Rail Future East challenges Cambridge’s Sci/Tech bubble to take note of our city’s regional connections

On Mill Road Winter Fair 2022 day, Rail Future had one of their regional meetings at The Signal Box around the corner from the main railway station in Cambridge.

And the latter was absolutely jam packed as in previous years.

Above: NEWZ-SPOOF: “Hordes of anti-car activists block main road into Cambridge”

One thing that Mill Road has oodles of compared to other parts of Cambridge the town is a proud social history. Have a look at the Mill Road History Society, and also Becky Proctor’s talk from several years ago here. The page that Becky refers to is Capturing Cambridge – where you can also contribute your own memories and photos.

Making a new video – what I wanted to do today

What I wanted to do was to do a video walk through from end-to-end in a single take for the local archives so future generations can get a feel for what these things were like. Think of some of the footage we see of the early Cambridge Folk Festivals from half a century ago – The Old Grey Whistle Test from 1974 at the Folk Festival with its very small stages. Chances are you can still find locals who were teenagers or in their 20s in that video who are still around today.

Chronic fatigue however, can be a pain at the best of times and it was way too crowded by the time I got there – having decided I needed to get out despite the instinct to stay in from the cold. (The PEM from today is going to knock me out for the next few days so please don’t ask me to do anything complicated!)

Above Left – some of the new flats at the Mill Road Depot. Above Right, the sad sight of a For Sale sign at the Mill Road Library – announced in August 2022.

There have been some community meetings to see if it is possible to put together a community bid (see Save Mill Road Library, and the Petersfield Area Community Trust).

Unlike previous years, this year I was only passing through – stopping only to catch up with a couple of familiar faces I had not seen since before the first lockdown – so nearly three years. One thing worth thinking about for next year: Better sound-proofing tents/marquees for the amplified music spots. And mini-stages for the lead singers. Otherwise the solo and non-amplified musicians get swamped.

I didn’t get to stop off to film/interview people running the stalls. In times gone by I had the stamina to run up and down Mill Road filming individual performances such as this 2015 playlist, – and the skills and patience to put together something like this from back in 2016.

Above – Mill Road Winter Fair Medley – 2016

Regional Rail Campaigners meet in a small signal box-sized room called the Signal Box

This is yet another example of developers short-changing the residents who move into new-build communities by under-providing for community facilities. There’s actually very little you can do in the space – despite what the marketing and carefully-positioned photographs might indicate in their gallery.

Above Left – the poster on the left (See the gallery too), and Above-Right, a photo from the back of the room on an eye-fone-X.

If you’re looking for a cheap meeting room near the railway station, fine. but given the several hundred ‘housing units’ that were built (408 originally planned with Crest Nicholson the developers in the late 2000s) I think our city’s residents deserve better. And with good reason. Following the Grenfell Fire and the revelations at the Grenfell Inquiry, it turned out that the cladding on the properties did not meet the refreshed standards required by the Building Regulations.

Which is why in 2021 the first submission to remove and re-clad the buildings were made. See the GCPS Planning Portal here, ref: 21/02601/FUL.

The planning application summary starts with:

“Removal of all combustible facade elements including timber cladding panels, insulation, timber support frame and breather membranes followed by…”

https://applications.greatercambridgeplanning.org/online-applications/ Ref 21/02601/FUL

…which makes you wonder why anyone would think having combustible facade elements on any building, let alone a residential building, would be a good idea. If you want to know more about the failings of the building and construction industry in relation to Grenfell, see this review of the book by Pete Apps (who followed the Inquiry closely).

“Are there better places for the community to use than The Signal Box for larger events?”

In the image from G-Maps below, you can see that the room geographically is a very short distance from The Junction. The problem is no one thought to prioritise access from the homes around the Signal Box to that arts and music centre.

Above – from G-Maps

So if you are walking or cycling, your route to a place that’s less than 100m away actually looks like this:

Above – from G-Maps here. It’s only marginally shorter if you can deal with the steps on the east side of Hills Road Bridge.

“Why does this matter for a regional rail future talk?”

Because fast, efficient transport interchanges for a wide variety of methods are essential if you are going to persuade people not to use the car when they travel – and that means overhauling the town planning system and more tightly regulating what developers & their consultants come up with.

And that was not me stating this – this was industry expert Jonathan Roberts, who amongst other things is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.

It was Mr Roberts who gave the presentation to Rail Future East in Cambridge, having been commissioned by the organisation to research and write their East Anglian Rail Study.

The slides will be available at a later date, but I managed to get snapshots of many of them as I was live-tweeting. Have a browse here. Basically it was a crash course in the finances, engineering challenges, and political context of overhauling East Anglia’s rail infrastructure to make it ready for the climate emergency that is now with us – and to make it easier to persuade people to use rail and public transport instead of the motor car. Which is why I think local political parties who are either:

  1. standing candidates with realistic chances of winning their local parliamentary seat, and/or
  2. have a presence on local councils in East Anglia with policies consistent at a local and national level with reducing motor car use and improving public and active transport infrastructure & services,

…should invite Mr Roberts to deliver the talk to their members, supporters, friends, and interested passers-by. (His contact details are here).

East-West Connections across East Anglia matter

I could upload all of my not-very-clear photos but keep an eye on Rail Future East’s website for the slide pack to be updated (or follow https://twitter.com/RailfutureEA on Twitter). Instead I’ll stick with a couple. This was the first one, comparing the flow of road traffic across East Anglia, along with highlighting the main settlements. The most northern trio of King’s Lynn, Norwich, and the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth (With Lowestoft just to the south) are identifiable to those of you familiar with the region – along with Peterborough at the top left just about to fall off the map in that green thick line representing the GNER route.

Above – in red is road traffic – the thicker the line, the greater the volume of traffic. The green line is for rail and the number of services.

When you look at that map and put it into the policy context of 1) reducing car journeys, and 2) reducing the number of freight movements, a host of questions followed by more questions arise.

The ultimate question from a long term public policy perspective however, is:

“What does success look like?”

Digging into the first layer of detail:

“What sort of rail network does East Anglia need in order to reduce the volumes of traffic (and the thickness of the red lines) shown in the diagram above?”

Above – a blurred image of what an improved network might look like.

Essentially the thicker dualled green lines are upgraded lines with new ones like East West Rail also included with the yellow line in between the green ones. In many cases this will require ministers investing in a long term electrification plan that sequences over a period of decades which lines will be upgraded and when – and also supporting this with policies to build specialist engineering and construction colleges and training centres to create the trained workforce needed to deliver and sustain the rate of building. Ditto for the homes and community facilities around them.

Some of the most strikingly efficient improvements are the construction/rebuilding of chords – such as the Newmarket one I mentioned in my previous blogpost.

Above – What Mr Roberts confirmed is that this upgrade would significantly increase the use of the under-used Soham line (given its capacity), and increase the resilience of public transport journeys between Cambridge and Ely as and when the existing line via Waterbeach goes down. It provides an alternative route to Ely in the meantime. Furthermore, there’s additional capacity for suburban stopping services that can use that line from places currently disconnected – such as Haverhill and Wisbech.

“Could part of the discussion between developers and town planners involve negotiations with Network Rail and Combined Authorities for contributions towards rail infrastructure improvements *and* adult education facilities to retrain people in areas where we will need skilled workers to build all of this?”

It could be done.

It will however, require more passengers and travellers (as well as local residents, politicians, and campaigners) to take more of an interest in what is otherwise seen as a niche area full of negative stereotypes. It doesn’t have to be like that anymore.

Above – What can we learn from the media produced for Crossrail and other big projects?

Food for thought?

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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