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Great Western Railway: you can't see much progress on electrification, but you can see right though Box Tunnel - can't you?

Post card of Box Tunnel - to buy a copy see belowPost card of Box Tunnel - to buy a copy see belowThe progress of the government's electrification of the Great Western railway and other lines to the south-west is of great importance to people in the Marlborough area who may also want to know if you can see right through Box Tunnel - or they may not.  

Not only do Marlborough people have to look out for bridge works as they drive north and west of the town, but they will also be watching for important changes to the rail service from Bedwyn to London when electrification reaches Newbury - and stops there.

So Marlborough News Online kept an eye on the Parliamentary reports last week when Kevin Foster (Conservative MP for Torbay) won a debate (February 8) calling "on the government to ensure that plans for further electrification and improved resilience of the Great Western railway routes are progressed urgently".  

Perhaps what he and the assembled cohort of West of England's Conservative MPs really wanted to know was when the government and/or Network Rail would announce a new timetable for completion of the works - that was the elephant in the House of Commons' chamber.

There was the familiar promise of less crowded trains from Reading to Paddington - especially welcome and important for those travelling from Bedwyn who have to change at Reading.

It already looks as though electrification to Newbury, which may well further diminish services from Bedwyn, will not be finished until 2018 - three years late.

Network Rail's chief executive Mark Carne told Parliament last October the estimate for the Great Western electrification had been £874m in January 2013 and £1.5bn in September 2014 - since then they had risen again.  

Little appears to have happened about costings and funding since Parliament's Public Accounts Committee called the next increase to £2.8billion "staggering and unacceptable."

During this debate, the Railways Minister, Claire Perry MP, was not able to make any announcement about the timetable.  But it did provide a little amusement in the form of a brief spat between two Wiltshire MPs over a bizarre claim about the Box Tunnel.

When Kevin Foster mentioned that Box Tunnel was 'now one of the most well-used tunnels', James Gray (MP for North Wiltshire) could not resist intervening: "Box Tunnel is, of course, in my constituency.  He will know that the only time one can see from one end of the tunnel to the other is once a year on Brunel's birthday."

Claire Perry apparently interrupted him to say that was untrue.  To which Gray retorted: "The minister says that is not true, but we believe it is true - I have seen it myself."

In her summing up at the end of the three hour debate, Mrs Perry found a way to score a point against Mr Gray.  She mentioned that Box Tunnel was part of the track being 'improved' and added that she had "been through [it] on a people carrier."

We believe that this 'people carrier' was not the sort that goes on the school run, but one of those open-air, hand-powered buggies that take railway workmen along the tracks.

This flourish must have interrupted her concentration as she then referred to the Welsh MP Huw Irrana-Davies as the Member for Ogden - to which MPs shouted out the correction: "[Hon Members: "Ogmore"]."  She tried again: "The hon. Member for Ogbourne..."  To which a Labour member interjected: "Do you know Wales very well?"  

Her part in the debate went to true form with lots of attacks on Labour's record and on the only Labour member in the South West - Ben Bradshaw MP (Exeter.)  She got told off from the Speaker's chair when she tried to interrupt Bradshaw's speech.

She was reminded that the Labour Government had committed to electrification of the Great Western line back in 2009 - so the government's progress has been slow to say the very least.

And she got into trouble again when she went off on a riff about Labour's failure to upgrade the A358 and their failure to support Conservative plans to 'dual' more of the A303.

The Deputy Speaker (Lindsay Hoyle MP): "I am not quite sure how the A303 fits in with a rail debate on the Great Western Line."   Mrs Perry began to respond: "Far be it for me to criticise you, Mr Deputy Speaker..."  She got no further - the Deputy Speaker cut her off: "We both know that that is not an option."

Mrs Perry tried again: "But the roads and rail investment is vital to this region."  Deputy Speaker: "It looks like I need to be even more helpful.  If the Minister looks at the title of the debate, she should realise what it is about, and members have tried to stick to that subject..."  

Mrs Perry surrendered politely - as MPs must - to the Chair: "I will follow your excellent advice, Mr Deputy Speaker."

The picture of Box Tunnel at the head of this report can be bought through Wiltshire Council's e-shop.

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  • IMG 8472
  • Silbury-Sunset---10-06-08-----07
  • Marlborough-2013-04-18 St Peters
  • IMG 9097
  • Town-Hall-2011-05-03 08-