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Transport Select Committee Oral Hearing 6/3/2024

The “Case for Cambridge” and EWR – an aside on the environment.

Yesterday I attended an event in Portcullis House Westminster. The Transport Select Committee (TSC) has chosen to use East West Rail as a case study for interdepartmental working on major infrastructure projects. Of course, this is because the collaboration has been shambolic as exposed by the NAO investigation report last December. They talked a lot about Cambridge, and I had some side conversations with DfT officials as well. Rail Minister Huw Merriman said that the housing between Bedford and Cambridge would be built anyway so we might as well take some cars off the road by building EWR. Nice spin, but, if the houses are going to be built anyway then what exactly is the financial case for this £8billion railway? Dr. Andy Williams of the Oxford Cambridge Supercluster board was unconcerned about the £4million capital cost per Cambridge Commuter for EWR (£8billion/2000 commuters) and told me it was irrelevant. I guess that’s because it’s the taxpayer funding it not business. Similar reaction from Jon Shortland planning officer in Bedford. He said EWR would bring £15million/year to the Bedford economy. I told him the railway would cost £80million/year just to operate, never mind the cost of capital (£8billion at 5%/year is £400million/year). He told me Bedford does not have to pay so who cares? I do.

So, then we get to “the miracle at Tempsford” (and presumably similar places like Cambourne North.) and its interaction with the Cambridge Biomedical Campus (CBC). The CBC has 20,000 employees. EWR supporters at the TSC think there could be another 20,000 with EWR connecting to the south of Cambridge. That of course would mean expansion into the green belt towards Great Shelford – a plan rejected by our local planning people so far due to its high harm to our green belt. The problem is that the analysis presented in the EWRCo. Economic and Technical report only predicts 2000 EWR commuters per day to Cambridge, not 20,000 or anything link it. The site at Tempsford is in the flood plain of the Great Ouse and what has to happen is that the three planning authorities that control the area all agree to sign off the new town and that the “rail mode share” at Tempsford is much higher than seen in say Ely or Royston in the 2011 census. They also have to be happy to sign off a dormitory for Cambridge and sort out the environmental consequences.

If Tempsford were built it would also connect to Cambridge via the new A428/A421 Black Cat – Caxton Gibbet dual carriageway and of course it is also on a main line railway line to London. Why exactly is everyone going to commute by rail to the CBC? However, the DfT official I spoke to was undaunted. Tempsford will be “transformational” for some reason he could not explain and DfT economists could not analyse. Yeah, right. He also said that the trend to work at home more since the pandemic will double the number of jobs supported because two people go to different jobs. One for say the first half of the week and the other for the second half. My experience is that Cambridge roads are much quieter on a Friday because everyone chooses to work from home. I recall a recent presentation from Stagecoach on their bus passenger numbers saying that “Thursday is the new Friday”. 

Dame Bernadette Kelly the Department for Transport Permanent Secretary was asked by the Transport Select Committee why it was that the new HM Treasury led EWR growth board was only now exploring how to deliver the benefits of the railway (she had talked about the 6 new streams of work etc). Why ,they asked, was this not worked out long before the project was inflicted on the general public? She said it was very hard to work out such a business case up front. Evidently much better for local residents to be tortured with years of uncertainty while the DfT use the experience to work out their business case.

Good grief!

19 replies on “Transport Select Committee Oral Hearing 6/3/2024”

You highlight that the potential development site at Tempsford is on a flood plain. Has this land been flooded during the recent heavy rain period ?

There was definitely an Environment Agency flood warning in the area EWR are proposing to run the rail around Tempsford on 12 February and I’d be confident there have been numerous flood alerts over the last few months, because there just have been (the Cam is at the bottom of my garden so I look at the EA website for flood alerts frequently).

John Reynolds could perhaps take a walk from Everton down to Gibraltar Farm. On parts of the public footpath he would find himself knee deep in mud. Flood plains absorb water and prevent flooding elsewhere – that is what they do.

Credit where credit is due – Naomi Green (EEH) did say that both DeFRA and DHSC should be included in the EWR Economic Growth Board. However, she was then gently caught out by Iain Stewart MP when she tried to argue that EWR would be great for a 16 year old who lives in Kettering and has an apprenticeship at Silverstone. The MP for Milton Keynes South wasn’t convinced.
Mayor Tom Wootton (Bedford Borough Council) explained that National Highways – currently carrying out the Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvements – were far better at community relations and talking to parish councils than EWRCo.
Beth West suggested Bedford to Cambridge could be open by the early 2030s. She clearly hasn’t read the communications from DeFRA and DLUHC published with the Budget yesterday and dealing with water scarcity around Cambridge. Remember this issue is holding up current development provided for in Cambridge City and SCDC’s 2018 Local Plans (let along development contemplated in the draft Local Plan Greater Cambridge Shared Planning is preparing). Why would it make sense for the line to be built before it is possible to build all those houses William has mentioned at Cambourne, let alone the labs etc for the additional 20,000 jobs at Cambridge Biomedical Campus (the Environment Agency’s current objections to planning applications include an objection to the Cancer Research Hospital’s application).
The transcript of the oral evidence should be available very soon; there will be plenty more to debunk when it is. Plus the Budget has brought forward EWR Connection Stage 2 “Delivery of works on the Bletchley to Bedford section of East-West Rail will be brought forward, supported by £240 million (from existing budgets), with services operating between Oxford and Bedford by the end of the decade.” Stewartby is on that section of the line (land recently purchased there by Universal Studios for a possible theme park).

re Universal Studios – if this does go ahead one presumes that green principles will play a major part in the transport plan for the (probably) millions of visitors coming to the theme park each year.
Rail must therefore have a major role to play in this (and may give EWR a raison d’être) – which is also ironic when you consider the current passenger footfall at the adjacent Kempston Hardwick station earns it the moniker of ‘the least used station in Bedfordshire’.

Excellent article – thank you! Re flooding, they might like to come and see the flooding in the fields in South Cambs where they are planning the route from Cambourne to Cambridge South.

Tempsford has not only flooding issues , but very serious sewage spills which Anglian Water cannot control at present. Some households have temporary toilets as raw sewage is seeping into their showers even. For weeks tankers are in the village more or less 24/7, taking the waste away; villagers are up in arms and our MP Richard Fuller has got involved.

No business case, costs not properly evaluated, wrong route, useless for freight, no local stations on CS3, no railway at all for 10,000 houses at Northstowe, not enough water for all of the planned house building. How wrong can it be and still its supported by central government. This is another HS2 disaster.

The Labour spokesman at a debate at Westminster Central Hall boasted that he had degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Senior civil servants are often Oxbridge educated. It would seem that this vanity project is being conducted by people without even A Level knowledge of Economics . Let the north have an East-West route as they seem to have a case for it.

Thank you for your summary review of this meeting. Strikes me , for what it’s worth, there is an inevitability about EWR , ploughing on regardless of the business case , environment ,and public and concerns. So many reasons not to pursue the building of this railway line , yet there is a this relentless feeling that TSC Government department have learnt nothing from HS2 , and that using EWR as a way of a case study beggars belief. It sounds like another box ticking exercise.

Please keep up the good work.

I am sure you are right – people seem to work from home on Friday – road today (Friday) were “dead” at Barton A603 and M11 North “dead” and M11 South very quiet. It is all madness!

Good Grief indeed!
The quality of our elected leaders is dismally poor.
The underhand and deceitful way this has been handled from the moment DfT got involved is shocking.
In the coming general election, I suggest we all make pausing the project to enable a totally new reassessment to be made, a condition of getting our vote.

When EWR did an exhibition in St Neots I asked why they weren’t using St Neots station as there was plenty of capacity on the slow lines which would save money on building a new one as well as already having connection to the East coast main line.
It could easily connect near to Tempsford on the north bound line and they could do like it is at Hitchin to connect the Cambridge line for the south bound line,
After going north from St Neots they could route the line of the main line again using a flyover. This would be north of Loves Farm and avoid Wintringham altogether still picking up Cambourne and possibly Northstowe.
They ignored the fact that St Neots population is near to 40k saying that there would be 20k at Tempsford and people from St Neots would travel to pick up the train to Cambridge there. They ignored the fact that it is good arable land.

The problem is that if EWR is built to serve existing people, then their business case will not get approved. It has to be new houses. The only time existing residents matter is when they vote. It’s confusing (deliberately) because supporters of this railway (Naomi Green at EEH, Bridget Smith at S. Cambs and indeed the rail minster) all play down the new green field houses because its unpopular.

I trust you will also be writing for the Cambridge News and Cambridge Independent. Is there any possibility of involving national media?

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