Airtrack goes back a long way, probably 10 years, but about two years ago Egham Chamber of Commerce was told that the project,to build a new stretch of train line between Heathrow and Staines, was being actively discussed again. BAA was going to lead the project to get the line built, by providing the resources for feasibility studies and for the TWA Application, with the money to actually build the line being raised later.
The plan was to build a new line from Heathrow to Staines and a new station in Staines town centre, and run direct fast trains from Reading, Guildford and Waterloo to Heathrow, with two trains an hour on each route.
It was left to us (thanks, Mick) to point out that 2 services per hour each way means 4 trains, and since both the Reading and Guildford services go through Egham, that means 8 extra trains each hour through Egham’s level crossings.
Egham Chamber of Commerce had campaigned since 2004 against Network Rail’s decision to replace the half-barriers at Pooley Green level crossing with full barriers with an average down time of 3 minutes per train.
We were therefore fully aware that if Airtrack was allowed to double the number of trains going through the level crossings, it could destroy our town. We immediately began a low-key campaign to persuade Runnymede Borough Council (RBC) that they should insist on a bridge or tunnel in Egham as a condition for supporting the Airtrack project.
1950s signalling system
This was not successful, despite our best efforts, the Borough Council being convinced that replacing the 1950s signalling system would deal with the problems of 8 extra trainsan hour, even though in February 2008, during a visit to Feltham Signal Centre by a group comprising the Leader of RBC, several Councillors and representatives of the Chamber, we were told that replacing the signalling system would not materially improve the level crossing down times in Egham, as the new technology available could not make such a big difference.
RBC’s policy position
RBC’s policy position was (and with some added qualifications remains) that Airtrack is a project of great potential benefit to the Borough, and they support it in principle. (Well, actually, so do we… in principle)
In April 2008 Airtrack began the first phase of its consultations on the project by speaking to business representatives in Staines. Egham Chamber representatives were able to attend the meeting and repeatedly pointed out that whereas Staines would only be affected during the construction phase, the effect on Egham would be on-going, and that there was no mention of any measures to reduce the impact on our crossing and our road system. We were told by BAA’s consultants the there would a later consultation exercise in the autumn which would include Egham.
In September 2008 we became aware that Airtrack had started the promised second round of consultation, in Staines, Stanwell Moor and Ashford, but were not proposing to consult with residents. After much pressure they reviewed that decision and hastily arranged a barely publicised public meeting at The Hythe Centre in November. It was painfully obvious that BAA at that point fully understood the impact on Egham, but were entirely determined to avoid any responsibility for reducing that impact.
250 – 300 people attended that meeting, and a remarkable grass-roots campaign began, to get our tunnel. Hundreds of emails were sent by Chamber members and others, leaflets were printed and delivered by volunteers, and Councillor Yvonna Lay distributed thousands of copies of the consultation document. The several hundred consultation responses from Egham far exceeded the responses from all the other areas combined.
The Chamber of Commerce created an online petition on the 10 Downing Street website, which by word of mouth and through publicity in the local newspapers quickly collected over 1,800 signatures.
This was overtaken by a paper petition. The strength of feeling in the town was such that as soon as the existence of this petition became known, members of the public began contacting the Chamber asking for copies. Schools, doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, shops, restaurants, takeaways, the day centre, clubs and churches all collected signatures, as did a great many local residents who on their own initiative canvassed their streets and workplaces. When the 3,400 signatures on this petition are added to those on the website the total comes to 5,200, an impressive achievement for a town with a population of this size.
An email campaign initiated by the Chamber but spread also by concerned local people led to a flood of letters to Runnymede Borough Council, to Surrey County Council (SCC), who are the Highways Authority for the town, to our MP, Mr Philip Hammond, and to the Department for Transport. The demand was the same in each case. Egham needs a bridge or tunnel, not just slightly faster ways to get across the level crossings.
A facebook group has also been set up, allowing members people to post articles and documents, and discuss the issues. As a result of the campaign, Runnymede Borough Council (RBC) have revised their policy and agreed that their support for Airtrack is conditional on “some solution” being found for the traffic problems that will be result from more trains through Egham’s level crossings. Surrey County Council have accepted that the problems in Egham are the single biggest issue that needs to be resolved if Airtrack is to proceed. Our MP, Mr Hammond came to meet the Chamber, has offered his support, and arranged for us to deliver the petition to Downing Street. He has also spoken personally to the then Minister for Railways, now Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis about the impact of Airtrack on Egham.
Spelthorne Borough Council
A working group was been set up under the chairmanship of RBC’s (then) Interim Chief Executive, of technical experts from Runnymede Borough Council, Surrey Highways, Spelthorne Borough Council, Network Rail, BAA, and the police to discuss all possible solutions to the problems of traffic congestion, including how a tunnel at Pooley Green might be built. This group reported to Runnymede Council in September 2010 that a tunnel could be built at Pooley Green, and that this could take all types of vehicles, provided the speed limit is kept to 20mph. Possible sources of funding for this are being investigated but that problem has not been cracked.
However as a result the Borough Council decided to tell the Department of Transport that RBC OBJECT to the application unless something is done to resolve the problems at Egham’s level crossings.
Surrey County Council are being a little more evasive. Their submission will say (they have another extension) that a “package of measures” is “being identified” and that Airtrack should contribute to the cost.
So far Airtrack, BAA and Network Rail remain resolute: they are responsible for the problem but have no responsibility for the solution. The only option is to force them to build our tunnel, and the only people who can do that are the Lord Adonis and the Public Inspector.So we are not there yet, there is lots more work to be done.
In August the Dept for Transport announced that there would be a public inquiry in early spring but this how now been put back to late spring or early summer, because the various concerned authorities want Network Rail to do more detailed modelling work to see if more trains can be put on the lines without affecting existing commuter services. It is hard to understand why this work was not done before the application was submitted. Hopefully it will give more reliable estimates of down-times in Egham and will demonstrate that Airtrack’s optimistic “best-case” guesses cannot be relied on.
Persuade Surrey County Council
The next step is to persuade Surrey County Council that they must come out unequivocally in favour of a tunnel as a condition for this project.
Then, we need to find the resources to prepare a convincing presentation to the Public Inquiry.