“Don’t throw the EastWestRail baby out with the OxCamArc bathwater!”

On why the proposed Oxford-Cambridge railway should be *more ambitious* in taking road traffic off, and why the OxCamArc became a victim of its own lobbyists’ hype.

You’ll have seen the headlines calling for the business case to be published and/or East West Rail to be scrapped. Ditto the rearguard action by the big business interests to keep the OxCamArc going as a Government priority. At the moment, no one seems to know who is in charge judging by this photograph.

Above – some blame Conservative Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, while others blame the Liberal Democrats. I put it down to an over-complicated and fragmented system of public services that past ministers put in which present ministers have no ambition to simplify.

“How did we get to here?”

I have not a clue. But something has gone very badly wrong with the process if people are calling for the Bedford-Cambridge branch to be scrapped. Have a look at the Eastern Section prospectus here from 2019.

***Have they not seen the motor traffic coming into Cambridge from the western villages?!?***

I’m sure they have. Which is why it makes it all the more astonishing that despite this, so many still have substantial issues. When it gets to this level, you start wondering where those leading on the project have gone wrong. You can see who signed up to the letter in the Cambridge Independent here – cross party concern.

“What are the proposals?”

See https://eastwestrail.co.uk/the-project/bedford-to-cambridge which has the map below.

Above – the options that East West Rail are looking at – which has caused consternation in some parts of South Cambridgeshire.

You can also see the video presentation to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers below:

A long slog to get the old Varsity route up and running again

In the run up to the 2013 Cambridgeshire County Council elections, I assumed that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be open to having a clause in their manifestos supporting the principle of re-opening the Oxford-Cambridge railway line. So I spent part of that year pestering them both to ensure that such lines were included in their county manifestos – knowing that neither would be called on to deliver upon it, such was the politics at the time. Then Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Labour Party at the time, showed up in Cambridge. He was doing a public Q&A outside The Guildhall. So I thought I’d ask him about whether the Oxford-Cambridge Rail proposals is something he could push for at a national level – making reference to the fact that it was in his party’s manifesto for the Cambridgeshire County Council elections. So I asked him:

“Cambridge Labour Party has included in its local government election manifesto a commitment to reopen the Oxford to Cambridge Rail Link. Will you back them nationally?”

ADB 15 April 2013

To which he replied “yes’ – and took a few more questions before returning back to my question to make clear Labour will be supporting a new Oxford Cambridge Railway. This was picked up in the student press and local media… …which eventually made its way back to Westminster, which inevitably focused minds in Whitehall.

Sorry not sorry.

It’s worth noting that the construction & delivery of East West Rail is not being done by Network Rail, but by a separate company – the East West Rail Co. This was Chris Grayling’s idea. Or at least he signed it off as Transport Secretary in 2016.

Ministers and politicians must make the environmental case, and the capacity case for East West Rail. And repeatedly too.

This is one of the lessons from HS2 – note the exchange below:

The problem is there’s a massive lack of consistency in the Government’s messaging on transport and climate. For example there’s no commitment to have East West Rail as an electrified line. This despite continued lobbying from various quarters – for example the Smarter Cambridge Transport group here.

“A northern route – why has this not been assessed?”

It has. In part. By the CamBedRailRoad Group which includes current and former councillors and candidates from both the Lib Dems and the Greens. You can read their proposal summary here.

Above – from CamBedRailRoad.

You can also read this opinion piece in the Cambridge Independent.

My slightly wilder take for a northern route would start with a Cambourne North railway station, with a new further education college on the northern side of the line opening out onto playing fields – possibly enabling Hills Road SFC to move there. It could also provide a transport interchange at Bar Hill, a station for Northstowe Newtown, a stop at Denny Abbey, and an additional stop at the new Waterbeach railway station. The line could then extend to Haverhill via Sawston and Linton south of Cambridge.

Above – me playing with G-Maps using cycle routes again.

“Won’t the fast trains get stopped by crawler services?”

Not if you quad the line east of St Neots and have the outer sections incorporating the Cambridge Connect Light Rail leaving that network to serve the villages and suburban stops. Note a northern approach also offers passengers the option of stopping/changing stations at Cambridge North and, with a new chord by Coldham’s lane, continue onto Newmarket, Norwich, and Great Yarmouth.

With this alignment plus the one parallel to EWR Northern, you open up new public transport links For Cottenham (incl the Village College and the Travis Perkins depot for freight), Denny Abbey Museum and the pong-tastic Waste & Recycling Management Plant north of Waterbeach, (think freight again – only this time *lots of it*) and Waterbeach Newtown.

Above – I visited the waste & recycling plant back in 2016. The amount of waste they sort daily is huge. The amount of freight that could be taken off our roads is significant if a new rail line could stop here.

The Bedford-Cambridge link is an essential component to a much greater strategic transport route – and any business case must incorporate this.

When it comes to screwing up transport business cases through not listening to the public – in particular those who have put their own time and effort into researching routes, our institutions have got form. Such as the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s controversial busways. When several of us tried to make the case for Rail Haverhill, the GCP instructed their consultants to assess only the Haverhill-Cambridge link in the mid-2010s. They did not examine the case where the Haverhill link could be extended to Sudbury & beyond, nor did they examine the case for a continued line that could have ultimately created a rail/light rail suburban line up to Wisbech. I chased them up on this in 2017 having dug out all of the relevant documents but got nowhere. In any case, half the original web links are dead – which makes scrutiny even more tricky.

The towns & villages east of Cambridge matter – as do those west of Oxford.

In case anyone has forgotten.

Above – note the important eastern sections which are part of the discussions for the new Transport East planswhich I wrote about here.

This is more than about stereotypically posh Dons going from one of our universities to the other for private college dinners, & being able to get back to the other place from the other place depending on which place you are from, on the last train…

“Bernard! If the right people don’t have power, do you know what happens? The wrong people get it!”

Thinking radically to link economically deprived towns to the cities whose economies are overheating.

For me, this involves the eastern section (north) terminating not in Norwich, but in Great Yarmouth – creating a direct train route to the seaside for hundreds of thousands of people – a resort town that has a wonderful beach, a great heritage, but one that has been run down over the decades on the back of artificially cheap air fares. To which the environment still pays a heavy cost.

“With the construction of the Oxford-Bletchley/ Milton Keynes section of East West Rail well underway, the Partnership is championing the long term opportunity for true, coast to coast connectivity, achieved through an East West Main Line, with services running from Norfolk and Suffolk all the way through to South Wales.”

Rail Freight 14 Oct 2021

And if you wanted to be really ambitious, the line through South Wales (with its own longstanding problems of poverty & multiple deprivation) could extend through its major cities out towards Milford Haven in the west, and/or up to the very isolated university sites at Lampeter and Aberystwyth by re-opening the closed lines from Camarthen. (Also there’s a potential stop from Puffles’ home town of Tregaron in South Wales too!)

Above – from Rail Map Online here.

I’m not saying the Welsh section would be easy or cheap. The terrain and climate are much more hostile than in South Cambridgeshire. Hence the desire to build lots of homes on flat land – amongst the many other incentives.

And finally…reducing over-crowding in London due to unnecessary interchanges – alongside the new induced journeys stemming from the new transport infrastructure

This should be one of the biggest incentives for potential passengers – and one of the hardest to model for, is the number of new journeys that will arise from the new infrastructure. How many people who travel into London for interchanges will no longer need to do so? How many people who normally travel by car to somewhere (in order to avoid London) will no longer need to do so? When you look at this map, Luton by rail from Cambridge looks like it’s ages away. Yet by road it’s only a shortish hop from Hitchin down the A505.

Above – from Rail Map Online

It’s worth noting that the airports around London are actually very poorly served by rail lines east and west. It’s mainly just north and south. Stansted is effectively Cambridge & London. Luton is effectively just south to London, Gatwick is effectively Brighton and London, while Heathrow has no through-routes at all.

“Who pays?”

My take is that the banking crisis and the pandemic have completely changed the public’s view of what is and is not affordable on big capital projects. Furthermore, when people read how much money & wealth the Cambridge economy supposedly generates, you can see why we get sceptical when ministers start pleading poverty. At the moment we have a development model where infrastructure spending is dependent on new house building. It reminds me of the 1990s where colleges and universities could only access extra funding if they expanded place numbers. That’s one of the reasons why there is an over-concentration of 16-19 further education places in South Cambridge – John Major’s Government put a big incentive on both Hills Road Sixth Form College & Long Road Sixth Form College to expand. The Coalition added the Cambridge Academy for Science & Technology, while the Abbey College relocated round the back of Purbeck Road, and the Perse Upper went co-ed and went from under 600 students to nearly 1,400 (13-18) over the past couple of decades. And that’s before you mention Homerton College, Cambridge’s expansion of student numbers. Was there any meaningful planning & co-ordination with local councils? Doesn’t look like it. The challenge is how to rebalance provision for the rest of the county.

An electrified Bedford-Cambridge line probably won’t pay its way without developers’ contributions under the existing model

But then my vision is one that goes beyond the existing funding models (which are broken), beyond the existing structures of local government (which are also broken), far beyond the local issues (important as they are when they are on your doorstep, and further than even the Oxford-Cambridge links, & even a coast-to-coast passenger link over the shortest distance.

I’m looking out for what routes might have the biggest positive impacts in:

  • spreading the wealth generated by Cambridge’s overheating economy (so we don’t need to build so many new houses),
  • providing new freight links to businesses and functions that currently require/generate frequent movements of heavy freight vehicles (to improve air quality & reduce the need for so many repairs),
  • providing alternative methods of transport that people will want to use – and find easier & more affordable to use than fossil-fuelled (and even electric) cars (reducing congestion),
  • generating new customer and visitor streams to existing leisure, sporting, and heritage attractions to boost their incomes & increase the overall wellbeing of people,
  • provide more job opportunities for people who don’t have cars and whose movement/mobility is restricted due to a lack of good public transport provision,
  • provide more opportunities for people to explore places far beyond where existing transport networks make provision for.

I find it utterly depressing that senior politicians are not talking about this vision but instead are talking about possibly scrapping what is the keystone to a major strategic public transport route that could transform parts of the south of England for the better.

We are Cambridge. We demand better.

And not just for those within our 1930s-era municipal boundaries, but for our county and beyond.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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