Business Case

The Case Against East West Rail’s Central Section

Jeremy Hunt, Our sharp-eyed new Chancellor. Will he spot Nellie, the elusive EWR Central Section White Elephant? Find out on 17th November 2022 when he presents the Autumn Statement. See also bonus photo for Nellie fans at the end of this post.

This post publishes an open letter from Great Shelford resident Annabel Sykes to Anthony Browne MP and sets out her thinking on why the EWR Bedford to Cambridge Section should be dropped.

10 November 2022 

Dear Anthony 

I am writing not only in my local capacity, but also as a concerned taxpayer. 

In my opinion, East West Rail (“EWR”) central section is, at best and subject to some critical preconditions (explained in the next paragraph), a possible nice-to-have.  By contrast, some things are essential, most relevantly a coherent solution to Cambridgeshire’s severe public transport issues (including the building of Cambridge South station).   

EWR central section will not make a meaningful difference to  this essential objective, for the reasons explained at 1 below, and for a minimum of around £5 billion[1] of taxpayer’s money (2021 figures, so before the current high level of building inflation), does not represent any kind of value.  I also note that this is before any meaningful costs for extending EWR beyond Cambridge to the east are available. It would, in my view, be  very rash to make a decision to proceed with the central section of EWR (on any route whatsoever) without first having (a) a clear statement of its purpose (1(g) below), (b) a route which has been determined based on that purpose, (c) a public review of a business case and costs which are based on that purpose and (d) a proper costs estimate for the eastern section, again whatever route it follows (see 1(f) below for why). 

The Conservative Party’s 2019 Manifesto contains no express commitment to EWR.  The closest it gets is “We will also invest in improving train lines to…. East Anglia”.  The building of Cambridge South station and the Ely capacity enhancements, together with signalling upgrades and frequency increases on lines that can’t currently be used to get to jobs (see 1 and 3 below) could meet this commitment. 

1.  The Lack of Business Case for EWR Central Section

I should make clear that I am not an enemy of rail.  I live within hearing distance of the West Anglia Mainline (“WAML”) (inside the house, including at night) and I use the train whenever I reasonably can.  As I am over 60, it is relatively affordable, but both rail travel and station parking are expensive, especially for those between 30 and 60 (who don’t generally benefit from any discount on rail fares).  

I cannot see that EWR’s central section represents value for money or forms part of a coherent transport strategy for Cambridgeshire, for the following reasons:   

(a) Unlike some other places along the proposed EWR route, Cambridge is already very well connected by rail in all directions, including to the East Coast Main Line (“ECML”) (at both Hitchin and Peterborough).  In terms of east-west connection, it will also benefit from the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet road improvement scheme to which the Government has already committed.  There is a serious question whether it needs a third connection to the ECML.  If it does, the route 

needs very careful thought, having fully identified the link’s purpose or purposes (see (g) below).  This is a contrast with Bedford and points west, which do not currently have a link with ECML and, in general (with the exception of Oxford) don’t have rail links as extensive as Cambridge. 

(b) A draft Strategic Narrative for EWR prepared by Steer for the East West Main Line Partnership (“EWMLP”) suggests that Cambridge (among others) has a lower than average level of commuting into its centre for an economy of its size and importance. Assuming this is correct, it may well have more to do with (i) the positioning of the stations relative to places of employment (something which will be significantly improved with the building of Cambridge South station) and (ii) the timing, frequency and cost of the existing rail services, than to any lack of connection.  For example, I met someone recently who lives in Soham and drives into Cambridge to her place of work because the services from Soham are not frequent enough to allow her to use them to commute.  The previous mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority was fond of pointing out that Manea and March have stations, but they can’t be used to commute regularly to Cambridge because of lack of sufficient services (either quantity or hours).  Wisbech no longer has a station.

(c) In saying this, I do not ignore the very serious public transport problems in much of Cambridgeshire and especially in Cambourne and other new towns.  I am, however,  not convinced that a service which stops at St Neots/Tempsford and Cambourne and swings round to the new Cambridge South station will make much of a dent in this problem.  A holistic approach is needed; the nearly £5 billion estimated cost of the central section of EWR2could potentially provide a far wider-ranging light rail/tram train type network[2].  This could encompass a reuse for this kind of transport of the line from Great Shelford to Haverhill (something that may be very difficult if EWR central section[3] goes ahead).  This wider solution has significantly greater potential to ease the congestion problems facing Cambridge and CBC than the EWR central section does.  Greater Cambridge needs transport solutions, not an aspirational growth accelerator (see (j) below). 

(d) The benefits EWRCo says it will provide are access to a wider workforce, increased availability of offices/wet labs, access to affordable homes and levelling.  These seem to me significantly more likely to come to Cambridge from the north and east than from the west.  As regards:  

i)        workforce – I have attached a diagram taken from the CBC Transport Needs Review which shows the origins of staff working at CBC (overwhelmingly hospital staff) by postcode, based on 2011 census data.   This suggests that some staff do, or did, travel in from the west (including Bedford) despite the lack of a railway connection and that the number of staff travelling from areas a roughly comparable distance away but with existing railway connections (Hitchin/Letchworth and Stansted/ Bishop’s Stortford) was not significantly greater.  The diagram shows a notable gap to the north west, but this may well have more 

2 See footnote 1 for source

to do with the fact that CBC hospitals were competing for staff with Hinchingbrooke and, at that time, Papworth Hospitals which were located in that area, than with the lack of a rail link.  More recent information suggests that a percentage of CBC hospital staff do now come from the Papworth and Huntingdon areas (this may well, in large measure reflect the opening of Royal Papworth at CBC).  I have also attached page 7 of the Greater Cambridge Housing Strategy 2019 – 2023, which does not suggest there is a particular issue for EWR’s currently proposed route to solve;

ii)         housing affordability – please see the attached map, which speaks for itself; 

iii)      levelling up – I have attached a diagram from the Government’s White Paper on Levelling Up published earlier this year.  On the whole, the left behind regions are north and  east (rather than west) of Cambridge. 

I am afraid EWRCo’s arguments do not convince me, and they should not convince you, that 

EWR’s central section has a business case.  They also did not convince the former Secretary of 

State for Transport, Grant Shapps, who made clear in the summer (in an interview with LBC on 11 July) that he would cut the second and third tranches of EWR thus saving £3 to 5 billion straight away.   Richard Fuller (MP for North East Bedfordshire) wrote to the then Secretary of State for Transport on 14 October 2022 asking for a full public review of the business case before any decision is made on EWR’s connection stage 2 and the central section.  He has also said that he is formally opposed to EWR[4].

(e) EWR’s central section is new railway.  However good EWR Co may have been at delivering the project on time and on budget so far (as they claim), they have essentially been upgrading existing railway.  The travails of HS2 show that new railway is much, much harder and that costs and timing can easily overrun by very significant amounts.  I also note that the Cabinet Office’s Infrastructure and Project’s Authority has given EWR stage 2 and the central section a “red” rating (i.e. it does not believe the scheme can meet its objectives on time and within budget unless risks are addressed).   

(f) It is quite clear that Network Rail and others think that the full benefits of EWR will not be realised unless it continues further east[5].  Steer, for EWMLP, has been working on a pre-Strategic Outline Business Case for the eastern section for some time.  Network Rail’s recent East West Main Line Strategic Statement is clear-eyed on the many difficulties of upgrading the mooted route (being the line to Newmarket) save that it doesn’t mention the large number of level crossings[6].   Further, the appropriate route beyond Cambridge will depend on the answer to (g). For example, a more regular light rail or tram train solution may well be a preferable one for the Newmarket line if it is to remain a passenger-focussed service. 

(g) It is still not clear what EWR is for[7].   Some still think it is a high-ish speed Oxford to Cambridge link, some that it is a commuter railway.  At a recent Bidwell’s conference, Will Gallagher of 

EWRCo conceded that it was about “place-making”.  I understand this to mean (among other things) that it is a commuter railway.  This has a major impact on the business case, as does the question of whether freight will be important to it. Historically, freight was important to the Varsity Line.  If freight is important again, and Network Rail is clear that it potentially is[8], the currently proposed southern approach is highly unsuitable as it would run through significant residential areas of Cambridge, close to several large educational establishments and ironically (bearing in mind that almost all freight is diesel) past one of the country’s leading heart and lung hospitals. There are also some very considerable issues with the Newmarket line, including the narrow radius chord at Coldham’s junction. From this perspective, it is worth noting that EWR Co itself appears recently to have pivoted quietly towards freight[9]  and has made clear it expects to have an 18 hour operational window for freight services. 

(h) The central section (and indeed the remainder of EWR) will not join together large cities or towns. Cambridge, as we know, is a small city and Bedford borough is roughly 170,000.  The two proposed stopping points between (Tempsford/St Neot’s) and Cambourne are growing, but are  not predicted to become large.  This is of obvious economic significance and, unless there are other reasons to run heavy rail (see (g)) or it joins more communities, EWR feels like a sledgehammer to crack a nut.  This is especially given its potentially damaging impact on South Cambridgeshire villages, which will see no benefit from it, and on farming and food security[10].  It also assumes that people will use EWR.  EWRCo have carried out a limited, carefully phrased survey which is on their website to bolster their position (see attached screen shot, which does not mention rail).  This contrasts with your own survey with a far greater number of respondents, which suggests that few residents in your constituency will use EWR regularly[11].   The radical bus network and sustainable travel zone proposals in the recent “Making Connections” consultation by the Greater Cambridge Partnership are relevant too.  EWR will not be able to compete on price with these.  

(i) EWMLP’s Building Better Connections the business imperative for East West Rail (“Building Better Connections”) makes some poorly-researched claims about the connectivity EWR will bring[12].  I was brought up in Hertfordshire so I can predict with some confidence that no-one would, in practice, catch a train from Welwyn Garden City to St Neot’s to take an EWR train west.  They would make the 17 minute drive to St Alban’s station instead. From Stevenage or Hitchin, it will almost certainly be more time efficient to drive to Luton station and use that route to get onto EWR westwards.   

(j) Cambridge appears to be very capable of growing by itself and it was widely acknowledged at a recent Bidwell’s Ox-Cam Arc conference that cities along EWR already are. EWRCo argues that it could super-charge this (the approach appears to be not predict and provide, but the fiscally irresponsible provide and hope).  There is, to my mind, a serious question whether if EWR were to succeed in increasing the growth rate (as it argues), Cambridge would overheat, with affordability concerns simply increasing in a vicious spiral.  There are, as you already know, 

significant issues with water and energy supplies in the Greater Cambridge area and deleterious impacts on the region’s precious chalk streams. 

(k) Cambridge South station is an essential addition to Cambridge’s rail provision and should be transformational for CBC, but it is a separate project from EWR and does not need EWR to succeed.  

 An Oxford to Cambridge railway line has nostalgic appeal and makes for good branding, but does it have a business case?  As regards the central section, I remain to be convinced on this and, if there is a business case, of the route that best serves its purpose, once that purpose has been clearly identified.   

2.  Community Liaison

EWRCo is not a transparent organization, both its consultations have been of a poor standard and it does not seem to enjoy talking to communities potentially impacted by the central section or see any need to keep them up-to-date in an effective way. 

The recent EWR organised Haslingfield drop-in is a case in point:   (a) I took a copy of the August FOI reply with me and asked the EWR representatives for programme and business case about its line “Cambridge Station and West Anglia Main Line £499,600,000”.  Each of them said they did not recognise it and had no idea what it related to[13].  I found this quite astonishing.  The business case person also said that the DfT “owns” the business case; 

(b) I asked why no drop-in event had been held in Great Shelford (every single proposal EWRCo has ever made runs through Great Shelford).   The answer was predictable warble.  The true answer is more likely that EWR Co assumes that holding something in central Cambridge is good enough, which it isn’t.  It simply demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between Cambridge and the communities in its southern necklace villages. 

The local representative groups recently established by EWRCo are another case in point.  EWRCo is either unwilling or unable to engage constructively with communities’ legitimate questions.  These meetings appear to be a “tick box” exercise.  In addition, the sparse attendance by councillors representing Cambridge City is interesting.  Two meetings were held for the city only group.  The first was attended by one councillor and the second was cancelled when no-one turned up[14].  The only conclusion I can draw from this is that the city is not very interested in EWR. 

Finally, Hannah Staunton (EWRCo’s Head of Communications) gave a notably unsatisfactory interview on Radio Bedfordshire on 18 October.  This is her answer to a question regarding when residents in limbo in Bedford will find out if their houses will be demolished. After expressions of sympathy, she said  “It has taken longer than we’d hoped…I don’t have a date for you at the moment, I am afraid.  We are still working on the feedback we received and we are looking at a number of other things as well… We are really are trying to make sure we are creating the best possible design that we can.. it almost goes without saying there are some decisions in central government that take a little bit longer to get through than we were hoping…..At the moment, it 

would be irresponsible of me to put a date out there”.    As you know, there are many people in South Cambridgeshire in a similar position of uncertainty as regards their homes, gardens or farms to those in Bedford.  Sustained pressure on EWRCo is required. 

3.    Improving Train Lines to East Anglia 

(a) I live in one of the better connected villages in South Cambridgeshire.  Not only is it an easy cycle into Cambridge, but it has a train station and a bus service (albeit subject to cancellations).  I nevertheless find myself driving more than I would like to.  For example, I would love to catch the train to Peterborough and Stansted Airport, but neither journey from Shelford is sufficiently regular or competes adequately with driving.  Even the journey to the airport, which is on WAML, involves a change if one starts at Shelford. 

(b) There are three problematic to severely problematic level crossings in South Cambridgeshire – one at Foxton and two in Great Shelford.  They are serious pinch points and need to be replaced with fit-for-purpose crossings of the railway line. 

(c) As noted above, there are a number of places which have stations, but very limited service.  For example, Bury St Edmunds has a population of over 40,000 and has good road, but astonishingly poor rail, connections, including with Cambridge.  Wisbech has no rail connections with Cambridge or anywhere else. 

(d) Network Rail’s Ely area capacity enhancement proposals would significantly improve connectivity and reliability for passenger services and meet the demand for more rail freight to and from Felixstowe.  They were not included in the Growth Plan and were, at minimum, rumoured to have been rejected by the Department of Transport in the summer, but are significantly cheaper and with more obvious benefit to parts of Cambridgeshire than EWR.  

(e) A comprehensive, integrated public transport system is what Cambridgeshire needs.  EWRCo’s lack of transparency and reluctance to liaise with anyone indicates that it expects everyone else to work around it and does not suggest it is approaching its mission with the open mind needed to make it a success.  There is a severe risk it will take a huge chunk of the transport budget Cambridgeshire might reasonably expect and make little, if any, real improvement to the trainlines to East Anglia.  

Cutting EWR’s central section is an easy win in these difficult financial times and I urge the Government not to hesitate.   

Yours sincerely 

Annabel Sykes 

[1] See attached reply of 17 August to a freedom of information request by Mohammad Attar (“August FOI reply”)

[2] An initiative which would be consistent with the Liberal Democrat 2019 Manifesto and was recently mentioned by Lucy Nethsingha –

[3] Revival of the link to Haverhill is supported by you, Lucy Frazer KC MP and Matt Hancock MP.  Cambridge Connect has been working with RailFuture East Anglia and others on developing tram train proposals, which can also run on existing heavy rail lines and thus avoid some of the problems identified for CSET2 (the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s partial solution for those currently commuting along the A1307) in adopting a rail route.  Reviving the Haverhill line would also give Sawston (a large village with a population of about 7,000) the station it wants and, unlike CSET2, serve the new Cambridge City football ground at Sawston.   

[4] Bedford Independent 24 August 2022

[5] See, for example, Network Rail’s East West Main Line Strategic Statement and EWMLP’s Building Better Connections

[6] See its page 61

[7] The Sponsor’s Requirements and Programme Wide Output Specification (see the relevant appendices of the Technical Report published by EWRCo as part of its 2021 consultation) lack clarity on this all important question.  They also assume that EWR must travel to Cambridge station.  Why?  There are already six trains an hour in each direction through Cambridge

[8] See page 61 of Network Rail’s East West Main Line Strategic Statement

[9] See this blog –

[10] See  


[12] The example towns  mentioned in the next sentence already have direct rail connections with Cambridge

[13] My purpose was to find out whether this line item assumed grade-separation at Shepreth Branch Junction, which would be potentially devastating for Great Shelford and parts of Trumpington.  I am still in the dark on the answer to this question   

[14] The first meeting of the Cambridge City and Surrounding Areas Group was attended by some city councillors who appeared more interested in drowning out the inconvenient concerns of the southern villages than representing their electorate, the second of that group by very few

Another sighting of Nellie in the wild…

9 replies on “The Case Against East West Rail’s Central Section”

Dear Annabel
As a Little Shelford resident I attended the Haslingfield event and was most disappointed in the answers given to questions which mainly concerned passenger transport. It is my view that this whole EWR project is predominantly about freight and putting the emphasis on the passenger aspect is a distraction. If you discount passenger services from the argument, it begins to make sense that the main objective is to transport freight by rail to different parts of the country which is necessary in order to remove more lorries from the roads. What does not make sense is why the freight trains, travelling mainly at night, have to go through the centre of Cambridge and other residential areas – the point you have eloquently made in para. g of your letter. People have raised concerns about diesel. I am no expert but I understand that there is currently no alternative means of power for these long, heavy (and noisy) trains. I think the freight element should be more clearly stated although it is not in the interests of EWR to do so.

Exemplary work, Annabel.
I find it baffling how little Cambridge City residents know about EWR’s proposed route straight through the city. You are right, I suspect-the real reason for EWR has always been freight-the passenger arguments are a strategic distraction, and I am certain that EWR themselves are cynically masking the freight debate-“not part of our remit, Gov”.
It also seems that these people are clinging on to their highly-paid gravy train for as long as they possibly can, inhabiting that nebulous grey-area of a private company pursuing Govt business, and thus accountable to nobody.

As a company specifically created by the government (the DfT owns the one and only share), East West Rail Co have been given the task of creating and running a passenger railway between Oxford and Cambridge central station. They have no remit to consider what happens east of Cambridge, yet it is obvious that the route onward to the east is a perfect option for freight from/to Felixstowe deep water port. Network Rail have published outline plans for upgrading this line. Generally, the residents of Cambridge and onward along the line to Newmarket are oblivious to the future consequences of this.
Your letter is packed full of logical argument. I wonder if Anthony Browne will be moved enough to get off the fence. Unfortunately, the whole project has become a glossy marketing exercise and political issue where struggles for power and position take precedent over concerns of communities, both local and more widely.
I do hope that enough awareness can be created to keep the subject in the public domain.

Thank you Annabel your hard work clearly puts a compelling argument for the government to thoroughly re examine this project.

You’ve explained each of the points very well Annabel. EWR have not listened so far and nor have government. Moving freight is what it’s all about as there isn’t enough passenger traffic to warrant spending £6Bn. Why the hell they would want to push that through the centre of Cambridge though is a mystery. I still find it a travesty that EWR have not published the results of the consultation or the business case. I hope your letter has more success than all those that have gone before it.

A brilliant comment with stunning scope and detail, well done and thankyou. I hope you get a response!
Might I draw attention to the 13 level crossings on the current Cambridge (Coldhams Lane) to Newmarket line which seem to be part of the proposed plan. If frequent freight trains are to run here it will paralyse road traffic as well as create a huge pall of emissions from stationary vehicles.
A northern route to and from Cambridge through Soham to Newmarket would avoid these issues as well as remove the existing crossings.

Thank you, Anabel. Eloquently put. The lack of commitment and transparency on emissions and use of diesel/freight is one of my (many) concerns. What a travesty that Hunt does not share your insight.

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