Is East West Rail underselling the benefits of re-opening the Oxford-Cambridge Railway?

I returned from the consultation event from East West Rail in Cambridge earlier today.

Above – me on telly! (BBC Look East (West)) earlier this evening.

You can see the boards below. For more details including posting your own comments, please see

Also, for the record, ***I support the re-opening of the direct rail link between Oxford and Cambridge***. Furthermore, I think it should be extended westward to Bristol and South Wales, and eastwards towards Norwich & Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, and to Ipswich and any of Aldeburgh, Felixtowe, and/or Harwich further south along the east coast.

As BBC Look East said on telly just now, there wasn’t much ‘new’ information announced at the event. What was on the boards and in the handouts can be found on their website This was as much of an opportunity to get the first feel for what the public thinks beyond online exchanges. I got the sense the staff appreciated being out and about.

The Cambridge roots of getting East West Rail going again

Around a decade ago I persuaded both Cambridge Labour and Cambridge Liberal Democrats to have something about re-opening the Oxford-Cambridge railway line in their county council manifestos for the 2013 elections. These were a disaster for the Conservatives who lost ten seats to UKIP. Cambridgeshire County Council with 12 UKIP councillors sounds unthinkable today.

My thinking was that if they had something in writing in their manifestos, it would be something that the public could put to any visiting campaigning politicians – knowing that at the time the city was a general election battleground in what later turned out to be the closest general election results in Cambridge’s history in 2015 – only 600 votes separating Daniel Zeichner from the defeated incumbent MP Dr Julian Huppert.

When Labour Leader Ed Miliband MP turned up for an ad-hoc John-Major-style public Q&A session outside The Guildhall, I couldn’t believe my luck – esp when he picked me out for a question.

“In Labour’s county council manifesto it says they back the re-opening of the Oxford-Cambridge railway. Will you back them at a national level?”

Me to Rt Hon. Edward Miliband MP, Leader of the Labour Party, 15 April 2013

When local members confirmed this, he confirmed that yes, he would back it.

Naturally I was delighted – as were many pro-environment Labour councillors and activists at the time, for it raised an otherwise dormant dream into the political mainstream.

Above – the headline in my blogpost from 15 April 2013. When I still had black hair. And a dragon.

And the local media led with that item – sadly Reach PLC removed their online archives as part of cost-cutting measures so you can’t see the headline. So here’s The Cambridge Tab’s version below.

They also included a photo of the former Energy Secretary (Miliband is a former Cabinet Minister – hence able to hold the Government to account far more effectively over climate change than most) with the then Local Government Correspondent of the Cambridge Evening News, Chris Havergal, who shortly after headed to London to the Times Higher Education Supplement

Above – From The Tab Cambridge, journalist Chris Havergal taking shorthand notes during an interview with Ed Miliband MP in Market Square in April 2013.

The student media in particular ran with the story:

Then BBC East picked up on it.

When something like this happens in national politics, ministers inevitably ask their civil servants for briefing/information on the issue concerned. What happened afterwards internally I know not. But whatever work was being done at the time would have benefited from the intervention from the then Leader of the Opposition (who could easily have said “Sorry, not a priority – maybe in a few years time”)

Is East West Rail *underselling* the benefits of reconnecting the cities?

I said to the staff there that this was my opinion – the reconnection of the two University Cities is a wonderful story to tell – and something that could stimulate and create a whole host of new benefits, such as reducing road traffic on commuter routes, reducing freight, and establishing new business premises to spread the investment that is over-concentrated in Oxford and Cambridge.

It was interesting to hear testimony from other people there about how East West Rail would mean they would not have to drive into Cambridge at all, or how it would reduce the need to change trains at London, or even enable them to get to places for day trips that are not possible with the current infrastructure.

As I mentioned earlier, the really big vision should be a long rail link between the Pembrokeshire coast in South West Wales, and the East Coast resorts in East Anglia. The economic boost that both parts of the country could get from such a line could be tremendous. That does not mean every single service has to go coast-to-coast. It should be possible to design and build a line that is simply more than re-connecting the two big-name University Cities.

That they have not had the ministerial support for an electrified line from the start, and have made some avoidable errors on possible routes and publicity has, in my opinion put them on the back foot, resulting in the emergence of opposition campaigns, the concerns of which could have been eased much earlier on.

The weak ministerial support speaks volumes. I dread to think how much civil service capacity at the Department for Transport could have been allocated to supporting East West Rail that had to be diverted to Brexit. There is a very easy ‘win’ for opposition national politicians to make the case for East West Rail as part of wider economic regeneration planning that would enable the over-concentration of investment in Oxford and Cambridge to be spread out into the towns along the route.

Calling on businesses to pay their fair share – especially those that stand to benefit from any infrastructure planning uplift.

This was one of the concepts the former Metro Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, James Palmer said should pay for his now abandoned Cambridge Metro. When the status of land is changed from agriculture or nature to ‘available for development’, the cash value of the land rises – from that simple administrative change. Nothing has happened to the land, but its value changes. The same is the case with sites before and after planning permission is gained. Which is why we see time and again the advertising of the sale of sites that have received planning permission shortly before. Even worse when the gaining of planning permission has been in the face of huge community opposition – such as the Romsey Labour Club.

East West Rail needs to work with local councils and combined authorities to identify potential sites not just for new stations, but also the infrastructure that will serve the stations and also make them and the services on them viable. That means doing something more than having ‘parkway’ stations. Take Cambourne, west of Cambridge. It could be used as a parkway station for ‘Cambridge overspill’ – a commuter town to provide somewhere to live for the key workers in Cambridge who cannot afford to live there. But that’s not a sustainable model for anywhere. At its most extreme, it reminds me of how someone years ago described Monaco to me. Nearly all of the keyworkers who are essential to the functioning of the principality live outside of the tax haven. Even as long ago as 1997, when its population was around 30,000 people, another 30,000 people commuted into Monaco from France to work. Such a dystopian future is something Cambridge needs to avoid. At present we have neither the local government structures, powers, and finances, nor the central government policies (or the competent, high calibre ministers) to stop this from happening.

Young people conspicuous by their absence

I’ve lost track of the number of consultation events I’ve been to where there have been *no project staff* who are local. At one recent one I asked one of the industry people if he knew where Parker’s Piece was when trying to explain one of the issues with a proposed large development. He didn’t. This is a big problem and explains where some of the problems – easily avoidable ones, emerge from: the lack of familiarity of the place their organisation is working in. Twenty-something-me would have rinsed the fellow. Forty-something me is a lot more chilled out these days.

I urged them to return to Cambridge soon, and to host an event at Addenbrooke’s and make a big pitch to young people

Otherwise stuff like this happens.

Above – by Hannah Brown in the Cambridge News.

This was from last night’s Transport and Scrutiny Committee at Cambridge City Council – you can see the meeting papers here. What’s worrying councillors is what the graph below shows:

Above – from Item 7 Appendix 1 – the age distribution of those responding to the Greater Cambridge Emerging Local Plan 2030-41. The over-50s are over-represented, and the under-30s are under-represented. And it’s not like they haven’t known about this issue. It took Puffles’s 2014 manifesto (see Theme 2 – supporting young people) to raise the issue at the ballot box.

Above – Puffles the Dragon Fairy on the campaign trail back in 2014.

That as a city we have not progressed far on engaging young people in debates on the future of our city is something I find utterly depressing and disheartening. Two years later, I interviewed two further education students who followed me on social media about their experiences on public transport. Have a listen to them. Six years later, how much better have things got?

This autumn, a new cohort of further education students will be travelling into South Cambridge for the first time to get to new colleges. This is precisely the time transport organisations and local councils should be engaging with students and their colleges. There should be enough time between now and the start of October – when students have had time to settle into a routine, to ask them about their experiences using public transport – and what needs to change to persuade them and future generations to use cars less. Some of that might involve moving an institution out of Cambridge to another part of the county that currently has no provision for 16-19 year olds. Dealing with these ‘education cold spots is something high on Mayor Dr Nik Johnson’s agenda.

I also invited East West Rail to consider producing education materials for schools and colleges – in particular for those doing A-level geography and extended projects. This is where they need to allocate some of their community engagement budgets to commission specialists in the field to produce the materials – the return on investment I think could be significant as it will encourage a critical mass of young people every year to have a detailed look at a specific aspect of East West Rail. Given how long these projects take to complete – I reckon the Bedford-Cambridge section will be late 2020s at the earliest, that could be a decade’s worth of young people who will have spent time studying the project.

Inviting the rail and transport media to sponsor events

Two of the main specialist magazines are:

There is also Tramways and Urban Transit Magazine from the Light Rail Transit Association – which comes with membership of the organisation.

Above – two examples of specialist magazines on public transport. Tramways and Urban Transit can be ordered online here.

One option at such public events is to invite the publishers to produce A5 pamphlets that they can hand out to people attending that introduce the projects and give independent analyses of the different issues from perspectives most of us will be unfamiliar with. As far as existing commuters go, simply invite them to find out where the money from their expensive season tickets go. That’s how I ended up reading Modern Railways in my commuting days.

Finally, there is the careers pitch – and not just to young people. What opportunities are there for people to change career and retrain in the modern infrastructure sector? Especially given the huge work needed to transform our economy and society into a zero carbon one. It’s easy to forget how much effort went into building up the fossil fuel economy, from the oil wells, refineries, pipe lines, petrol stations, oil tankers, vehicle manufacturers, the networks of garages and the system of taxation and road maintenance. Town planning pioneer Thomas Sharp gives us a glimpse of his early guidance on petrol stations and road layouts in his book Town and Countryside from 1931, which I’ve digitised here.

Below (left) – Thomas Sharp on the position of petrol stations on p79

Above (right) – a pattern of development with the city protected by a green belt, and linked to surrounding towns by road *and* rail. Sharp p172

And finally

Can East West Rail persuade architects to build railway stations that communities can be proud of? i.e. something that is more imaginative than a couple of H-blocks and an entrance hall? Furthermore, thinking of passenger safety, what sort of buildings and infrastructure would make people feel safer if returning late at night?

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, what happens at consultations/events, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to support my work via

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