Vital English freight route closed over bridge fears
The Nuneham viaduct in Oxfordshire, which carries the Southampton to the Midlands freight spine over the River Thames, has been closed today (4 April) due to a disturbance noted by engineers from Network rail. All traffic has been stopped on the line, including passenger connections and freight services, mainly intermodal and automotive traffic between Southampton docks and the Midlands of England. Diversionary routes mean a long haul around the western outskirts of London. The line is expected to be closed for the rest of the month of April.
Forty freight trains a day are likely to be affected by the emergency bridge closure. The railway between Didcot Parkway and Oxford will not reopen until after Easter as Network Rail engineers continue their assessment of the Nuneham viaduct in Oxfordshire.
The line is closed for safety concerns as monitoring equipment detected increasingly significant movements of the viaduct, which crosses the River Thames between Culham and Radley, despite Network Rail doing stabilising works in recent weeks. Detailed inspections of the bridge are now underway, but it is expected that the railway will remain closed until late April.
Worst weather in thirty years cited as a factor
Several passenger operators use the route, which connects Oxford with the Great Western Main Line via a triangular junction at Didcot. The bridge problem comes as a blow to plans to greatly increase freight handling on the route, particularly via Oxford, where the station upgrade will benefit freight with more paths provided. Freight operators are faced with a diversion at Reading, which means turning east towards London. The routes are already busy and may mean rescheduling to find available paths. Passenger operators have already implemented amended timetables, including replacement bus services where necessary.
“We are sorry for the disruption this has caused”, said David Davidson, Network Rail’s interim Western route director. “Safety is our top priority and our engineers our now working round the clock to identify what can be done to make this viaduct safe for passenger and freight trains to run again. We are disappointed that the work we’ve done so far hasn’t been successful and our efforts haven’t been helped by the wettest March in over 30 years. We will continue to provide updates as we work to reopen the line as quickly and as safely as possible.”
Rail replacement road would be a worst case option
The railway is part of a freight spine, which connects the south coast ports, principally Southampton, with distribution centres in the Midlands of England. Southampton is the centre for automotive distribution in the UK, and the post is also the second busiest intermodal port facility after Felixstowe. The port has recently benefitted from extensive rail development, and new services, including a recent inaugurated connection between there and London Gateway.
There are around forty freight trains daily on the route, said Maggie Simpson, the director general of the Rail Freight Group, when interviewed by BBC News in the UK. “That’s the equivalent of around 2,000 lorries. Those trains are carrying vital and important goods, retail products – the things we buy in the shops every day, imports, exports, and even finished cars. Container trains can only go on certain routes. It’s absolutely the worst-case scenario to put those goods on a lorry, and we’re trying to avoid that.”
Network Rail has not commented on the exact nature of the problem, but local sources say there is a noticeable lateral movement on the bridge, with one side appearing to have subsided.
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