Chiltern Railways or Great Western rail could be in line to take on the new East West line running through Oxford to Bedford, after the transport body for the region called on government to dispense with new franchise arrangements.
England's Economic Heartland (EEH) - the sub-national transport body for the crucial Cambridge to Oxford corridor - has called for the Government to appoint an existing operator to take on the services.
At the first meeting of EEH's Strategic Transport Forum in December, the group resolved to invite Chiltern Railways and Great Western to its January 25 meeting in order to hear their views on the process.
EEH said in a statement that there was a 'strong case' for services on East West Rail's 'western section' to initially be provided by an existing operator, given the current difficulties in the rail sector - including the industry undergoing a fundamental review, the cancellation of a number of franchising processes, and travel demand often being initially underestimated
The section between Oxford, Bedford, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, is due to open in the early 2020s. The line will eventually run from Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford.
EEH argued that 'a bespoke arrangement with an existing operator may provide the best offer to passengers in the shorter term'.
Mayor Dave Hodgson, chair of the EEH Strategic Transport Forum, said: 'Given the scale of growth we're already experiencing across the region, it is important that its benefits are realised from the get-go, but that any operator isn't bound to a flawed franchise specification which fails to maximise longer-term strategic opportunities.
'This is why using an existing operator in the shorter-term would enable the framework for any future franchise to be based on a real-world understanding of travel patterns and demand, rather than forecasts which can so often – with the benefit of hindsight – prove to be far removed from reality.
'It would also enable a future franchise to take into account work on the future of the West Coast Mainline post HS2's opening – in particular enabling a new north-south corridor between Northampton and Old Oak Common.
'Finally, rail services could initially be incorporated within existing operations, helping to manage pressure on existing infrastructure until such time as capacity is improved.'
The East West Rail route is divided into 3 sections:
- the western section phase 1 (Oxford to Bicester) and phase 2 (Bicester to Milton Keynes/Bedford and Aylesbury to Milton Keynes)
- the central section (Bedford to Cambridge via Sandy)
- the eastern section (Cambridge to Norwich and Ipswich) - existing railway which could link into East West Rail
Phase 1 between Oxford and Bicester is already complete. Phase 2 will see major track and signalling upgrades extending services from Oxford to Bedford and Milton Keynes to Aylesbury. These works include the reinstatement of the Varsity line between Bletchley and Claydon Junction, a mothballed section of railway closed since the 1960s.