Light at end of tunnel

8:00am Thursday 15th December 2011

By Reg Little

WELL, no one can say commuters have not been taken fully into account in the development of the long-awaited Oxford to London Marylebone service.

But not many could have predicted that it would be the commuting residents of a Wolvercote tunnel that would see the £130m scheme hitting the buffers.

The risk to bats and great crested newts resulted in the planning inspector refusing to approve the scheme last month.

And it led to the Transport Secretary Justine Greening sending letters to Chiltern Railways and Natural England urging them to resolve the problem — and quickly.

The tunnel, it emerged, was occupied by numerous bat species including Common and Soprano pipistrelle, Noctule, Natterer’s, Daubenton’s, Brown long-eared, and Myotis bats.

The inspector had learnt that the tunnel was used for “swarming, foraging and as a temporary roost site”. It also happened to be a commuter route for bats, which feed along the railway corridor.

The inspector was persuaded that more trains passing through the tunnel — which takes the line under Wolvercote roundabout — and at higher speeds would increase risk to bats and see tunnel roosts “rendered unusable”.

The Transport Secretary gave the rail company and the nature group until this week to come up with mutually acceptable proposals to deal with the bats and to mitigate any harm the scheme would cause to great crested newts in a habitat nearby.

Bats, newts and local commuters should all feel some relief today.

For the deadline has been met with the threat to the Oxford-Bicester-London service apparently lifted.

Chiltern Railways and Natural England have told the Government that they are close to solving the bat problem to get the scheme back on track.

Chiltern Railways spokesman, Emma Gascoigne, said: “The Secretary of State gave us until today to demonstrate we are likely to reach a conclusion in our negotiations. That is something we have done.”

But rail users are being kept in the dark about the proposed solutions to the bat problem, with both sides insisting that a deal is still to be finalised.

Natural England spokesman, Melissa Gill, said: “Natural England met with Chiltern Railways and agreed a way forward in respect of the outstanding issues.”

Natural England confirmed that a groundbreaking lighting system would be a major feature of any solution. This will effectively give the Wolvercote bats their own traffic light safety scheme to warn them about trains. A trial took place in August to see whether triggering lights inside the tunnel when a train is on the way would alert bats and encourage them to move.

Chiltern’s strategic development manager, Allan Dare, said earlier: “This is a tried and tested technique for roads and leisure schemes. It is traffic lights for bats.”

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