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.
*substantially the same letter also sent to other local political signatories of the letter to Rishi Sunak attached to the end of this post.
Dear Ms Smith
I have recently read the letters you have signed to Grant Shapps and to Rishi Sunak requesting funding of the East West Railway in full. I expect they will be interpreted as on behalf of the district. I guess your reason for doing so was a belief that EWR will be a good thing.
Everyone collects facts that fit their beliefs (confirmation bias). Since we have opposite views on East West Rail I thought you might be interested in some of the reasons why I think it should not go ahead.
ORR UK Rail Finances
These one page Office of Road and Rail reports summarise the finances for the whole rail network every financial year. Financial year 19-20 was pre-pandemic and showed spending of £20.1 billion funded by £11.6 billion from passenger fares, £6.5 billion from the taxpayer and everything else (which includes freight access fees) £2.0 billion. The following year passenger fares collapsed and the taxpayer filled the gap with a £16.9 billion subsidy.
It’s clear from this that the average railway loses money, however, the EWR is not an average railway. There are no large cities along its route which means lower than average passenger numbers. Compare Cambridge to London with Cambridge to Oxford: a similar distance but London will get much more traffic.
Competition with Road
The EWR is also quite a short railway. Trains go faster than cars and railways therefore become more competitive over longer distances. Network Rail’s analysis of the East West Railway demonstrates that it will struggle to compete with road even with no allowance for the first and last mile. I have summarized their numbers here. EWR will not facilitate longer rail journeys because of the interchange time penalties. For example, Norwich to Cardiff rail journeys will continue to go via London, passengers will not change at Cambridge and Oxford. I will not drive to Cambourne get the EWR to Cambridge and then get a London train. I will just drive to Royston.
Car ownership in 2020 in the East of England region stood at 1.36 cars per household and had risen over then previous 10 years. I suspect it is higher around Cambridge. Empirically, many of these cars sit in front of the house during the week and people work from home. Rail is also competing with Zoom.
Once the Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet A428 improvement scheme is completed using Network Rail and National Highway figures for journey times between Bedford and Cambridge, it will only be two minutes faster by EWR than peak road. This means that people that can afford to live within 1-2 minutes of Cambridge station will see a small benefit if they happen to want to go to Bedford station. Most real Cambridge to Bedford journeys will remain quicker by car even in peak times. EWRCo. cherry pick longer peak road journey times, but overall EWR has little or no advantage over road for the overwhelming majority of East West journey pairs.
Climate Change Impact
Diesel powered trains emit about 5 times less CO2 per passenger or freight kilometre than cars and lorries. Rail electrification would remove the last 20%. However, this is a 100-year railway and cars are rapidly decarbonising. I have an electric car and charge it from electricity that the supplier already assures me is from renewable sources. EWR Co. can find ways to make their railway zero carbon operationally as well.
The climate change comparison is more about CO2 from construction rather than operation. Carbon neutral electric vehicles are already being produced for example by Volkswagen.
The carbon emissions from the construction of the East West Railway will be substantial. Much of the estimated cost is from the embankments and concrete viaducts. Some local civil engineers estimate that the section between Cambourne North and Hauxton Junction would require 866,000 lorry movements to construct.
The railway makes more sense as set out in “Partnering for Prosperity”, if indeed there were four development corporations between Cambridge and Bedford, the new towns built on green field sites could be designed for easy access to the EWR station. But think about the CO2 emissions from the construction of these new towns and the loss of prime agricultural land.
The marginal cost of my Electric Vehicle is 7 pence per mile. This compares with peak rail fares on the busy Thameslink line of 55 pence per mile, plus £12.50 to park my car at Cambridge Station. Since I already have a car for other reasons, it would not make financial sense to use the EWR. EWR fares should be higher than Thameslink reflecting the higher costs and lower number of passengers.
A recent article in the New Civil Engineer was based on an interview with the construction director at the rail construction company Ferrovial. Ferrovial have worked on HS2 and similar high-speed rail projects in Europe. They reported that average achieved construction cost across 15 high speed rail projects in Europe was £34million per km. HS2 was estimated to be £100 million per km, but they actually achieved £200 million per km. Yes, six times as much.
In today’s prices the estimated cost of the Bedford to Cambridge section of the EWR is £87million per km. One suspects the achieved cost will be higher. For reference, Google tells me UK motorways are around £30million per km in 2011 prices so maybe nearer £40million today.
Most UK railways were built long ago, a proper accounting of the business case for EWR must allow for the construction cost.
East West Rail and Levelling Up
The OxCam Arc was pushed aside by the levelling up White Paper in February. It is hard to argue that connecting Oxford to Cambridge achieves levelling up. A trickle-down effect e.g. through Astra Zeneca is a familiar type of argument for this along with Cambridge exceptionalism to foreign investors. These are the sort of arguments that have led to the need for levelling up in the first place. See, for example, Bob Kerslake’s report from the 2070 commission
The letter you signed to Rishi Sunak talks about the connection to the East Coast Mainline at St. Neots and how this will somehow level up the North East of England. Network Rail’s EWML Strategic Statement talks about this ECML connection on p.59
“It is unlikely that ECML fast-line services could call at any new station without unacceptable detriment to journey times or capacity.”
They don’t want to compromise the ECML advantage over road.
Value for Money
I care about value for money from public spending on EWR and so did the 2019 Lib Dem Manifesto.
The real issue is whether unqualified support for EWR will lead to the best use of public money at the moment. This morning, Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis was predicting that a 65% increase in home fuel bills will land around the time that the new Prime Minister arrives on Sept 5th – this would make the home fuel bill alone around one third of the state pension. The Bank of England are talking about more rate rises which will lead to higher mortgages rates. Fuel prices are rising. The NHS needs more money.
I can see a benefit for East West Rail to the following people
– Commuters to the Biomedical Campus from Bedford and St. Neots – how many will there be that really come in from that direction? We need to know.
– People who can afford to live within a minute or two of Cambridge station
– Property developers/Investors from land value increase
On the other hand, all taxpayers are invited to pay for it. There are infrastructure projects all over the UK, so if we apportion the say £7.5 billion total cost over the current population between Bedford and Cambridge that might generously be 500,000 households. The cost per household would then be £15,000 for something which the vast majority of them would rarely if ever use.
If you sign more letters on behalf of the district demanding full funding of EWR you are not doing so in my name.
Grant Shapps was interviewed on LBC on the 11th July 2022. Here is a transcript of the dialogue.
Iain Dale: “What would you cut from your transport budget?”
Grant Shapps: “I would take East West Rail and I would remove..”
Iain Dale: “Why haven’t you done it already?”
Grant Shapps: “Well, I haven’t had the opportunity”
Iain Dale: “You are the Transport Secretary you could have easily done it already, you could have gone to Rishi Sunak and said I know you want to cut spending here’s one way you could do that.”
Grant Shapps: “I have done that in other ways, but you have just asked what I would do as Prime Minister and I am telling you. I would cut East West Rail on what’s called two and three so there’s the second and third tranches of it and save 3 to 5 million pounds straight away.”
Grant Shapps pulled out of the PM leadership race the following day, but his intention is now clear. We are left with the question what is keeping the EWR Construction Stage two and three proposals afloat?
Yes, he meant billion not million. Yes, it must be tough on the staff at EWR Co. to hear their main sponsor saying this. It’s also tough on the thousands of residents blighted by this railway year after year with no end in sight and no meaningful changes or answers from EWR Co. in response to our many objections and questions. It’s also really tough on the taxpayers if they have to fund a project without a decent business case.
How long can this bizarre limbo continue? EWR Co. is full steam ahead on the ground and the transport secretary wants to cancel construction stages 2 and 3.
Meanwhile, after the EWR Co. Cambridge drop-in their spokesperson Hannah Staunton was interviewed on Look East on the 29th June. Here is a transcript of that one.
Look East: “Post pandemic, does the business case still stack up?”
Hannah Staunton: “Absolutely, so we know that, I think the latest research is saying that the current rail use levels are 90% of what they were before the pandemic and the need case for good, decent east west public transport in this area has always been incredibly strong. I don’t really see the case weakening for East West Rail if anything it’s sort of getting stronger.”
Did the business case for EWR always stack up before the pandemic? (If so, why was the Varsity Line cut in the 60s?) Why is she talking about a need case, when the question was about the business case? There are plenty of need cases for many things which don’t have a business case.
Pre-pandemic, UK railways needed an annual subsidy of £6.5 billion. The EWR has no big cities along the route and interchange times will make it less attractive for London commuters and long-distance routes. Even with today’s high rail fares, it will need a larger than average subsidy. Furthermore, with no level crossings allowed, the construction costs are ludicrously high[i], not to mention the huge environmental and human impact, the latter already being felt.
The lack of effective co-ordination with other local transport and housing schemes mean first and last mile penalties will reduce the number of passengers especially over shorter journeys and that is exactly where the most demand might be.
If the EWR needs a subsidy, who benefits? Investors, landowners and property developers selling land around new stations at hope value? Subsidising the fares of superstar biotech workers off to meetings in Oxford? Subsidising weekends away for people that can afford to live in central Cambridge? If it’s about commuting to the science parks around Cambridge there are much cheaper and more flexible local transport schemes for that. Just about anything is cheaper than EWR.
If the local property developers and other companies that signed the 22nd June letter to Grant Shapps demanding that the EWR be funded in full believe there is a good case for the railway, why don’t they fund it in full? Just £200 million from each signatory would do it and think of the return on investment.
At a time when people are choosing between eating and heating, the time for EWR Co. telling us is over, they need to show us the business case. Publish a well-substantiated positive, business case or cancel it and reduce this unnecessary and seemingly never-ending blight on the area.
[i] Ferrovial’s UK construction director was interviewed by the New Civil Engineer, for their 12th July 2022 edition. He stated that HS2 was estimated to cost £100 million per km and will actually cost £200 million per km, the average achieved cost of similar projects in Europe is £32 million per km. Ferrovial have been involved in both. It’s 50km from Bedford to Cambridge, the EWRCo. Jan 2020 Option report estimated a capital cost of £3.2 billion in 2010 money. Allowing for inflation since then of 36% that would be £4.3billion today leading to an estimate of £87million per km. Similar to the HS2 estimate.
Whether enough people will use the EWR to justify the business case depends crucially on how it competes with road. In my last post I presented some empirical data on the Bedford to Cambridge journey pair. This post is a copy of a recent letter to the Department for Transport which considers more journey pairs between Cambridge and Oxford.
The Rail Minister has held meetings with various local MPs recently and tells them that a review of the business case for the railway is currently in progress with a view to publishing a decision about whether to proceed in June. So I thought it was a good time to share this analysis of the recent Network Rail Report with the DfT’s EWR Team.
The analysis brings together some issues we have been raising with EWR Co. for a long time now – in particular the lack of integration with local plans and local transport schemes. These were issues we presented to the previous Rail Minister Chris Heaton Harris in Feb 2021. They are fundamental to the business case – or should be.
Here is the letter.
To: The East West Rail Team at the Department for Transport.
Dear EWR Team,
I understand from my MP’s office (Anthony Browne, South Cambridgeshire) that you are currently working on a recommendation to the rail minister and others about whether the central section of the EWR should go ahead. In the spirit of helping you reach the right answer and having spent the last couple of years off and on looking at this issue from a local perspective, I want to share some of the challenges that I see any case for the railway needs to address. Apologies if some of this material is already familiar to you.
On average, railways in the UK are loss making[i]. The EWR does not have any major cities along its route and the transport gravity model[ii] therefore predicts that traffic demand will be much lower than say between Cambridge and London. Can you really show that the EWR will not require a subsidy? Economists tell us subsidies destroy jobs by reducing market efficiency.
The generalised journey time for origin/destination pairs along the line have recently been published by Network Rail[iii]. They conclude that journeys beyond Oxford and Cambridge are not competitive with road due the interchange times at Oxford and Cambridge. For journey pairs between Oxford and Cambridge the table below shows the network rail data in minutes. I have repeated the data allowing for the peak 10-minute improvement expected from the Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet A428 work[iv] and repeated them again for illustration assuming a 30-minute allowance for first and last mile on the EWR time.
add BC to CG
add 30mins 1st& last. mile
The Oxford to Bedford benefit remains positive, but National Highways are actively looking at further improvements to the road network between Oxford and Cambridge. Note also that the expensive section between Bedford and Cambridge only has a benefit of 2 minutes in the second section of the table. I recently verified the peak road figure by driving the route at peak time[v].
The time benefit over road can also be viewed as a pair of circles around the origin and destination stations. The question is, will there be enough people living and working inside those circles to justify the railway? With the demise of the Spatial Framework for the OxCam Arc and the million new houses, it now becomes much harder to show that there will be enough people in these rather small circles. Existing housing and local transport patterns by car do not currently support the proposed EWR stations. For example, Cambridge station is slow to get to and the car park (£12.50/day) filled up before 9am pre-Covid. Cambridge south is a destination only station with no car park, attempts to push through a park and ride solution for Cambridge South at Foxton and Hauxton have so far foundered, the view being that the Biomedical Campus needs to provide its own parking rather than dump the problem on neighbouring villages. In any event, park and ride is not a quick solution for the first or last mile for the EWR. There are only 12,000 people in Cambourne the EWR is an expensive way to improve their commute into Cambridge – £417K each!
Looking at ORR’s UK Rail Finances, it seems very unlikely that freight will produce enough revenue to move the needle on the business case for this railway.
Aside from making the new railway very intrusive on the landscape, the ORR no new level crossings policy makes the railway expensive to build and a lot of CO2 will be emitted during its construction. For example, between Cambourne and Hauxton junction we estimate that 866,000 lorry movements would be required to construct the engineering works as specified in the 2021 consultation.
If the capital cost of the railway is to be offset using levies from the construction of new housing, where will these houses be? There is nothing significant in the local plans around Cambridge, Cambridge south or Bedford Midland Road. There are 1950 houses in the local plan around Cambourne that would move if the railway were constructed, but they would also be built if the Cambourne to Cambridge busway were constructed instead – or some similar (cheaper) local transport scheme. If you had a 5% levy on houses selling for an average of £250K and you need to raise £5Billion, then 400,000 houses would be required. That’s a city the size of Leeds.
If these houses are to be constructed in addition to the local plan, they are likely to be on green field sites, such as around the proposed new EWR station at Tempsford. The carbon budget for the railway should include the construction of these houses which are intended to trigger migration into the area and relieve pressure on London rather than solve existing local shortages[vi].
Over the next 10 years, cars will become increasingly electric, powered from a green electricity grid. They will also become autonomous, initially on highways. These trends will continue to erode the benefits of rail over road for passengers.
Given that the public transport along the route of the EWR is not well developed, passengers of the EWR will often have their own cars. They will therefore naturally compare the marginal cost of using their electric car (around 6 pence per mile), with the cost of the railway – looking at Thameslink peak ticket prices this is around 55 pence per mile. Even if the EWR were competitive on travel time then it would not be cost competitive for many.
It’s quite easy to make a case for the railway at a political debating point level. However, the following statements are not justifications
The government strongly supports it.
Railways are green compared with road
It will create jobs
We want it.
We have been talking about it since 1995
We will sponsor apprentices
As they said at my business school. “Don’t tell me, show me.” If this project is to continue the thousands of us currently living under the blight of these plans would really appreciate being shown, in quantitative terms, why this railway makes sense. We now need proof. People will be much more accepting of the project if they are really convinced that it is a good idea. If you can’t prove the case, for goodness sake say so rather than let this drag on.
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.
 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).
In it they compared the journey times from two sizeable cities on the line: Milton Keynes and Bedford; to a variety of other locations in a band from East Anglia to Cardiff and Southampton
a) by rail currently (mainly via London)
b) by rail after the Oxford to Cambridge railway has been completed (Configuration State 3)
c) by car at peak time.
They use a concept called Generalised Journey Time (GJT) which allows time for changing trains and the average time to wait for the next train. GJT does not allow any time for getting to and from the station or sorting out a place to park the car and to get a bus/taxi etc at the far end. That’s fine if you happen to live near a station and want to go somewhere else that happens to be near one. This is far from being always the case and I would estimate that on the average we should add around at least 15 minutes at each end for this. Travelling by car is a really tough competitor to rail as the data shows, especially in towns where local transport is not up to London standards – and that’s most of them.
The bar charts show the GJT after the EWR has been built from Oxford to Cambridge (blue); the reduction in GJT from before the EWR was built(orange); the transit time by car in peak times (grey) taken from Google maps and the difference (yellow). A negative difference means that the EWR is quicker than going by car, but as previously stated this takes no account of the time to get to the stations at each end of the journey. So many of the differences are in favour of the car. Cars are really tough to beat – or looking at it another way, our towns and villages are built around the car.
Network Rail make the case that where EWR might show bigger advantages over road (and rail going via London) would be on longer trips where the speed of the railway starts to overcome the overheads to get on it in the first place. However, EWRCo.’s current proposed service schedule does not include long distance services, you have to change trains to get on the EWR and change to get off it again. In many cases, these two changes wipe out the benefit compared to going via London. Network Rail recommend provision for significant extra infrastructure at Oxford and Cambridge to facilitate these long-distance through services.
This all seems desperately fundamental to the unpublished business case for the EWR.
Incidentally, Network Rail also re-state their ambition to have 50 freight trains per day on the EWR and as we have previously remarked this has not really featured in the EWR Co. design for the route although it does loom large in my imagination.
Recently, EWR Co. seem to be heading the other way and portraying the EWR as more of a local commuter solution for example in the press release associated with the appointment of their new CEO Beth West.
“The new East West Rail line currently under construction, promises new, much needed connections for communities between Oxford and Cambridge including Bedford, Milton Keynes, Bletchley and Bicester. The line will provide reliable public transport in the area – the lack of which is holding people back from enjoying their region, restricts access to good jobs and has created bubbles of inaccessible, expensive housing.”
If it has moved from a fast Oxford to Cambridge intercity service for scientists and business people creating new break through vaccines, to a local commuter solution, why have there been no changes to the actual proposals or the requirements from the sponsor (presumably the new rail minister)? I think this is more about presentation than substance. It’s still an intercity service.
I will be talking more about the EWR business case along with Professor David Rogers talking about the OxCam Arc at this event hosted by the Stop The Arc Group on Thursday 21st April at 7.30pm on zoom. Register on Eventbrite to attend.
Julia Virdee from Chesterton Mews, Bedford appeared on BBC Look East 18th March 2022. She was standing next to her home and explained to the BBC reporter that it might be demolished by the Bedford to Cambridge section of the East West Railway (EWR CS).
She said that she didn’t really understand why they were building the railway.
There are thousands of people like Julia all the way from Bedford to Cambridge. Some have the threat of compulsory purchase and demolition, many more have the prospect of living close to huge embankments and viaducts or the destruction of one of their favourite places. They all have the prospect of years of disruption during the construction phase.
Maybe you are one of these people, in which case this post is for you.
Here at Cambridge Approaches we have been trying to understand the business case for the new Bedford to Cambridge section of the EWR since we started in the summer of 2020. It’s easier to live with the prospect of the arrival of the new railway in our communities, if we can actually understand the business case. If it’s actually about property agents, like Bidwells and their “unbelievable number of foreign investors” making profitable investments in the OxCam Arc then I am really not sure how that will help Julia. To be clear we are not against development in line with the average UK population growth, we just don’t see the need for the sort of transformational growth called for in the OxCam Arc project leading to a 50% increase on the population of the area by 2050 and this survey shows that we are not unusual. That’s what the EWR is there to support, if that’s not going to happen then the hugely expensive central section surely shouldn’t happen either.
We have tried asking EWR Co. and the Department for Transport for the business case, sending freedom of information requests, getting Cambridgeshire County Council to write on our behalf to find out the status after the no show in the autumn spending review and so far, we have not a lot to report. Essentially, they say “we are looking at it and it’s jolly complicated”. Also, that they are not ready to share anything. Reading between the lines, and speaking frankly, we think they are struggling to justify it. It’s not easy to make a marginal business case and the people working for EWR Co. must know that the jobs of people they work with may depend on it getting through.
The relentless BFARe campaigners in Bedford, hit on the idea of writing to the government via their MP, Richard Fuller. Apparently, protocol dictates that ministers have to reply to MPs. They actually got a response from the Rail Minister with new information. She was expecting to review the case for the EWR CS in May 2022 (see Figure 1). Blimey. Amazing.
So, obviously, we approached our MP Anthony Browne’s office, who said he was up for forwarding a letter asking for the business case and suggested that we ask around to see what other organisations would support it. The result was the following letter.
“To: The Rt. Hon Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Transport by email
Dear Secretary of State,
East West Rail Central Section (EWR CS) – Bedford to Cambridge Business Case
We write as a group of parish councils, councillors, environmental groups and residents of South Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Central Bedfordshire.
We are alarmed that, despite the design for this section having been worked on for several years and construction costings having been produced, at no time has EWR Co. made their business case public.
In a letter dated 2nd February 2022 the East West Rail Team confirmed that “EWR is a key project for supporting the delivery of the Government’s objectives for the Oxford Cambridge Arc.” However, the flagship Levelling Up White Paper published on the same day makes no mention of the Oxford Cambridge Arc; and indeed, specifically excludes the Oxford/Cambridge/London Golden Triangle as a search area for further investment.
In January 2020 the EWR CS benefit to cost ratio was stated at an extremely low value of 0.64. Since then, a number of factors would lead us to think that the BCR can have only worsened. There is no housing planned around EWR stations in the update to the Greater Cambridge proposed Local Plan 2021; there is no published incremental business case for freight; there is no evidence that post-pandemic inter-city passenger numbers will be anything like as before and local commuter traffic numbers and patterns are unknown; the EWR CS was not mentioned in SR21. Lastly, the electrification or “hydrogenation” of the line will add significantly to the cost.
If this project is to continue then a positive business case needs to be published. If this project is not to continue then it needs to be stopped now, lifting a planning blight that impacts many communities, thousands of people and to prevent wasting millions of pounds on current project costs.
We believe that the time has come for EWR Co. to publish a business case; and the purpose of this letter is to ask you, as Minister responsible, to direct EWR Co. to do so.
List of Supporting Organisations
Arrington Parish Council Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trusts Bedford For A Re-consultation (BFARe) Barrington Parish Council Barton Parish Council Bourn Parish Council Boxworth Parish Council Cam Bed Rail Road Action Group Cam Valley Forum Cambridge Approaches Action Group Comberton Parish Council Countryside Restoration Trust CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CPRE Bedfordshire Caldecote Parish Council Clapham Parish Council, Bedfordshire Croxton Park Croxton Parish Council Croydon Parish Council Dry Drayton Parish Council Elsworth Parish Council Fowlmere Parish Council Gamlingay Parish Council Great Shelford Parish Council Guilden Morden Parish Council Harlton Parish Council Harston Parish Council Harston Residents Association Haslingfield Village Society Haslingfield Parish Council Hatley Estates Hauxton Parish Council Litlington Parish Council Little Shelford Parish Council Kingston Parish Council Knapwell Parish Council Madingley Parish Council Melbourn Parish Council Meldreth Parish Council Newton Parish Council Oakington Transport Action Group Orwell Parish Council St. Neots Town Council Stapleford Parish Council Steeple Morden Parish Council Stop The OxCam Arc Group The Eversdens Parish Council Toft Parish Council Trumpington Residents’ Association Wimpole Parish Council Yelling Parish Council
List of Supporting Individuals
Cllr Michael Atkins, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem) Cllr Sam Davies, City Councillor, Queen Edith’s Ward (part of the South Cambs. constituency) (Independent) Cllr Peter Fane, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Lib Dem) Cllr Stephen Ferguson, Chairman Cambridgeshire County Council and Mayor of St. Neots (Independent) Kevin Hand, Ecologist, Board member and former president Cambridge Natural History Society Cllr Mark Howell, Cambridgeshire County Council (Conservative)
Cllr Sebastian Kindersley, Vice Chairman, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem) Cllr Maria King, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem) Cllr Lina Nieto, former Cambridgeshire County Council (Conservative) Sir Michael Oliver, Deputy Lieutenant of Cambs. and former Lord Mayor of the City of London Cllr Mandy Smith, Cambridgeshire County Council (Conservative) Cllr Firouz Thompson, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem) Cllr Ian Sollom, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Lib Dem) Cllr Susan Van De Ven, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem) Cllr Aiden Van De Weyer, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Lib Dem) Cllr Dr. Richard Williams, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Conservative) Cllr Nick Wright, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Conservative)”
The team of us that asked for support for the letter found the process really heartening. We are so grateful for the show of solidarity. Organisations and Councillors all over South Cambridgeshire supported it as did people further afield in St. Neots and Bedford. We have different issues about the route proposals, but all of us need to better understand why this is such a good idea. We would be surprised if the government feel they can ignore this level of support.
There is a second aspect to the letter. If EWRCo. cannot justify the project it needs to be stopped, so that the blight on the thousands of residents is removed and the EWR Co. employees can work on a better project. Given the other burning issues facing the government it would be immoral to spend public money on a project that does not have a good business case.
The Cambridge Independent covered the story of our letter in this week’s edition. They asked others for their opinions. Solid support from the MP and the suggestion that other more local transport solutions be looked at. The EWR Co. spokesperson said “Business cases for major infrastructure programmes are complex and are developed over time, consistent with the large amount of evidence gathering that is required.” In other words the same old, “we are looking at it and its jolly complicated.”
But the EWR Co. spokesperson also switched from saying that the project was part of the OxCam Arc to saying that it “is an important part of levelling up outside London”. If EWR Co.’s spokesperson thinks that the area between Bedford and Cambridge is included in the levelling up white paper, then I don’t think they have actually looked at what it says. The diagram below is taken from the white paper and might help them.
Note that the Bedford to Cambridge region has zero measures in the bottom quartile.
Our letter was forwarded by Anthony Browne’s office to the Transport Secretary on 15th March 2022. Let’s see what response he gets.
If EWR Co. (and Network Rail before them) can’t justify the business case now after working on it for so many years, then the Bedford to Cambridge section of the EWR needs to be stopped.
 Incidentally, the median salary of employees at EWRCo. In the year to March 2021 was £90,000 up 20% on the previous year. See their financial reports on companies house. (p. 72).
I am writing to you instead of Simon Blanchflower as I understand that he is retiring from his position at EWR Co.
Can you confirm that work on the central section (CS) of the East West Railway has now been suspended?
I ask because there are many people living on or near the preferred route that are now in a state of limbo, which they fear will drag on for years as dates in the planning process seem to be slipping and slipping. We need to be able to get on with our lives. Cambridgeshire County Council asked the Department for Transport a similar question after the Autumn Spending Review and as of this month have received no reply.
As you know the estimated cost of the preferred route in your words “matured” during 2019 as a result of more accurate work from Faithful and Gould. This resulted in a 3x cost increase for the preferred route area from January 2019 to January 2020. The benefit to cost ratio of the central section published in January 2020 was low and the following things have happened since:
Commitment to the EWR CS was conspicuous by its absence from the 2021 autumn spending review (SR21) which covers the next few years. In contrast, the work on the A428 was explicitly mentioned. This was flagged as a problem by the EWR ML partnership and the EEH both before and after SR21.
Significant additional work was identified in 4-tracking into Cambridge on the southern approach, together with 6-tracking and housing demolition in Bedford in the 2021 consultation document and no revised costing was published.
Considerable local opposition to the emerging preferred route has been expressed all along the route from Bedford through St. Neots to Cambridge – the petition for a proper consultation on a northern approach to Cambridge stands at over 12,000.
The wider benefits of the land value increase around new EWR CS stations due to the OxCam Arc look like they will not occur due to the shift in focus of the government to levelling up outside of London and the South East. This was confirmed by Mr. Gove on the Radio 4 Today Programme on the 10th January 2022. When asked about the much-delayed levelling up white paper, he said that the decision had been made at the time of the spending review and that the aim was to “get every part of the UK operating at the level that London and the South East currently do”. He also mentioned a preference for housing on brown field sites – hardly consistent with some of the new EWR station locations. Where does that leave the OxCam Arc upon which the yet-to-be-published EWR CS business case apparently depends? I note that the leader of the OxCam Arc team in Whitehall, Kris Krasnowski was redeployed to the Scottish Office in July 2021.
Local housing plans such as the one in Greater Cambridge have taken no account of the EWR CS station locations.
Passenger rail numbers continue to be depressed and there are continued signs of a permanent shift in behaviour after the pandemic to more home working. There are press reports of plans to lay off rail staff in their thousands.
No one has demonstrated that freight traffic on the central section will move the needle on the business case for the CS. However, freight, especially on elevated track continues to cause great anxiety for people living near the emerging preferred route, both near the proposed great embankments and viaducts and in the city and town centres. The emerging preferred route is really not great for freight.
Perhaps at the insistence of past members of central government, EWR Co. continue to emphasize the importance of rapid transit from Oxford to Cambridge even though common sense and I believe your own forecasts say that most of the passenger traffic will be local. As a result, the business case for a more local railway may be more favourable.
These considerations fuel my concern that you will not find a good business case for the central section. I look forward to your answer to my question in bold at the start of this letter.
If you want to make your voice heard about the OxCam Arc (of which EWR is a part) one thing you can do is to have a look at the 5 minute questionnaire put together by a group called StopTheArc – it asks some of the fundamental questions not in the official MHCLG consultation. They were kind enough to ask Cambridge Approaches to review it before publishing.
Still No Published Business Case
One of the things we do on this Cambridge Approaches blog is to ask questions about the business case for the central section of the EWR.
We know from EWR Co.’s Preferred Route Option Report published in January 2020 that the estimated total cost was £5.6Bn (having risen from £1.9Bn a year earlier) and, since we understand that this will be funded by the taxpayer, it’s not unreasonable for us to ask for the business case. For comparison, would the EWR Co. management team get very far in raising £5.6Bn on Dragon’s Den if, after working on their project since 2018, they still won’t share a business case with the people that they want to fund it? Put another way, they are taking us for granted.
For the record, the public line on the lack of business case from EWR Co. in response to our Freedom of Information request at the start of 2021, was that public servants need a safe space and that it is not normal for a business case to be published at this stage. People are sufficiently disturbed by the proposals so that they received 190,000 responses to the 2021 consultation, but it’s too early to publish the case for the project. Really?
This questioning of the business case was followed by Anthony Browne MP asking about the effect of COVID on travel patterns which will likely permanently reduce passenger numbers by 40% as people have learnt to work from home. EWR Co.’s recent video from EWR Co on the 23rd August 2021 talks about this problem (see 3:07 into the video) without any convincing resolution. Covid-19 will pass, but the technology that allows people to work from home is here to stay and employee expectations have now changed.
As EWR Co point out (video 2:36), the hope is that people will move into the area to live and work and set up businesses so it might be that this influx of people will to some extent counteract the others working from home. Indeed, the NIC report “Partnering for Prosperity” set out a target of 1.1 million additional jobs in the area by 2050 corresponding to about 2 million more people and 1 million more homes. We assume that the focus of this growth is intended to be along the EWR around the initial stations and any new ones that are added over the lifetime of the railway. (If not what is the point of the railway exactly?) The impact of this on existing residents will be higher than that of the railway alone.
The second EWR consultation ended in June 2021 and we still have a lot of unanswered questions. Looking at the consultation responses from bodies like the South Cambridgeshire District Council and the Cambridgeshire County Council, we were not the only ones with outstanding questions. You can read the Cambridge Approaches consultation response here and some others here.
In the Cambridgeshire County Council 2021 EWR consultation response we find the following:
Growth: The East West Rail Central Section should support growth and enable sustainable transport patterns to be realised from that growth. The detailed alignment of the Central Section should be considered alongside the consideration of appropriate locations for growth in the Ox-Cam Arc, and the appropriate scale of that growth. The strategy for station provision on the Central Section must be informed by the consideration of appropriate locations for growth.
This is an appeal for the route alignment of the EWR central section and its station locations to follow a co-ordinated housing plan.
South Cambridgeshire District Councils 2021 EWR consultation response says:
Significant further work is still needed to understand the localised impacts of the scheme, the options for mitigation, their effectiveness and implementation including the sequencing with wider strategic infrastructure and development.
Again, they are concerned that the railway is not aligned with the housing and economic plan for the area.
So, some of the outstanding questions centre on how the route relates to other plans for the area e.g. for economic growth, housing and local transport. Unfortunately for all concerned, the EWR Co. management team are not in a good place to answer these questions because they are being pushed by the Department for Transport to get the route defined in advance of key decisions by other bodies. This heightens the risk that EWR will not choose the right approach which will be to the detriment of its business case, local residents and potential users of the service.
Train Wreck in St. Neots
EWR Co.‘s Simon Blanchflower post consultation press release celebrated the scale of response:
The number of responses we’ve received, the breadth of information and level of detail they contain demonstrates the value of consulting with local people at an early stage, and the huge level of public interest in East West Rail.
But a strong response should not be taken as meaning respondents are in favour of what is being proposed.
We are surprised that EWR has aligned its preferred routes in close proximity to one of the largest housing developments in the East of England. None of the five corridors considered in the first phase of the consultation included this land, and the late inclusion has come as a shock to residents, housing developers and St Neots Town Council.
St Neots Town Council is opposed to the construction of these viaducts and asks EWR to urgently reconsider plans to align these routes with the eastern edge of our town.
EWR are proposing 12m high viaducts through St. Neots East reminiscent of the Great Wall they have proposed between Cambourne and Hauxton. There is also no station at St. Neots, maybe that is because of the Tempsford development, but since we don’t even have a vision for the OxCam Arc Spatial framework who knows? More to the point how do EWR Co. know?
Greater Cambridge Shared Planning (GCSP) Local Plan
On the 31st August 2021 an update to the local plan was published. It is currently under consideration by councillors and will not open to public consultation until later in the year (November?). The updated plan will run to 2041 (previously it ran from 2011-2031).
Figure 1 shows an overview map of the developments proposed.
Note that no new housing development is proposed around Cambridge South Station, despite this being one of the repeated justifications for the southern approach to Cambridge for the EWR. This diminishes both the justification for the EWR southern approach route and the business case for the central section of the railway. In contrast, significant new development around the northern route proposed by CBRR is confirmed and developments in Northstowe and Waterbeach are to be accelerated together with new brown field developments to the north and east of Cambridge.
The Mythical Houses Around Cambridge South Station
The myth of significant housing growth around Cambridge South Station has been discussed in a recent letter from a local resident to local District Councillors as follows:
“…the county council’s 2019 response to EWR Co (repeated in the third bullet of paragraph 2.3 of the covering note to the draft response) said ” The ability of EWR services to … provide for the very significant planned economic and housing growth in the south of the city including at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus”. This was an odd statement in 2019, given that the county council is not the planning authority, and it was, at the time, not evident from the Local Plan what housing development the county council had in mind in saying this. It appears even odder now, given the variety of housing development options under consideration by Greater Cambridge Shared Planning (“GCSP”) – see their November 2020 development strategy options assessments and the emergence of the North East Cambridge Action Plan.
In 2019, the constituent authorities of what is now GCSP made clear a new local plan was coming and that they would be looking at all reasonable development strategies and SCDC at least has repeated this point in its response to this consultation. Notwithstanding this, what the county council said in 2019 appears to be understood as fact not just by EWR Co, but also by EWR Consortium.
Among the papers for the EWR Consortium 9 June meeting (not, in fact, discussed) is this one under the heading “realising the potential of EWR” which says (emphasis added):
Cambridge South: Cambridge South [station] will be located near to Addenbrooke’s Hospital and Cambridge Biomedical Campus – key employersand site for new homes in the south of Cambridge.Planned to open in 2025, the station will be on the Cambridge line and West Anglia Main Line, and should also sit on the East West Main Line once it opens a few years later.”
It goes on to say that “The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is working on the Outline Business Case…”. It is not entirely clear what this outline business case is for and could be a historic priority of the former Mayor because the next paragraph of the document mentions the CAM.
It is possible that all these statements can be traced back to what the county council said in its 2019 response which may have served to lead others to believe that there were likely developments in the south of Cambridge. It seems important for both EWR Co and EWR Consortium to understand the true position and the county council should take responsibility for doing this.”
Now would be a good time for EWR Co and EWR Consortium to review the evidence for the southern approach and the whole business case in the light of this new local plan since the local authorities are planning no new houses around either EWR station on the southern approach in Cambridgeshire all the way out to 2041. Do MHCLG people know better that the local experts about how best to develop Cambridge?
Conflicting Plans at Highfields Caldecote
One of the consequences of the EWR route being fixed in advance of related housing plans are conflicts emerging when the housing plans do come out. The detailed costing information that came out with the last consultation indicates that the preferred route had been established in outline all the way back in mid-2019. Such conflicts can no doubt be resolved by adjustments to the railway route or knocking down houses, but they are also symptomatic of the lack of co-ordination between EWR Co. and the other planning authorities.
Here is another example of the issue. EWR Co’s preferred route goes through a station north of Cambourne and crosses the A428 with a long, skewed bridge just north of Highfields Caldecote (see blue route in Figure 2).
However, the updated local plan has housing across the proposed route of the railway (See Figure 3).
Rate of Housing growth
The GCSP planners are estimating that to meet the demands of the local economy (i.e. the number of new jobs they foresee over the period) we need to add 1,771 houses per year over the next 20 years leading to a total of 48,794 houses from 2011 to 2041. This is a lot less than the 271,000 houses in the National Infrastructure Commission report (NIC Report) for this end of the EWR central section up to 2050.
It has been acknowledged that the case for the EWR central section depends on housing growth. For example, this is stated in the recent EWR video referred to earlier. In fact, it depends on the transformational housing growth put forward by the NIC report. However, if this level of growth is not going to come from the local plan where could it come from?
OxCam Arc Consultation
The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) recently launched a consultation to help them shape the vision for the OxCam Arc. In section 5.8 of this document there is a rather hard-hitting paragraph:
“5.8 In parallel to the development of the Spatial Framework, the government is also exploring options to speed up new housing and infrastructure development in the Arc to help meet its ambitions, where evidence supports it. This includes examining (and where appropriate, developing) the case for new and/or expanded settlements in the Arc, including options informed by possible East West Rail stations between Bedford and Cambridge and growth options at Cambridge itself. The government will undertake additional Arc consultations on any specific proposals for such options as appropriate. The Spatial Framework will guide the future growth of the Arc to 2050, including on the question of new housing and infrastructure and will, as part of its development, take into consideration any significant new housing and infrastructure coming forward to meet the Arc’s ambition.”
They are reserving the right to add housing developments around EWR stations including at Cambridge itself. One assumes that, coming from central government, they would not be small developments. As pointed out by the county council it would be better for the transport infrastructure to fit around the housing plan rather than vice versa. Similar problems occur with the sites for schools and hospitals if the funding and hence the location is controlled by central government.
The housing plan proposed by GCSP considers environmental aspects by choosing dense developments often on brown field sites close in to Cambridge itself. If instead the plan is to be driven by the siting of EWR stations then these benefits will be lost.
I was looking at the flow of water in the Cam this morning on Stourbridge Common near to Cambridge North Station. Viewed from a footbridge, there were various pieces of vegetation and sticks on the surface, but none of them were moving at all. A recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth explains why this is happening. The chalk aquifers that feed the rivers having accumulated water over a very long time are now running dry because so much water has been abstracted by the water companies to serve new houses. There is also a waste water capacity problem which leads to overflow events into the rivers. Plans to fix these problems are being studied, but are not expected to be in operation until the 2030s.
GCSP commissioned a study from Stantec on the Water Supply in late 2020 which states:
For water supply, over-abstraction of the Chalk aquifer is having a detrimental impact on environmental conditions, particularly during dry years that may become more frequent due to the impacts of climate change. None of the growth scenarios considered here offer the opportunity to mitigate these existing detrimental impacts. Even without any growth, significant environmental improvements are unlikely to be achievable until major new water supply infrastructure is operational, which is unlikely to occur before the mid-2030s. Therefore, this analysis has focussed on a “no additional detriment” neutral position. To prevent any increase in abstraction and its associated detrimental environmental impacts, mitigation measures will be necessary. All stakeholders agree this should include ambitious targets for water efficiency in new development.
If there is already a problem that won’t be fixed for 15 years why are we planning to accelerate growth in the area now?
There are also significant problems with waste water and flood risk downstream in The Fens. The campaign group Friends of the Cam has a lot more on these issues.
In summary, the business case for the EWR central section depends on the housing growth around stations. In South Cambridgeshire the updated local plan to 2041 has accelerated housing growth in Northstowe and Waterbeach new town while Cambourne, Eddington, North East Cambridge and East Cambridge have new developments. This is not at all consistent with EWR Co.s preferred route into Cambridge south.
The level of housing growth has been objectively assessed by the planning officers to meet the needs of the area although it is not clear how the water infrastructure will cope with any more growth. It is also not clear how anyone would objectively assess housing needs – it really depends what assumptions are made. Do we want this to be a high growth area if so why? Are we trying provide more homes for London commuters? Are we trying to encourage migration into the area from other parts of the UK and abroad? Which parts of the economy are we trying to stimulate? For more in depth discussion of why the OxCam Arc is not a good idea see this article. If you would like a say try filling in this 5 minute survey.
Will MHCLG add further housing via development corporations as indicated in their consultation? Well, speaking to Eversden Parish Council recently, Bridget Smith (Leader of South Cambs. District Council) reported the housing Minister, Chris Pincher as saying that there would not be houses in addition to those that the local authorities are planning for. It would be nice to see this in writing.
We conclude that either:
(A)There is no business case for the EWR extending to Cambridge on the southern approach because it will not enable much housing growth OR
(B) Central Government need to push through large housing developments around the proposed route of EWR over and above the needs of the local economy to service additional fast economic growth in the OxCam Arc not recognised by the local planners and to serve more London commuters.
Option A is a waste of public money, option B looks like being even less popular than the railway itself and does nothing for those parts of the county that need levelling up investment.
OxCam Arc Consultations
Given the above situation, one might expect that an MHCLG consultation about the OxCam Arc vision might set out some indicative scale of development around EWR stations. It is instead phrased around prioritising various features of the plan without really setting out the core proposition. See this brief BBC South News report for some detail on the controversy around this consultation. Perhaps MHCLG are taking it a step as a time, but they are so far behind EWR Co. that their spatial framework may not be able to influence the route of EWR. MHCLG’s consultation suggests development is to be set around EWR stations no matter how poor those sites are in planning terms.
We encourage you to respond to the MHCLG consultation by October 12th. The Stop The Arc Group have some great ideas about what you might like to say here, but please also use this post to relate your response to the EWR Central Section.
The Stop The Arc Group have produced a 5 minute survey about the OxCam Arc which asks people some of the more fundamental questions about the Arc. Cambridge Approaches had some minor involvement in the development of the survey and support it.
You may have noticed the press coverage on 23rd January 2021 about the East West MainLine (“EWML”) based on this press release from the Department for Transport (DfT). It’s about funding to complete the renovation of the old line from Bicester to Bletchley in the Western Section of the East West MainLine. You can hear Grant Shapps’ short You Tube video about it here. It clearly does not relate to the substantially new Central Section between Bedford and Cambridge.
The funding commitment for Bicester to Bletchley was announcedin the Chancellor’s Autumn 2020 Spending Review (see page 38). The new information on the 23rd January 2021 is just the actual amount to be spent.
So why is the DfT recycling old news?
The announcement comes at the end this week’s Spotlight East West Main Line 2021 conference which also was set up to promote EWML. The presentations are still available online. So, the DfT press release is clearly part of the choreography.
There were conference presentations on Monday from England’s Economic Heartland and Transport East. When the conference moderator asked them what they saw as the main hurdle for the EWML, they both replied that it was securing funding from HM Treasury. In fact, it emerged that this was one of the main reasons for the conference’s promotion of the EWML scheme this week.
Later in the week, the Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris very honestly explained some of the hurdles that he faced in getting more funding from HM Treasury. He said that “49% of DfT funding went toward 2% of the journeys – and that’s rail”. He also said that currently “the Treasury has many calls on its shallow pockets”.
Readers of this blog will know that we are also concerned that the taxpayer really gets value for money from the EWML. This is not unconditional opposition to the scheme, but just a demand that EWR Co. really demonstrates the business case for it and shows that they have optimised the route around the constraints produced by that business case. For example, if it supports freight, then we need to consider the impact on communities, if it’s about commuting to the nearest city, make sure this is maximized, if it’s about the fastest end-to-end transit, draw a straight line from Oxford to Cambridge.
If you divide the total cost of the Central Section by the population between Bedford and Cambridge in 2019 prices it comes out at around £9,000 per household. We are all big stakeholders in this. So, how is the business case looking for the Central Section?
It emerged in the conference that the EWR Consortium do not have a published business case for the EWML. Perhaps EWR Co. / DfT have one?
CA have to report that we have not seen any of the following from EWR Co.:
a housing plan associated with the route
an environmental impact assessment across route options
a plan to co-ordinate with other transport schemes around Cambridge
credible explanations of Benefit to Cost Ratio calculations across options
proper analysis of a Northern Approach to Cambridge
honest impact assessment of the forecast long term 30% drop in passenger numbers post-Covid announced at the conference.
The Rail Freight Group did present interesting information at the conference to show how the freight traffic demand has already bounced back since the start of the pandemic. See Figure 1.
Of course, while this is good news for the freight industry, those poor people to trying to make a passenger rail business case are not in such a strong position.
One thing we did think was settled was that the Central Section would be freight capable. This was because of the “substantive answer” to an earlier question from CA to EWR Co.. However, it became clear that Maggie Simpson from the Rail Freight Group speaking at this week’s conference was working under that assumption that the Central Section would not support freight. Also Kerry Allen, a planner from Suffolk County Council said that freight plans were at an early stage.
Chris Heaton-Harris then “clarified” the situation by saying that it was “up for grabs” whether the Central Section would be freight capable.
As regards passenger usage, Maria Cliff, EWR Co. Head of Operations explained that they had developed “personas” for the types of rail passenger that they would serve.
Really good to see that EWR Co. are starting to get to grips with who will actuallyuse the railway, this should have been published years ago. Notice the lack of the “Rapid Roy” persona who really needs a regular 90-minute transit from Oxford to Cambridge or indeed “Freight Operator Freddie”. It does make sense that the everyday users are commuters and schoolchildren, going to their nearest city. We strongly agree about school children so many 6thformers from around the county go to school in Cambridge.We believe that with the addition of a Northstowe station, the northern approach to Cambridge is likely to serve commuters better than Option E as clearly explained by CBRR’s Sebastian Kindersley here.
There are definitely benefits from building the Central Section but, given the amounts of money involved and the uncertainties around the business case, is EWR Co.’s plan imminently to launch a consultation on detailed route alignments in the option E area really sensible? If you are not sure please signthis petition.