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
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
Caldecote Parish Council
Clapham Parish Council, Bedfordshire
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
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.