Business Case

A Trip to Bedford

It's National Black Cat Appreciation Day!
Is this the Key to Understanding the EWR Business Case or Just an Excuse for a Cat Photograph?

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” [1]. 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.


[1] 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).

13 replies on “A Trip to Bedford”

Thank you, William – this really isn’t a compelling proposition. And even less so when you consider that your electric car journey would have been by diesel locomotive.

Excellent practical evidence – how can we /you share this more widely in the EWR decision making community?

I imagine the disparity will be greater if one if living / leaving outside Cambridge – where increasing numbers will be.

What would a similar study show re going all the way to Oxford? Or is our / the case that one should travel to Bedford to get the train to Oxford?
Thank you for your continued excellent work.

I have a post in preparation which covers more station pairs and also speak about that in the presentation linked at the end of the post.

Please help get the message out.

Undertaking a comparison is, at one level, worthwhile, but, I would opine, that people rarely decide between road & rail based solely on time or cost.
I would say convince & ease usually play a much large part.
I would add that the cost of Electric vehicles vs Rail is probably not valid comparison. At some point in this decade the government will need to transition from ‘Tax on Fuel’ to ‘Tax on Road Usage’ to account for the £26Bn/a that the Exchequer looks to lose from tax on sales of petrol/ diesel.

That said, for passenger travel, there needs to be a minimum probable expectation of passenger usage for the rail link to be viable, and I do not see that evidence in the documents submitted, especially given that, with the increased usage of virtual technology, the need for physical personal travel between Cambridge & Bedford/Oxford will only reduce overtime, not increase.

For freight, the picture may be different, but the route being proposed is not optimised for freight.

Interesting point regarding EV vs Rail but even at 45p a mile that HMRC allows us to ‘charge’ for business mileage even a gas guzzling SUV has a lower marginal cost that the rail rate per mile.

Time and convenience and how many are travelling together, I think, are the important factors for most and for those, like me, who live in Haslingfield through which the route will cut a huge scar, there is absolutely no advantage. An additional journey in and out of Cambridge plus already being part way to Bedford/Oxford makes EWR irrelevant.

As far as passenger transport goes it seems the only ones who might benefit are solo travellers who live close to the station, whose destination is close to Bedford/Oxford station, who do not have access to a car, and who can travel on off-peak fares.

Keep up the good work William and all.

I live in Shelford and work in Bedford. We have an electric car so this comparison reflects my commute. I will continue to commute by electric car, even if the option of rail becomes available. The only difference would be that I might be a bit sleep-deprived from rail noise, as the line is due to be built near my house.

Very interesting article. Factor in there is very little space around Bedford station for new housing and EWR currently plan to demolish over 50 affordable homes within walking distance it makes even less sence.

Well done, good article.

Are we /someone/ anyone keeping the set of Cambridgeshire MP’s updated with all this? I think each one of them has something to lose if the southern route is still proposed, and to gain if the northern route is used.

Daniel Zeichner MP is a fan of EWR, seemingly, although he has been known to ask the reasonable question what it is for. Lucy Frazer QC has come out against a northern route, but that reflects her constituency and I think she will get more of the north assuming the boundary changes go ahead (giving the South Cambridgeshire MP more of the east of the county).

How can you be a fan of something that costs £5Bn of public money if you don’t know what it’s for? He obviously does not think about where government money comes from and what else it could be spent on. Lewis Herbert is also an EWR supporter but says it must be part of a spatial framework – absolutely right – but little chance of that happening now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *