Wiltshire Publications

Fears over high speed train links to London

TWO local councillors have raised concerns over the future of high speed rail services from Westbury to London, saying that government specification for the route “is likely to result in the down-grading” of the route.

Councillors David Jenkins and Gordon King have raised concerns that the Department of Transport’s Great Western franchise replacement consultation (now closed) does not specifically require the continuance of high speed through rail services between Westbury and London, and say this would effectively downgrade the Great Western mainline east of Newbury (the Berks and Hants line) from a high speed route to a semi-fast route inconveniencing commuters, increasing journey times to and from London.

The councillors believe that the government’s plan could see diesel trains running as far as Newbury where passengers will change to new high speed electric trains [post electrification] for the onward journey into London.  Intercity high speed rail services between Westbury and Newbury could be replaced by semi-fast local services like those that currently operate out of Reading via Newbury to Great Bedwyn.  The initial plan [pre-electrification] might be to extend this service to Westbury and possibly Taunton, thereby increasing journey times, in inferior trains with a lower standard of coach and  livery.

The councillors say the plans obscure an important issue; Westbury is a significant nodal point on the rail network where several lines connect making it an important commuter hub.  Furthermore, over the years, they say that Fast Train connections from Westbury has encouraged a large migration of people out of London who continue to work there.   These people have disposable incomes sufficient to add value to the local economy and underpin house prices.   Alternatively, commuters could be forced to travel on already overstretched local services to Bath in order to pick up the high speed train services.  Not only will this take longer but it could also mean greater passenger overcrowding along an already busy and expensive route.

Councillors Jenkins and Kings say that the government has paid far too much attention to an increasingly loud lobby from certain far South West authorities for the speeding up of services to and from London by omitting stops at intermediate stations.  Though sympathetic to the need for shorter journeys the councillors do not believe that faster times by cutting services is necessarily the right answer.

More about the consultation, which has now closed, can be found on the Department of Transport website. The two councillors are urging local people to write to Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA, to voice their concern. They will also ask Westbury Town Council at its meeting in September to write to the MP and “object in the strongest possible terms” to any proposals that may downgrade the line.

Cllr David Jenkins said, “There are a large number of people who live in Westbury, in the surrounding villages, in Warminster and Trowbridge and even in North East Somerset who every day rely on the fast train connections between Westbury and London for work or business purposes.  This fast train service allows folk to live here and work or do business in London.  If the Berks and Hants route is downgraded and these services are replaced in a way that government thinks acceptable, then longer journey times in a lower standard of coach is inevitable; inconveniencing quite literally hundreds of travellers each week putting jobs, the local economy and businesses at risk.”

The councillors believe that Westbury’s good connectivity will be sacrificed in an effort to improve services to other south-west locations. Cllr Gordon King said, “If you use the early morning and evening services between Westbury and London as I have, you will not fail to observe that by far the largest number of commuters, come out of Wiltshire (Westbury and Pewsey) and Berkshire (Newbury and Reading) rather than coming up from the far South West.   I would like to know what it is that makes the traveller from the far south-west more important to the government than the commuter from Westbury who actually makes the service pay especially outside the holiday season.  I agree with David – at a time of recession and economic stagnation, the government’s priority must be the preservation of local economies, jobs and business.”