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Will EWR make it quicker to get out and about across the UK?

I am grateful again to Annabel Sykes for this guest post assessing recent claims from EWRCo. as they continue to their increasingly desperate search to find a compelling use for completing EWR to Cambridge.


I read the “where would you go?” article in EWRCo’s recent “Keeping you connected” newsletter and watched the accompanying video with interest.  There is also a section on EWRCo’s website, which includes the map below, recently reproduced in the Cambridge Independent.  The website says “EWR will have intersections with the UK’s key railway routes, meaning some of the nation’s most loved destinations would be within easier reach of local communities in Oxford, Bletchley, Bedford and Cambridge – offering more options and shorter journey times.”

I feel reasonably well-qualified to comment on how much substance there is to the ease and speed of travel claims EWRCo is making from Cambridge, as I live a short walk from Shelford station on the West Anglia Main Line (WAML) and my children are (or were) at Edinburgh and Bristol universities. We all like, and regularly use, trains.

EWRCo’s current proposals and journey times along EWR

The Route Update Report (“RUR”) proposes four trains per hour to Cambridge.  Two will originate in Bedford and two in Oxford.  From information in the RUR and accompanying Economic and Technical Report (“ETR”), respective station-to-station to journey lengths are expected to be 23 minutes (between Cambridge and Tempsford), 35 minutes (between Bedford and Cambridge) and 89 minutes (between Oxford and Cambridge).  

No journey time is given between Cambridge and Bletchley in these documents, but the 2021 Economic and Technical Report suggests that it will be approximately 60 minutes.   It may now be expected to be longer than this because the RUR says “we’re also suggesting capping the line speed [on the Marston Vale Line] below the 100mph originally proposed”. 

EWRCo tends to merge Bletchley and Milton Keynes when talking about journeys, although a person travelling from Cambridge and other places east of Bletchley will need to change trains at Bletchley to reach Milton Keynes Central. The journey time between the two stations is 5 minutes, making no allowance for changing platforms or waiting for a train.  There are currently four trains per hour between Bletchley and Milton Keynes Central.  This will presumably increase to six when the proposed two EWR trains per hour between Oxford and Milton Keynes Central are running.   By contrast, EWRCo seems to regard Cambridge North station as on a different planet from Cambridge station, even though there are five trains an hour between them and the journey time is 5 minutes.  

Where can I already get to by rail from Cambridge?

Anyone who lives in or near Cambridge is already lucky, because it is a city that is very well-connected by rail.  Looking at the EWRCo map, I can already catch a direct train from Cambridge to Ipswich, Norwich, King’s Lynn, Peterborough, Birmingham and Thameslink destinations such as Gatwick Airport and Brighton.  I can reach Birmingham International (for the airport) by changing at Birmingham New Street.

Peterborough gives me access to fast trains on the East Coast Mainline (“ECML”) to Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh (and, via Edinburgh, to Glasgow).  By contrast, Network Rail indicated in its East West Rail Main Line Strategic Statement (“the Strategic Statement”) that it was unlikely that ECML fast trains would stop at any new EWR station[1].   Network Rail also looked at the rail journey between Cambridge and Peterborough in the Strategic Statement using generalised journey times[2] and concluded that using EWR would add 21 minutes to the journey time between Cambridge and Peterborough.  This is despite the fact that the Strategic Statement also says “Rail connectivity … is …circuitous to Cambridge along the East Coast Main Line branch”[3].  From the perspective of a resident of Cambridge, EWR will not change the position as regards destinations on, or beyond, the ECML.

I can also catch a direct train from Peterborough to Nottingham and Sheffield.  Despite what the map reproduced above implies, there are no direct trains from Bedford to Nottingham or Sheffield.  It seems vanishingly unlikely that it will be quicker to travel from Cambridge via Bedford to these places, rather than via Peterborough.

As regards the journey to Birmingham, my rough estimates suggest that the journey time using EWR and changing at Bletchley (and possibly again at Milton Keynes Central) will be roughly the same length or likely slower once train changes and waits are taken into account.  It is possible that the journey to Birmingham International might be slightly faster via Bletchley, but it seems unlikely to be materially faster or more convenient.

If I take a train to Ely (a journey of roughly 18 minutes with a very regular service) I can catch a direct train to each of Manchester and Liverpool.  I accept that there is no direct train from Ely to Blackpool, Oxenholme, Carlisle or Glasgow but nor is there from Bletchley – as noted above, no direct Cambridge to Milton Keynes train is planned for EWR.  In any event, there are not many direct trains to these places from Milton Keynes.  There is also no direct train to Worcester or  Hereford, but I can get one from Birmingham to which (as noted above) I can travel directly from Cambridge.   It seems unlikely that a journey via Oxford to either place will be materially more convenient or quicker.

As regards Cardiff, Bath, Exeter and Penzance, even with EWR, it appears that each of these places would require two changes from Cambridge – there is no direct train from Oxford.  I think I will stick with WAML to  London Liverpool Street (or a Thameslink train to Farringdon), a short walk to the Elizabeth Line which goes directly to Paddington and a train from Paddington.  I simply don’t believe that travelling via Oxford will be measurably faster or more convenient.   This tallies with the conclusion that Network Rail reaches in the Strategic Statement.  Using generalised journey times, it concludes that journeys from Cambridge to Bristol and Cardiff will be slower on EWR (by 8 and 59 minutes respectively)[4].  

Cambridge to Watford might be slightly quicker via Bletchley than travelling into London and out again.  However, the proposed HERT (Herts Essex Rapid Transit), linking Hemel Hempstead to Harlow (and communities in between, including Hatfield), may prove a competitive alternative when combined with a rail journey to Hatfield.  In addition, neither seems likely to be particularly competitive with a direct journey by car. 

Airport journeys

EWR makes some claims about journeys to Gatwick, Birmingham, Luton and Stansted airports.  I have considered the position as regards travelling from Cambridge to Gatwick or Birmingham airports above.

Stansted airport is on the WAML.  I live close to a WAML station and about 30 minutes’ drive from the airport.  There are two direct Cambridge to Stansted airport services per hour, which are reasonably fast (around half an hour). However, they are at roughly 10 to the hour and 10 past, so I could have a long wait if I arrived in the 40 minute interval.  Neither train calls at Shelford station and only one of them calls at  the reasonably close alternative of Whittlesford Parkway.  The journey from Shelford station itself involves a change and takes around an hour.  As a result, I don’t generally travel to or from Stansted airport by train.  Perhaps this situation will improve when Cambridge South station opens, but I still think there are too few trains between Cambridge and Stansted airport for the service to be a useful one.  May be EWRCo would like to consider a northern approach to Cambridge and carrying on through to the airport?

Luton airport is a roughly 50 minute drive from my home.  The Strategic Statement gives a generalised journey time to Luton of 110 minutes, using EWR.  First, this is likely to Luton station, rather than Luton Parkway, and secondly, it is necessary to change onto the Luton Dart to get to the airport from Parkway.  So, catching an EWR train to Luton airport will involve two changes and (estimating) have a generalised journey time of about 120 minutes.  Alternatively, I could catch a National Express coach from the Trumpington Park and Ride, with an estimated journey time of 55 minutes or I could catch a train to Hitchin (slightly over half an hour) and take that same National Express coach from the station to Luton airport (estimated journey time of 20 minutes), with the alternative of a more frequent, but slower bus leaving from the centre of Hitchin (about ten minutes’ walk from the station).

Conclusion on travel from Cambridge

EWRCo claims that EWR “will bring you closer to towns and cities across the UK by connecting with the country’s main north to south railway lines and linking into wider existing services, allowing you to easily explore the north of England and Scotland…or head west to cosy up in the Cotswolds, the West Country or Wales”.

My personal conclusion, from the parochial perspective of a Cambridge resident is that, save for stations actually on EWR, it will make very little difference to getting out and about across the UK.  Even for EWR’s stations, I personally remain to be convinced.  If I am going to Ikea in Milton Keynes or Bicester village, I am still likely to choose to go by car and not only because I won’t want to lug my purchases home on the train.  

Conclusion on travel from other EWR stations

But what about getting out and about across the UK from other EWR stations?   The Strategic Statement concludes that rail journeys from Oxford, Milton Keynes or Bedford to Peterborough using EWR will be materially faster than the alternative.  It is therefore true that a link to the ECML might well result in some journey time benefits from these stations on journeys to Edinburgh and places  between it and Peterborough.    However, as the Strategic Statement shows, a detailed exercise is needed to determine whether these benefits are more illusory than real.  For example, an Oxford resident can already travel by rail to Edinburgh with a change at Wolverhampton or Birmingham New Street. Someone living in Milton Keynes already has a direct rail link to Edinburgh.

Network Rail has already looked at this in some detail

Those making bold claims about the increased ease of getting out and about as a result of EWR would do well to read pages 30 to 37 of the Strategic Statement.  Network Rail’s generalised journey time analysis suggests that the journey time to Cardiff will be worse using EWR from all of Cambridge, Bedford and Milton Keynes (it is obviously unchanged from Oxford).  The Strategic Statement notes an improvement in journey time  between Bedford and Bristol using EWR, but a worse journey time to Bristol from Milton Keynes and Cambridge.

Network Rail’s conclusion in the Strategic Statement is “three broad generalisations can be inferred from the data [we have analysed]:

1. East West Rail services will radically improve rail connectivity within a ‘core’ geography between Oxford, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Aylesbury….,

2. East West Rail services will offer marginal or no improvement … between key locations within that ‘core’ geography and those further to the east and west [later, the Strategic Statement gives an example of a 16 minute improvement between Milton Keynes and Ipswich]

3. East West Rail services will not offer a viable alternative for longer distance journeys between the extremes of the given geography, where interchange at London remains more efficient.”

The Strategic Statement goes on to say “The use of high frequency, fast services via existing main lines effectively cancels out the advantage accrued from the shorter physical distance travelled using East West Rail. This is due to the need to interchange repeatedly and the potential for misalignment between existing and East West Rail services (which are of a lower frequency, particularly west of Bletchley)… For those journeys where either the origin or destination, or both, lie off the core route, travel by road is likely to remain a more efficient and convenient option given the length of existing journey times and the marginal improvement offered by East West Rail. To return to the previous example, generalised journey time between Bedford and Swindon would – when using East West Rail services – drop from just under four hours to just over three and a half hours. Travel by private car would typically take between two and two and a half hours for the same journey. Improvements on present generalised journey times by rail would need to be greater if East West Rail were to offer a competitive alternative to road in this instance.”

Final thoughts

So why did EWRCo make the poorly verified claims about EWR’s usefulness through this map and accompanying articles and video?  It seems to me that this reflects an unresolved schizophrenia about its purpose and possibly also project inertia[5].  It is not sure whether it is supposed to be providing a fast end-to-end service between Oxford and Cambridge or a commuter service taking workers into each of these relatively small cities and the somewhat larger Milton Keynes.  The RUR and related documents seem to make clear that it is the latter, but EWRCo is nevertheless attempting to be all things to all people.  This may not be surprising given its apparent lack of strategic focus[6]  – why does freight have such a low profile, for example, when it seems critical to achieving net zero – and unconvincing business case[7].

EWRCo  has a good deal of homework still to do.  Even in its own backyard, as William’s 13 May 2022 “Will the EWR compete with Road?” makes clear, any advantage it may have is by no means overwhelming.  When the really significant cost of rail travel and station parking is taken into account, together with the first mile/last mile issue (which EWRCo appears slow to address), that advantage may well melt away.


[1] This is because of the potential for unacceptable detriment to journey times or capacity of these services if they were to do so.

[2] The concept is explained at 4.1 of the Strategic Statement.

[3] My own personal experience is that this journey does not compete well with road.

[4] The Strategic Statement also says “The opening of the Elizabeth Line will improve connectivity between Paddington and Liverpool Street for long-distance journeys to East Anglia”, so the difference may be even greater now (the Elizabeth Line opened after the Strategic Statement was published).

[5] The continuing preference for southern approach may also be a consequence of project inertia. EWRCo accepts in the RUR that “a northern approach is potentially quicker to construct and is likely to cost less than a southern  approach. The extent of work required is less, including less disruption to the existing network…[it]…may have less potential environment impact”.  The  ETR gives more detail on  the environmental impact  question saying “there are higher presence of higher value habitats and higher embodied carbon than for a northern approach”.   The Cambridge Independent of 3 August quotes EWRCo’s chief executive as saying “quite honestly, when I started, I didn’t think that the northern approach was viable at all”.  It is a pity that she did not start the job with an open mind regarding the approach to Cambridge.

[6] The Strategic Statement says “The statement outlines a vision for an East West Main Line …which is aimed at gaining the most from the investment made in the new infrastructure and providing a railway that delivers for passengers and freight users into the future.”  It goes on to make six suggestions, which include optimisation for freight,  provision of a strategic route for service re-routing, planned diversions, and operational flexibility in times of perturbation and electrification. 

[7] EWRCo has a singular focus on transporting workers to theoretical job growth at or near the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.  Its Theory of Change is not based on the years of detailed and recent work and public consultation carried out by Greater Cambridge Shared Planning in preparing the draft Local Plan, but on a 2017 National Infrastructure Commission (“NIC”) report “Partnering for Prosperity: a new deal for the Cambridge-MiltonKeynes-Oxford Arc” and an earlier Cambridge Econometrics report, “Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Northamption Growth Corridor,” commissioned by the NIC.  Both reports are pre-pandemic and so take no account of really significant changes in commuter travel patterns and rail revenue or the lack of a centralised housing plan envisaged by the now-defunct central Government Ox-Cam Arc proposals.

10 replies on “Will EWR make it quicker to get out and about across the UK?”

I have no interest in this railway line since I discovered that St Neots, the largest town in the county, where I live, will not have a station. Instead the hamlet of Tempsford, where there is more scope for house building, gets the station, despite, I understand, that the residents don’t want it .

More good work debunking EWR claims – thank you.
Who should we be best lobbying/ making aware of these shortcomings to get the line cancelled/moved?

As a regular train and bus user throughout the UK my experience is that accessability to the existing rail network is more important than anything else. Those who live within walking distance of a railway station are considerably more fortunate that those who do not.
For those without a car, or do not or prefer not to drive, the alternaves are bus or taxi. Rural bus services are very poor to the point that they are almost irrelevant when planning a journey out of the area. Taxis are unaffordable for those on low incomes.
So the idea that a new railway will somehow benefit residents anywhere other than Cambridge or Cambourne is fantasy. It will be no more convenient than the current network. What would be useful is a properly designed local bus network where residents could access existing railheads from their villages. Frequent and reliable.
It’s worth repeating that the revived East West Rail Link was intended to provide better transport links from Suffolk to the west. This valid concept has been hijacked by HM Gov and reduced to a self serving Oxford – Cambridge rail link. Their obsession with Golden Triangle growth has turned a good idea into a nightmare for those between the two cities, and in no way can it be considered a reborn Varsity Line.

I totally agree about access to a station and the poor standard of rural bus services. Greater Cambridge has a public transport crisis, which GCP has no convincing answers to. EWR is an uncoordinated sledgehammer which won’t even make an indent on the nut. Far better, surely, to increase services on existing lines which serve places where house prices are lower and to give serious consideration to reviving the railway to Haverhill for the benefit of the many existing hospital workers who live that way. Revival of the line to Haverhill is a project I support, despite its potential direct impact on me.

I am not convinced that EWR would meet any real transport need. How many people really travel between Oxford and Cambridge? The universities do not operate as a joint enterprise and there is little collaboration between them. The bus service between the cities was axed a few years ago. Students travelling to Oxford University generally have to move in and out every term, with all their belongings, so car journeys are needed.

As the diesel freight trains will run mainly at night, surely it would make sense for freight from Felixstowe to be steered round the east of Cambridge to Cambridge North station rather than through residential areas.

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