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
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.
*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.