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Government vision for market led rail projects slammed as 'Utopian dream'

Windsor and eton central by train photos windsor and eton central 3to2

Government’s call for ideas for privately funded railways will hit the buffers because acceptance criteria keep changing, the boss of the rejected Windsor Link Railway (WLR) scheme has claimed. 

WLR chief executive George Bathurst told New Civil Engineer that since it had submitted its scheme to link the two rail lines in Windsor via a tunnel, the criteria for the competition had changed, making it impossible for schemes to fit the new rules.

The WLR scheme was split into two phases. The first involved building a short section of new track and tunnel in central Windsor to connect Slough and Windsor to London Waterloo with a link to the existing rail network. Phase 2 would then created a longer link providing to Heathrow connecting the existing rail lines and providing services to the West.

The government ran a competition for privately funded railway ideas, so called market led proposals, in June last year.

Projects could be entered under one of two categories. Category 1 required no government backing while category 2 which require some financial or contractual support.

Since then, the government has told bidders it is only looking for schemes which require no “contractual commitments required from government”, limiting bids to category 1 proposals. The Windsor Link Rail scheme was entered as a category 2 proposal.

But Bathurst warned that “no significant scheme would ever fit into that category [1]” and category 1 compliant schemes were a “Utopian dream”.

He said all rail schemes required some form of government backing, and that this did not have to be financial.

“Even a simple, privately built and run branch line which shuttles trains backwards and forth, needs the assurance from government that the main line it connects to will still be open in 25 years’ time,” he said. “If that assurance isn’t there, then no banks or financiers will even look at the project.”

Heathrow Southern Rail Ltd (HSR) also entered into the government’s parallel market sounding exercise for the construction of a southern rail link to Heathrow. It which was judged by the same criteria.

HSR chief executive Graham Cross revealed to New Civil Engineer earlier this month that it was now at loggerheads with the government, after the Department for Transport (DfT) said the scheme had “fallen short” because it failed to meet the category 1 criteria as it required a track access guarantee.

“This was never meant to be a category 1 MLP,” said Cross. “What we’re proposing is something which we know is realistic and financeable. In theory we are asking the government to take usage risk, but that shouldn’t be a problem because they want a southern link to Heathrow.”

The Windsor Link Railway bid was rejected by the DfT in December last year on the basis that an assessment had been carried out and that the “long-term farebox uplift is not sufficient to fund the capital… costs of the scheme”.

But Bathurst said he had then received a second letter last week saying that the DfT had not carried out an economic assessment and that the scheme was “not a strategic priority”.

“But how does it know if it’s not a strategic priority if it hasn’t carried out an assessment?” said Bathurst. “Why would companies spend time and money on entering schemes if they aren’t even going to be assessed?”

The DfT said 30 schemes had been entered into the market led proposals call for ideas, but has yet to confirm how many schemes it will take forward and into what category they fall.

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