The East Reading MRT is a proposed bus, cycle and pedestrian link across the mouth of the Kennet to link Thames Valley Park directly to Reading Station. I’ve covered the topic before, but this week there are further exhibitions to coincide with the submission of a planning application. I called by earlier to find out the latest. Opinions were mixed, but it’s fair to say that opponents were more numerous than supporters. There was a make-shift protest stall outside the event trying to garner signatures for a petition against the scheme. I stopped to talk to them too about their concerns.
What’s clear to me is that Reading is the heart of a sizeable and growing urban area. The population is increasing and that will place further pressure on roads and public transport. We have two options:
- Do nothing. The growing population will further burden the road network, but the slog of a visit to the town centre will become increasingly off-putting for many. A soulless sprawl of out-of-town leisure and office blocks will spring up around the M4 junctions to provide alternative facilities.
- Invest in further public transport infrastructure, allowing existing and new residents to access work and leisure facilities in town without clogging up the roads. RG1 retains and expands its role as the regional centre.
It’s a stark choice, and it really is that simple. Clearly the latter provides the right vision for Reading.
I did ask one of the opponents what he’d suggest. The response was that there should be a railway station built at Thames Valley Park instead, and he was unimpressed that it hadn’t been fully costed. However, it’s clear to me that this option has some real challenges, aside from the cost. Whilst a railway station has been built at Winnersh Triangle, and another is planned at Green Park, both are very different to the situation at Thames Valley Park. The former two are on less major rail lines whereas the TVP site sits on the mainline to Paddington. Platforms on the fast lines are completely out of the question, and even the slow tracks are congested. Any additional stop would penalise journey times from Reading to London on Crossrail, and a compromise service pattern would mean at most two trains per hour in each direction serving the new station. That is not going to provide a major incentive for the local population to ditch their cars and switch to public transport.
As I’ve argued before on these pages, it’s the combination of frequency and journey times that provides the real lure towards public transport. That’s where the Kennet mouth proposal comes into its own. The peak-time bus journey time forecast along the new route from Sutton’s Roundabout to the station is between just five and six minutes. The comparative current journey, again peak time, takes between 12 and 18 minutes. Rather than hang around at the station, the bus would be timetabled for a return journey beginning at least seven minutes earlier. So we get an increase in frequency of services with the same number of buses and drivers, i.e. at (roughly) the same cost. The virtuous circle completes as higher frequency and faster journey times provide a more compelling offer, driving up usage and revenue, which can be re-invested in lower fares yet further increasing patronage.
It frustrates me that people are slow to realise the opportunity that this new link provides. In addition to Thames Valley Park commuters, the link will benefit bus services from further out. Most Woodley services will divert onto the new link, as will buses from Winnersh park and ride and a proposed similar facility at Coppid Beech. I could easily see a Lower Earley express service added, looping around the Eastern Rushey Way area before heading up to Winnersh and two stops to the station. The bus route map and timetable for the eastern half of the wider Reading area would be completely re-imagined and vastly improved.
What disappoints me the most is that people are spending their energy opposing this link, and criticising the bridge, rather than campaigning to make it the best it could be. Bridges are very often the most impressive and striking, or quaint and charming structures in a city. Our new proposed span avoids those adjectives. The council have missed a trick not to add hanging baskets to the artist’s impression. With a little effort, the new bridge could surely look like a similarly modern link in Valencia (below).
Buried within the presentation boards were some nice landscaping proposals, including a welcome local debut for the old flowerbed inside a wooden boat feature. More could be done, and this is where the local community could and should focus its efforts. Let’s ensure this scheme enhances the riverside, and that risks such as dark and threatening areas beneath the bridge are properly addressed. And why are we not pressing for the pylons to come down with cables hidden away within the new bridge structure instead?
It’s incredibly unusual in a large town to have a “dead end” sector like Napier Road so close to the centre. Linking across Kennet mouth provides a unique opportunity to fuse a new artery into the heart of the town. From some quarters there are calls for it to be used for cars. Whilst that might alleviate London Road, it would add stationary queues of traffic to our riverside. The public transport link – funded from central government – is the right compromise, providing game-changing improvements to speed and frequency, and potentially paving the way for further investments in the future, such as a tram line. If the efforts of locals now focus on getting the best from the scheme, it could also be a feature to be proud of in its own right.
The plans are to be shown again: Thursday 13th July, Reading Town Hall, 2pm to 7pm.Follow @readingonthames
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