The finishing stages should be underway for a new railway station at Beam Park near Dagenham that will provide services for a planned 10,000 new homes, but there’s no sign that construction will ever be completed. The station would sit on the C2C line offering a fast link into the City, and is a key component of a £1 billion regeneration project of the area which will see two new schools, lots of new infrastructure, and thousands of new homes.
However, with the GLA having committed over £42 million to the new station, there’s still no sign that it will be allowed to open, leaving thousands of residents stuck with lengthy bus trip or driving to get to work.
The station was planned back in 2014, when it was authorised by Havering Council, with the housing developer picking up some of the cost of building the station, which would then be fitted out by Network Rail and operated by C2C.
However, what has been revealed is that there were early warnings from the Department for Transport (DfT) that they were worried that the station might not be economically viable, and the GLA pushed ahead regardless, even offering to put up £10 million to subsidise the station’s running costs for the next decade.
The issue dates back to 2014, when Havering Council approved plans for a new station on the existing C2C line to provide public transport to support the first of several large scale housing developments in the area. Funding for the station to be built was secured, and as far as everyone seemed to be aware, everything was progressing uneventfully.
Until last September, when it was revealed that the DfT was not willing to authorise the opening of the station, for reasons which later trickled out, that they were concerned about the economic viability of the new station.
By then though, people were already buying flats in the new housing developments on the assumption the rail station would open, and several thousand more homes have planning clauses preventing them from being built until after the station opens.
At the moment, there are plans for a station to be built, but not to be opened.
To try and push the matter on a bit, Jon Cruddas MP, who represents Dagenham and Rainham secured a Parliamentary debate on the issue.
Reminding them that people bought homes in the new development after being told that the station would open, and that thousands more homes cannot be built until the station opens, he also raised the issue of the people who have lived in the area for years. These were people who have accepted the disruption caused by the construction sites because they expected to benefit from the improved public transport links they would bring.
As Jon Cruddas MP noted in the debate, if the government is going to be “imposing housing targets on local authorities, then it must accept the infrastructure and services to go with them.” adding that “in this sense, Beam Park is an example of how not to do regeneration”.
Jon Cruddas MP cited a couple of reports that would indicate that there was official support to some degree for the new station at Beam Park.
There’s also the July 2014 franchise agreement between the DfT and C2C, that required C2C to support the development of the station at Beam Park. However, although the updated July 2021 franchise agreement also requires C2C to support “the development of a new station at Beam Park”, the specifics in a second document has added that opening the station is “Contingent on the Secretary of State’s consent.”
With these official documents supporting the new station at Beam Park, the GLA committed £9.6 million in November 2018 to the initial phase of the development, and in March 2020 committed a further £32.7 million to ensure the station was built.
A total of £42.3 million for the new station and associated works.
The apparently sudden decision to block approval for the station in September 2021 caught a lot of people by surprise being unaware that there could be a problem.
In the debate, Andrew Rosindell MP for Romford said that people “are buying homes in this area because they believed that there would be transport links to central London so that they could travel to their jobs and for other purposes. Taking this link away after they have committed to living there and have bought a home will really disrupt people’s lives. It simply is not fair. People thought there would be a station, but it has been taken away.”
The crux of the issue seems to be that the Department for Transport had never officially authorised the station and had concerns about granting the authority to open it, while everyone else seemed to be of the opinion that regulatory approval to open the station may have been nothing more than a technical formality.
Although the entire cost of the station build is being borne by the property developers and, through the GLA, the London taxpayers, the DfT was concerned about the long term running costs, and they were worried that the station would run at such a deep loss as to make it unviable.
There may have also been a tension between the GLA and the DfT about how the GLA was pushing ahead with a railway project without clearing it with the DfT first.
Responding to the two local MPs, Wendy Morton MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Transport said that although plans for the station had been worked on by the councils and developers since 2014, the GLA’s first meeting to discuss it with the DfT did not take place until December 2017.
The DfT said that the business case for the station had not taken into account the cost of an additional train and crew needed to support the additional capacity demands caused by the housing development and new station.
The minister also noted that the GLA had not considered the drop in ticket sales at the two surrounding stations, Rainham and Dagenham Dock if a new station were to be opened between them. Although a new station would see some existing residents in the area switching from the older stations to the new one, the huge increase in housing in the area triggered by Beam Park station should have massively outweighed that particular concern.
The DfT also raised a concern, that adding an extra stop on the C2C line slows journeys from further out of London, and that could affect housing developments in Essex. Although the DfT puts that forward as an argument, and it is technically correct, the notion that, for example, a 3,000 housing development in Essex would not be built because of an extra two minutes on rail journey times seems far fetched.
These concerns were then confirmed in writing by the DfT in March 2018, which was before the GLA had committed the £9.6 million in initial funding for the new station in November 2018.
In response, the GLA apparently said that it would not be reviewing its business case and would be pressing ahead with the new station. The next time that the DfT says that it was contacted by the GLA about Beam Park station was over two years later, in mid-2020, after the GLA had approved the £32.7 million to build the new station.
The DfT responding in September 2020 is said to have restated its concerns about the operational costs and operational impact of the station when it opens, and saying that the DfT “could take no financial risks associated with this station”. The minister said that the DfT’s position has always been to ensure that the department is held “immune from all financial risk caused by a new station at Beam Park”.
The GLA’s offer to cover any losses for the first 10 years of the station’s life and capped at £10 million was “not acceptable” to the department, as it did not cover what the DfT believes to be the full cost risk that the station would create. In essence, the DfT is looking for an unlimited indemnity from the GLA for the running costs of the new station.
As the station is being built to support local housing projects, the minister said that “developers cannot assume to look to the rail operating budget to subsidise housing development.”
It would not be entirely unreasonable for there to be concerns that the station would run at a loss while the area is still a very large building site, the DfT seems to be of the opinion that even after around 10,000 new homes have been built around it, that is still insufficient to cover the station’s running costs.
The previous business plan for the station was written before Covid, but even with an increase in working from home, it does seem strange that 10,000 homes, with probably around 16,000 working adults living there would still be unable to cover the costs of even a basic station facility.
Even if only a thousand people per day are using the station, that would still put Beam Park firmly in the middle of passenger number rankings for the smaller London stations (based on pre-covid numbers). It was suggested in the Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday that without Beam Park station, then nearby Rainham Station could see so many commuters as to be unsafe.
At the moment, Havering Council is considering options for a Judicial Review into the matter, and the minister agreed to further meetings later with both local MPs and the leaders of the two councils affected.
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London, said: “The design and financial modelling of a rail station is a complex process that City Hall has been progressing for several years in order to gain regulatory approval from the Department for Transport (DfT). City Hall is currently undertaking further technical work to inform discussions with the DfT and to respond to their concerns.”
“We continue to work with partners and the DfT to find a way forward for this important project.”
However, unless either the DfTs numbers are shown to be wrong, or more money is found from somewhere, the new station won’t open, and well over a thousand people who have bought homes having been told they would be just 20 minutes from Fenchurch Street station, now face owning homes that are considerably less desirable to live in and likely worth considerably less than they paid for them.