I recently had the opportunity to address the Public Inquiry into the next stage of the East West Rail project.
Having personally been involved in this project for nearly 20 years it's great to see progress being made in securing the powers necessary to begin work on linking Bicester with Bletchley/Milton Keynes and beyond to Bedford, along with the restoration of the connection to/from Aylesbury.
The opening of the first phase of East West Rail – linking Oxford to Bicester (and onwards to London Marylebone) – is like many re-openings becoming a victim of its own success. Trains are very busy most of the time, and not just because they serve Bicester Village, one of the UK's top 3 visitor attractions.
As someone who lives in Oxford, with an office in Aylesbury, I now have a viable, attractive and affordable alternative to driving to work – an option I again took advantage of during the recent snow.
Whilst the Public Inquiry for the Western Section is underway views are separately being sought on the route options for the Central Section (linking Bedford with Cambridge). And the East West Rail Consortium is about to publish its Prospectus for the Eastern Section (setting out the case for improvements to the east of Cambridge).
All of this is a reminder that the East West Rail project is about creating a strategic link between East Anglia, the Heartland and westwards. And we mustn't forget that it also creates new travel opportunities more widely – not just east-west.
And herein lies both the challenge and the opportunity: improved connectivity is central to realising the Heartland's economic potential: we know that infrastructure of this scale will further change the spatial geography of the Heartland.
Being able to travel from one end of the region to the other in just over an hour (currently it takes nearer three hours via London) will create new travel patterns that questions whether the franchise map is fit for purpose in the longer term. It also means that our investment in other parts of the transport system must reflect the impact that East West Rail will have on the nature of future travel demand.
Which is why England's Economic Heartland was pleased to see our partners Immense Simulations recently pick up a well-deserved aware at the Smarter Cities Awards. Our policy scenario model, together with the regional database, provides us, and our partners, with the ability for evidence-led innovation in planning the delivery of a truly integrated transport system.
With a Spending Review later this year we need to be in the best possible place to make the case for investment in infrastructure and services to the benefit of the Heartland and the UK as a whole.
Martin Tugwell is Programme Director at England's Economic Heartland