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EWR CS3 and the Borders Railway myth

Here is a guest post from railway enthusiast and long time friend of Cambridge Approaches Steve Edmondson.

In a recent press release East West Railway Company’s chief executive officer Beth West makes direct comparison of the East West Rail project with a recently re-opened line on the English Scottish border.  This line was also discussed during the Transport Select Committee oral evidence sessions on 6 March 2024, which formed part of the committee’s inquiry into Strategic Transport Objectives and featured East West Rail.

The line referred to is the ‘Borders Railway’ that started operating in 2015. It offers a half hourly service between Edinburgh Waverly station and the small town of Tweedbank Monday to Saturday, with an hourly service on Sundays.

Beth West compares the Borders Railway with East West Rail, specifically the Bedford/Cambridge section. In her release she correctly says that passenger numbers on the Borders Railway have exceeded expectations, from a projected 600,000 passengers a year, to 1,789,467 (4,900/day)

Unfortunately for her, such a simple comparison is misplaced.

The new Borders Railway is predominantly  single track, 35 miles long, with three passing loops. There are ten stations including the termini. All but one serve substantial communities directly, with park and ride facilities for Edinburgh at two of them.  This helps to explain the attraction to passengers, especially tourists, who take advantage of the numerous stations.  The full journey takes about one hour. Most importantly, it is a partial reopening of a rail line between Edinburgh and Carlisle which was closed in 1969 and the track lifted. Consequently the amount of new earthworks required was relatively small. In parts, a maximum line speed of 90mph is possible for short sections, but 60mph is the normal maximum. It is essentially what is known as a ‘branch line’ and is neither freight train friendly nor electrified.

By contrast the proposed EWR Bedford to Cambridge section is slightly longer. It is being planned as a strategically important ‘main line’; it would be twin track suitable for 100mph running throughout. It does not follow any part of the earlier Varsity line between Bedford and Cambridge and serves none of the communities along the original route. It would be an entirely new alignment built through unspoiled countryside and have food security implications as it would damage a great deal of Britain’s best and most versatile agricultural land. The major earthworks that would be required for the new line are set to forever change the visual amenity of South Cambridgeshire. Between  Cambridge and Bedford, there would be just three stations so it would not serve any of the outlying village communities for whom it would be of little use. 

When the Borders Railway was proposed in the early 2000’s and a full business case published (take note Beth West), it was partly linked to construction of 1800 houses, and caused local opposition. The final cost was £353 million at 2012 prices. Compare this to EWR Bedford/Cambridge which is linked to the construction of houses for 213,300 new residents and an up front cost of £8 billion in today’s money.

There is an EWRCo. projection of only 2,090 regular Cambridge commuters derived from reported local rail commuting in the 2011 census, so less than 1% these new residents would use the railway. The rest would instead presumably exacerbate the road traffic congestion in and around Cambridge. This in turn negates the strategic objective of taking the railway to Cambridge which is about unlocking obstacles to growth.

Finally, consider the cost per daily passage, for the Borders railway it is £365million /4900 = £74,500 (comparable with the Elizabeth line) while for EWR it is £8,000million /2090 = £3.83 million which is not.


13 replies on “EWR CS3 and the Borders Railway myth”

Excellent article, Steve! I wonder whether Beth West will read it, take note and publish the business case for EWR Bedford to Cambridge. As you rightly say, the Borders line in Scotland is nothing like the route that EWR are planning for this part of the country so Beth West’s comments do not hold water.

Thanks for the explanation Steve. EWR distort the facts to suit their case and they don’t send their senior staff to answer our questions at the drop in sessions. Instead we get junior staff who stand red faced when they hear the logic of our case. EWRs comparison with the borders railway requires their senior staff to meet with us and have the debate. Their argument is indefensible so they will avoid us at all costs.

We frequently use the Borders railway with our family living in Scotland
Tweed Bank to Waverly
It is a very successful commuters railway for business, school and shoppers line
Stopping at appropriate villages on its journey
No massive housing development, no heavy freight
Just a local service every half an our during peak times
Anyone having the audacity to compare it with EWR proposals is really “scrapping the barrel “

Thank you for the analysis and article. Much appreciated. The cost per head for EWR is staggering and surely the project can’t be progressed by Government on this basis? I wonder how much it would improve if it went North with a lower cost and if there was a station at Northstowe the commmuter traffic might well be much more and materially reduce the cost/user? Also very good point on the impact of all the additional road traffic arising from all those extra houses/cars. I am not sure the food security point is so material given all the non food pro environment incentives about.
Thank you for all the time you are putting into lifting the lid on this ill thought out scheme.

It is difficult to understand this project has not been stopped – even the Audit Office don’t get it and Grant Schapps said “scarp it”. May be Black Cat / Caxton Gibbet road improvements will cast doubt?

All very good points Steve. Differences might be for example that the Borders route in the main was protected, there was no certainty that it would be built, but options kept open. Notice the number of stations within commuter distances. What use will our 3 be to most people?

There was a lot of public demand for reopening Borders, there is very little demand for East West Central Section as misconceived right now.
To try to justify the massive costs to the treasury (has nothing been learnt from HS2?), housing, freight, remodeling Bedford Station, Environmental Arguments and most importantly the mixing of National, Regional and Local requirements with all the conflicts, and compromises that brings, have made an un-workable scheme that few will find of use. The cost benefit calculations have been massaged until workable, usual central government fudging of the figs. We all know that cost overruns will occur.

Perhaps if the line from Bedford joined the East Cost line, went South to Hitchin (a new curve needed there), updating of the existing route to Shelford and on to Cambridge might make sense of sorts. Sure there will be civil engineering problems and some people will be affected badly, many few than the present hairbrained scheme. Some while back Cambourne was going to be on the Metro, perhaps the reconsidering of the metro will put paid to this current nonsense?

I am certain in my own mind that the present route is all about finding a route that will satisfy the landowners and established order in this area (non of these would ever lower themselves to travel on this hotchpotch). Extensive tunnelling or cut and cover would be necessary to make any route acceptable (even if there was demand), that ain’t going to happen is it?

Excellent description of the differences between the existing line and this grossly expensive, impractical and unpopular Bedford to Cambridge. Thanks as always to our MP Richard Fuller who is still fighting the plan which will destroy so much of our area.

Our problem is that a decision has been taken behind closed doors and the juggernaut (wrong vehicle to use?), backed and empowered by an endless stream of public money, will roll on and over all objections. As with the Post Office debacle, I wonder if the only agency that can knock some common sense into this mess is the media? I suspect also that we need to make more of the increased traffic congestion EWR will cause, the fact that EWR and national politicians continue to use the word ‘growth’ as a magic word that justifies anything and everything without actually specifying what will grow except the wealth of landowners, and the fact that Government are proposing £8b+ of public money on a project of unproven worth whilst cancer patients rate not being treated, our soldiers do not have enough ammunition to fight a war and the state of our roads would disgrace a 3rd world nation. Has anyone thought of bringing in the media in the North of England on our side? How aware are they that in the light of the cancellation of HS2 and a huge need for East-West rail links in the North the Government are proposing to spend £8b+ on an East-West rail link in the favoured south of England, to serve a region that has grown exponentially in the past two decades without the need for a new railway?

And can I finish this rant by saying that we might consider less reference to EWR in our publicity, and more reference to this as a Government project? As someone born in Sheffield, a suspect a new Government based on winning northern seats would be very sensitive to the potential loss of votes.

Thanks for commenting on yet another EWR lack of attention to detail pseudo factual and plain incorrect comparison. The Borders railway is a perfect example of an infrastructure project that actually gives advantages and to local communities and providing a genuine alternative to the car. Scotland is very good at connecting remote communities and those are better connected than us 6 miles outside of Cambridge. None of this is the case for EWR. It has ZERO benefit for the people who might have to live along this monster project, there are no stations and the places it connects do not need to be connected. Cambourne already has plenty of options and I am not going to drive away from Cambridge to park at Cambourne to take a train into Cambridge- it’s nonsense.

In 1995 this re-opening of the “Varsity Line” started to gain traction. Many local politicians and National agencies of the Department of Transport, British Rail, Railtrack, Network Rail and now GBR (3 years on and nothing so far so far) have hung their hat on this hoping to further careers, have come and gone. Cambridgeshire county Council have “Blood on their hands” on this gross failure too.
Also along the way an arms length “special purpose vehicle” with a special status that can bypass local and regional democracy has been formed, the much hated EWR. Publicly funded the budget has grown (as have their salaries), as yet whilst there is a proposed route which has been accepted, that’s all.

Such is the latency of any major infrastructure project, along with all the changes of direction as dictated by the hand of the Treasury behind the scenes.

So far that is a very short history to set my point on here. I am staggered at how little input is now put on these pages, there should be 100’s, maybe 1000’s of comments at then end of what have been quite outstanding articles from people who care deeply and who have expertise i such matters.

I conclude that in desperation to justify the 500,000 to 1m houses in the region “The Arc”, EWR was set up to wear down the population into submission. EWR can show any court of enquiry that they “have done all they can to consult” over many years.

Folks – EWR was only a just a “Red Herring” to keep the locals off their backs bleating about Green issues and Transport. Irrespective of what parties get elected Locally and Nationally, this was always going to be built, because way back at the turn of the centaury a decision was made to do so.

It will be built, in the wrong place at vastly greater costs than needed. All the observations on this site over the last 3 years are accurate.

So, if you are one of the many influential people locally, marshal the forces to put pen to paper by the tens of thousands and keep doing it.

Department of Transport and EWR think you don’t know and don’t care, just getting on with your busy lives, prove them wrong.

David and William et al, you have done an outstanding job.

Rant over and if you have got this far, thank you for reading.

I also have been surprised by the apparent lack of support in recent weeks , it’s as though a lot of us have given up in the face of the juggernaut which seems to be grinding inexorably forwards regardless of reasoned arguments.
Would like to add my appreciation and encouragement to those who are continuing to add more weight on our side of this battle.

Cambridge is the justification for the sole long term funding for regional development that remains now that EU Regional Development Funds ended in 2023. What started out as the Oxford Cambridge Arc development policy now focuses on the Cambridge end of the Arc with the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway cancelled in March 2021. Work has started on the (£679m) A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet dual carriageway shortening journey times between the A1 and M11 from 2027.
The Treasury East West Rail Economic Growth Board’s objective is more tax revenue from the Cambridge end of the Arc. Treasury plans have has advanced to supporting a new town at Tempsford for commuters to London and Cambridge. The strategic ingredient is a new railway station serving London to be created by a Treasury owned offshoot, East West Railway Company, on a new railway line through Bedford to Cambridge. The 2021 Spatial Framework for the Ox Cam Arc stated “Inequalities within regions are even larger than those between regions” and this is justification for EWR route to Cambridge progressing.
The Treasury East West Railway Economic Growth Board ensures strategic alignment between departments and operates in secrecy

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