Given that EWRCo. have persistently refused to publish a business case for their project, it’s hard to see how anyone that cares about good use of public money can make an informed judgement about it. What information we have indicates that it will have a high capital cost and thereafter make operational losses considerably higher than the national average for UK railways. The logic for central government support for the project is around a step change in housing growth in the OxCam Arc.
When looking at survey results it’s good to know
a) what was the question b) who was asked the question and c) who funded the study.
These questions are hard to tell from the EWRCo. website, but a recent response to a freedom of information request to them kindly gives us more detail. This is in the form of a presentation from a company called Savanta who performed the survey and reports on the main results to EWRCo.
This new information allows us to better address the questions a) to c) above.
What was the question?
There were several questions in the survey. The one referred to by the statistic on the EWRCo. website was this (presumably because EWRCo. liked the answer):
“Do you think a new east-west public transport link, which connects communities between Oxford, Bicester, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Cambridge, is a good idea?“
To say yes to this question requires no commitment to use it and the question could be referring to a bus route. A more challenging question for EWRCo. would have been whether people would regularly use their railway service.
One of the justifications for the OxCam Arc / EWR has been to solve problems related to the affordability of housing in cities. In this Savanta survey 45% of people said there would be a negative impact on affordability against only 17% who thought it would be positive. Why didn’t EWRCo. publish that?
Who was asked the question?
The summary provided by Savanta says that they conducted 1,000 interviews with individuals living within the East West Rail catchment area. 700 interviews were over the phone and 300 were face to face in Oxford, Cambridge, Milton Keynes/ Bletchley, Bedford, Sandy, Cambourne, Aylesbury and Bicester.
Leeds University Institute for Transport Studies define the catchment area for a railway station as being within 800 metres . This gives an indication where the people interviewed in the Savanta study were in the towns and cities indicated. In all the surveyed towns, the proposed EWR station already exists except in the case of the small town of Cambourne where it is proposed to be next to an existing dual carriageway.
In general, the people surveyed will be expecting little disruption to their lives from the construction of the railway since there are existing tracks and some new options to travel to places that they currently cannot get to so quickly by rail. These people are a tiny fraction of the overall population of the area between Oxford and Cambridge and are likely to be those with the most to gain and the least to lose. The location of the people surveyed perhaps also explains why so many thought that house prices would go up – not a bad thing if you already own a house in the catchment area. To make the point another way by reducing it to the absurd: if you were asked whether you would like a publicly funded green helicopter service to wherever you want to go on demand from the end of your street – what would you say?
Who funded the study?
Of course, Savanta were funded by the EWRCo. Both parties would therefore be motivated to find a valid but positive result for the EWR project. EWRCo. must know where the support for the railway lies based on their extensive but unpublished consultation results, so they would know where to conduct the survey. Not mentioning the fact that the survey was conducted in the catchment areas for their existing stations in their publicity seems misleading on the part of EWRCo.
Please ignore this flawed study.
 such as it is, given the unsolved first and last mile problem.
In addition to the financial black hole that is HS2, Jeremy Hunt mentioned two other rail schemes in his autumn budget. EWR and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). In this post I want to make a few comparisons between these schemes to see what it tells us about EWR.
Passenger numbers for these intercity railways will be driven by the size of the cities that they serve. Let’s compare the 6 largest cities on the NPR (Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Hull) with the 6 largest on the EWR (MK, Bedford, Oxford, Cambridge, Bletchley). Population figures are taken where possible from the 2021 census.
I draw two conclusions from this a) passenger demand on EWR will be around three times lower than on NPR b) spending per head of population is three times higher for EWR than for NPR. We should also consider how well developed the public transport is around these stations. I suspect NPR wins there as well because the NPR cities are better developed with regard to local transport, and the railway has been there a long time.
I don’t recall any specific Conservative manifesto commitment to restore EWR in 2019, but there was something about levelling up in the north of England, wasn’t there? And no, I don’t believe in Cambridge exceptionalism despite it being my hometown.
If these schemes were going to be privately financed or profitable, that would be one thing, but their capital costs are huge, and they will suffer a loss for every year that they operate. All funded by the taxpayer or national debt.
The government should publish a business case for EWR and allow public scrutiny. Currently it looks like a few mandarins in the treasury believing vague promises in smoke filled rooms about wider benefits and economic growth. We have no objective or publicly understood measure to compare one rail scheme with another and the result will be be that truly awful white elephants get funded.
The Office of Road and Rail recently published their UK Rail finances for the year to 2022. They are still awful.
Year to March
Income: Passenger Fares
Income: Government Subsidy
ORR UK rail finances reports in recent years: Unit £Bn
The 2022 figures were clearly still affected by COVID 19 even though the final lockdowns started to be lifted at the start of the period on the 29th of March 2021. It’s also worth noting that the rail subsidy had been running at above £5Bn for 15 years before the year to March 2020.
The average UK railway ran at a 33% loss before COVID, it’s 58% with the latest figures and despite significant increases in rail fares this does not seem to be improving. EWR will be a below average railway. Passenger numbers will be lower than average because of the small cities which it connects. It also needs to recoup the capital costs.
There is very little hard evidence that EWR will trigger wider benefits and economic growth. Surely that would require people to be using it in significant numbers. Please, EWRCo., show us the passenger forecasts and their justification. Also tell us why we need an intercity railway to solve local commute problems that are being solved more cheaply and flexibly with busways. How about some light rail? We could have funded that with just the design costs of CS3.
Remember that EWR was part of the OxCam Arc. There was a big consultation about the spatial plan for the OxCam Arc in 2021. That’s important because it could help the first and last mile problem from hitting EWR passenger numbers more than it needs to. After a recent FOI request, the government (DLUHC) refused to publish the results of the consultation, because they are planning to do so at some unspecified time in the future. Without a spatial plan the first and last mile issue will kill the EWR passenger demand. Beth West of EWRCo. said recently that a spatial plan would be good, but they could be waiting a long time for that and we should just do the best we can without it. Is that an acceptable approach to spending billions of taxpayers’ money? (No).
We have asked EWRCo. about first and last mile repeatedly. EWR Co.’s Will Gallagher said he was talking to England’s Economic Heartland about it. At their recent EEH conference, EEH’s Naomi Green said that first and last mile was a hard problem and that perhaps the private sector could do something about it. Good grief.
Meanwhile it has been announced that EWR have appointed a consortium of WSP and Mott Macdonald to be their technical partners. If this is the main development partner contract, then information on the Department for Transport website indicates that the contract value is £676.5million. They seem to be full steam ahead on their part of the “decide, announce, defend” path. Don’t worry about the local people. Or logic for that matter.
Let’s have another look at those capital costs.
You may have noticed that railway construction contracts tend to increase in cost over time. This is not all down to bad estimation. Part of it is around the careful control of project scope. The idea is to get to the smallest cost possible, get it signed off and then add to it after that.
Consider the following for EWR:
Electrification is excluded the current cost estimates based on a continually changing story about hydrogen trains or more recently battery-operated trains, but full electrification is not excluded as a possibility. Importantly, there is no line item in the capital budget for any means of getting to an operationally net zero railway. The cost of electrification of the comparable Transpennine Rail Upgrade (TRU) grew from £2.9bn to £11bn billion. Defenders of rail say there were a lot of tunnels on the TRU. I say let’s see a conservative estimate included in the costs.
Freight. The current commitment is to maintain the existing freight traffic. That’s a few trains per week on the West Anglia Mainline, perhaps something on the Midlands Mainline through Bedford, but certainly nothing like the 50 freight trains per day that Network Rail would like to see running on the whole EWR. That means freight loops and a full freight specification for the railway. EWR Co.’s Beth West says discussions continue about that. And I predict nothing will be put in the cost estimates until it is signed off. Maybe you are getting the pattern now?
Mitigations. EWR Co. have been talking about reducing the height of viaducts and embankments, going under roads instead of over them. I asked them for a cost estimate of all these mitigations. They don’t have an estimate. So, guess what? There is nothing in the capital budget for it. Will mitigations get implemented. Who knows?
Grade Separated Junction at Great Shelford. This is the busiest point on the currently proposed EWR route into Cambridge. There is traffic from King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, a bit of freight and EWR. There is no station to hold trains to make the timing fit. The Department for Transport revealed an additional £499.6m cost for 4-tracking into Cambridge even though the staff at the recent Haslingfield drop in event said they did not know about it. After a few months EWRCo. did respond to a question which confirmed that this huge sum of money did not include the Grade Separated Junction. Something else to look forwards to in future estimates then.
Mick Lynch of the RMT
I am going to say something about the recent rail strikes, just because they illustrate how far from economic reality the UK rail system really is. Mick Lynch argued today that pay rises for train drivers (who currently get paid £60,000 a year or more) would not contribute to inflation. That’s because they would not necessarily be passed on to passenger fares. He suggests that the money could be taken from the guaranteed profits of the private rail operators. There will come a point where these rail operators will hand back to their franchises to the government. This has already happened. Meanwhile the government can complain about how the rail industry needs to become more efficient. No one takes responsibility for the broken system that we have, and yet the government wants to add more railways which will perform even worse than the existing ones. And to be fair, in the main, the opposition parties seem to support them.
But Aren’t Railways Green?
You might be thinking that we should build railways anyway because they are greener than all those fossil-fuelled cars. Consider the following:
By the time EWR CS3 starts operation in the 2030s, the only available new cars to buy will be electric and the costs will come down. Yes, there are enough raw materials to make the batteries (consider Sulphur and Sodium batteries).
The CO2 emissions from the construction of the railway will be significant and operationally, trains running at less than capacity are not efficient. We only see a benefit if people prefer to give up their cars and take the train. Perhaps people should be forced to do this? That depends how authoritarian you feel the government should be.
The economic growth used to justify the railway comes with large scale housing development on green field sites near new stations. That creates huge amounts of CO2.
This post publishes an open letter from Great Shelford resident Annabel Sykes to Anthony Browne MP and sets out her thinking on why the EWR Bedford to Cambridge Section should be dropped.
10 November 2022
I am writing not only in my local capacity, but also as a concerned taxpayer.
In my opinion, East West Rail (“EWR”) central section is, at best and subject to some critical preconditions (explained in the next paragraph), a possible nice-to-have. By contrast, some things are essential, most relevantly a coherent solution to Cambridgeshire’s severe public transport issues (including the building of Cambridge South station).
EWR central section will not make a meaningful difference to this essential objective, for the reasons explained at 1 below, and for a minimum of around £5 billion of taxpayer’s money (2021 figures, so before the current high level of building inflation), does not represent any kind of value. I also note that this is before any meaningful costs for extending EWR beyond Cambridge to the east are available. It would, in my view, be very rash to make a decision to proceed with the central section of EWR (on any route whatsoever) without first having (a) a clear statement of its purpose (1(g) below), (b) a route which has been determined based on that purpose, (c) a public review of a business case and costs which are based on that purpose and (d) a proper costs estimate for the eastern section, again whatever route it follows (see 1(f) below for why).
The Conservative Party’s 2019 Manifesto contains no express commitment to EWR. The closest it gets is “We will also invest in improving train lines to…. East Anglia”. The building of Cambridge South station and the Ely capacity enhancements, together with signalling upgrades and frequency increases on lines that can’t currently be used to get to jobs (see 1 and 3 below) could meet this commitment.
1. The Lack of Business Case for EWR Central Section
I should make clear that I am not an enemy of rail. I live within hearing distance of the West Anglia Mainline (“WAML”) (inside the house, including at night) and I use the train whenever I reasonably can. As I am over 60, it is relatively affordable, but both rail travel and station parking are expensive, especially for those between 30 and 60 (who don’t generally benefit from any discount on rail fares).
I cannot see that EWR’s central section represents value for money or forms part of a coherent transport strategy for Cambridgeshire, for the following reasons:
(a) Unlike some other places along the proposed EWR route, Cambridge is already very well connected by rail in all directions, including to the East Coast Main Line (“ECML”) (at both Hitchin and Peterborough). In terms of east-west connection, it will also benefit from the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet road improvement scheme to which the Government has already committed. There is a serious question whether it needs a third connection to the ECML. If it does, the route
needs very careful thought, having fully identified the link’s purpose or purposes (see (g) below). This is a contrast with Bedford and points west, which do not currently have a link with ECML and, in general (with the exception of Oxford) don’t have rail links as extensive as Cambridge.
(b) A draft Strategic Narrative for EWR prepared by Steer for the East West Main Line Partnership (“EWMLP”) suggests that Cambridge (among others) has a lower than average level of commuting into its centre for an economy of its size and importance. Assuming this is correct, it may well have more to do with (i) the positioning of the stations relative to places of employment (something which will be significantly improved with the building of Cambridge South station) and (ii) the timing, frequency and cost of the existing rail services, than to any lack of connection. For example, I met someone recently who lives in Soham and drives into Cambridge to her place of work because the services from Soham are not frequent enough to allow her to use them to commute. The previous mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority was fond of pointing out that Manea and March have stations, but they can’t be used to commute regularly to Cambridge because of lack of sufficient services (either quantity or hours). Wisbech no longer has a station.
(c) In saying this, I do not ignore the very serious public transport problems in much of Cambridgeshire and especially in Cambourne and other new towns. I am, however, not convinced that a service which stops at St Neots/Tempsford and Cambourne and swings round to the new Cambridge South station will make much of a dent in this problem. A holistic approach is needed; the nearly £5 billion estimated cost of the central section of EWR2could potentially provide a far wider-ranging light rail/tram train type network. This could encompass a reuse for this kind of transport of the line from Great Shelford to Haverhill (something that may be very difficult if EWR central section goes ahead). This wider solution has significantly greater potential to ease the congestion problems facing Cambridge and CBC than the EWR central section does. Greater Cambridge needs transport solutions, not an aspirational growth accelerator (see (j) below).
(d) The benefits EWRCo says it will provide are access to a wider workforce, increased availability of offices/wet labs, access to affordable homes and levelling. These seem to me significantly more likely to come to Cambridge from the north and east than from the west. As regards:
i) workforce – I have attached a diagram taken from theCBCTransportNeedsReviewwhich shows the origins of staff working at CBC (overwhelmingly hospital staff) by postcode, based on 2011 census data. This suggests that some staff do, or did, travel in from the west (including Bedford) despite the lack of a railway connection and that the number of staff travelling from areas a roughly comparable distance away but with existing railway connections (Hitchin/Letchworth and Stansted/ Bishop’s Stortford) was not significantly greater. The diagram shows a notable gap to the north west, but this may well have more
2 See footnote 1 for source
to do with the fact that CBC hospitals were competing for staff with Hinchingbrooke and, at that time, Papworth Hospitals which were located in that area, than with the lack of a rail link. More recent information suggests that a percentage of CBC hospital staff do now come from the Papworth and Huntingdon areas (this may well, in large measure reflect the opening of Royal Papworth at CBC). I have also attached page 7 of the Greater Cambridge Housing Strategy 2019 – 2023, which does not suggest there is a particular issue for EWR’s currently proposed route to solve;
ii) housing affordability – please see the attached map, which speaks for itself;
iii) levelling up – I have attached a diagram from the Government’s White Paper on Levelling Up published earlier this year. On the whole, the left behind regions are north and east (rather than west) of Cambridge.
I am afraid EWRCo’s arguments do not convince me, and they should not convince you, that
EWR’s central section has a business case. They also did not convince the former Secretary of
State for Transport, Grant Shapps, who made clear in the summer (in an interview with LBC on 11 July) that he would cut the second and third tranches of EWR thus saving £3 to 5 billion straight away. Richard Fuller (MP for North East Bedfordshire) wrote to the then Secretary of State for Transport on 14 October 2022 asking for a full public review of the business case before any decision is made on EWR’s connection stage 2 and the central section. He has also said that he is formally opposed to EWR.
(e) EWR’s central section is new railway. However good EWR Co may have been at delivering the project on time and on budget so far (as they claim), they have essentially been upgrading existing railway. The travails of HS2 show that new railway is much, much harder and that costs and timing can easily overrun by very significant amounts. I also note that the Cabinet Office’s Infrastructure and Project’s Authority has given EWR stage 2 and the central section a “red” rating (i.e. it does not believe the scheme can meet its objectives on time and within budget unless risks are addressed).
(f) It is quite clear that Network Rail and others think that the full benefits of EWR will not be realised unless it continues further east. Steer, for EWMLP, has been working on a pre-Strategic Outline Business Case for the eastern section for some time. Network Rail’s recent East West Main Line Strategic Statement is clear-eyed on the many difficulties of upgrading the mooted route (being the line to Newmarket) save that it doesn’t mention the large number of level crossings. Further, the appropriate route beyond Cambridge will depend on the answer to (g). For example, a more regular light rail or tram train solution may well be a preferable one for the Newmarket line if it is to remain a passenger-focussed service.
(g) It is still not clear what EWR is for. Some still think it is a high-ish speed Oxford to Cambridge link, some that it is a commuter railway. At a recent Bidwell’s conference, Will Gallagher of
EWRCo conceded that it was about “place-making”. I understand this to mean (among other things) that it is a commuter railway. This has a major impact on the business case, as does the question of whether freight will be important to it. Historically, freight was important to the Varsity Line. If freight is important again, and Network Rail is clear that it potentially is, the currently proposed southern approach is highly unsuitable as it would run through significant residential areas of Cambridge, close to several large educational establishments and ironically (bearing in mind that almost all freight is diesel) past one of the country’s leading heart and lung hospitals. There are also some very considerable issues with the Newmarket line, including the narrow radius chord at Coldham’s junction. From this perspective, it is worth noting that EWR Co itself appears recently to have pivoted quietly towards freight and has made clear it expects to have an 18 hour operational window for freight services.
(h) The central section (and indeed the remainder of EWR) will not join together large cities or towns. Cambridge, as we know, is a small city and Bedford borough is roughly 170,000. The two proposed stopping points between (Tempsford/St Neot’s) and Cambourne are growing, but are not predicted to become large. This is of obvious economic significance and, unless there are other reasons to run heavy rail (see (g)) or it joins more communities, EWR feels like a sledgehammer to crack a nut. This is especially given its potentially damaging impact on South Cambridgeshire villages, which will see no benefit from it, and on farming and food security. It also assumes that people will use EWR. EWRCo have carried out a limited, carefully phrased survey which is on their website to bolster their position (see attached screen shot, which does not mention rail). This contrasts with your own survey with a far greater number of respondents, which suggests that few residents in your constituency will use EWR regularly. The radical bus network and sustainable travel zone proposals in the recent “Making Connections” consultation by the Greater Cambridge Partnership are relevant too. EWR will not be able to compete on price with these.
(i) EWMLP’s Building Better Connections the business imperative for East West Rail (“Building Better Connections”) makes some poorly-researched claims about the connectivity EWR will bring. I was brought up in Hertfordshire so I can predict with some confidence that no-one would, in practice, catch a train from Welwyn Garden City to St Neot’s to take an EWR train west. They would make the 17 minute drive to St Alban’s station instead. From Stevenage or Hitchin, it will almost certainly be more time efficient to drive to Luton station and use that route to get onto EWR westwards.
(j) Cambridge appears to be very capable of growing by itself and it was widely acknowledged at a recent Bidwell’s Ox-Cam Arc conference that cities along EWR already are. EWRCo argues that it could super-charge this (the approach appears to be not predict and provide, but the fiscally irresponsible provide and hope). There is, to my mind, a serious question whether if EWR were to succeed in increasing the growth rate (as it argues), Cambridge would overheat, with affordability concerns simply increasing in a vicious spiral. There are, as you already know,
significant issues with water and energy supplies in the Greater Cambridge area and deleterious impacts on the region’s precious chalk streams.
(k) Cambridge South station is an essential addition to Cambridge’s rail provision and should be transformational for CBC, but it is a separate project from EWR and does not need EWR to succeed.
An Oxford to Cambridge railway line has nostalgic appeal and makes for good branding, but does it have a business case? As regards the central section, I remain to be convinced on this and, if there is a business case, of the route that best serves its purpose, once that purpose has been clearly identified.
2. Community Liaison
EWRCo is not a transparent organization, both its consultations have been of a poor standard and it does not seem to enjoy talking to communities potentially impacted by the central section or see any need to keep them up-to-date in an effective way.
The recent EWR organised Haslingfield drop-in is a case in point: (a) I took a copy of the August FOI reply with me and asked the EWR representatives for programme and business case about its line “Cambridge Station and West Anglia Main Line £499,600,000”. Each of them said they did not recognise it and had no idea what it related to. I found this quite astonishing. The business case person also said that the DfT “owns” the business case;
(b) I asked why no drop-in event had been held in Great Shelford (every single proposal EWRCo has ever made runs through Great Shelford). The answer was predictable warble. The true answer is more likely that EWR Co assumes that holding something in central Cambridge is good enough, which it isn’t. It simply demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between Cambridge and the communities in its southern necklace villages.
The local representative groups recently established by EWRCo are another case in point. EWRCo is either unwilling or unable to engage constructively with communities’ legitimate questions. These meetings appear to be a “tick box” exercise. In addition, the sparse attendance by councillors representing Cambridge City is interesting. Two meetings were held for the city only group. The first was attended by one councillor and the second was cancelled when no-one turned up. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that the city is not very interested in EWR.
Finally, Hannah Staunton (EWRCo’s Head of Communications) gave a notably unsatisfactory interview on Radio Bedfordshire on 18 October. This is her answer to a question regarding when residents in limbo in Bedford will find out if their houses will be demolished. After expressions of sympathy, she said “It has taken longer than we’d hoped…I don’t have a date for you at the moment, I am afraid. We are still working on the feedback we received and we are looking at a number of other things as well… We are really are trying to make sure we are creating the best possible design that we can.. it almost goes without saying there are some decisions in central government that take a little bit longer to get through than we were hoping…..At the moment, it
would be irresponsible of me to put a date out there”. As you know, there are many people in South Cambridgeshire in a similar position of uncertainty as regards their homes, gardens or farms to those in Bedford. Sustained pressure on EWRCo is required.
3. Improving Train Lines to East Anglia
(a) I live in one of the better connected villages in South Cambridgeshire. Not only is it an easy cycle into Cambridge, but it has a train station and a bus service (albeit subject to cancellations). I nevertheless find myself driving more than I would like to. For example, I would love to catch the train to Peterborough and Stansted Airport, but neither journey from Shelford is sufficiently regular or competes adequately with driving. Even the journey to the airport, which is on WAML, involves a change if one starts at Shelford.
(b) There are three problematic to severely problematic level crossings in South Cambridgeshire – one at Foxton and two in Great Shelford. They are serious pinch points and need to be replaced with fit-for-purpose crossings of the railway line.
(c) As noted above, there are a number of places which have stations, but very limited service. For example, Bury St Edmunds has a population of over 40,000 and has good road, but astonishingly poor rail, connections, including with Cambridge. Wisbech has no rail connections with Cambridge or anywhere else.
(d) Network Rail’s Ely area capacity enhancement proposals would significantly improve connectivity and reliability for passenger services and meet the demand for more rail freight to and from Felixstowe. They were not included in the Growth Plan and were, at minimum, rumoured to have been rejected by the Department of Transport in the summer, but are significantly cheaper and with more obvious benefit to parts of Cambridgeshire than EWR.
(e) A comprehensive, integrated public transport system is what Cambridgeshire needs. EWRCo’s lack of transparency and reluctance to liaise with anyone indicates that it expects everyone else to work around it and does not suggest it is approaching its mission with the open mind needed to make it a success. There is a severe risk it will take a huge chunk of the transport budget Cambridgeshire might reasonably expect and make little, if any, real improvement to the trainlines to East Anglia.
Cutting EWR’s central section is an easy win in these difficult financial times and I urge the Government not to hesitate.
 See attached reply of 17 August to a freedom of information request by Mohammad Attar (“August FOI reply”)
 An initiative which would be consistent with the Liberal Democrat 2019 Manifesto and was recently mentioned by Lucy Nethsingha – https://www.cambridgeindependent.co.uk/news/cambridge-might-needlight-rail-after-all-says-county-counc-9277771/
 Revival of the link to Haverhill is supported by you, Lucy Frazer KC MP and Matt Hancock MP. Cambridge Connect has been working with RailFuture East Anglia and others on developing tram train proposals, which can also run on existing heavy rail lines and thus avoid some of the problems identified for CSET2 (the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s partial solution for those currently commuting along the A1307) in adopting a rail route. Reviving the Haverhill line would also give Sawston (a large village with a population of about 7,000) the station it wants and, unlike CSET2, serve the new Cambridge City football ground at Sawston.
 The Sponsor’s Requirements and Programme Wide Output Specification (see the relevant appendices of the Technical Report published by EWRCo as part of its 2021 consultation) lack clarity on this all important question. They also assume that EWR must travel to Cambridge station. Why? There are already six trains an hour in each direction through Cambridge
 See page 61 of Network Rail’s East West Main Line Strategic Statement
 The example towns mentioned in the next sentence already have direct rail connections with Cambridge
 My purpose was to find out whether this line item assumed grade-separation at Shepreth Branch Junction, which would be potentially devastating for Great Shelford and parts of Trumpington. I am still in the dark on the answer to this question
 The first meeting of the Cambridge City and Surrounding Areas Group was attended by some city councillors who appeared more interested in drowning out the inconvenient concerns of the southern villages than representing their electorate, the second of that group by very few
EWRCo. held their “no new information” drop-in event in Haslingfield, and they delivered as promised. There was indeed no new information about the proposed railway which has been blighting our communities since April Fool’s day last year.
Here at Cambridge Approaches we put in a lot of effort in to publicise their event (7,000 leaflets, 1,000 bin posters, social media campaign etc). We also invited the press along to see what was going on. This was the first chance most people have had to meet EWRCo. staff face to face. Why didn’t EWRCo. do any of that? The event was well attended and EWRCo., reported 550 attendees. Not bad on a working day for an event advertising no new information.
Local farmer Edd also kindly parked his cherry picker outside the venue and set it to a height of 10m as specified in the latest Great Wall proposals from EWRCo., we also marked out the width of their proposed embankments to 70m. Seeing the height of it, the EWRCo. spokesperson was clearly in denial and was heard to say “it will never be that high”. We advise her to read her own consultation document.
In case they were in doubt about what we would like from them, hundreds of people had put out “Show Us the Business Case” on their bins along all the main roads through the surrounding villages and in Haslingfield.
And our request was answered. The business case appeared in the form of Nellie the pantomime EWR White Elephant with a price tag of £7.6billion. Interviewed in Radio Cambridgeshire, Nellie the pantomime white elephant welcomed EWR to the herd. She said, “Like all good white elephants, EWR is ridiculous and its costs greatly exceed its benefits.”
Steve also bought along a 3D map of the area so people could see what the effect of the railway would be locally. There was lots of interest from people attending the event.
Meanwhile the Pantomime Continued in the Methodist Church
I didn’t meet anyone that was in favour of the proposed route, but maybe there were one or two. Many residents were pretty angry, but we did not get to the situation reached at the Wyboston Lakes EWR drop-in where residents of the Bedford Poets area were so angry that EWR Co. felt they had to call in the police to calm things down.
The drop-in meeting was bound to be difficult, since the interests of residents and the EWR Co. staff were clearly different and hard to reconcile. This was exacerbated by the policy of no new information sustained now for 18 months; the lack of briefing on predicable questions given to the EWRCo. staff and their generally low level of knowledge about the project. Staff turnover seems to be high and there were many new faces.
We had a de-brief session amongst some of the people from our campaign to exchange experiences we had had with the drop-in session. Here are some of the things we found.
The job given to the poorly briefed EWRCo. staff was to stand talking to angry/upset residents for six hours while giving out no new information. Tough one that. Deflecting questions was therefore the core skill. Here are some of the techniques/answers that were reported on the day.
I can’t answer that, I just want to build things.
I’ve just been with EWR for 2 months, I’ll ask a colleague
I wasn’t with the project then
We are studying that
Big infrastructure projects all do it this way, we’re following standard procedures
Qu. Will you disclose the business case? Ans. The DfT owns the business case – Qu. but I asked DfT and they won’t disclose it because they don’t want to upset EWRCo. Ans. What was their exact wording?
We’d like to publish the business case, but we are still progressing it
We are looking at lowering the very high embankments
On the subject of the route: “it has to go somewhere”
You will need to speak to X, but they are not here today
Qu. Can you find this out for me? Answer: “You need to use the normal contact point”. Qu. “but I did two weeks ago and have not even received and acknowledgement. Answer “Silence.”
I’ll talk to you when you have calmed down, I’m human and understand your concerns.
There’s no point me answering that, you’re not going to listen to what I say. She then walks away and follows up with “Are you ready to talk?”
‘It’s not like ‘the Apprentice’ you know, it’s not a quick thing…it’s really complicated.
We will compensate you if you have noise, vibration or mental distress. After [we build it] you will need to fill out a form to illustrate what is happening to your home and then we [will] evaluate it.
We have already lost 10-20% of the value of our homes, will there be any compensation for that? – silence.
On the question “Are you set on the southern approach to Cambridge? Answers included “yes”, “no” and “maybe”.
These are best shown by example.
EWRCo. “We’ve made no decisions yet (route consideration). I wish I could tell you that but we don’t know. There’s business case with a capital B and C and business case with a small b and c. We don’t have passenger numbers but there are so many things to visit in the area we’re sure the railway will be used. Us: So the purpose of the line is tourism? EWRCo.: yes maybe..!”
On Radio Cambridgeshire the following morning, we were treated to the following.
Dotty McLeod: “And in what way Hannah was it [the drop-in event] useful for you?”
Hannah Staunton: “It’s always helpful to be able to talk to the public, and really dial into some of the key topics and things that they’re interested in, that they could be concerned about as well. In some cases, it’s really helpful for us to be able to explain to people why some of the things that they are concerned about perhaps aren’t as concerning as they could be, or maybe talk to them about some of the benefits of the scheme that they haven’t otherwise heard. So, it’s really useful to gauge how people are feeling and what people are thinking, and then the team can go away and consider that as we go through the design and planning scheme.”
To be fair, we did not hear so much of the standard line “we are still going through the X billion pieces of feedback we received in the 2021 consultation and considering how every piece should influence what we decide” – or words to that effect. I guess even that does wear a bit thin after 18 months. In reality we are all waiting for the government to decide if they want to buy his white elephant.
Do join in with your experiences in the comments. If you actually learnt anything that would be even better.
In a recent meeting with our local MP, Anthony Browne we were left with the impression that the government of Boris Johnson was heading for cancellation of EWR CS3. But now there is a new government with a completely new set of ministers – what will they make of it?
EWR: Competition with Road
Here’s the thing. If you have a car and you want to get from Bedford to Cambridge would an East West Rail link get you out of your car and onto the train? Grant Shapps said recently in relation to the A428 improvements “only a small proportion of the proposed development’s traffic would reassign to the East West Rail scheme”.
Have they published a full forecast of passenger numbers? NO (but only 18,000/year from Oxford to Cambridge/less than one per train, see §4.11 on this link).
The recent output from the EWRMLP here (1) and here (2) do not address any of these issues. But they do contain some wonderful word salad. Here is my favourite piece from (1)
“With two thirds of the most powerful businesses of the future yet to be created, we need to ensure the UK is ready to create and scale the fast growth businesses of the future.”
Gosh, that’s deep. I mean how long a future does mankind have?
Steer, the authors of (2) have completely avoided the question of competition with road including time spent waiting for the next train and the first and last mile. That’s odd since it was the main point of the Network Rail EWR Strategic Statement published in March 2022. This illustrates the problem of paying consultants to provide evidence for decisions when you have already made up your mind. Not a great use of our public money that.
In a recent article in the Cambridge Independent, EWRCo. explained that their railway will actually be a catalyst for economic growth. They obliquely refer to the OxCam Arc’s £163 billion transformational scenario contained in the NIC Partnering for Prosperity report. You know, the one with the million new houses by 2050? It has to be an oblique reference because Michael Gove cancelled the Arc back in February. However, popular though it wasn’t, rumours are now floating about that “the Arc will return” see for example here.
I find it hard to picture what an increase of £163billion in gross value added (GVA) looks like. For reference, GVA of Cambridge Biomedical Campus (CBC) is around £1billion. I know what that looks like and can imagine the houses of the 20 thousand or so people who work there. The construction of 163 of those would be a tsunami of concrete across the area between Oxford and Cambridge (hence the green credentials of a railway who’s business case depends on that are suspect). No doubt EWRCo. would say that is out of scope for them. Perhaps an expert from Friends of the Cam could tell us what 163 CBCs would do to the river Cam.
A key point from the NIC report is that the “agglomeration factor” for the sprawling Arc is low compared with say, a city. That means the Arc, if constructed, would in the main just be moving around two million people from one place to another without really adding value. It would however emit a lot of CO2 in the process. See Prof. Roger’s more detailed explanation of this here. It would also be good for the construction industry and those that deal in property.
Whatever you feel about the OxCam Arc there is still the question of the mechanism by which completing the EWR, on its own, will trigger such massive growth over the period between now and 2050 (about 80% in the OxCam Arc compared with 16% nationally). “Partnering for Prosperity” proposed a lot more than just building the railway – there would be spatial framework, development corporations, expressway, local transport schemes etc. Not just a railway.
What we see from proponents of the railway are interviews with a few no doubt heavily prompted business leaders supporting EWR. First among these is AstraZeneca. AZ have built a large lab at the CBC and really just need the Cambridge South station to be built in order to get people to work. They are already committed to the area. The question for AZ and any of these businesses or potential investors is this. What more would you commit to invest in the area if EWR was built? So far, I have seen zero evidence of this linkage. Does infrastructure of marginal use attract investment? Even if it does, would we not be better finding some really useful infrastructure to build?
Which brings us back to the fundamental point. If EWR does not attract many passengers, why will it attract investment to the region?
Intercity vs Local Commute
EWR Co. have said themselves that most of the market for their railway will be from people commuting to the nearest city. That’s why we see local politicians trying to solve that problem with busses and local light rail schemes. They at least have an idea of the problem that needs to be solved. But even though EWR Co. call their railway a commuter line, it’s actually a fast, inter-city link but without any large cities on the route.
The Department for Transport recently responded to a freedom of information request and gave some new capital cost information for the currently favoured route into Cambridge (Amazing, I know). Aside from inflation increases there is a new line item of £499.6million for 4-tracking from Great Shelford into Cambridge station taking the total capital cost to just under £4.3 billion. In the previous round of costings, it seems that they assumed the Cambridge South station project would pay for that work.
Ouch. You could build a medium sized hospital for £500 million.
In response to an open letter from Cambridge Approaches, EWRCo. tackled the important issue of the economic justification for the railway. They made the following statement.
“By providing reliable, affordable and sustainable transport for people in and around Cambridge, businesses will thrive and grow, igniting an exciting ecosystem of business and academia that The Economist recently reported could contribute up to £274bn per year for the UK in gross added value. Seen in that context, the value driven by EWR is clear. More than that, it’s a catalyst for economic growth that will support the wider UK recovery.” East West Rail Co. Article in Cambridge Independent 16/8/2022
Implication – build EWR and you will get £274bn/year just from the Cambridge economy. Let’s fact check this claim.
“A study prepared by the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership in 2020 found that the region between Oxford and Cambridge contributed £111bn in gross value added to the economy every year; the government reckoned that could rise to between £191bn and £274bn a year if a programme of building created new homes and linked up towns by rail and motorway.” The Economist 20/7/2022
So the figure is actually £274bn -£111bn = £163bn for the whole area between Oxford and Cambridge inclusive, not just Cambridge. Which just happens to be the same figure as is quoted in the “Transformational” scenario of the National Infrastructure Commissions (NIC) report “Partnering for Prosperity” on the subject of the OxCam Arc.
Whoever wrote the article in The Economist clearly does not want to mention the OxCam Arc because they know that the government side-lined that project in favour of levelling up back in February 2022.
This NIC report is in turn based on work from Cambridge Econometrics which was analysed by Oxford Professor David Rogers as shown:
The part of the £163bn GVA attributable to transport and agglomeration is only 9.2% of the total. EWR Co. need to tell us what tiny fraction of that they think EWR will contribute – if the OxCam Arc Transformational scenario were adopted and they can entice a significant number of people to actually use their EWR.
EWRCo.’s article is probably overstating the benefit of building the railway by at least two orders of magnitude. Even that assumes that the OxCam Arc transformational scenario is actually built.
The same article from EWRCo. goes on, implicitly accepting that car owners may prefer not to use their EWR. “More broadly, there are a variety of reasons why owning a car is not an option for many people. Perhaps the purchase, maintenance and running costs of a car are just too much, their homes do not have access to parking, they have physical limitations which don’t allow them to drive, or they are prioritising sustainability for themselves and their families.”
One question – how many of these highly-paid transformational scenario biotech workers are not going to be able to afford to run a car?
If you are reading this from EWRCo. and you can understand the issues pointed out, then I suggest you need to submit a correction to the Cambridge Independent or risk losing credibility.
The previous version of this saga was provided in this post back in February 2022. Here is an update.
During the EWRCo. 2021 consultation, we wanted to understand the fundamentals of how EWRCo. had arrived at their proposed approach to Cambridge. If an approach that required a Great Wall to be built through our villages, severing communities etc. was the best option, then so be it, at least we would understand why that was so. We have the same issues with the business case, but the FOIs for that are another story.
Previous experience with freedom of information requests indicated that we needed the request to be carefully written as any mistake might be used by EWR Co.’s legal team as a reason not to release the information. The Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations contain many exceptions and no doubt for good reasons. We had also noted that EWRCo. tended to refuse requests that other public bodies had accepted. This was in cases where people had asked EWRCo. and another public body for the same information.
We engaged our lawyers at Leigh Day to write a limited FOI request for the most important information. Separately we sent a less formal letter asking for information that did not fit the criteria for the Leigh Day letter. Leigh Day were asking for information already referred to in the 2021 consultation, but not provided. As always EWRCo. waited the full 20 working days before responding to Leigh Day. They then threw the book at us. They went through all the requests CA had made and bundled that with the Leigh Day Letter. They worked out exactly how many hours they had spent responding to our requests. We would view that as time spent providing information that should have been available in the first place. Noting the association between CA and local parish councils, they even went through parish council minutes looking for statements they felt were unreasonable.
In their lengthy refusal letter, the request was labelled “manifestly unreasonable” and “vexatious”. We were a bit surprised, since all we were doing was asking for information that they must have had to support their 2021 consultation and preferred approach to Cambridge. They also accused us of deliberately timing the letter to land when they were busy with the consultation.
Maybe they were a bit stressed. Maybe their supporting information was not all that it should have been. After all who worries about documents that are never going to be published.
We then asked Leigh Day to write an appeal letter for an internal review, explaining in legal terms why the request should be answered including case law supporting that (especially the Dransfield case on vexatious requests).
To their credit EWR asked another senior member of staff to look at the case, he was an Engineer rather than a lawyer. In any event when the pressure of the consultation was over and they had time to look again at our request … they decided to stick with the decision not to disclose and for the same reasons as before. It was still in their view manifestly unreasonable and vexatious.
At this point we decided to refer the matter to the information commissioner’s office (ICO) along with another letter from Leigh Day explaining legally why the request should have been accepted. The ICO accepted that there was a case to answer but did not have anyone available to properly look at it.
Update since February 2022
Time passed and we published a post on this blog setting out the information we had requested and our experience up to that point in getting it. As a result of that, local MP Anthony Browne took up the case and wrote words to the effect that whatever issues EWRCo. had with Cambridge Approaches, he would like to see the answer to those questions.
EWRCo. refused that request as well on the grounds that the matter was now with the ICO. Clearly, it’s not about who asks for the information or when.
I note that the recent Lib Dem Statement on EWR, read out at the last SCDC meeting and kindly copied to us by Cllr Bridget Smith, contains the following paragraph.
“EWR is a Government scheme being delivered by a private company resulting in poor accountability and little transparency. It has been an enormous frustration that government has kept residents completely in dark for years now about their intentions. This is a pitiful way of delivering a major piece of public transport infrastructure.”
It seems that locally at least, there is some crossparty agreement on EWRCo.’s lack of transparency.
Months later and about a year after the original FOI request, the ICO looked at the case. They started by asking us if we still wanted the information. We did. They also asked EWRCo. if they would now provide it. They would not.
Time passed and eventually the Information Commissioner ruled that EWRCo. could not use the argument that the request was vexatious etc and they should respond again within a certain number of days without using that exemption.
We waited, were EWRCo., actually going to supply the information?
Well, the latest news is that EWRCo. have appealed the Information Commissioner’s decision, so the saga continues and we will provide evidence to the tribunal next month.