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Letter to Cllr Bridget Smith*

*substantially the same letter also sent to other local political signatories of the letter to Rishi Sunak attached to the end of this post.

Dear Ms Smith

I have recently read the letters you have signed to Grant Shapps and to Rishi Sunak requesting funding of the East West Railway in full. I expect they will be interpreted as on behalf of the district. I guess your reason for doing so was a belief that EWR will be a good thing.

Everyone collects facts that fit their beliefs (confirmation bias). Since we have opposite views on East West Rail I thought you might be interested in some of the reasons why I think it should not go ahead.

ORR UK Rail Finances

These one page Office of Road and Rail reports summarise the finances for the whole rail network every financial year. Financial year 19-20 was pre-pandemic and showed spending of £20.1 billion funded by £11.6 billion from passenger fares, £6.5 billion from the taxpayer and everything else (which includes freight access fees) £2.0 billion. The following year passenger fares collapsed and the taxpayer filled the gap with a £16.9 billion subsidy. 

It’s clear from this that the average railway loses money, however, the EWR is not an average railway. There are no large cities along its route which means lower than average passenger numbers. Compare Cambridge to London with Cambridge to Oxford: a similar distance but London will get much more traffic.

Competition with Road

The EWR is also quite a short railway. Trains go faster than cars and railways therefore become more competitive over longer distances. Network Rail’s analysis of the East West Railway demonstrates that it will struggle to compete with road even with no allowance for the first and last mile. I have summarized their numbers here. EWR will not facilitate longer rail journeys because of the interchange time penalties. For example, Norwich to Cardiff rail journeys will continue to go via London, passengers will not change at Cambridge and Oxford. I will not drive to Cambourne get the EWR to Cambridge and then get a London train. I will just drive to Royston.

Car ownership in 2020 in the East of England region stood at 1.36 cars per household and had risen over then previous 10 years. I suspect it is higher around Cambridge. Empirically, many of these cars sit in front of the house during the week and people work from home. Rail is also competing with Zoom.

Once the Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet A428 improvement scheme is completed using Network Rail and National Highway figures for journey times between Bedford and Cambridge, it will only be two minutes faster by EWR than peak road. This means that people that can afford to live within 1-2 minutes of Cambridge station will see a small benefit if they happen to want to go to Bedford station. Most real Cambridge to Bedford journeys will remain quicker by car even in peak times. EWRCo. cherry pick longer peak road journey times, but overall EWR has little or no advantage over road for the overwhelming majority of East West journey pairs.

Climate Change Impact

Diesel powered trains emit about 5 times less CO2 per passenger or freight kilometre than cars and lorries. Rail electrification would remove the last 20%. However, this is a 100-year railway and cars are rapidly decarbonising. I have an electric car and charge it from electricity that the supplier already assures me is from renewable sources. EWR Co. can find ways to make their railway zero carbon operationally as well.

The climate change comparison is more about CO2 from construction rather than operation. Carbon neutral electric vehicles are already being produced for example by Volkswagen.

The carbon emissions from the construction of the East West Railway will be substantial. Much of the estimated cost is from the embankments and concrete viaducts. Some local civil engineers estimate that the section between Cambourne North and Hauxton Junction would require 866,000 lorry movements to construct.

The railway makes more sense as set out in “Partnering for Prosperity”, if indeed there were four development corporations between Cambridge and Bedford, the new towns built on green field sites could be designed for easy access to the EWR station. But think about the CO2 emissions from the construction of these new towns and the loss of prime agricultural land.

Passenger Fares

The marginal cost of my Electric Vehicle is 7 pence per mile. This compares with peak rail fares on the busy Thameslink line of 55 pence per mile, plus £12.50 to park my car at Cambridge Station. Since I already have a car for other reasons, it would not make financial sense to use the EWR. EWR fares should be higher than Thameslink reflecting the higher costs and lower number of passengers.

Construction Cost

A recent article in the New Civil Engineer was based on an interview with the construction director at the rail construction company Ferrovial. Ferrovial have worked on HS2 and similar high-speed rail projects in Europe. They reported that average achieved construction cost across 15 high speed rail projects in Europe was £34million per km. HS2 was estimated to be £100 million per km, but they actually achieved £200 million per km. Yes, six times as much.

In today’s prices the estimated cost of the Bedford to Cambridge section of the EWR is £87million per km.  One suspects the achieved cost will be higher. For reference, Google tells me UK motorways are around £30million per km in 2011 prices so maybe nearer £40million today.

Most UK railways were built long ago, a proper accounting of the business case for EWR must allow for the construction cost.

East West Rail and Levelling Up

The OxCam Arc was pushed aside by the levelling up White Paper in February. It is hard to argue that connecting Oxford to Cambridge achieves levelling up. A trickle-down effect e.g. through Astra Zeneca is a familiar type of argument for this along with Cambridge exceptionalism to foreign investors. These are the sort of arguments that have led to the need for levelling up in the first place. See, for example, Bob Kerslake’s report from the 2070 commission

The letter you signed to Rishi Sunak talks about the connection to the East Coast Mainline at St. Neots and how this will somehow level up the North East of England. Network Rail’s EWML Strategic Statement talks about this ECML connection on p.59

“It is unlikely that ECML fast-line services could call at any new station without unacceptable detriment to journey times or capacity.”

They don’t want to compromise the ECML advantage over road.

Value for Money

I care about value for money from public spending on EWR and so did the 2019 Lib Dem Manifesto.

The real issue is whether unqualified support for EWR will lead to the best use of public money at the moment. This morning, Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis was predicting that a 65% increase in home fuel bills will land around the time that the new Prime Minister arrives on Sept 5th – this would make the home fuel bill alone around one third of the state pension. The Bank of England are talking about more rate rises which will lead to higher mortgages rates. Fuel prices are rising. The NHS needs more money.

I can see a benefit for East West Rail to the following people

–       Commuters to the Biomedical Campus from Bedford and St. Neots – how many will there be that really come in from that direction?  We need to know.

–       People who can afford to live within a minute or two of Cambridge station 

–       Property developers/Investors from land value increase

On the other hand, all taxpayers are invited to pay for it. There are infrastructure projects all over the UK, so if we apportion the say £7.5 billion total cost over the current population between Bedford and Cambridge that might generously be 500,000 households. The cost per household would then be £15,000 for something which the vast majority of them would rarely if ever use.

If you sign more letters on behalf of the district demanding full funding of EWR you are not doing so in my name.

Your sincerely

Dr. William Harrold

Haslingfield and Cambridge Approaches

18 replies on “Letter to Cllr Bridget Smith*”

Perhaps we should all have signed ‘not in our name’
And the benefit of this rail does indeed seem to be for a few astra zeneca workers and property developers…

All your comments are well thought out and based on factually relevants evidence – Grant Schapps – Secretaryof State for Transport – in response to a question what would you do to make savings if your were Prime MinIister?”… Stop EWR Stage 2 and Stage 3″ . Grant Schapps has worked it out- SCRAP IT!

yes ,completely agree, needs to be scrapped – it is not wanted or needed and unaffordable for any of us to contemplate even if a tiny minority thought it a great idea. I believe this is more to do with the desire of land grab in the green belt for housing by developers greedy for high profits and /or possibly a line for Freight in which case completely needs to be situated away from Cambridge ,smaller surrounding towns and villages. This area is certainly oversubscribed for housing and present Schools, Hospitals GPs etc. overwhelmed already. The most appalling consequences is to the destruction of the local countryside which we will need to feed ourselves from even more in the future . All talk of looking after our environment and saving this planet for our children and grandchildren seems to be a load of hot air coming from Government ,Local Councils, and other Bodies . It is soul destroying to watch it all and quite frightening ! No amount of money or power grab is worth it ! You cannot get back what is lost and you cannot eat concrete!

Excellent detailed letter & I agree with it all. I hope that what hasn’t been built already, will now be scrapped.
It is a complete waste of public money.

As always, thank you so much for setting out the evidence against EWR so succinctly and thoroughly. I could never hope to put the case so well, but have contacted Councillor Bridget Smith to express my own dismay and opposition to her letters.

Excellent letter. Not in my name, either. All that money and desecration of our lovely countryside, not to mention cutting off villages from each other and it being of no benefit whatsoever to the villages located on the proposed Southern route…………

Thank you again William for forensically setting out such a compelling case which I will use in my own response to Cllr Smith. I am also minded to include – as a relevant parallel to EWR – the answer (which I earlier shared with William) which Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, gave on Radio 4 in April when asked why the Government’s energy strategy was not prioritising onshore windfarm development. His verbatim answer was: ‘It’s about getting local consent. So unlike other countries we can’t simply impose infrastructure on people if they don’t want it. And that’s a really really important principle.’

Thank you for another brilliant response. We’re truly lucky to have on board for this. Thank you for all your work and effort.

A brilliant letter- thank you. Our small farming village of Tempsford, on the Beds border with Cambs, has been bracing itself for massive environmental destruction if this vanity project were to be realised.

Clare, thanks for getting in touch. In order for the business case for the railway to stack up and with reasonable assumptions about a levy on new houses, I once estimated that Tempsford would have to become about the same size as the city of Leeds.It’s ludicrous and needs calling out.

Were you all aware that the Lib/Dems(founded1988!) had campaigned for an Oxford-Cambridge rail link for the past 50 years and before the May elections had made clear their support? I live in South Cambs and I must admit it never came to my notice and I consider myself politically aware.

William- Thank You, yet again an outstanding piece of work.
May I suggest to the signatories to the letter above just published that they re-instate the Victorian rail route, say through the now largely redundant Lords Bridge route for a start. Umm… fat chance of that, at least we can see now the powerbase openly, collectively this lot have failed to sort transport issues in Cambridgeshire over many years, but have enjoyed the discussion lunches and dinners held over the last 25 years.

In principle before Covid an EW Rail link might just have worked if of benefit to us locals, a very weak case though. The confusion between local, regional and national has always been in these signatories minds, how dare they sign in my name? At least it seems to be back to the drawing board (again) before too many £10m’s wasted, nice work for EWR mind you, while it lasted. Goodbye EWR Co.

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