Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The High Wycombe Society (RT 44)


  1.1  The High Wycombe Society and the Transport Group. The Society was set up in 1968 to guard the town's heritage, following a successful campaign to save a historic open space from threatened development. In 1989 the Society set up the Transport Group, primarily to oppose a road scheme (now removed from the plan) but also to follow transport matters more generally, and relate them to the local topography and surrounding Chilterns AONB and Green Belt. High Wycombe grew up along the old London/Oxford road (now the A40) where it runs through a narrow gap in the Chiltern Hills. It has grown considerably over the last thirty years, spreading out over many hills and along the valleys. The main valley carries the river Wye.

  1.2  The High Wycombe/Bourne End Rail Link (HBL). This was built by Brunel and opened in 1854. He took advantage of the Wye valley to avoid tunnelling, taking the track south from High Wycombe via Bourne End and Maidenhead and on to London Paddington. The present line between High Wycombe and London Marylebone was opened in 1905 and required a tunnel about six miles east of High Wycombe, near Beaconsfield. The Wye valley link was closed in 1970, when much of it still ran through open country. Since then, extensive development throughout Wycombe District has included the area beside the HBL track. All this expansion, plus the nearby M40 (opened in the late 60's and running along a ridge a mile south of the town), has brought enormous traffic and congestion to a large area, and the topography adds to the problems. The reinstatement of the HBL track with suitable non-road public transport could provide sustainable transport for thousands of short local trips, as well as links into the main rail network, ie to Chiltern Railways at High Wycombe and Thames Trains at Bourne End, which is 11 minutes by rail to Maidenhead which is on the main line between Paddington and Reading. The Transport Group started to study the HBL reinstatement in January 1994, under the leadership of Christopher Wallis, who in 1989 played an important role in saving the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line—then under threat of closure but now very busy.


  2.1  Protection of the HBL track bed for future use by public transport. In January 1994 this protection was the limit of our audacious ambition, since any re-opening of the line seemed a long way into the future. Nevertheless we were soon encouraged by the publication of PPG 13 in March '94 and the Royal Commission report "Transport and the Environment" in the October. However, for the protection to seem credible we had to survey the route, consider different vehicle systems, indicate possible solutions likely problems, estimate the patronage, and compare the costs and advantages of reinstatement with the consequences of not re-using the HBL corridor for public transport.

  2.2  The new Wycombe District Local Plan. The consultation draft was considered at two large public meetings in April 1998, at which it became clear there was huge pressure on land all over Wycombe, and all the main roads were already severely congested. Any further development would add critically to the economic and environmental costs of congestion, so our studies of the HBL (as in para 2.1), led us to start campaigning for its early reinstatement. In May 1998 we decided to arrange a meeting with an invited audience of councillors, officers, corporate sector and others, which was held in the Council Chamber of Wycombe District Council in October 1998. In December 1998 the Deposit Draft of the new District Local Plan was published. It contained protection of the HBL track bed for re-use by public transport as yet unspecified, plus any land required for diversions and access. We have recently (11 January 2000) received advice from the DETR indicating it could be appropriate for Bucks County Council (the Highway Authority) to include reinstatement of the HBL in the Local Transport Plan.

  2.3  The HBL track bed. Only about 200m of the 9km track is still in the hands of the Railway Property Company, but most of the formation (6-7km) remains clear, ie overgrown with the rails taken up. Approximately a further 1km is made up of three cul de sac service roads, such that the present light local traffic on them could easily share with a reinstated public transport service. The remaining kilometre includes four places where the track has been built on. For much of this distance diversions could be put on either adjoining open land or on service roads, requiring only simple engineering, but in two places, totalling about 500m, more sophisticated and costly engineering would be needed. Four bridges would have to be rebuilt; two of them are very small. Designs for the two larger ones have been provided by Christopher Wallis free of charge. They would offer considerable advantages to cyclists and pedestrians as well as being needed for a reinstatement with any kind of rail system. Another member of this Group, Colin Harrison MIRSE, has prepared a signalling plan (also free of charge). Overall, a reinstatement with light rail would make good use of existing infrastructure, while the new bridges and signalling would provide extra facilities for cycling and walking, and a cycle/walking track would be provided alongside the new public transport on the HBL track.

  2.4  Six thousand passenger journeys per day and 11 stops between the two rail stations. We have proposed 11 stops in addition to the rail stations. All 13 stops have many households and employment sites within 500m. There are also 15 schools (totalling about 10,000 pupils) where some of the pupils and staff would use a reinstated HBL. It would also serve a number of indoor and outdoor leisure venues. There are 153 trains per day to/from London (37 mins) at High Wycombe, plus a good service westwards to Birmingham. Close to the Station there is the town centre, with national chain store shops, a theatre (1,000 seats), the District Hospital, a college, and the offices of the District Council and the County's area office. At Bourne End there are many shops, the River Thames, a rail branch line to Marlow, and the service to Maidenhead, for Slough (for Heathrow), Windsor, Reading and the main rail network. In October 1996, a study commissioned by the District Council from Maunsell Transport Planning estimated a possible 6100 passenger journeys per day by innovative ULR. Since 1996, various transport developments, including rising numbers of rail passengers, might generate even greater HBL patronage. All this could result in replacing thousands of daily car trips now using two heavily congested routes (A40/A4094 & A404/A308) feeding the economically active quadrant south east of Wycombe, which includes Bourne End and Maidenhead.

  2.5  Choice of ULR for HBL reinstatement. Our reasons for this choice are discussed in Section 3. There would be scope for a frequent through ULR service between High Wycombe and Maidenhead, which would provide a much needed north/south public transport facility. ULR could also offer an economic, more frequent service on the branch line between Bourne End and Marlow.


  3.1  Heavy rail rejected. Since the HBL closed in 1970, considerable new development throughout the HBL corridor has created a need for public transport that is very frequent, (5-10 minute) fast, cheap, and readily accessed at many more points than the former heavy rail service, which, unlike ULR, is a mode unsuited to serving closely spaced stops. Also, any new service must be as unobtrusive as possible, use the minimum of land, and have minimum impact on nearby properties. On all these grounds we rejected reinstatement with heavy rail.

  3.2  Buses also rejected. Any fast, frequent public transport service would require a dual track. The original HBL track was Brunel broad gauge but was single track with passing places, so it would not be wide enough to carry two bus lanes, even guided buses, (which offer costs and problems of their own). Hence the land required would be greater than for the original formation, and the bus route would be conspicuous and wide enough for its future to be always under threat from the "roads lobby". Energy consumption would be greater than for light rail, while experience, here and abroad, suggests light rail is better than buses at tempting drivers from their cars. The flexibility of buses has been quoted in their support, but this very flexibility can also confer uncertainty—an important factor when planning any kind of new development. In the light of all these considerations we rejected reinstatement using buses.

  3.3  Support for light rail. The two reports by the Royal Commission about "Transport and the Environment" (1994 and 1997) both speak in favour of light rail, on grounds of its energy efficiency, non pollution and passenger appeal. Also, the success of the Metro-Link in Manchester and of light rail systems more generally, caused us to briefly consider such light rail for the HBL. However, we were concerned about the obtrusiveness and maintenance costs of overhead power lines. Also, the overall costs seemed likely to be too high for the size of the population to be served.

  3.4  The discovery of flywheel energy storage and ULR. Having reviewed all our reservations as above, we were interested to discover the Parry People Mover (PPM) in 1994. Its flywheel energy storage, safe intermittent ground level power supply, and other features, seemed to offer the right potential. In 1994 the PPM was still little more than a prototype, but then we did not envisage a working reinstatement for many years, during which time considerable development seemed possible. In 1999 a further ULR vehicle appeared—a modified PPM renamed the Bristol Electric Railbus. This retains the flywheel energy storage and regenerative braking (thereby aiding economic stopping and starting) but a new redesigned vehicle (due in service in March) will include a different transmission system which the owners claim confers even greater energy efficiency.

  3.5  The Key Properties of ULR. The many features of which recommend ULR to us for reinstating the HBL suggest it could have wide application elsewhere. It is exceptionally energy efficient, due to its low weight, motion of steel on steel, efficient energy transmission, and ability to recapture the energy of braking in the flywheel, plus its use of gentle gradients. With the arrival of "green" electricity it would create zero pollution and zero CO2 emissions—key factors in face of the growing alarm about global warming and general pollution. It requires the minimum of land, is almost silent, and is visually unobtrusive. Its low weight and no overhead power lines help to keep infrastructure (track and bridges) and maintenance costs low. Long experience of light rail worldwide suggests an expectation of long vehicle lives would be justified. Steel wheels are recyclable and last longer than rubber tyres; land and labour for refuelling are not required. All these considerations suggest operating costs could be expected to be lower than for any other form of public transport, making it easier to provide frequent fast services on rails unimpeded by traffic congestion.

Dr Elisa Woodward

Transport Group

21 January 2000

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