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AstraZeneca tunnel gives renewed hope for underground Cambridge congestion solution

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The AstraZeneca tunnel at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus
The AstraZeneca tunnel at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus

It was built to carry power for AstraZeneca at its new Cambridge HQ – but this tunnel also represents fresh hope to campaigners calling for a metro to solve the city’s long-term transport challenges.

There is growing support for feasibility studies to be carried out to see if a light rail network – including a section underground in the historic city centre – could provide a realistic solution.

Now AstraZeneca has revealed it has excavated and built a 128-metre tunnel between its two buildings on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus in a matter of weeks.

It indicates the geology of the ground beneath Cambridge could be suitable for a larger tunnelling project, such as that proposed by Cambridge Connect and Railfuture.

And the construction team behind the project have told the Cambridge Independent that they see no reason why a metro-style tunnel couldn’t be built beneath the city.

Andy Williams, AstraZeneca’s VP for Cambridge strategy and operations, is a member of the City Deal Assembly helping to formulate the best way to spend the Government funding available for transport improvements in the city, which could reach up to £1billion.

Although it was built to carry power, water and services, not people or vehicles, he was struck by the significance of the tunnel, which connects the pharmaceutical firm’s new HQ and energy centre.

“You could tell there was something there that had wider implications,” he said.

“We’ve got a huge energy centre on one plot of land that’s going to provide all the energy needs for our buildings. It’s one of the largest heat source pumps in Europe so completely self-sustainable. But of course you’ve got a big building on one side of the road servicing the building on the other side and there are a limited number of ways to get from A to B. You start with a vision, then you work out the options and look at the one that is going to deliver the most benefits based on cost, time and everything else – and they came up with a tunnel.

“Looking at it you think, ‘Did that take years?’ It took 64 days.

“To demonstrate how big and long it was they put a visual of an Underground train in – not to suggest it could be used by one, but to show how big and long it was.

“I’m by no means saying the answer to Cambridge’s problems is tunnelling. But it’s like clinical trials – you do a phase one, two and three, and this feels like a phase one.

“It’s only one tunnel, not two tunnels with a service tunnel in between, but I think for the first time, Cambridge has something that looks like the sort of thing you might want. It’s a first step.”

AstraZeneca’s new site will be home to 2,000 staff, many of whom have relocated from offices in Manchester and London. By the end of the year, all of them will be working in the area at the firm’s existing sites, including at Granta Park, Melbourn, Cambridge Science Park and Chesterford.

Mr Williams is clear that, while the study of tunnels is intriguing, it’s not a short-term solution for the city.

“Whatever we do with tunnels is not going to deliver in the next two to three years. We have to do something before that,” he stressed. “The danger of tunnels and big schemes is that they distract us. We do have to make some short-term decisions.

“The City Deal board have demonstrated leadership. They have been prepared to bring quite unpopular schemes to the general public to explain that there are a number of challenges. If we don’t solve them in the next two or three years, the city will grind to a halt.

“I think there is not enough appreciation of what they’ve done. They’ve done a sterling job. Where they’ve not succeeded is in their communication. I don’t think they’ve retained enough engagement with the public.

“We do need some short-term measures, preferably some that won’t cause irreparable damage to the city. Congestion control points may not be very popular but they don’t have long-term implications. They were intended to be temporary and they were going to test whether or not they would make a difference to the overall congestion in the city.

“But of course they weren’t positioned to the public like that – it just looked like they were shutting roads to make things more difficult.”

Mr Williams feels the public need to be told the wider strategy.

“The idea was that we wouldn’t build on the green belt to keep Cambridge nice and small and compact, but we’d build further out in new settlements and I think that’s a reasonable strategy, but the consequence of that is that you’ve got to connect those into the city or actually the city itself will suffer – people won’t be able to get in. How we do it is a big challenge.”

So what does AstraZeneca feel would help?

“Our big push is looking at orbital routes, rather than going through the city,” said Mr Williams. “A lot of the new housing and jobs are to the edge of the city. A lot of the short-term projects are focused into the city. Now I understand why because that’s where some of the biggest challenges are but we don’t really know what proportion of people heading into the city would rather go round the outskirts. The bus operators are saying there’s not enough demand to send people round the outside. You have to take in the mass of people who want to go into the middle and then send them back out again.

“It’s not just the Biomedical Campus, but North West Cambridge and West Cambridge – neither of those involve going into Cambridge. But the counter argument to that is most of the jobs are in Cambridge so it’s trying to get that right mix.”

AstraZeneca’s employees typically commute along the A428, A10 and A1307 corridors. What do they feel about the move to the campus?

“We’re going into the campus towards the end of 2017 and into 2018. They see it looking busy now. They are naturally saying ‘What’s it going to be like when we get there? What does that mean when Papworth Hospital is there?’ They’ve got 2,000 coming in 2018 as well.”

The firm has co-funded a feasibility study into a train station at Addenbrooke’s with John Laing, the company developing the Forum building on the campus.

“We’re doing more feasibility work and partnering with Network Rail,” said Mr Williams. “We believe we can timetable it on the two-track. If it can’t we’ll need a further track, and we don’t know how long that would take. If it can be done on the two-track, we believe it can be in place in 2019 or possibly 2020, which would be extraordinary.

“It’s not just about patients, visitors, ourselves and the other businesses – we think it can help free up central Cambridge. Is everybody who comes to Cambridge station wanting to go to central Cambridge? No, it’s not in the right place.”

A package of short-term measures, a focus on orbital routes and the development of an Addenbrooke’s station could have a significant impact.

But longer-term, light rail now looks to be on the table.

“We’ve now demonstrated, let’s think big, let’s think longer term. If we can demonstrate the viability of a tunnel in the next two to three years perhaps some of the more extreme things can slow down a little bit,” said Mr Williams.

It’s a tantalising prospect.

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