great Western main line would be capable of running on non-electrified sections which wouldn’t involve putting up “intrusive” wires and masts.

Mr Haslam said: “There seems to be an acknowledgement from both Network Rail and the Government that these gantries aren’t, in fact, an ideal solution.

“If two senior figures are coming out with statements like that, it seems fairly obvious that they didn’t have due regard for our AONB.

“We haven’t yet decided if we’re taking legal action but those claims would definitely form part of our case.”

A Network Rail spokesman said: “We are in discussion with an advisory group of Natural England and the conservation boards of the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty on what might be done to mitigate the impact of the overhead electric lines.

“We hope to be in a position to update the local communities on this in the autumn.”

Henley MP John Howell said: “My understanding is that the planning issues are still very much live and I have once again raised with Network Rail the promises they made over the gantries.

“At this stage there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that they aren’t going to follow through on it.”

Meanwhile, Goring Parish Council is pursuing a complaint against South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, that it should have ordered the electrification work to stop and taken enforcement action.

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