East West Rail’ Co.’s Strategy Director, Will Gallagher recently said “with some uncertainty around the Arc of course we continue to look at our business case and when you lead into a big decision like route alignment we are also updating our business case that is something that is live as well” . That’s a good thing because, I don’t understand the business case for the railway either.
EWR is a 100 mph railway optimised for intercity or inter-town transport rather than local trips. I decided to see if I could understand the offer that EWR could give people for transport between Cambridge and Bedford.
After the school run this morning, I drove from Cambridge station to Bedford Midland Road station. In terms of trip choice, station to station is about the kindest you can be to the railway since the railway then has no first and last mile penalty – road is usually door to door anyway. I left Cambridge station at 08:47 and arrived at Bedford Midland station in 57 minutes.
It took a ridiculous 15 minutes to get out of Cambridge on the A603, then up the M11 to the A428. The traffic was flowing freely coming in from Cambourne. Then dual carriageway all the way to Bedford except for the Caxton Gibbet to Black Cat roundabout stretch. I arrived in Bedford, got off the A421 and onto Cardington road. I was held up by road works. The new Bedford Midland station is not on Midland Road, but on nearby Ashburnham Road. I have a video on my dash cam of the whole trip for what it’s worth.
The Network Rail analysis (p.44) says 60 minutes peak journey time on the road and 48 minutes for the “generalised journey time” on the EWR (allowing for the time spent waiting for the next train). So EWR wins by 12 minutes (or 9 minutes in my case this morning).
10 minutes of those precious 12 minutes of EWR rail benefit will go when the Caxton Gibbet to Black Cat dual carriageway is built. I also need to allow for the time it would have taken for me to find a parking place at Cambridge station – there were none visible this morning, but there were probably some places further away. Then there is the time to buy a parking ticket and a rail ticket. Conclusion, even station to station EWR will not bring a time advantage between Cambridge and Bedford.
The marginal cost in my electric car is around 6p per mile. By the time the railway gets going, electric cars will hopefully be common and the electricity grid will be mostly renewables/nuclear. Looking at peak Thameslink return fares it works out around 55p per mile on rail (I looked at Bedford to St. Pancras and St. Albans to St. Pancras fares on line). Let’s assume that EWR will be similar (the cost per mile will be more expensive than Thameslink, since usage will be lower and construction costs need to be recovered). Then add the £12.50 peak cost of parking my car at Cambridge station. So, assuming a round 30 miles there and 30 miles back I get a £33 return fare + £12.50 parking = £45.50 by rail. By electric car it’s £3.60 plus parking – if I need it. In marginal cost terms, it’s more than 10x more expensive by rail (see note 1 below). But hey, I get to relax on the train and use my laptop.
This really isn’t a compelling proposition for a service with a £5+ billion capital cost plus the on-going subsidy which the taxpayer will continue to have to pay for operating the EWR. Would you invest in this personally? Well, we don’t have to decide because the Department for Transport will decide for all of us taxpayers, so just relax and keep paying the taxes.
Yes, there will be people that don’t have cars, that live and work near stations despite the lack of a regional spatial framework for the EWR. But as more and more conditions are needed to make the offer for EWR beneficial, the number of people that actually benefit from the railway gets smaller and smaller and the business case fades away.
If you have not seen it, have a look at my recent presentation on the search for a business case for the railway here.
 Westminster Social Policy Forum, “The Future of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc” 27th April 2022.
Since I cannot go everywhere by public transport, I have to have a car. Having bought the car, then I look at the cost of using rail in marginal terms as above. On the other hand if I could do without a car, then I would be deciding on whether to buy one. I paid around £20,000 for the electric car and expect it to do 100,000 miles. Add in £5,000 for servicing and I arrive at 25p/mile plus the 6p/mile electricity cost. Over all 31p/mile and still a lot less than rail. (Thanks to Anne for this aspect).