Route Alignments

Cambridge Maps

*** Health Warning: These drawings date from early 2022 and may not represent the final proposal. ***

Having established the principle that EWRCo. should release these maps, a follow on Freedom of Information request and some encouragement from the Information Commissioner’s office has produced these additional maps. Land Information Questionaires sent by EWRCo. to many residents in the Cherry Hinton / Fulbourn area of Cambridge indicate that EWR Co. propose changes to the line to Newmarket, but so far we still have no details of those.

The earlier release between Caxton Gibbet and Great Shelford is available here. See also the maps between Clapham and Caxton Gibbet here.

Track Alignment around Cambridge South Station (.jpeg format)

Route Alignments

Clapham to Caxton Gibbet Maps

*** Health Warning: These drawings date from early 2022 and may not represent the final proposal. ***

Having established the principle that EWRCo. should release these maps, a follow on Freedom of Information request and some encouragement from the Information Commissioner’s office has produced these additional maps. The earlier release is available here. So we now have a complete set of the “core section” or new track from Bedford to Cambridge as the proposal stood in early 2022.

***It is clear that the section from Wyboston to the East Coast Mainline had changed by May 2023 *** (map 0412) to the “Tempsford Variant 1A” which runs south of the Black Cat roundabout. A map of this has also been released by EWRCo. and is included. Unfortunately, is does not include details of land required for construction and biodiversity net gain shown in the other maps and dates from November 2021.

Here are the maps.

The final map from Croxton to Caxton Gibbet connects to a map in the previous release here.

Route Alignments

EWR Construction

Heads Up Cambridge

Although following an existing route, the section of EWR from Shepreth Branch Junction (SBJ) (just north of Gt. Shelford) into Cambridge Station (CBG) is £500million project. When we first heard about that, we assumed it would be the end of the southern approach to Cambridge or indeed the straw that broke the camel’s back on CS3. However, the government’s fixation (based on flawed evidence see here and as explained further here) on connecting EWR directly to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus has been used to over ride the recommendation from EWRCo.s own technical partner Arup that the southern approach to Cambridge was really difficult. Not least in terms of how much disruption would be caused during its construction.

Costain performed a “constructibility assessment” for the southern approach to Cambridge and the results of this have been released (at the request of Great Shelford Parish Council). In releasing the information, EWRCo. added the caveat that they are still working on these and that the information provided dates from 2022. These reports (see below) show the many years of disruption coming to Cambridge residents if this project were to go ahead. It involves

  • Major remodelling of Cambridge Station
  • Re-laying all the tracks in the busiest section of the rail network – between SBJ and CBG
  • Temporary closure of Long Road Bridge
  • Whatever delightful feature it is that has caused the LIQs to be sent to Cherry Hinton remains to be revealed. (probably a freight loop)

The Core Section (Hauxton to Clapham Green)

These documents mainly concern Cambridge, but there is a document on the whole core section (the new track from Hauxton Junction to Clapham Green) which includes for example the construction depot on the ECML near Little Barford.

For a general impression of the construction of the core section in South Cambridgeshire listen to civil engineer and CA co-founder David Revell and Frank Mahon who experienced the construction of EWR in Buckinghamshire. Here is a recording of me on local TV talking about the warnings we have received from Buckinghamshire. Will we do nothing until the diggers arrive?

Route Alignments

2022 Detailed EWR Maps Again

Here are two more accessible versions of the four Arup maps we published in our previous post.

Firstly, for orientation here is a low resolution composite of all four maps together on top of the Google satellite image for the area (many thanks to our map expert Leigh for this).

Secondly, a downloadable a high resolution version of the same map which can be downloaded. It is a 207.5MB file so be patient. Apologies our web server is not up to viewing this on line. After downing the .png file you should be able to zoom in to areas of interest and go back to the maps in the previous post for the key.

The overall picture is a 500 metre wide strip of land 50km long from Hauxton south of Cambridge to Clapham north of Bedford. And then there are the new towns at Cambourne north 53,400 people (Cambourne increases in size by a factor of 6.8*) and Tempsford 44,000 people, bit of these sites will also need biodiversity net gain. The land take is colossal.

How we got the maps and what has happened since they were published.

It took 3 years and multiple legal appeals for Cambridge Approaches (and Leigh Day, and our local MP’s office) to get EWRCo. to release these maps which show the scheme in a level of detail we have not seen before – including the land take for construction and biodiversity net gain (BNG). Oxford Prof. David Rogers confirmed to me that construction land cannot be used for BNG, since that must start from day one of the construction. Consequently BNG land would be compulsory purchased along with the land for the railway. Refer to the previous post for the key to these maps.

Of course, EWRCo. will have been working on these plans since January 2022 when the versions here were completed. One naturally expects to see this level of detail in a planning application for a new house or extension in order to be able to comment on it. Why is it so difficult to get EWRCo. to do the same?

Suspension of Farm Business Interviews

In the same way as some of the thousands of affected home owners between Bedford and Cambridge were sent Land Information Questionnaires, farmers are being offered Farm Business Interviews (FBIs). These interviews (I attended one) are again to collect information but they are much more useful from the farmers’ perspective if they can see the details of the proposal – even if it is out of date. In the light of these maps, another farmer (who wishes to remain anonymous) came forward and said to EWRCo.’s agents that he would, after all, like to have an FBI. Here is the response he received from the EWRCo. representative:

“Many thanks for your e mail and no need to apologies (sic) for the delay in responding.

We are accompanied by another person for the FBI meetings, but only as there is a ‘no lone working’ policy in place at EWR. The other person in attendance is from Ardent who are undertaking the land referencing on behalf of EWR, and, being the company involved with the various surveys, can also answer any questions you may have on the surveys taking place on your land. Although we are all representatives of EWR in some form, unfortunately they will not be able to answer more general questions relating to the project.

Following the publication of the 2022 detailed scheme design plans by Cambridge Approaches, EWR have asked us to pause surveys until further notice. Following re-commencement of the meetings I will be in touch with you to arrange a meeting where we can discuss the impact of the scheme on your holding, and consider ways of mitigating this impact.

If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me.”

We then asked Ardent when the FBIs would resume and why they had been suspended and received the following answer.

“Just writing to acknowledge receipt of your below email.  I am in discussions with the relevant team at EWR and will revert back to you once I hear further.” 13th May 2024

Well I guess we are still waiting for an explanation of why EWRCo. do not want to meet people can who see (albeit out of date) information about how this scheme affects their homes and farms.

Maps in the Statutory Consultation (SC)

With part 1 of the SC due to start sometime “in the summer” we might expect that a full set of up to date construction maps will be published including the land take for construction, biodiversity net gain and a description of the likely impact of the construction project. All the sort of stuff that local residents need to understand about the project. However, at the “Community Conversation Event” held in Cambourne on the 10th May 2024 the following information was displayed.

So it’s just high level information on the environment, traffic and construction considerations. EWRCo. clearly have a lot of detailed design. How much will they actually share? Apparently not much.

*I have taken the base population of Cambourne as 9250 as in the EWR data, but and aware that the 2021 census figure is a little higher. It is assumed here that this is due to different definitions of what is included in the Cambourne population

Route Alignments

Cambourne to Great Shelford Maps

*** Health Warning: These drawings date from January 2022 and may not represent the final proposal. ***

On the 10th of May 2021 our lawyers Leigh Day sent a Freedom of Information request to EWRCo. After nearly 3 years of legal and other pressure we received some answers. One of the questions was this. “EWR is asked to provide any report or other analyses it holds which caused it to conclude that embankments and viaducts will be required between Cambourne and Hauxton Junction on the southern approach.

The response was a series of detailed plans and vertical sections as follows:

(The plans are in PDF format, they can also be downloaded as high resolution PNG images – see at the bottom of the webpage).

These plans date from January 2022 and so may be out of date. Notice the fields marked in purple which will be needed for construction work. If you don’t know what that looks like have a look at this video of EWR CS1 under construction at Calvert.

We also asked about the vertical alignment for the northern approach to Cambridge and the following section diagrams were provided.


The same first four plans can be downloaded in high resolution PNG image format below (as an alternative to PDF).

Business Case news Route Alignments

EWR Briefing and Discussion – Recordings

Thanks to everyone who attended the presentations and discussion on the 26th March 2024 we had around 180 people register for the event. For those of you that could not make it, or those who want to review the material here are the recordings.

  1. Introductions – Dr. William Harrold
  2. Brief History – Dr. Leigh Carter
  3. Business Case – Dr. William Harrold
  4. Cambridge Biomedical Campus Expansion – Annabel Sykes
  5. Construction disruption – Cllr. David Revell
  6. Discussion part 1
  7. EWR experience in Buckinghamshire – Cllr. Frank Mahon
  8. Discussion part 2

There was also a presentation from Cambridge Approaches at the Harston EWR meeting held on the 14th January 2024. Here is a recording of that.

EWR Business Case

Business Case Route Alignments

Will EWR make it quicker to get out and about across the UK?

I am grateful again to Annabel Sykes for this guest post assessing recent claims from EWRCo. as they continue to their increasingly desperate search to find a compelling use for completing EWR to Cambridge.

I read the “where would you go?” article in EWRCo’s recent “Keeping you connected” newsletter and watched the accompanying video with interest.  There is also a section on EWRCo’s website, which includes the map below, recently reproduced in the Cambridge Independent.  The website says “EWR will have intersections with the UK’s key railway routes, meaning some of the nation’s most loved destinations would be within easier reach of local communities in Oxford, Bletchley, Bedford and Cambridge – offering more options and shorter journey times.”

I feel reasonably well-qualified to comment on how much substance there is to the ease and speed of travel claims EWRCo is making from Cambridge, as I live a short walk from Shelford station on the West Anglia Main Line (WAML) and my children are (or were) at Edinburgh and Bristol universities. We all like, and regularly use, trains.

EWRCo’s current proposals and journey times along EWR

The Route Update Report (“RUR”) proposes four trains per hour to Cambridge.  Two will originate in Bedford and two in Oxford.  From information in the RUR and accompanying Economic and Technical Report (“ETR”), respective station-to-station to journey lengths are expected to be 23 minutes (between Cambridge and Tempsford), 35 minutes (between Bedford and Cambridge) and 89 minutes (between Oxford and Cambridge).  

No journey time is given between Cambridge and Bletchley in these documents, but the 2021 Economic and Technical Report suggests that it will be approximately 60 minutes.   It may now be expected to be longer than this because the RUR says “we’re also suggesting capping the line speed [on the Marston Vale Line] below the 100mph originally proposed”. 

EWRCo tends to merge Bletchley and Milton Keynes when talking about journeys, although a person travelling from Cambridge and other places east of Bletchley will need to change trains at Bletchley to reach Milton Keynes Central. The journey time between the two stations is 5 minutes, making no allowance for changing platforms or waiting for a train.  There are currently four trains per hour between Bletchley and Milton Keynes Central.  This will presumably increase to six when the proposed two EWR trains per hour between Oxford and Milton Keynes Central are running.   By contrast, EWRCo seems to regard Cambridge North station as on a different planet from Cambridge station, even though there are five trains an hour between them and the journey time is 5 minutes.  

Where can I already get to by rail from Cambridge?

Anyone who lives in or near Cambridge is already lucky, because it is a city that is very well-connected by rail.  Looking at the EWRCo map, I can already catch a direct train from Cambridge to Ipswich, Norwich, King’s Lynn, Peterborough, Birmingham and Thameslink destinations such as Gatwick Airport and Brighton.  I can reach Birmingham International (for the airport) by changing at Birmingham New Street.

Peterborough gives me access to fast trains on the East Coast Mainline (“ECML”) to Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh (and, via Edinburgh, to Glasgow).  By contrast, Network Rail indicated in its East West Rail Main Line Strategic Statement (“the Strategic Statement”) that it was unlikely that ECML fast trains would stop at any new EWR station[1].   Network Rail also looked at the rail journey between Cambridge and Peterborough in the Strategic Statement using generalised journey times[2] and concluded that using EWR would add 21 minutes to the journey time between Cambridge and Peterborough.  This is despite the fact that the Strategic Statement also says “Rail connectivity … is …circuitous to Cambridge along the East Coast Main Line branch”[3].  From the perspective of a resident of Cambridge, EWR will not change the position as regards destinations on, or beyond, the ECML.

I can also catch a direct train from Peterborough to Nottingham and Sheffield.  Despite what the map reproduced above implies, there are no direct trains from Bedford to Nottingham or Sheffield.  It seems vanishingly unlikely that it will be quicker to travel from Cambridge via Bedford to these places, rather than via Peterborough.

As regards the journey to Birmingham, my rough estimates suggest that the journey time using EWR and changing at Bletchley (and possibly again at Milton Keynes Central) will be roughly the same length or likely slower once train changes and waits are taken into account.  It is possible that the journey to Birmingham International might be slightly faster via Bletchley, but it seems unlikely to be materially faster or more convenient.

If I take a train to Ely (a journey of roughly 18 minutes with a very regular service) I can catch a direct train to each of Manchester and Liverpool.  I accept that there is no direct train from Ely to Blackpool, Oxenholme, Carlisle or Glasgow but nor is there from Bletchley – as noted above, no direct Cambridge to Milton Keynes train is planned for EWR.  In any event, there are not many direct trains to these places from Milton Keynes.  There is also no direct train to Worcester or  Hereford, but I can get one from Birmingham to which (as noted above) I can travel directly from Cambridge.   It seems unlikely that a journey via Oxford to either place will be materially more convenient or quicker.

As regards Cardiff, Bath, Exeter and Penzance, even with EWR, it appears that each of these places would require two changes from Cambridge – there is no direct train from Oxford.  I think I will stick with WAML to  London Liverpool Street (or a Thameslink train to Farringdon), a short walk to the Elizabeth Line which goes directly to Paddington and a train from Paddington.  I simply don’t believe that travelling via Oxford will be measurably faster or more convenient.   This tallies with the conclusion that Network Rail reaches in the Strategic Statement.  Using generalised journey times, it concludes that journeys from Cambridge to Bristol and Cardiff will be slower on EWR (by 8 and 59 minutes respectively)[4].  

Cambridge to Watford might be slightly quicker via Bletchley than travelling into London and out again.  However, the proposed HERT (Herts Essex Rapid Transit), linking Hemel Hempstead to Harlow (and communities in between, including Hatfield), may prove a competitive alternative when combined with a rail journey to Hatfield.  In addition, neither seems likely to be particularly competitive with a direct journey by car. 

Airport journeys

EWR makes some claims about journeys to Gatwick, Birmingham, Luton and Stansted airports.  I have considered the position as regards travelling from Cambridge to Gatwick or Birmingham airports above.

Stansted airport is on the WAML.  I live close to a WAML station and about 30 minutes’ drive from the airport.  There are two direct Cambridge to Stansted airport services per hour, which are reasonably fast (around half an hour). However, they are at roughly 10 to the hour and 10 past, so I could have a long wait if I arrived in the 40 minute interval.  Neither train calls at Shelford station and only one of them calls at  the reasonably close alternative of Whittlesford Parkway.  The journey from Shelford station itself involves a change and takes around an hour.  As a result, I don’t generally travel to or from Stansted airport by train.  Perhaps this situation will improve when Cambridge South station opens, but I still think there are too few trains between Cambridge and Stansted airport for the service to be a useful one.  May be EWRCo would like to consider a northern approach to Cambridge and carrying on through to the airport?

Luton airport is a roughly 50 minute drive from my home.  The Strategic Statement gives a generalised journey time to Luton of 110 minutes, using EWR.  First, this is likely to Luton station, rather than Luton Parkway, and secondly, it is necessary to change onto the Luton Dart to get to the airport from Parkway.  So, catching an EWR train to Luton airport will involve two changes and (estimating) have a generalised journey time of about 120 minutes.  Alternatively, I could catch a National Express coach from the Trumpington Park and Ride, with an estimated journey time of 55 minutes or I could catch a train to Hitchin (slightly over half an hour) and take that same National Express coach from the station to Luton airport (estimated journey time of 20 minutes), with the alternative of a more frequent, but slower bus leaving from the centre of Hitchin (about ten minutes’ walk from the station).

Conclusion on travel from Cambridge

EWRCo claims that EWR “will bring you closer to towns and cities across the UK by connecting with the country’s main north to south railway lines and linking into wider existing services, allowing you to easily explore the north of England and Scotland…or head west to cosy up in the Cotswolds, the West Country or Wales”.

My personal conclusion, from the parochial perspective of a Cambridge resident is that, save for stations actually on EWR, it will make very little difference to getting out and about across the UK.  Even for EWR’s stations, I personally remain to be convinced.  If I am going to Ikea in Milton Keynes or Bicester village, I am still likely to choose to go by car and not only because I won’t want to lug my purchases home on the train.  

Conclusion on travel from other EWR stations

But what about getting out and about across the UK from other EWR stations?   The Strategic Statement concludes that rail journeys from Oxford, Milton Keynes or Bedford to Peterborough using EWR will be materially faster than the alternative.  It is therefore true that a link to the ECML might well result in some journey time benefits from these stations on journeys to Edinburgh and places  between it and Peterborough.    However, as the Strategic Statement shows, a detailed exercise is needed to determine whether these benefits are more illusory than real.  For example, an Oxford resident can already travel by rail to Edinburgh with a change at Wolverhampton or Birmingham New Street. Someone living in Milton Keynes already has a direct rail link to Edinburgh.

Network Rail has already looked at this in some detail

Those making bold claims about the increased ease of getting out and about as a result of EWR would do well to read pages 30 to 37 of the Strategic Statement.  Network Rail’s generalised journey time analysis suggests that the journey time to Cardiff will be worse using EWR from all of Cambridge, Bedford and Milton Keynes (it is obviously unchanged from Oxford).  The Strategic Statement notes an improvement in journey time  between Bedford and Bristol using EWR, but a worse journey time to Bristol from Milton Keynes and Cambridge.

Network Rail’s conclusion in the Strategic Statement is “three broad generalisations can be inferred from the data [we have analysed]:

1. East West Rail services will radically improve rail connectivity within a ‘core’ geography between Oxford, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Aylesbury….,

2. East West Rail services will offer marginal or no improvement … between key locations within that ‘core’ geography and those further to the east and west [later, the Strategic Statement gives an example of a 16 minute improvement between Milton Keynes and Ipswich]

3. East West Rail services will not offer a viable alternative for longer distance journeys between the extremes of the given geography, where interchange at London remains more efficient.”

The Strategic Statement goes on to say “The use of high frequency, fast services via existing main lines effectively cancels out the advantage accrued from the shorter physical distance travelled using East West Rail. This is due to the need to interchange repeatedly and the potential for misalignment between existing and East West Rail services (which are of a lower frequency, particularly west of Bletchley)… For those journeys where either the origin or destination, or both, lie off the core route, travel by road is likely to remain a more efficient and convenient option given the length of existing journey times and the marginal improvement offered by East West Rail. To return to the previous example, generalised journey time between Bedford and Swindon would – when using East West Rail services – drop from just under four hours to just over three and a half hours. Travel by private car would typically take between two and two and a half hours for the same journey. Improvements on present generalised journey times by rail would need to be greater if East West Rail were to offer a competitive alternative to road in this instance.”

Final thoughts

So why did EWRCo make the poorly verified claims about EWR’s usefulness through this map and accompanying articles and video?  It seems to me that this reflects an unresolved schizophrenia about its purpose and possibly also project inertia[5].  It is not sure whether it is supposed to be providing a fast end-to-end service between Oxford and Cambridge or a commuter service taking workers into each of these relatively small cities and the somewhat larger Milton Keynes.  The RUR and related documents seem to make clear that it is the latter, but EWRCo is nevertheless attempting to be all things to all people.  This may not be surprising given its apparent lack of strategic focus[6]  – why does freight have such a low profile, for example, when it seems critical to achieving net zero – and unconvincing business case[7].

EWRCo  has a good deal of homework still to do.  Even in its own backyard, as William’s 13 May 2022 “Will the EWR compete with Road?” makes clear, any advantage it may have is by no means overwhelming.  When the really significant cost of rail travel and station parking is taken into account, together with the first mile/last mile issue (which EWRCo appears slow to address), that advantage may well melt away.

[1] This is because of the potential for unacceptable detriment to journey times or capacity of these services if they were to do so.

[2] The concept is explained at 4.1 of the Strategic Statement.

[3] My own personal experience is that this journey does not compete well with road.

[4] The Strategic Statement also says “The opening of the Elizabeth Line will improve connectivity between Paddington and Liverpool Street for long-distance journeys to East Anglia”, so the difference may be even greater now (the Elizabeth Line opened after the Strategic Statement was published).

[5] The continuing preference for southern approach may also be a consequence of project inertia. EWRCo accepts in the RUR that “a northern approach is potentially quicker to construct and is likely to cost less than a southern  approach. The extent of work required is less, including less disruption to the existing network…[it]…may have less potential environment impact”.  The  ETR gives more detail on  the environmental impact  question saying “there are higher presence of higher value habitats and higher embodied carbon than for a northern approach”.   The Cambridge Independent of 3 August quotes EWRCo’s chief executive as saying “quite honestly, when I started, I didn’t think that the northern approach was viable at all”.  It is a pity that she did not start the job with an open mind regarding the approach to Cambridge.

[6] The Strategic Statement says “The statement outlines a vision for an East West Main Line …which is aimed at gaining the most from the investment made in the new infrastructure and providing a railway that delivers for passengers and freight users into the future.”  It goes on to make six suggestions, which include optimisation for freight,  provision of a strategic route for service re-routing, planned diversions, and operational flexibility in times of perturbation and electrification. 

[7] EWRCo has a singular focus on transporting workers to theoretical job growth at or near the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.  Its Theory of Change is not based on the years of detailed and recent work and public consultation carried out by Greater Cambridge Shared Planning in preparing the draft Local Plan, but on a 2017 National Infrastructure Commission (“NIC”) report “Partnering for Prosperity: a new deal for the Cambridge-MiltonKeynes-Oxford Arc” and an earlier Cambridge Econometrics report, “Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Northamption Growth Corridor,” commissioned by the NIC.  Both reports are pre-pandemic and so take no account of really significant changes in commuter travel patterns and rail revenue or the lack of a centralised housing plan envisaged by the now-defunct central Government Ox-Cam Arc proposals.

news Route Alignments

Outstanding Information Requests to EWRCo. August 2022 Update

File Containing Reasons for EWRCo. Chosen Approach To Cambridge and the Business Case.

The previous version of this saga was provided in this post back in February 2022. Here is an update.


During the EWRCo. 2021 consultation, we wanted to understand the fundamentals of how EWRCo. had arrived at their proposed approach to Cambridge. If an approach that required a Great Wall to be built through our villages, severing communities etc. was the best option, then so be it, at least we would understand why that was so. We have the same issues with the business case, but the FOIs for that are another story.

Previous experience with freedom of information requests indicated that we needed the request to be carefully written as any mistake might be used by EWR Co.’s legal team as a reason not to release the information. The Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations contain many exceptions and no doubt for good reasons. We had also noted that EWRCo. tended to refuse requests that other public bodies had accepted. This was in cases where people had asked EWRCo. and another public body for the same information.

We engaged our lawyers at Leigh Day to write a limited FOI request for the most important information. Separately we sent a less formal letter asking for information that did not fit the criteria for the Leigh Day letter. Leigh Day were asking for information already referred to in the 2021 consultation, but not provided.  As always EWRCo. waited the full 20 working days before responding to Leigh Day. They then threw the book at us. They went through all the requests CA had made and bundled that with the Leigh Day Letter. They worked out exactly how many hours they had spent responding to our requests. We would view that as time spent providing information that should have been available in the first place. Noting the association between CA and local parish councils, they even went through parish council minutes looking for statements they felt were unreasonable.

In their lengthy refusal letter, the request was labelled “manifestly unreasonable” and “vexatious”. We were a bit surprised, since all we were doing was asking for information that they must have had to support their 2021 consultation and preferred approach to Cambridge. They also accused us of deliberately timing the letter to land when they were busy with the consultation.

Maybe they were a bit stressed. Maybe their supporting information was not all that it should have been. After all who worries about documents that are never going to be published.

We then asked Leigh Day to write an appeal letter for an internal review, explaining in legal terms why the request should be answered including case law supporting that (especially the Dransfield case on vexatious requests).

To their credit EWR asked another senior member of staff to look at the case, he was an Engineer rather than a lawyer. In any event when the pressure of the consultation was over and they had time to look again at our request … they decided to stick with the decision not to disclose and for the same reasons as before. It was still in their view manifestly unreasonable and vexatious.

At this point we decided to refer the matter to the information commissioner’s office (ICO) along with another letter from Leigh Day explaining legally why the request should have been accepted. The ICO accepted that there was a case to answer but did not have anyone available to properly look at it. 

Update since February 2022

Time passed and we published a post on this blog setting out the information we had requested and our experience up to that point in getting it.  As a result of that, local MP Anthony Browne took up the case and wrote words to the effect that whatever issues EWRCo. had with Cambridge Approaches, he would like to see the answer to those questions.

EWRCo. refused that request as well on the grounds that the matter was now with the ICO. Clearly, it’s not about who asks for the information or when.

I note that the recent Lib Dem Statement on EWR, read out at the last SCDC meeting and kindly copied to us by Cllr Bridget Smith, contains the following paragraph.

EWR is a Government scheme being delivered by a private company resulting in poor accountability and little transparency. It has been an enormous frustration that government has kept residents completely in dark for years now about their intentions. This is a pitiful way of delivering a major piece of public transport infrastructure.

It seems that locally at least, there is some crossparty agreement on EWRCo.’s lack of transparency.

Months later and about a year after the original FOI request, the ICO looked at the case. They started by asking us if we still wanted the information. We did. They also asked EWRCo. if they would now provide it. They would not.

Time passed and eventually the Information Commissioner ruled that EWRCo. could not use the argument that the request was vexatious etc and they should respond again within a certain number of days without using that exemption.

We waited, were EWRCo., actually going to supply the information? 

Well, the latest news is that EWRCo. have appealed the Information Commissioner’s decision, so the saga continues and we will provide evidence to the tribunal next month.

Stay tuned for the next gripping instalment.

Business Case Environment Route Alignments

OxCam Arc, Local Plan Update and the EWR Central Section


Growing up on the Cam in 2021

I hope that you all had a good break. Since our last blog post in June we have been able to read some of the responses to the EWR consultation; read the new OxCam Arc consultation and looked at the proposed update to the Greater Cambridge Local Plan. A disconnect between EWR Co.’s preferred railway alignment and the housing plan is continuing to emerge and we will illustrate this in this blog post.

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: 

GrowthThe 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.

A good example this and of the railway alignment not taking account of the housing plan can be found in the St. Neots Town Council Response to the EWR consultation which is, broadly, that they are furious.

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.

Figure 1 Local Plan Update – Overview

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 employers and 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).

Figure 2 EWR Co Preferred Route Crossing the A428

However, the updated local plan has housing across the proposed route of the railway (See Figure 3).

Figure 3 GCSP Local Plan for the Same Area

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. 

Water Supplies

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. 

Please do fill in the 5-minute survey here.

One of the early results of the 5 minute survey after 1500 responses is that over 90% of people would vote against the OxCam Arc if there was a referendum.

Route Alignments

Northern approach – avoiding 4-tracking north of Cambridge


The article below has been written by an anonymous Cambridgeshire contributor who has a keen passion for, and knowledge of, railways. The previous article on this subject showed that the general capacity of the existing twin track between Cambridge Station and Milton Junction was sufficient to take the existing traffic, planned growth and EWR trains without the need for 4-tracking.

In discussions and correspondence with EWR Co, it was clear that they have carried out their assessment based on the current timetable. They claim that this showed that 4-tracking of this section of the track would be required. Our previous article suggested that this was unnecessary as the current timetable would change over the next 10 years before EWR became operational.

However, to address EWR Co’s specific concerns, we have looked at the issues that they raise with the timetable and show that, with a minor revision, even on this basis there is no need to 4-track this track.


EWR Co’s argued need for 4-tracking in the north of Cambridge in a ‘northern approach’ scenario – which underpins their decision to discount that option in the latest consultation – is based on concerns about interfacing with current operations. EWR Co have not published their full analysis, but state that they cannot fit EWR trains at regular 15 minute intervals alongside the existing timetable. While that statement appears to be technically true (in the most tenuous sense), the analysis presents here suggests that without context, it is likely highly misleading – and 4-tracking is certainly not the only solution. The issue is not too many trains, but a few quirky ‘symmetry breaking’ inefficiencies in the current timetable (particularly the fast/slow Liverpool Street trains). The immediate EWR issue can be solved by slipping a single hourly train by a single minute, and even if we are to future-proof to include the reasonable-worst-case scenario (including a variety of other future trains beyond EWR), only very minor tweaks to the existing are needed to make it work. Once Cambridge to Liverpool Street services are expanded to four an hour (expected in a similar timeframe to EWR’s construction), the asymmetry issues will have resolved themselves anyway – so it is illogical to let such quirks control EWR’s design decisions.

1.      Introduction

(I suggest you grab a cuppa and get comfortable before you continue, as this is quite a long and technical post)

I should start by saying that I’m not a campaigner and am not necessarily pushing for any particular outcome. Having seen the significant campaigning efforts of Cambridge Approaches, CBRR and others, however, I thought it would be interesting to delve into the ‘north vs south’ arguments from an objective viewpoint, to try and determine whether or not the proposed northern approach is actually a viable alternative. A few months of late-night analysis later, and yes, I do think there are – potentially – some aspects which may have been overlooked. I am not an industry expert and am of course willing to be stand corrected if I have missed something important, but am keen to open the discussion so that we maximise our chances of building the best railway possible. Although EWR Co have published many pages of technical documents describing the consequences of 4-tracking, they have unfortunately still not provided a robust technical justification for why they think it is necessary – instead simply claiming that they have “looked at it and concluded that it’s the only solution”. This makes it very difficult to peer review their work and assess the validity of their argument, so some guesswork is required in attempting to re-trace their steps. I’ve tried to present everything as clearly and transparently as I can in this document, so people can see the arguments for themselves.

If, as EWR Co claim, the only way to add four hourly EWR trains through Cambridge North is to add a second pair of tracks through the north of Cambridge, then the associated destruction of nearby properties and other infrastructure costs are very significant (as the infamous “appendix F” goes to great lengths to illustrate). These consequences feature front-and-centre in EWR Co’s justification for discounting a northern approach, and I suspect finding a way to avoid 4-tracking is at the core of the northern approach’s viability.

If my analysis has missed some vital other reason why 4-tracking really is the only solution, then the proposed southern approach certainly has its relative merits. However, there is still a possibility that as even more Cambridge-London trains are added, sending EWR trains into Cambridge from the south might mean it isn’t long before the track from Shelford to Harston needs 4-tracking, alongside grade separation of the Shelford junction, both of which would also be highly disruptive.

2.      Mapping the new railway

In the vector diagram below, every line corresponds to a single hourly train in each direction at present (except for the orange freight line, which is just indicative of routes).

Hourly services in each direction: existing (pre-pandemic)

The next diagram is a best guess at how EWR Co’s proposed ‘southern approach’ might look. This analysis is based on an assumed 4 trains an hour, which would be in line with the busiest UK inter-city services running today. I’ve included the potential Wisbech line (either running from Cambridge or splitting from existing trains at Ely), added second hourly trains to both Norwich and Ipswich, and extended a second hourly London train from Ely to King’s Lynn. This gives us a reasonable upper bound for the next few decades to the north and east. I’ve not added potential extra trains south of Cambridge, such as the mooted services to Maidstone or Haverhill, or additional London services (at least three of which are included in Network Rail’s 2030/40 scenarios). There is still some uncertainty about how EWR would be timetabled: I’ve taken the ‘best case’ scenario where Norwich keeps its direct Stansted service, but otherwise 3 of 4 EWR trains continue to Norwich (1/h) and Ipswich (2/h). EWR, then, serves Cambridge South and Central stations with every train; Cambridge North only sees a single hourly EWR service.

Hourly services in each direction: southern approach

Next, we have a potential ‘northern approach’. The same extra services are assumed as above, but EWR now arrives via a junction at Milton rather than Harston. There’s an optional station at Northstowe (and space still for one at Harston too), and 4-tracking may only need to go as far as Cambridge South. In this scenario, the ‘base case’ is that EWR trains all serve all three Cambridge stations, terminating at Cambridge South. There are options, such as linking with existing London (if electrified), Stansted and/or a reopened Haverhill line, or reversing at Cambridge in order to continue towards Norwich/Ipswich. It is a requirement that EWR’s design does not preclude the latter as an option, though it is probably not the most beneficial solution. Freight mostly avoids Cambridge via a new chord south of Ely. This would, admittedly, be expensive to construct (as it would include a new bridge over the Cam), but could remove freight from the single-track Newmarket route, reducing the need to dual quite as much of it.

Hourly services in each direction: northern approach

3.      Improving existing layouts

It is clear from the northern approach diagram that the section through the north of Cambridge is quite busy – so at first glance the argument for 4-tracking seems reasonable. But can it be avoided? The first step is to see what can be done, with only modest adjustments, to increase efficiency in that section. South of Cambridge (central) station we will have 4 tracks, a grade-separated Milton junction confers no additional capacity constraints, so the solution hinges on just the three miles of twin tracks between Cambridge’s central and north stations.

Two hourly Liverpool Street trains terminate at Cambridge North (except for 2/day to each of Ely and King’s Lynn). When they head back south, they block the northbound track until they reach the switch point south of the river. However, this can easily be avoided by moving the terminus platform from the west to the centre. Although it should not be necessary, the through-platforms could be doubled up: There’s space for the western one within the existing footprint, while a 5th on the eastern side will probably take a sliver of land from neighbouring properties. In the very worst-case scenario, if no extra land is available, then there is space further north to stagger northbound and southbound platforms. If, as has been suggested, the two Liverpool Street trains will in future need to continue to Ely, then a terminus here is not required, and either 2 or 4 platforms would suffice.

Cambridge North station – diagrammatic track layout
Cambridge North station – looking north

Cambridge Central is a large and complex station, currently having four terminus and four through-platforms (the latter all serving trains in both directions). The terminus platforms are all on the western side, so reversing trains again obstruct oncoming traffic as they switch tracks. According to Network Rail’s 2019 report, a southern approach would see a new island pair of through-platforms to the east, and 3-tracking to the Coldham’s Lane junction, as shown on the right in the figure below.

Diagrammatic track layout at Cambridge station – existing and Network Rail’s southern approach

There are many possible iterations for upgrading the station in a northern approach scenario. The first obvious step is to swap Ipswich/Newmarket trains onto a new eastern platform. Without the need to weave Newmarket-bound trains across from the eastern side of the Shelford junction as they approach from Oxford, it should be possible to separate them entirely from other services via 3rd track to the east towards the Coldham’s Lane junction. Ipswich trains currently only dwell at Cambridge for about five minutes, so even with two or more such services an hour, a single platform and single track under Coldham’s Lane bridge should be sufficient, assuming most freight is diverted via a new spur near Ely.

It may make sense to tidy the central portion of the station into a pair of northbound and a pair of southbound platforms. In a similar approach to Cambridge North mentioned above, it might also be possible to allocate a terminus-priority platform in the middle (the current platform 7) which could eliminate at-grade crossings on the section we’re interested in. This platform could be extended to the south, to also provide a central terminus for trains from London. If the latter option is chosen, platforms 5 and 6 might even become redundant: paved over, they’d make the ideal location for a second station entrance, providing a much shorter route from cycle parking to the platform bridge, and additional income from renting out retail space.

Cambridge station diagrammatic track layout – two options

It is worth noting that Cambridge central station is more constrained to the south than the north: the Hills Road bridge is just 100 metres beyond the end of platform 1 (and only four tracks wide), and the post office building & car park limits space to the southeast. At present, there is space for the existing platform island to be extended further south – though if the new eastern platform island were connected to the south, this option may become less viable. In a northern approach scenario, there is much better balance in the number of trains heading north vs south in and out of Cambridge, which should reduce the pressure on platform space and time from terminating services.

Cambridge station looking north – existing platforms

For completeness, we should mention Cambridge South. In the southern approach proposal, it has four platforms – two pairs serving ~14/h in each direction (plus any future London services). In a northern approach scenario it may serve slightly fewer trains, but some might terminate at the station. It should be possible for a single platform to cope with as little as 3 minutes between trains (see Tottenham Hale’s southbound platform 1, for example), but in the worst-case scenario a 5th platform may be required here, offering a central terminus and two through-platforms in each direction. Although there would be some opposition to encroachment on Hobson’s Park, the additional land and cost would be very modest (just the width of a single-track path, as the current proposed station design already has the requisite platform island). If few EWR trains terminate here (instead continuing south to a combination of Haverhill, London, Stansted or elsewhere), the chance of needing a 5th platform is reduced, but 4-tracking may instead need to continue to the Shelford junction – as is the case for a southern approach scenario.

Cambridge South station diagrammatic – four options

With a little effort, then, it should be possible (if needed) to entirely eliminate at-grade crossings on the busy section we’re interested in, between Cambridge and Cambridge North. We therefore have a simple scenario of twin tracks, around a dozen trains per hour, and no clashes or constraints linking the two directions. Fewer freight trains should need to use this route (with as many as possible moved to EWR and an Ely chord), so trains should follow very similar acceleration profiles on this short, slow section of track. Nonetheless, we will still aim to ensure one oversized hourly slot remains for freight just in case (because getting as much freight off of the road and onto rail is very much to be encouraged).

If we look at the existing timetables, we see that the minimum gap between trains leaving Cambridge to the north is 3 minutes (xx:00 and xx:03 Cross-Country and Great Northern respectively). A 3-minute headway is also what’s stated in EWR’s requirements [Appendix B 5.7.2 of the latest EWR Co consultation docs] – so we can safely assume this is our minimum acceptable gap. Indeed, it only takes about 3 minutes between leaving one station and arriving at the other, so even spaced this close together, we should never have two trains between the two stations at the same time.  

I should note that the Cross-Country train does not currently stop at Cambridge North station – so despite many examples to the contrary, such as Tottenham Hale mentioned above, EWR Co may still conclude in the worst-case scenario that Cambridge North requires expansion to twin platforms in each direction. This is an expense not required with a southern approach, but that’s only because in a southern approach few (if any) EWR trains actually serve Cambridge North.

4.      Symmetry and inefficiency – the spectre of 4-tracking

In an idealised world without external constraints, 3-minute headings should allow for a theoretical maximum of 20 ‘slots’ per hour (up to 15 of which can be used if we are to stick within the 0.75 resilience requirement). With this in mind, EWR Co’s argument that even the 6 current + 4 EWR trains cannot be accommodated without quadrupling the tracks has led to much head-scratching. So, what is going on; how is the real world so far from ideal that we can’t even manage what is – without even considering future signalling upgrades – just ~50% theoretical capacity?

Although EWR Co have still not published their actual analysis (only the consequences thereof), I recently managed to speak to EWR Co’s Paul Sparrow via their live chat events, and obtained slightly more insight into their analysis:

“We have used some operations specialists to conduct the assessment using rail operations modelling systems in order to ascertain where we could get our 4 trains per hour onto the existing twin track WAML using our regular 15 min clockface service pattern. These results demonstrated that the white space, the space between trains, does not exist to allow us to get 4 trains an hour every 15 mins.” (Paul Sparrow, 29th May 2021)

This snippet of information, although still quite cryptic, is perhaps just enough for us to solve the mystery. The issue, I now suspect, is actually quite simple – and it’s all down to symmetry. Despite computational advances, building railway timetables is still ultimately mathematically driven by repeating patterns: it’s what the Swiss call ‘taktfahrplan’, or clock-face scheduling. Most train lines interact with several others along the length of their routes, and weaving all of these interconnected requirements together without clashes is much easier if everyone is dancing to the same beat. Although modern timetables may look quite random, they are essentially still just perturbations on an underlying regular symmetry.

We can illustrate this with a simplified example. Consider a railway line serving four locations: Appletown and Bananaville each need four trains an hour; Carrotbridge and Donutland need two apiece. Treating C&D as a single set, we can schedule these 12 trains at 5-minute intervals, with a pattern repeating every 15 minutes (left clock-face below). However, what if Carrotbridge decide they need their pair of hourly trains spaced 20 minutes apart? We start with Appletown’s regular trains, but once we’ve added Carrotbridge’s symmetry-breaking requirements, there’s no space left for Bananaville to have a train every 15 minutes. We can squeeze in the pair of Donutland trains, but the remaining slots are unhelpfully distributed – poor Bananaville!

This scenario is conceptually very closely related to the issue we have at hand. Carrotbridge in this case is represented by the Greater Anglia trains to Liverpool Street – and Bananaville is Oxford!

The two hourly trains from Cambridge North to Liverpool Street arrive in London at regular half-hour intervals. However, one of them is slightly ‘fast’ and the other ‘slow’: the difference is a modest ~10 minutes (~1h10 vs ~1h20). In order to make this work, 30 minutes after the slow train has left Cambridge North, the fast train…sits there for another 10 minutes, and then departs. By stopping at fewer stations on route, by the time it reaches London it has caught back up again to the 30-minute periodicity. On the return leg back north, the fast train arrives back 10 minutes earlier than its slow train equivalent would have done, and so it ends up sitting at Cambridge North…for yet another 10 minutes.

The other trains all tend to run at roughly regular half-hourly slots, into which it would normally be quite easy to add an EWR train every 15 minutes, because their symmetries are in sync. The Liverpool Street train’s timings, however, makes this simple task so much more difficult. As we will see, there are a few other minor quirks in the existing timetables too, all of which can be dealt with quite easily.

5.      Building more efficient timetables

Let us consider how this would work in terms of timetables. We’ve removed all at-grade crossings from the section, and Newmarket-bound trains have been moved onto a separate track. This should make our task relatively straightforward, as we have a single stretch of dual track between Cambridge Central and Cambridge North, with one train simply following the one in front. This is the most constrained section, so if it can be shown to work then everything else should fall into place.

We can start with the current timetable, and then see how the new services might look added in the ‘white space’. In this example, a normal weekday between 1pm and 2pm has been used – the differences from hour to hour are quite minor, so a proof-of-principle assessment needn’t replicate the analysis for every hour of every day. Instead of showing you lots of graphs and lists of timetables, I’ll stick with the ‘clock-face’ diagrams from the Appletown example above.

In the clock-face diagrams below, each service is represented by a 3-minute block, during which no other trains may depart. In the current timetable, we can see the two closest trains’ blocks adjacent to one another at xx:00 and xx03 on the northbound chart, and vast swathes of free ‘white space’ in both directions. These really aren’t very busy lines at the moment, with a train on each track between the stations just 30% of the time! But as you can see, the pairs of trains to Liverpool Street and (in the southbound direction) King’s Cross are not nicely symmetrical, with the Norwich train sitting where one might expect the second Liverpool Street train to be.

Now, if we attempt to add four hourly EWR trains to the existing timetable, it might look something like the figure below. At first glance all seems fine, but on closer inspection one of the four EWR trains has been slipped by a single minute from its ideal 15-minute-interval service, in order to avoid overlapping with an existing train’s 3-minute window. Although you might think this a very minor issue – arising from an existing timetable quirk which will long since have changed by the time EWR is built – as far as I can tell (going by Paul Sparrow’s above quote), it is precisely this which has led EWR Co to claim that the only solution is to build two more tracks through the north of Cambridge!

Nonetheless, sticking for now with the nearly symmetrical EWR trains added alongside the existing timetable, what other services might we need to make room for in the next few decades, to ensure our design is future-proof? A second Norwich train is an obvious one: Northbound it can fit exactly 30 minutes away from the existing train; southbound we have to offset it by a couple of minutes from its ideal position (one bit of broken symmetry forcing another one). After this, there is still space for another half-hourly service (e.g. trains to Wisbech) – and we’re still within the 75% resilience threshold stated in EWR’s requirements [Appendix B 5.7.2]. In both directions, there’s an oversized gap left in the hourly timetable for even a very slow freight train to get through, although this should be avoidable in most instances as freight could travel via Soham or Newmarket instead. We could even (not shown) double up the Birmingham service (which some hope could be extended to Leeds in future), by simply moving the northbound freight slot to ~xx.45.

The figure above illustrates how a northern approach – and a bunch of potential other future services – could work, without any changes to the existing timetable, without any signalling upgrades, and within the documented requirements of headways (3 minutes) and resilience (25% unused wiggle-room), without resorting to knocking down any buildings to build more tracks. However, what if we absolutely must have a symmetrically perfect-to-the-minute EWR service? Or, indeed, what if we would just like to tidy up the existing inefficient broken symmetries, and thus optimise the potential capacity through Cambridge’s only traffic-jam-avoiding cross-city travel corridor?

Northbound, the solution is incredibly simple. The fast train from Liverpool Street (which is about to sit at Cambridge North for more than half an hour) can just wait for a single minute at Cambridge station. That’s it.

Southbound, we have slightly more work to do. First, we align the time for which the King’s Cross trains dwell at Cambridge. I suspect the reason for this asymmetry in the current timetable comes from train-splitting, but with platforms at Ely and Waterbeach due to be extended, Network Rail themselves expect that procedure to be phased out in the coming years. Next, we have the fast Liverpool Street train (which leaves 10 minutes later than symmetry would like), and the existing Norwich train (which is then in the way). A neat, symmetry-restoring solution (as shown in the diagram below) is to push the Norwich train back by two minutes, and have the fast Liverpool Street train depart Cambridge North 10 minutes early, and dwell at Cambridge for 10 minutes (where it will be overtaken by the Norwich train, and then continue to Cambridge South roughly alongside the EWR service on the quad tracks). This would only be needed until two more (slow) trains between Cambridge Central and Liverpool Street are added, at which point both Cambridge North to Liverpool Street trains can become fast services.

The Norwich train, in ensuring regular hourly cycles, has a few minutes of wiggle-room to play with, but in a worst-case scenario it might miss its Stansted spot – in which case its lost slot could be taken up by an EWR train instead. A slightly less neat, but probably still workable and arguably less disruptive, solution (not shown) would have the existing Norwich train unaffected, the fast Liverpool Street train leaving just a minute or two earlier than it currently does, and the second Norwich train 32 minutes after (or 28 before) the existing one. These solutions involve very minor tweaks to the existing timetables, none of which should have any further knock-on effects on other services.

The above is, I would argue, a reasonable worst-case scenario for the 2040s, and is still acceptable within EWR Co’s given requirements. However, I suspect reality will be less constrained, as there are a variety of possible options which would each reduce the number of trains travelling through the busy corridor.

I would be slightly surprised if EWR needed four hourly trains, at least for the first decade or two. Even the busiest UK intercity services such as London to Bristol only have that many – as does Cambridge to King’s Cross (if we ignore the two slow trains which offer no utility for intercity passengers). EWR only serves relatively small towns and cities, and long-distance trips across the country which really aren’t that popular (and are mostly already quite doable via London, especially once Crossrail is operational). Half-hourly 8-carriage trains would have the same capacity as the proposed four hourly 4-carriage ones, and as EWR doesn’t really serve busy commuter routes east of Bletchley (where it’s expected that another 2/h will run from Oxford to the Milton Keynes  branch anyway), I suspect few would be very upset by a slightly less frequent service. Other than for a few select local routes (such as Cambridge and Bedford residents hopping on the train to Bletchley’s IKEA), EWR provides (at best) a modest improvement rather than a genuine transport revolution. Let’s just hope the trains have enough luggage space for flat-pack bookcases!

Next, it’s worth noting that Wisbech and King’s Lynn are a similar distance from Ely. The fast King’s Cross train, which currently splits at Cambridge (with only the front section continuing further north) could instead continue as one further north beyond the new Milton junction (where the track is less congested). It could then split in half at Ely (or the new Waterbeach station), with the front continuing to King’s Lynn, and the back departing for Wisbech three minutes later.

We could go further still. There are actually two routes from Norwich to Cambridge, of similar length. The route currently operating heads via Ely, but there’s another route via Diss and Bury St Edmunds. A direct train using the latter would either need to reverse in Stowmarket, or use a yet-to-be-built spur just north thereof. If a second Norwich train took this route, it would provide direct connections between Cambridge and Diss; Norwich and Bury St Edmunds. Moreover, while a large fraction of trips to Cambridge on the Norwich train involve people travelling the whole length of the line (with small numbers using intermediate stations such as Thetford), most Cambridge arrivals on the train from Ipswich come from Newmarket or Bury St Edmunds. Therefore, instead of having two Norwich trains via Thetford and two Ipswich ones via Bury, sending the second Norwich train via Bury may actually better serve passenger demand – as well as easing Ely’s congestion problems.

As a final potential tweak, it’s worth thinking about how to make best use of the station at Stansted Airport. Airports are the one location where direct trains are hugely advantageous, as swapping trains at intermediate stations is much more difficult if you have heavy luggage in tow (or are jetlagged!). However, the long single-track tunnel under the runway severely restricts how many trains can reach the airport. From Cambridge, two hourly trains make the journey – one from Norwich (Greater Anglia, class 755 diesel/electric hybrid trains) and one from Birmingham (Cross-Country, class 170 diesels). Could we use the advent of “Great British Railways” to shuffle rolling stock around, and thus find a way for these two trains to join together (at Ely or Waterbeach) and travel as one to Stansted? GA has a whole bunch of class 755s on local routes, a few of which could perhaps be swapped for CC’s class 170s – and I see no reason why the resulting 755 pair couldn’t couple together. This would then free up a Stansted slot, which (in a northern approach scenario) could enable an hourly direct EWR train from Oxford to Stansted!

If we put all of the above together in an optimistic scenario for the 2040s, we actually find ourselves with just a single extra train each hour compared with the current timetable (and even that is offset by an expected reduction in freight traffic, given a new spur south of Ely). I appreciate that at least some of the suggested optimisations might prove unworkable, but nonetheless it reinforces how many different options there are for ensuring there is absolutely no need to four-track through the north of Cambridge in a northern approach!

6.      Has this solved the problem?

The above examples show that there doesn’t appear to be any fundamental issue with scheduling all the trains we might possibly need in a way which avoids the need for 4-tracking. None of the tweaks suggested should cause any knock-on effects, so could be achieved while keeping all other timetables intact. Passengers boarding at Cambridge North towards Liverpool Street may see their southbound journey time increased by a few minutes – but I suspect that is an acceptable price to pay, given that a northern approach (unlike a southern one) would bring a regular EWR service to Cambridge North.

However, it is worth stressing that by 2030 (when EWR is expected to begin operation), the current franchises will be long gone: The current Greater Anglia franchise ends in 2025, and Great British Railways is about to completely shake up the way franchises work in the UK anyway. As such, so long as the *principle* of operation is sound, it’s not really worth worrying in fine detail what the precise timetables will look like at this stage – because they’ll all have changed by the time the line is built in any case.

It is, of course, worth noting that even in a southern approach scenario, the frequency of trains will increase – and symmetry-breaking carbuncles, which massively reduce line capacity, will need to be phased out regardless. The Liverpool Street asymmetry will probably be eliminated entirely within a few years anyway, as we expect to require a new pair of WAML trains which terminate at Cambridge Central. With four hourly trains in total, the Cambridge North pair will almost certainly both be designated as similarly ‘fast’, At which point the whole asymmetry issue disappears!

When designing new, it is always better to start as cleanly as possible, rather than adding yet more mess on top of existing inefficiencies. As the existing quirks can be easily tidied up – and will probably need to be resolved soon anyway – it would be wholly irrational to base major infrastructure design decisions around them. Nonetheless, given EWR Co’s claimed arguments, I thought it useful to illustrate how I think 4-tracking can be avoided both in principle, and in practice around the current timetable.

I haven’t considered in detail the extra services to London which Network Rail’s forecasts indicate will be needed by 2040. Most of these won’t pass north of Cambridge Central, so will not affect a northern approach. Looking at NR’s worst-case 2043 scenario, the only extra services needed north of Cambridge are one or two more Ely-KX trains (which could be the Wisbech trains, already factored into my model) and extending the two existing Liverpool Street trains beyond Cambridge North to terminate at Ely (which would remove the need for a 5th platform at Cambridge North, but add no further constraint issues so long as the junction at Milton is grade-separated). On the other hand, they will add further pressure to a southern approach, which even with 4-tracking may find the south Cambridge corridor eventually becomes problematically congested – risking platform capacity issues at Cambridge Central from so many terminating trains, and perhaps a need to rebuild Shelford junction as grade-separated.

7.      Concluding remarks

EWR’s Paul Sparrow has stated that the existing timetable doesn’t “allow us to get 4 [EWR] trains an hour every 15 mins” for a northern approach. The analysis presented here appears to confirm that this is technically a correct statement, but – unless I am very much mistaken – only in the same kind of way that I can say I was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006: It’s only *just* correct, and likely very misleading for them to have used it to draw the conclusions they have.

EWR Co claim that the only solution to the above, in a ‘northern approach’ scenario, is to 4-track north of Cambridge station. I disagree. The immediate EWR issue can be solved by slipping a single hourly train by a single minute, and even if we are to future-proof to include the reasonable-worst-case scenario (including a variety of other future trains beyond EWR), only very minor tweaks to the existing timetable – which will almost certainly disappear soon anyway – are needed to make it work.

If my analysis turns out to be sound, then I do not understand why EWR Co decided that 4-tracking (with dozens of demolitions, new bridges etc) is considered a lesser evil. I accept that there may be additional complications of which we are not aware, and which render the proposals in this document unworkable – but if that is the case, then they absolutely must be able to explain to the public why this is the case, and cannot continue to simply state “our modelling says it is not possible” without offering a technical justification.

If the timetabling issue can be resolved and 4-tracking rendered unnecessary, the question of a northern vs southern approach becomes much more balanced. I will leave it to others to expound the pros and cons of each option, but advantages such as keeping more freight out of Cambridge, EWR regularly serving Cambridge North (and potentially also London and/or Stansted), the option of a station at Northstowe (offering direct links to Cambourne, Oxford and Addenbrookes), an easier way to get the Haverhill line back up and running (without it adding even more N-v-S imbalance to the numbers of trains running through the Cambridge corridor), and simplifying the process of electrification between Oxford and Cambridge by decoupling from the Eastern section (not due for upgrade until 2040-50)…are all worth thinking about very seriously indeed.