Business Case

The Meaning of the Triple Helix

Well, the Route Update Announcement (RUA) is here and the documents associated with it contain quite a bit of material about the business case for the railway. Here are some points that I found interesting.

Transformational Growth (ref: Economic and Technical Report Appendix 4 pp.59)

If you are environmentally conscious and concerned about the level of development we have already seen in our area (and that included in local plans), perhaps you think that new railways are a green form of transport. We could have the electric car vs rail debate, or we could talk about the lack of interest that EWRCo. have shown in taking freight of the road, or even the vast embedded carbon in construction of a new railway. But there is more direct evidence in the RUA material about the scale of EWR dependent housing development (economic growth’s ugly sister) that EWRCo. are assuming in their business model.

Look at the assumed growth in Cambourne and Tempsford from development dependent on EWR. Together, they would be houses for an additional 97,400 people and just about all on green field / prime agricultural sites. For comparison, the population of Cambridge in the 2021 census was 125,000. These are also only the people within 2km of an EWR station – the population of Milton Keynes is much higher than 66,000 shown in the table. The EWRCo. objective is to get more people commuting into high paid jobs in Cambridge where they can generate income and taxes for HMRC. But EWR is not very efficient and doing that. Not everyone in the new houses will commute to Cambridge and not all of them will use rail – see above for some optimistic assumptions. As usual, EWRCo.’s journey times are ridiculously optimistic since they do not include first and last mile or the time spent waiting for the next train or indeed the fact that rail tickets are just really expensive.

We had some level 2 BCRs in the 2020 Option Report which were all pretty low. Since then, the cost estimates have “matured” and I was going to say there had been inflation. However, notice this table is still at 2010 prices (PV) so we can add at least 30% to all these numbers to get to today’s prices. 

The point is that the level 2 BCRs are all very poor and even adding a huge allowance for yet more “wider benefits” (tax revenue from new jobs), it’s still not looking like a good investment.

The rational decision here (unless, like EWRCo. employees, your job depends on it) is not to do the project. If you had to do it the best option is clearly HR2. But EWRCo. have chosen HR5 which has the lowest BCR. Strange, and perhaps indicative of the power of the Triple Helix. Read on to find out…

Updated Costs (ref: Economic and Technical Report Appendix pp.86-87)

Before we go there let’s have a deeper look at the construction cost comparison and what those HR numbers are. Here is the table with the latest costs and an explanation of the HR numbers. EWRCo. do not state the basis year for the costs.

There is also a caveat that HR1 uses a 4-track northern approach to Cambridge (NATC) while HR2 uses a new 3-track approach for the NATC. That presumably doesn’t involve knocking down any houses. It’s good that they now agree this is possible.

It also means that we can work out how much cheaper it is to approach Cambridge from the north than from the south. Base cost (HR3) – base cost (HR2) = £2.37Bn-£1.98Bn = £390 million. Actually, based on HS2, Transpennine etc, we should definitely be using the upper end of the risk range figures. That would be £620 million.

Similarly at the Bedford end base cost (HR5) – base cost (HR3) = £3.35bn – £2.37bn = £0.98bn, with the risk added £1.57Bn. You could do a lot for Priory Country Park on the Varsity route for that.


EWRCo. analysis assumes huge green field housing developments outside any local plan and, with the demise of the centrally driven OxCam Arc, no clear means to deliver or spatially plan them around EWR.  EWRCo. analysis also assumes journey times that make no allowance for first and last mile. That implies perfect “place making” meaning they assume that everyone can get to the station immediately at both ends of the journey and a train just happens to be waiting for them. Despite all this, they can only get to a BCR less than one with 2010 prices. Furthermore, of the four options analysed, they picked the one with the worst BCR which avoids any damage to the Priory Country Park and has the first station that it reaches in Cambridge as Cambridge South and the Biomedical Campus (CBC). 

They are targeting the creation of 80,000 jobs in addition to the 17,000 already there. There is little room to expand the CBC since it is hard up against the Green Belt and was not the prime focus for the Greater Cambridge Local Plan.

Both the northern and the southern approach to Cambridge can easily serve all three Cambridge Stations. The economy of the space constrained CBC to the south is easily balanced by the Science parks and new planned developments to the north of Cambridge.

Enter the Triple Helix (Economic and Technical Report §6.4.19)

There have in the past been indications of rationality from government about EWR and the OxCam Arc. Remember Grant Shapps was going to cancel the project. Michael Gove ditched the centrally controlled OxCam Arc. There were signs of Huw Merriman seriously talking about the NATC (it’s cheaper and better for freight). The NATC is even used as the reference heavy rail comparison in the RUA’s light rail study document published as late as January 2023. 

As we have seen from the details of the RUA report there is no business case, and the chosen route is has the lowest BCR. But, to mis-quote J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

Victory was near, but the power of the Triple Helix could not be undone”.

It seems that the RUA material has been changed in the run up to the announcement which turns out to be more of a route confirmation rather than an update.

I am looking at this strange section in the Economic and Technical Report

§6.4.19 The Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge region is further advantaged by its access to a unique ‘Triple Helix.’ The Triple Helix is an established concept that demonstrates overlapping interactions between academia and universities, industry and business, and government and public sector institutions. The close proximity of these institutions and organisations to each other form overlapping circles or helixes.” 

It then goes onto list three life science related triple helixes involving players from the CBC.  Here is the first one:

  • Astra Zeneca on the CBC (had they actually moved there in 2020? Having spent £1Billion on their new HQ at the CBC is there any evidence they would build another one there because of EWR?)
  • Government – In Downing Street / Westminster
  • The University of Oxford (specifically the Jenner Institute which is a 30 minute bus ride from Oxford Station)

These three entities successfully worked together on the AZ vaccine without EWR in place and there is no evidence that EWR would have made any material difference to that project, especially during a lock down where rail travel was restricted.

There is nothing unique about the CBC Triple Helix, nor does Silicon Valley depend on rail rather than the roads.

But despite all logic, this example seems to appeal to HM Treasury at an emotional level and hence connecting to the CBC first is clearly essential to get this project funded. Even if it means signing off a loss making project and compounding the error by going for the route which their own analysis says has the lowest BCR. It’s a sorry state of affairs for our democracy, but HM Treasury is the customer and the local people and logic really don’t matter.

That’s the meaning of the Triple Helix. 

18 replies on “The Meaning of the Triple Helix”

Dear EWR, where to start? How about the DfT definition of the value-for-money (VfM) indicator, for approving spending on a project. A value of the Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) less than 1 corresponds with “poor” value for money, which is the *lowest possible* rating. In the most recent 5 years the proportion of DfT approved spending with a “poor” VfM is less than 0.5%. So how is it that the EWR project is able to publish four HR options, all of which have a level 3 BCR less than 1 and the lowest possible “poor” VfM rating? And then not only does EWR conclude that this project can actually go ahead at all, but to inflate the absurdity even further EWR chooses the option HR5 with the lowest BCR of all options. Beyond making no sense at all, the obvious reality can only be that no version of this project has a viable standalone business case, and for every minute that EWR continues to push ahead with the project while ignoring this reality it loses more and more of its dwindling credibility.

You’re clearly on top of all the detail. But this is my killer quote from the report: “Our high-level investigations since the 2021 consultation indicate that a northern approach may potentially be cheaper to build and quicker to construct, and have less potential environmental impact, but it wouldn’t be an alternative to a southern approach in terms of economic growth.”
Capitalism’s imperative is always to continually fuel it’s development by maximising economic growth. And, quite explicitly here, this is trumping *any* attempt (however marginal) to sacrifice *some* of that growth to mitigate the climate crisis.

I fear (and not just because of this report) that we are doomed. Economic growth is the cancer that’s been exponentially replicating negative climate impacts for centuries – and looks set to continue to do so.

Damning indeed. For months/years the southern approach has been espoused as the only ‘viable’ option at it was cheaper, faster and better in all ways then the southern approach.

And now (quelle surprise) it turns out it wasn’t so much cheaper/faster/better but… (shock upon shock) they STILL prefer the southern route – now based on trumped-up economic guess work.

It’s ALMOST as if all the “consultation” and “studies” were a mere fig leaf or box ticking exercise whilst they pressed ahead with whatever route their paymasters preferred all along.

Deeply disappointing but not wholly unexpected. Thank you for your continued analysis – I wonder when or whether we will learn of the deep corporate lobbying for this route in the Treasury? To my mind that is the only reasoning why this irrational decision looks to have been taken.
The BCR is of course well overstated anyway when these projects come in at 2x cost – vis HS2.
Where are they on freight on this case? Could that persuade government to re look at the North route again?
What are Daniel Zeichner’s view on the route? Will the Labour party want to spend this £5-10bn levelling up in the North of the country instead?
Where next do we go with our lobbying?
In the meantime it looks like the A438 improvements are going ahead eating into the use of this rail line.

Many thanks for your analysis. The same smooth text with happy pictures of people looking at irrelevant views and weaselly phrases claiming to address issues raised (with no detailed analysis I have yet found of the response to consultation) – shorter embankments, fewer houses demolished etc.
And the brazen comments that despite northern approach being better in many ways it is still essential to go south. If there is an election next year- as there should be- its timing may impact on EWR decisions, but I wouldn’t try to predict how. And Labour seems not rule out building on green belt and has the same commitment to housebuilding -yes we need houses but not expensive ones in green fields in south eastern England as justification for putting a station there. Where would the hard core for the embankment come from? How would Hardwick wood and other woodlands be affected by the nearby railway even if it doesn’t actually go through them?
Details of route on latest communications not clear, assume they are as in the previous maps. How if at all does EWR relate to guided busway due to go from Cambourne to Cambridge partly near A428, then cut through Coton orchard debouching into Grange Rd, a residential road lined with schools and colleges ?
South Cambs is not alone- I see the mayor of Bedford says this “is a black day for Bedford” – EWR says they will “only” demolish 37 houses in Bedford not 53 tho 66 will still lose all or part of garden.
He is about the only local politician I have seen criticize this project, plus to be fair, Anthony Browne.
On a personal level we are left wondering if there is any point in expensive repairs to windows of house we may be driven to leave. They would rattle dramatically at passing of each train… Developers and estate agents send us messages from time to time as if they are confident we will soon sell and move (which would be at enormous loss unless the EWR policy on forced sale has any substance ) . There have been repeated ecology reports on our land by different organisations- perfectly nice and I believe competent people who know and care about the environment- the money spent on them by EWR would be useful if it led to publicly reported information about their findings. No information has been reported to us despite several requests. Whether bats are roosting in our garden is apparently a commercial secret. Efficiency in commissioning these projects seems limited as different groups don’t know about previous work. Latest on tree within a few feet of house- does this mean they actually consider demolishing it rather than making it uninhabitable by proximity to railway? Is this so EWR can claim it recorded wild life, trees etc before destruction and that makes it ok? “Preservation by record” has debateable validity for archaeological evidence, certainly not for trees, bats etc. One of their claims is about “improving nature” so maybe they are counting trees in order to plant the same number in future. Like the ones along the A14…
It feels as if we can do nothing except pray for political decision not to fund EWR. Will enjoy garden while I can.

What about all the other infrastructure needed to support this level of housebuilding, let alone the construction disruption as the railway and related housing are built?
Just focussing for a moment on my special interest subject, hospitals. The Government has “relaunched” its 40 New Hospitals Programme (“NHP”) this week, but it seems pretty clear that the Emperor has no clothes. Hinchingbrooke and Queen Elizabeth’s, King’s Lynn are to be rebuilt. These are A & E hospitals serving Cambridgeshire. What will happen at Addenbrooke’s A & E, already desperately undersized, while they are being rebuilt?
The cancer research hospital is in the NHP and hasn’t been bounced out. The children’s hospital is not in the NHP and the prognosis looks gloomy – .
The necessary rebuild of the acute hospital seems a distant dream, especially as Hinchingbrooke and QE King’s Lynn are hospital spend in Cambridgeshire or environs.
The craziness of all this is that sufficient physical space and staff with capacity for research in hospitals are far more critical to a thriving life sciences industry than EWR could ever possibly be.

It is bizarre that EWR have wasted all of the time since the last non-stat consultation. Time that could have been spent surveying and preparing for the cheaper and faster to build northern route. Instead they say “Our high-level investigations since the 2021 consultation indicate that a northern approach may potentially be cheaper to build and quicker to construct, and have less potential environmental impact, but it wouldn’t be an alternative to a southern approach in terms of economic growth.” What would be the difference in economic growth. The train would still leave Cambourne and arrive at Cambridge South which ever route it takes and as there are no stops in between it doesn’t impact economic growth at all. In fact there is more planned housing in the north of the Cambridge.

After all this time the route with the lowest BCR is chosen for the wrong reasons. Only the law courts can stop this level of deceit.

I concur with all the points above and thank CA for their efforts, as always. To add – we simply do not have the water (as well as the other infrastructure mentioned) to support this growth, and yet this doesn’t seem to factor in any of the planning. How can the impact on climate not be the priority at this stage? I am quite petrified for the future.

It’s great how into your subject you are but a few terms in English would be great or at least an introduction glossary of terms like lawyers have come to do . Still have nt decoded natc.

While understandable, continuing to make the case for a northern approach into Cambridge is divisive. South Cambs needs to come together to have any prospect of successfully opposing the EWR project and the massive housing developments that will inevitably follow.

I think you must be right, Peter, that in the light of the the population increase EWR Co has in mind for Cambourne and environs i.e. 54,300, the villages north of Cambourne are doomed whichever approach EWR takes to Cambridge. You’ll need to take this up with your current, and perhaps future, MP. The southern villages don’t yet have a Conservative candidate to talk to.
Whilst you may not like Cambridge Approaches noting that at least some of the documents appear to have been written on the basis that the northern approach was the preferable one, the fact that a southern decision appears to have been rather ineptly and hastily bolted on, surely suggests incompetence on the part of EWR Co. That must surely be helpful support for arguments that the central section should be scrapped.

Statistics, data, comparisons, technical jargon. All obviously very important, but often meaningless to the average resident who is going to be affected by this monstrosity. Sometimes what simply needs to be said is that the whole area of South Cambs from Cambourne to Cambridge is being decimated by multiple money-sapping schemes and unrestricted house building with absolutely no consideration to existing villages. Can nobody in power sympathise and realise that thousands of people’s quality of life is going to be severely detrimentally affected by forcing all these schemes into one area?

Railway, busway, park & ride, greenway, Bourn Airfield, Luton flight path. As a resident of Hardwick, all these things are going to make the future full of noisy construction ruining green space around our village on all sides, making every route out of the village filled with eyesores, and bringing in thousands more people to further overstretch dwindling water resources and amenities.

I struggle to envisage that in the future I will have to pass under the railway twice just to get to Comberton, will have to go under a flyover and cross a busway route to get to Caldecote, will have a huge car park next to a well used footpath to Dry Drayton, and will have one of the footpaths out of the village concreted over so bikes can use it. All this under the noise of the likely increasing number of planes going to Luton.

I hope that all the hard working individuals who have kept up the Cambridge Approaches campaign have some further ideas and ways to try and stop this nightmare railway becoming a reality. As the recent route announcement has made everything seem much more likely, and therefore makes a pressing need for some sort of big action, is there any way that you can reach out to all affected Parish Councils and get some sort of joined-up thinking between villages to present a unified objection?

Personal objections through the consultation were nowhere near enough in number to make the difference. People that I talked to back when the consultation was taking place didn’t know about it, didn’t look at or read it, or just thought it wouldn’t affect them. Sometimes people seem to care more about what’s going on in a holiday beauty spot that they visit once a year than what is happening on their doorstep. This sadly means that the representation from villages was probably not anywhere near enough to cause any change. Now that there is a more ‘real threat’ for them to present, is there a way for Parish Councils to somehow collect objections from greater numbers of residents to then add together as a group for all the villages that will be affected.

One of the biggest problems with the proposals for the railway has always been the almost unimaginable use of diesel trains. Is there a climate action group/green energy group or ministers that can be lobbied to make this a reason for stopping the project in it’s current state? Surely if it has to go ahead then electric should be a prerequisite? Everyone is trying their bit to save energy and use greener fuels so how can a national scheme be relying on diesel?! The fact that it will then cost millions more to convert in the future, meaning even more construction in our area, makes it even more laughable.

I apologise for a lengthy ramble, it just makes me so angry and upset to think of the awful outlook for our local area.

Do South Cambs Lib Dem’s still support this project and the southern routing? They are probably hoping to take a few seats around here at the next election, including South Cambs. This could be quite a tricky local issue for them given their previous support for the project.

Lib dems and Labour also propose introducing a congestion charge for Cambridge which would include Addenbrookes and Papworth hospitals. Take a train!!!!

Good point re seeking the Lib Dem’s view.
Have they/ will they disclose how much easier and cheaper the northern route is? I imagine that if you overlay the freight case on top the northern route the gap only becomes wider. And what is the basis of a direct train to the south giving more benefit than one going their via Cambridge North?
As mentioned above the house building justification looks so large that the region will struggle to cope / and hard to comprehend. Surely good grounds for challenge and publicity?

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