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Cambridge Approaches’ co-founder takes apart the case for East West Rail in open letter to council leader

A host of political, business and academic leaders - including South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Bridget Smith and Cambridge City Council’s Labour leader Cllr Anna Smith - signed letters to the government supporting investment in the controversial £5bn East West Rail project.

East West Rail Company's proposals for the approach to Cambridge. Map: East West Rail Company (58016753)
East West Rail Company's proposals for the approach to Cambridge. Map: East West Rail Company (58016753)

As reported by the Cambridge Independent, they argued the new line, which will connect Oxford to Cambridge via new stations at Cambourne and Tempsford/St Neots, will unlock economic growth, support jobs and aid the sustainability of developments.

But some of those living along the proposed route fear the disruption it will cause to communities - and question whether the project stands up to scrutiny. The government’s own Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) has given a red rating to the Bedford to Cambridge section, meaning it believes “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable” in its current form. And transport secretary Grant Shapps has said he would scrap the remaining stages of the route to save government spending.

Amid the debate, the co-founder of campaign group Cambridge Approaches William Harrold, who lives in Haslingfield, where a huge embankment could be built, has written the response below to Cllr Smith’s decision to sign the lobbying letters.

Cambridge Approaches is campaigning against the East West Rail Company’s favoured southern approach into Cambridge, where it would meet up with the new Cambridge South station.

Want to make the case for East West Rail? Write to letters@iliffemedia.co.uk.

William Harrold in Haslingfield. Picture: Keith Heppell
William Harrold in Haslingfield. Picture: Keith Heppell

Dear Cllr Smith

I have recently read the letters you have signed to Grant Shapps and to Rishi Sunak requesting funding of East West Rail (EWR) in full. I expect they will be interpreted as on behalf of the district. I guess your reason for doing so was a belief that EWR will be a good thing.

Everyone collects facts that fit their beliefs (confirmation bias). Since we have opposite views on EWR I thought you might be interested in some of the reasons why I think it should not go ahead.

UK rail finances

The one page Office of Road and Rail reports summarise the finances for the whole rail network every financial year. Financial year 19-20 was pre-pandemic and showed spending of £20.1bn funded by £11.6bn from passenger fares, £6.5bn from the taxpayer and everything else (which includes freight access fees) £2bn. The following year passenger fares collapsed and the taxpayer filled the gap with a £16.9bn subsidy.

It’s clear from this that the average railway loses money, however, the EWR is not an average railway. There are no large cities along its route which means lower than average passenger numbers. Compare Cambridge to London with Cambridge to Oxford: a similar distance but London will get much more traffic.

Competition with road

EWR is also quite a short railway. Trains go faster than cars and railways therefore become more competitive over longer distances. Network Rail’s analysis of EWR demonstrates that it will struggle to compete with road even with no allowance for the first and last mile. I have summarised their numbers here.

EWR will not facilitate longer rail journeys because of the interchange time penalties. For example, Norwich to Cardiff rail journeys will continue to go via London, passengers will not change at Cambridge and Oxford. I will not drive to Cambourne, get the EWR to Cambridge and then get a London train. I will just drive to Royston.

Car ownership in 2020 in the East of England region stood at 1.36 cars per household and had risen over the previous 10 years. I suspect it is higher around Cambridge. Empirically, many of these cars sit in front of the house during the week and people work from home. Rail is also competing with Zoom.

Once the Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet A428 improvement scheme is completed using Network Rail and National Highways figures for journey times between Bedford and Cambridge, it will only be two minutes faster by EWR than peak road. This means that people that can afford to live within one to two minutes of Cambridge station will see a small benefit if they happen to want to go to Bedford station.

Most real Cambridge to Bedford journeys will remain quicker by car even in peak times. EWR Company cherry picks longer peak-road journey times, but overall EWR has little or no advantage over road for the overwhelming majority of east-west journey pairs.

Climate change impact

Diesel-powered trains emit about five times less CO2 per passenger or freight kilometre than cars and lorries. Rail electrification would remove the last 20 per cent. However, this is a 100-year railway and cars are rapidly decarbonising. I have an electric car and charge it from electricity that the supplier already assures me is from renewable sources. EWR Co can find ways to make their railway zero carbon operationally as well.

The climate change comparison is more about CO2 from construction rather than operation. Carbon neutral electric vehicles are already being produced for example by Volkswagen.

The carbon emissions from the construction of EWR will be substantial. Much of the estimated cost is from the embankments and concrete viaducts. Some local civil engineers estimate that the section between Cambourne North and Hauxton Junction would require 866,000 lorry movements to construct.

The railway makes more sense, as set out in ‘Partnering for Prosperity’, if indeed there were four development corporations between Cambridge and Bedford. The new towns built on greenfield sites could be designed for easy access to the EWR station. But think about the CO2 emissions from the construction of these new towns and the loss of prime agricultural land.

Passenger fares

The marginal cost of my electric vehicle is 7p per mile. This compares with peak rail fares on the busy Thameslink line of 55p per mile, plus £12.50 to park my car at Cambridge station. Since I already have a car for other reasons, it would not make financial sense to use EWR.

EWR fares should be higher than Thameslink, reflecting the higher costs and lower number of passengers.

Construction cost

A recent article in the New Civil Engineer was based on an interview with the construction director at the rail construction company Ferrovial.

Ferrovial has worked on HS2 and similar high-speed rail projects in Europe. It reported that average achieved construction cost across 15 high-speed rail projects in Europe was £34m per km. HS2 was estimated to be £100m per km, but they actually achieved £200m per km. Yes, six times as much.

In today’s prices, the estimated cost of the Bedford to Cambridge section of EWR is £87m per km. One suspects the achieved cost will be higher. For reference, Google tells me UK motorways are around £30m per km in 2011 prices so maybe nearer £40m today.

Most UK railways were built long ago, a proper accounting of the business case for EWR must allow for the construction cost.

South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne, left, with William Harrold and resident John Hobbs. Picture: Keith Heppell
South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne, left, with William Harrold and resident John Hobbs. Picture: Keith Heppell

Levelling up

The OxCam Arc was pushed aside by the levelling up White Paper in February. It is hard to argue that connecting Oxford to Cambridge achieves levelling up. A trickle-down effect, eg through AstraZeneca, is a familiar type of argument for this along with Cambridge exceptionalism to foreign investors. These are the sort of arguments that have led to the need for levelling up in the first place. See, for example, Bob Kerslake’s report from the 2070 commission

The letter you signed to Rishi Sunak talks about the connection to the East Coast Mainline at St Neots and how this will somehow level up the North East of England. Network Rail’s EWML strategic statement talks about this ECML connection on p59: “It is unlikely that ECML fast-line services could call at any new station without unacceptable detriment to journey times or capacity.”

It doesn’t want to compromise the ECML advantage over road.

Value for money

I care about value for money from public spending on EWR and so did the 2019 Lib Dem manifesto.

The real issue is whether unqualified support for EWR will lead to the best use of public money at the moment. Recently, money-saving expert Martin Lewis was predicting that a 65 per cent increase in home fuel bills will land around the time that the new Prime Minister arrives on September 5 – this would make the home fuel bill alone around one third of the state pension. The Bank of England is talking about more rate rises which will lead to higher mortgages rates. Fuel prices are rising. The NHS needs more money.

I can see a benefit for East West Rail to the following people:

Commuters to the Biomedical Campus from Bedford and St. Neots – how many will there be that really come in from that direction? We need to know.

People who can afford to live within a minute or two of Cambridge station.

Property developers/Investors from land value increase.

On the other hand, all taxpayers are invited to pay for it. There are infrastructure projects all over the UK, so if we apportion the say £7.5bn total cost over the current population between Bedford and Cambridge that might generously be 500,000 households.

The cost per household would then be £15,000, for something which the vast majority of them would rarely if ever use.

If you sign more letters on behalf of the district demanding full funding of EWR you are not doing so in my name.

Dr William Harrold


Cambridge Approaches

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