One of the biggest infrastructure projects the West of England has ever seen has descended into “a farce and a nightmare” after running into a series of problems.
Work to electrify the Great Western mainlines to the region from London is under way in earnest across Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, but is causing main roads across the area to be closed for months, with alternative routes “wrecked”, and a growing list of complaints, delays and struggling businesses.
The £5 billion project to electrify the lines from London to the region means many small road bridges over the tracks have to be raised to accommodate the wires. That mammoth part of the project is being tackled first here, while the electrification itself begins in London.
But the bridge-raising projects have been hit by a long list of calamities, including bad weather, the discovery bats, and cranes toppling into ditches, and as the number of closed roads continues to rise along the route through north Wiltshire and South Gloucestershire, one politician said the project was “playing havoc with lives”.
Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Brian Mathew said he questioned the role of Network Rail’s main contractor on the job, Balfour Beatty, after it emerged that the firm was ordering the closure of key roads around the former RAF base at Lyneham to do the bridge work, at the same time this year as the same firm was planning to transform a former RAF base into a
£230 million defence college.
The biggest delays so far have been in South Gloucestershire, where a road bridge just outside Acton Turville has been closed since early autumn last year. The B4040 is the main road across that part of the South Cotswolds between Yate and Malmesbury, and contractors had to stop work after the astonishing discovery that bats were roosting under the bridge, just feet away from 125mph trains.
The work has been further hit by horrendous weather, a crane trying to access the area along the ancient Fosse Way Roman road toppling into a ditch, and residents said Network Rail have stopped even giving them predictions of when the bridge will reopen. The work was supposed to be finished this month.
The country lanes used as diversions have been largely flooded this winter, and are being churned up by heavy lorries. Businesses along the road said they were suffering from a major loss in trade, and there are fears the work could hamper access to the Badminton Horse Trials nearby, if it is not completed by May.
The Old Royal Ship Inn, at Luckington on the Wiltshire side of the border, said its customers were reporting a drive of three-quarters of an hour to avoid to the closed road.
One resident of nearby Sherston, who declined to be named, said: “It’s been a nightmare, it’s a farce really. They’ve had bad luck, but it’s taking far longer than they ever said, and is really affecting everyone’s lives.”
Twenty miles away in Minety, the village is getting back to normal after the same road was closed for months. The landlord of a pub next to their bridge said the work nearly put him out of business.
The area around Swindon and Royal Wootton Bassett is next in line for disruption, with a series of roads about to be closed in the next couple of months.
Liberal Democrat PCC Brian Mathew said residents were “set to get a shock”.
“Most people as yet are unaware that it is to happen,” he said. “Not only is this going to play havoc with people’s lives, but the Ministry of Defence and its main contractor for the works at Lyneham also seem to be unaware of this closure programme.
“This is doubly disturbing as Balfour Beatty, the company involved in the Lyneham reconstruction programme, are also the company involved with raising the bridges for Network Rail, a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing if ever I saw one,” he added.
The rail bridge at Dauntsey Lock, which connects Lyneham to the M4 at Chippenham will be closed for five months from early March, with the road connecting Lyneham to Royal Wootton Bassett and the M4 at Swindon being closed for six months from September.
“It will mean severe disruption as when the roads are blocked other routes will have to be found. The works on the bridges are no doubt necessary for the electrification of the railway lines, but it is essential that it is co-ordinated properly and residents and contractors alike are fully up to speed on which diversion routes to take when the work gets underway,” he added.
“Heavy equipment blocking roads will be in no one’s interest and emergency vehicles will need to clear routes,” he said.
No one from Network Rail was available to comment yesterday.