Minister boosts 'ambitious' east-west rail link hopes

Milton Keynes South MP Iain Stewart Image copyright bbc
Image caption Iain Stewart said re-opening the link is a "no-brainer" and that trains could be running by 2017

Has the dream of an east-west rail link across the region moved a step closer?

That was the question MPs were asking themselves this week after the rail minister made, what we believe, were encouraging noises.

Theresa Villiers' comments came at the end of a debate on re-opening the "varsity line".

Ms Villiers told Milton Keynes South MP Iain Stewart the government would be considering "very seriously" to see if it could find the money to re-open the stretch between Bletchley and Oxford.

For years local politicians, business leaders and rail enthusiasts have been pushing for a full east-west rail link across the region. Mr Stewart told the debate in Westminster Hall the key to achieving this was restoring the track at Bletchley.

"The east-west rail link is good for business and economic growth, good for the environment and good for the nation's wider strategic transport aspirations," said Ms Villiers.

Global potential

"At a time when everyone is shouting for more growth in the economy, this project would provide a rail link to an economic corridor that is at the cutting edge of the UK's economy."

Plenty of other MPs from the east were there to lend their support.

George Freeman (Con, Mid Norfolk) said the economy of Norfolk would benefit considerably if the already successful Norwich-to-Cambridge line could be extended west.

"If we want to re-balance the economy, we should consider the eastern region's strengths in cleantech, biotech and life sciences. Extending the Oxford-Cambridge-Norwich corridor would play a key part in unlocking our global potential," he said.

It was a point echoed by the Ipswich MP, Ben Gummer (Con). He said the largest software development centre in Europe was on the outskirts of Ipswich. While Waveney's Conservative MP, Peter Aldous, expressed the hope that more freight from the east coast ports would be tempted off the roads, if there was a real connection to the Midlands.

Richard Fuller (Con, Bedford) thought it was time our region received some serious investment: "Government investment priorities sometimes overlook the fact that there are significant areas of deprivation in the south-east. There is a tendency to favour projects in other parts of the country."

This project would "restore opportunities for job creation in areas and pockets of significant deprivation" some of which, he said, were in his constituency.

Substantial scheme

Iain Stewart believes it would cost £250m to re-open the Bletchley-to-Oxford stretch: "I believe it's a no-brainer. With a fair wind, trains could be running by 2017."

Ms Villiers is used to hearing requests to fund new projects and she could have poured cold water on this idea. But she didn't.

Describing the plan as "an ambitious vision" she said: "We will consider seriously whether we can provide funding. There is no doubt that this is a very substantial scheme."

But there was a warning: "Whether it proves affordable depends on the extent of alternative sources of funding available to support the project... and how the project compares with other competing priorities."

Nevertheless the region's MPs felt heartened. Mr Gummer got quite giddy, declaring: "Certainly many of us will welcome the tone of the minister's statement, which is exciting."

Heady stuff.