Cambridge to Manchester direct by train? Or Bristol? Could happen.

…but I will probably be plant food before such services are up and running due to the additional infrastructure required.

The link is in the press release here “Passenger Rail Study Phase Two.”

“England’s Heartland”

“What about the Northern Powerhouse?”

The cynic in me thinks the branding was thought up prior to the 2019 General Election when lots of former Labour-held seats voted in Conservative MPs, some for the first time in decades – while at the same time assuming they could bank permanently the rural seats between Oxford and Cambridge where ministers originally had plans to build a new motorway between what some still think are cities that are a sort of aristocratic inheritance of the political party, temporarily occupied by woolly liberals, champagne socialists and tree-hugging eco-warriors. (I think I’m in the latter). But the threat of splendid people reappraising their investment portfolios soon put an end to that.

Actually the whole programme of England’s Economic Heartland is another name for the massive political faultline that runs through the Conservative Party. Their strength in rural areas is in part dependent on not having massive development and house-building in those areas. At the same time, they have become dependent financially on donations from large property and development companies.

In somewhere like South Cambridgeshire this makes for more than interesting reading if you are into politics because the significant levels of housebuilding has already resulted in the Boundary Commission recommending an additional parliamentary seat in our part of the world – in effect recreating South West Cambridgeshire alongside South Cambridgeshire, and turning SECambs into East Cambridgeshire.

‘Bridge to Brizzle

It’s one of the options picked up by the technical study as one that could deliver big economic benefits – but also ones that are likely to need ‘significant infrastructure interventions’. Remember that point on how long it will take to deliver?

“Map of the High and Medium Value Flows Identified. Dark blue denotes high value flows and light blue denotes
medium value flows.”

For me the rail link from Norwich-Cambridge-Oxford-Bristol-Cardiff is one that has the potential to draw out many road journeys that go through the M25, and also rail interchanges in London. Bristol is one of the places many further education students in and around Cambridge look at as a place to study – and vice-versa. ditto Brighton and Norwich. In their analysis, the study stated at para 1.1.3:

“The Phase 2 study has applied multiple levels of economic analysis to identify the valuable flows both internally and externally that connect EEH key locations. Thirty-six flows were identified as having the potential to generate a significant return on investment as a result of improved rail connectivity. .”

EEH Passenger Rail Study Phase 2, p4.

They threw in the above-table for good measure – and cited HS2, East West Rail, and the electrification of the Midlands Mainline were all welcome, but not enough, as para 1.1.4 states:

“However, business as usual investment will not be enough to achieve the ambitions of the region’s Transport Strategy and subsequently there is a need to go above and beyond these enhancements to provide a step-change in rail connectivity in this region.”

EEH Passenger Rail Study Phase 2, p4.

It then puts pressure on both the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Combined Authority to get their act together. Para 2.4.3 explains:

“Investment in transformational infrastructure, particularly East West Rail and mass rapid transit schemes such as those planned for Cambridgeshire and Milton Keynes, supported by high quality first and last mile provision, is the catalyst for improving public transport networks across the whole region and is central to supporting sustainable growth.”

EEH Passenger Rail Study Phase 2, p5

Which reminds me:

“What happens to the busway buses when they hit Grange Road?”

Above – me pointing at stuff when I had more hair and fewer greys.

I examined the issue in more detail in this earlier blogpost.

Infrastructure and journey times – building more of one to reduce t’other.

Basically they have to make some big changes if Cambridge-Manchester is going to become a thing.

It takes an average of 3h 12m to travel from Peterborough to Manchester Piccadilly by train” so says The Trainline. Which is half a day if you’re lucky. You’re adding another 45minutes at least station-to-station from Cambridge to Peterborough. The National Rail website shows journeys from Cambridge to Manchester with one change takes over 4 hours. And that’s with numerous stops on the way.

During my civil service days I sometimes had to attend meetings in Birmingham and the chugmobile train took similar. Not that it was technologically impossible to go faster, but successive governments have made a complete hash out of transport policies that what could have been the transformation of a cross-country line was never on the horizons of ministers.

The challenge for transport planners inevitably is deciding which stations intercity services should stop at en route. House prices are massively influenced by the frequency of stops – especially on the London routes. On the Cambridge-Birmingham line back in the day, I noticed that different commuter markets were served by a single extensive route – and you got to see and hear different demographics as you moved across the country, from the diverse inner cities of the West-Midlands, through to the rural East Midlands to the affluent commuter-villages of Cambridgeshire.

St Albans to Cambridge via Stevenage

In 1990, ten year old me thought Stevenage was like the coolest place in the world. That’s basically because my late Aunt & Uncle lived in an affluent village just outside the town, and we got driven *everywhere* to adventure playgrounds, sports centres, ice rinks, bowling alleys, swimming pools with slides and wave machines. All the stuff Cambridge didn’t have in 1990. This was in an era where we didn’t know much about climate change. But it meant we didn’t have to think about public transport. And anyway we were told the buses and schools and public services were useless anyway.

With hindsight, the number of families who sent their children into private education was strikingly high. On a final stay before my Uncle moved out from the village just over 20 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I spoke to a number of adults who said we were very lucky in Cambridge to have such good state schools. Being an undergraduate and working in the civil service that summer was testimony to that.

When you look online or on a map, the distance between Hatfield and St Alban’s is minimal in the grand scheme of things. Six miles.

Above – play with the G-Map here.

Hatfield is on the Cambridge-London and Peterborough-London line stopping services. Post-pandemic, St Alban’s could make a significant economic return by putting on frequent electric shuttle busses either at Hatfield or Stevenage (only 14 miles away). It would be interesting to see a summer pilot scheme combined with an advertising campaign along the rail lines to see what impact it might have. (Note the 2017 analysis of tourism in St Albans).

Is England’s Economic Heartland an artificial construct?

Of course it is. All counties are. What matters in the minds of politicians – as the politicians & MPs debated in Westminster Hall today on the OxCam Arc (you can watch the debate here) …is democratic accountability.

The debate was primarily with Conservative MPs covering Oxfordshire & Berkshire. Which made one or two interventions sound a little awkward when referring to Oxford and Cambridge – both city councils currently have zero Conservative councillors, so the idea of “Conservative vision” with “Oxford & Cambridge” is a little comical in that context. But….

….but…and this comes back to the point at the top: The faultline is the rural constituencies between the two university cities. Big Tory party donors in the house-building sector see fortunes to be made in the OxCam Arc, and party donations can be regarded in some quarters either as a sound investment or standard business expenses. Alternatively it can be a symptom of an utterly broken political system where political parties have financial incentives to come up with policies that are more likely to solicit financial donations – without explicitly being seen as ‘cash for policies. But even when the case is ever so blatant, the current administration does not see it as a resigning issue.

So what is the economic & social context of ‘the heartland’?

See The Heartland in Context via here

This covers the demographics (i.e. make up of the people who live / work / study here).

When you look at the above map on p12, the red diagonal lines indicate district/unitary council areas that have wards that are in the 10% most economically deprived. So in one sense you can understand why ministers may want to do something about this. Whether a massive top-town house-building programme is the answer, is questionable. Note MPs said the Heartland proposals are of the type many Conservatives hated in the 2000s that was developed by Labour – hence the abolition of the entire tier of regional government in 2010.

Population – break it down!

“Through its work to improve the first and last mile of journeys, EEH commissioned work to interrogate information held in the Experian Mosaic dataset to develop understanding of the characteristics of the region’s population. This insight allows us understand the different transport needs of consumers in the region, and their preferences, so that future transport solutions can be tailored to their needs. Mosaic is a powerful cross-channel consumer classification system, often used by the private sector to target marketing campaigns.”

EEH Heartland in Context, p10.

Mosaic is one of those public policy datasets that government and well-resourced privately-funded (or University-accessible) policy institutions have access to when developing policies. This one was developed by a credit reporting agency, you will find others put together by major polling and surveying firms. Data is big business.

“What are Cambridge people like? If they are anything like me they are absolutely nuts!”

It doesn’t quite work like that. But the report did note:

“The most prominent personas (names are from Mosaic) in the Heartland are ‘Aspiring homemakers’ (13%); Domestic Success (13%); and ‘Prestige Positions’ (12%).”

Ibid. p10

I’m none of those things.

“The region comprises a relatively low number of primary economic centres, a large number of small and medium sized market towns and large rural areas resulting in a diverse range of transport needs, opportunities and challenges.”

Ibid. p10

The above hints at the real challenge, not the 1million homes target (in an area of water stress in the midst of a climate emergency).

The data on transport emissions makes for interesting viewing.

Basically the darker, the higher the CO2 emissions. Note the difference between Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire – and the pattern of urban areas having lower footprints. Then think of the 15 minute city concept, and what improvements to our market town infrastructure is needed to deliver them that does not involve driving to out-of-town supermarkets, or long commutes to work.


Above – rush hour morning traffic – key below.

I remember during my university years wondering why no one had built rail lines westward of Cambridge until I discovered what Beeching had done to the network.

Sitting in traffic jams is not fun – interestingly there have been some studies done on some of our recently-built transport infrastructure, such as in 2016 on the health impacts of the Guided Busway. Also from 2014 by Messrs Brett & Menzies (the latter the County Council transport chief behind the concept) on the early usage of the Busway.

And finally…

Have a look at the First Mile-Last Mile reports on Improving Connectivity – in particular the international examples in the Global Best Practice Review link. Then ask the Greater Cambridge Partnership some questions about them for the next Joint Assembly.

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