Uncertainty about the future of East West Rail (EWR) – the new railway line being built between Oxford and Cambridge – has grown in recent months.
Doubts surfaced after transport secretary Grant Shapps stated that he would consider cancelling its future phases, while the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) branded successful delivery of those phases “unachievable”.
This is not the view expressed by Beth West, the new chief executive of East West Rail Company (EWR Co) which is responsible for the project. She spoke to NCE after her first 100 days in the job and she was confident about the delivery programme.
Work on EWR’s £760M Connection Stage 1 (CS1) – a 32km line between Bicester and Bletchley – is progressing and this section is expected to be operational in 2025. The plan is for the line to be extended further in the future. The next stage is the 26km CS2 from Bletchley to Bedford and this is to be followed by 48km CS3 from Bedford to Cambridge.
The project got a boost in May when the Department for Transport (DfT) updated its commercial pipeline document and outlined six forthcoming EWR contracts for CS2 and CS3 worth a combined £2.7bn.
But two months later, during an interview on radio station LBC Shapps said that he would consider cancelling CS2 and CS3 to cut government spending.
West joined EWR in March after working as interim director, open spaces at the City of London Corporation. She was previously HS2 Ltd’s commercial director.
West says that funding “is a big issue for everyone at this time” because of pressures on government finances.
“In the current economic times there are a lot of things demanding government budget, so it is really important to make sure that people who are making the decisions see the [economic] growth that can come from this kind of transformational infrastructure,” says West. “Our local leaders need to make sure that they’re pressing the case for this.”
The team has mapped out every single process and system that you need to have to run a railway
Days after the Shapps interview, CS2 and CS3 were given a red rating by the IPA in its Annual Report on Major Projects 2021-2022. A red rating is for projects which have “major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable.”
EWR Co responded that it was already refreshing the business case for the project and is testing the options for the future development of the scheme. It anticipates an improvement in the rating when the programme is updated.
West says that the EWR team is working to deliver the future phases differently to CS1 and other rail projects. “We are trying to take all the amazing lessons of the past and then come up with a new way to deliver a railway using modern technology.”
Her wealth of knowledge of construction and transport – gained from her work at HS2 Ltd, Transport for London (TfL), Balfour Beatty and Landsec – could be key to the company’s efforts to achieve this.
Past, present, future
According to West, one of the rail industry’s challenges is that different types of systems keep being installed on rail assets.
She says “no one has ever figured out what is not needed” and removed it. She explains that this results to duplication of systems and the existence of some which are not being used. This adds complexity to operation and maintenance.
EWR Co wants to make sure that this kind of problem will not occur on its line in the future by defining what it calls its “target state”. West defines it as: “It’s the clear picture of what we would like the completed, fully functional railway to be.”
“The team has mapped out every single process and system that you need to have to run a railway and figured out how they interface with each other. We have been able to get the hundreds of systems that exist on the railway down to 38,” she says.
The 38 systems include – but are not limited to – those used for signalling, customer information and corporate management.
Apart from removing systems duplication, related operations, systems and data can be brought together in one place. This will facilitate future replacement.
The target state approach is one way the delivery of the later stages of EWR will differ from CS1 and other rail projects. Another way is through the early engagement of operator-maintainers.
“A lesson learned out of most projects is that they’re either not brought in early enough or they don’t have a big enough voice,” West says.
There are also lessons from the use of technology by past rail projects. She says sometimes this overcomplicates things instead of simplifying them.
West says that her objective is to get supply chain involved as early as possible, so its members can help with the design.
One of EWR Co’s key focus areas is sustainability. “We need to find ways to pour less concrete and use less steel or better ways to use them; not have any waste; and minimise our vehicle movements,” she says.
“If we don’t look at that at the outset, we’ll never get to the sustainability objectives that we’re trying to achieve because we will have gone so far down the design path that it will cost us too much time to go in a different direction.”
For the design of the new railway, West specifies the importance of engaging with local leaders and communities to create an asset that fits the locals’ needs.
She says: “It is not about plunking something down and expecting everybody to adapt. We want EWR to be integrated into our communities’ lives.”
Over the coming months West will be spending more time talking to communities along the route. She also aims to start having conversations about the next stages of the project with the supply chain.
Whether the procurement process will begin depends on the new prime minister’s decision about the project’s future.
West says that politics is one of the biggest challenges for projects like EWR, which are at an early stage.
“These projects take a long time, so you have to make sure that you’re keeping all your political stakeholders on board,” says West. “We want to make sure that it [EWR] is a priority for the person who is going to be the next prime minister.”
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