The British railway network is littered with bad planning decisions. For all the vim and technical precocity of the Victorian era's market-led approach to railway construction, Britain's rail network has remained a series of unconnected lines and branches leaving a legacy unbefitting of a modern state. Yet while some lines have since been refined with 'missing links', for instance the Ordsall Chord in Manchester, others have been ignored, allowing this legacy to exacerbate the modern strains on the national rail network.
The network in Windsor is perhaps the most apparent testament to the inefficacy of Britain's rail system. The town's two stations were both built in 1849 by rival rail companies with little interest in cooperating with each other. The result was (and still is) two unconnected rail lines, one originating at London Paddington and one at London Waterloo, terminating only 300 metres from each other. The Windsor Link Railway is going to revise this long-standing mistake, transforming accessibility to the outer West London region and Europe's busiest airport. This privately-funded enterprise, the first in the UK for over 100 years, will finally correct the planning miscalculations of the 19th century, the government's inertia of the 20th century and ultimately inject a crucial dose of 21st century entrepreneurialism into an outdated rail network.
During Phase 1 of the project, the proposed new £370 million link would see the two lines connected at Windsor. Phase 2 will deliver the link to London Heathrow at a further cost of around £1.1 billion. The simultaneous construction of both the Phase 1 and Phase 2 would allow trains to be running as early as 2024, or sooner with government support – the first step in the creation of a much-needed'M25 railway'.
The submission of plans for the Windsor Link Railway comes off the back of the Department for Transports' recent appeal for market-led proposals which will, according to Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, bring new, innovative ideas to the fore, engender great 'contestability in the market' whilst also 'relieving the burden on taxpayers and farepayers'. This announcement has been welcome news to the rail industry which has been bogged down by the 'predict and provide' model since the First World War. It has paved the way for market-led proposals to serve the public in a way the Department of Transport has been unable to do before. For evidence that this model can work we need only look to the US, where a market-orientated approach similar to that of Grayling's has already started to reap dividends with the high-speed Florida Brightline, the first privately-funded railway in over 100 years, beginning operations earlier this year.
In conjunction with Grayling's appeal for private sector involvement in rail transport, have been his repeated calls to improve the rail links in and around Heathrow in anticipation of the construction of a third runway. Both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Windsor Link Railway tackle this head on, lubricating the connections within the M3 and M4 economic corridors by shifting 4 million new journeys from the road to rail and saving the taxpayer £2 billion of capital expenditure. Importantly, it complements both southern and western rail access to the airport, with an incremental solution that can be expanded as the airport expands. This will allow, among other outcomes, more air cargo to be transported to Heathrow, aiding the construction of the third runway and reducing disruption. At its core though, the scheme will deliver cheaper and, crucially, more reliable travel, a desperate necessity in light of the 'Campaign for Better Transport's' assertion that 50% of last year's rail journeys nationally were either late or cancelled.
Aside from the benefits of a more efficient orbital railway around London, the Windsor Rail Link has the capacity to greatly diminish environmental pollution within the Thames Valley and West London regions. More proficient rail journeys and new park-n-ride stations on the M4 and M3 will reduce road congestion, offsetting at least some of the pollution that will be brought about by an expanded Heathrow. According to calculations, Phase 1 of the project alone will reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 95,000 tonnes per year. On a more local level, the 'Windsor Masterplan' enlarges the town's public parks to create a more aesthetic riverside environment for its residents and 7 million visitors a year. The scheme also unlocks property opportunities, for new homes and offices in sustainable locations stretching from Staines to Slough, including potentially 1 million square feet in the neglected 21-acre riverside area of Windsor.
Such possibilities for meaningful change do not start and end at Windsor. As stated, Britain's railway network is a jigsaw where, more often than not, the pieces still do not fit. The Windsor Link Railway has the potential to prove that privately-funded, market-driven solutions are viable across the country and can usher in a new era of opportunity and innovation for Britain's railways; an era where the public sector works in a more open and genuine partnership with the private sector.
George Bathurst is the Director and Founder of Windsor Link Railway, and is also an former local councillor at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead