East West Rail: cutting across established lines

railbusinessdaily.com Editor Dan Clark spoke to East West Railway Company CEO Simon Blanchflower about the progress made so far

It’s safe to say that the last 12 months have been challenging from a rail perspective. The industry continues to make easy knocking copy for the media and is consistently used as a political football when it suits. This, in turn, has contributed towards public perception that can be more negative than it is positive.

So, it is refreshing for a rail project to experience the levels of wide public backing and support that East West Rail has – especially one that is building more infrastructure and introducing services which will hopefully contribute towards a significant modal shift in the Home Counties and Oxfordshire areas.

East West Rail has been a concept in development since the late 1990s and, in 2017, East West Railway Company was set up by the Department for Transport – pioneering a new business model in which it combines the delivery of both rail infrastructure and passenger services.

The aim is to connect Oxford and Cambridge together by rail through economically important towns along the route, unlocking strong economic potential. Those local to the area will be aware of how challenging it is to travel between these two cities – home to two of the world’s most respected universities – so it comes as no surprise that the public has shown its support in a project which will create jobs, opportunities and improve access to housing.


A transformational project

Led by Simon Blanchflower, who was instrumental in releasing huge amounts of capacity in the South East through the Thameslink project, East West Railway Company has an exciting future ahead.

Simon saw East West Rail as a transformational initiative, similar to those he had completed with the London Bridge station project and working on rail links at Heathrow while the new terminal was built. Those projects alone have seen huge increases in capacity – London Bridge has increased capacity by 66 per cent since re-opening. Simon’s 35 years’ experience in civil engineering and project delivery will be vital for a company finding its feet in developing a new operating model based on building and operating both the tracks and the trains.

He said: “East West Rail has provided an exciting, new challenge for me to implement new ideas of completing infrastructure projects from the start and combine that with an operational model which we believe will be different to anything seen before in the UK. It’s an opportunity to look at the railways differently and focus on the areas we feel will make a difference.

“There are no other opportunities like this in the UK for rail – here we have the chance to build a railway where infrastructure and services will go hand-in-hand starting from scratch, ultimately benefitting all users of the system whilst providing maximum efficiency.

“This is our chance to show how much rail can unlock potential in a region and create positive outcomes for the communities it serves.”

For now, the main focus for East West Railway Company is through building its infrastructure. Simon’s leadership during this time will be incredibly important. Starting his career in the 1980s, Simon completed a Civils degree before enrolling onto Network Rail’s Management Training programme – working his way up through junior/mid-management roles prior to privatisation of the railways.

Looking to broaden his skillset, Simon left British Rail and became an engineering consultant for four years before starting work on the early establishment of Heathrow Express. It was here that Simon got his taste for major projects, working on Crossrail too in the early phases of the project. He joined Network Rail in 2007 as Client Engineering Manager and became Principal Programme Sponsor and then Major Programme Director on the Thameslink programme. Simon’s innovation in delivery and implementation through this programme, including deployment of digital railway technology, has been recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. He was awarded a CBE in June 2019 for services to rail, nine months after his appointment as CEO at East West Railway Company.


Building the infrastructure

The East West Rail Western Section Phase 1 between Oxford and Bicester was completed on December 12th 2016, with the Western Section Phase 2 between Bicester and Bedford due to be completed and services introduced by the end of 2023. Work involved as part of this phase includes the creation of a new station at Winslow and two new platforms at Bletchley.

The Bedford to Cambridge section of the project is expected to be completed by in the 2020s. This went out to public consultation in 2019. The section has been deemed as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, and now it is working towards a Development Consent Order application to authorise the project. Soon, a preferred route option will be announced following the public consultation in 2019 on five possible routes.

The team has appointed an Arup-led consortium to support early works for the Bedford to Cambridge phase. In January 2019, it also started the process for rolling stock procurement through a Prior Information Notice – focusing on working across the market to de-risk the project and establish what is available to meet entry into service requirements before defining its specifications.

This company will also take into consideration the industry’s focus to decarbonise by 2040. The team has worked closely with Bedford’s Cranfield University to develop innovative processes to reduce environmental impact throughout the project. This was made clear through the consultation process, to demonstrate to the public some of the science behind the route proposals and how they can mitigate atmospheric and sound pollution.

Simon said: “It is an exciting period for the company, and we feel that we have laid some strong foundations which have seen a positive response from the public and the rest of the industry alike.

“This is one of the most important projects for the region in a generation and our team is working tirelessly to make sure that we get it right. Embedding customer service into our values and optimising what we do from an infrastructure and operational perspective will be vital in shaping a service which is reliable and one that the region will be proud of.”


Diversity and inclusion in its foundations

The East West Railway Company team is built with diversity and inclusion at the forefront and has grown from a team of seven to more than 72 since its formation. The company focused on bringing in individuals from different industries – such as other transport sectors and retail, for example – to provide new ideas to drive the company forward.

“We feel that our team is well placed to give us a fresh pair of eyes for the rail industry,” said Simon.

“Our new Head of Innovation has a background in the bus industry, and another new starter told us in his first week that he was surprised at how young and dynamic our team is, and how clear it is that customer service is at the forefront of everything we do.

“Everyone at East West Railway Company recognises the importance of having a mix of skills and expertise from people from all backgrounds with varying ages and genders to create the best outcomes. That’s why we’ve embedded this ethos from the start and we’ve already seen fantastic results from that through the fact that we are seen as a rail company that does things positively and differently.”