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Cambridge Connect: ‘Buses can’t solve city’s transport challenge alone but a phased light rail system is affordable’

Independent campaign group Cambridge Connect has unveiled its proposals for a phased introduction of light rail to get the city moving.

It has drafted plans, now sent to all Cambridgeshire county councillors, detailing how public transport could be transformed with a “practical” and “affordable” solution.

Modern light rail vehicle from Nottingham NET. Picture: Colin Harris
Modern light rail vehicle from Nottingham NET. Picture: Colin Harris

It comes as the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) continues to analyse around 24,000 responses to its Making Connections consultation, in which it controversially proposed a daily weekday road charge for Cambridge to fund a cheaper, more reliable and more substantial bus network.

But Cambridge Connect argues that buses alone will not solve the city’s congestion challenge, or meet its needs.

“The twin challenges of exceptional growth and climate change are so pressing that current plans for expansion of bus services will not on their own be enough to realise the scale of change needed,” Dr Colin Harris, the founder of Cambridge Connect told the Cambridge Independent.

“The GCP has no answers for how the massive up-tick in bus frequency is going to work in a practical way in the Cambridge city centre.

“We have calculated that to meet the degree of modal shift anticipated as needed there would need to be upwards of 300 buses per hour coming into Cambridge centre at peak.

“The key bus termini are already at capacity at peak and it is difficult to see how this could be accommodated without moving termini out from the centre, but that defeats the purpose as people would not be able to gain practical access to the city in the same way.”

Cambridge Connect argues that it will be difficult to make the city an attractive and welcoming place for cyclists and pedestrians with this number of buses.

And it argues that the GCP’s focus on creating new busways for key transport corridors - which are likely to need capacity upgrades in future - is “misplaced”.

Cambridge Connect and Railfuture's vision for phase one of a light rail network. Map: Cambridge Connect / Railfuture
Cambridge Connect and Railfuture's vision for phase one of a light rail network. Map: Cambridge Connect / Railfuture

Dr Harris believes the tram-like vehicles, as used in areas such as Nottingham, could be the answer, with an underground section diving beneath the city. The tunnel for this, the group estimates, could be bored in four to five months.

“Light rail has the attractiveness and capacity to deliver the scale of transformation needed in public transport, but it needs to be delivered in a practical, phased and affordable manner,” he said.

One of the arguments put up against a light rail solution is its affordability.

But Cambridge Connect’s latest work, in collaboration with rail advocacy group Railfuture, addresses this head-on by phasing the work, and suggesting methods of funding, including utilising funding from the City Deal from the government, which the GCP was set up to administer.

“Our phase one could be delivered for a budget of about £600m, which remains challenging, although it should be noted that £350m potentially remains in the City Deal, which could be repurposed toward the light rail scheme,” suggested Dr Harris.

“Additional finance could be raised through other mechanisms. In particular we propose a Cambridge Accommodation Supplement which could raise £10m per annum or more - further work needs to be done to assess this more fully.”

This supplement - essentially a tourist tax - would impose a small charge on anyone staying in hotels or other holiday accommodation overnight. Manchester has just become the first UK city to impose such a charge, priced at £1 at night, which officials think will raise £3m a year. It mirrors schemes already in place in Berlin, Venice, Barcelona and Rome.

The campaign group notes that there were eight million visitors a year to Cambridge pre-Covid, with around three million overnight stays. A five per cent supplement - charging £5 on a £100 bill per night, for example - would raise around £10m. This method would ensure those staying in cheaper accommodation would pay less, and ensure the tourism industry would not be hit.

Cambridge Connect and Railfuture's vision for a light rail network. Map: Cambridge Connect / Railfuture
Cambridge Connect and Railfuture's vision for a light rail network. Map: Cambridge Connect / Railfuture

“This could be a fairer alternative to the proposed Congestion charge, and could be combined with parking charges and other mechanisms such as tax increment financing, which successfully delivered the Northern Line extension,” added Dr Harris, alluding to a financing tool used to exploit the rise in economic value and tax receipts that follow successful urban redevelopment.

Cambridge may yet benefit from an improve tax take in future, with the Chancellor announcing in his spring Budget that the government would expand the local retention of business rates to more areas in the next Parliament.

Nonetheless, Cambridge Connect and Railfuture’s proposed light rail network - developed over seven years - would need to be delivered in a sensibly phased manner, given the cost and scale.

And they argue the plans would link in with plans for the £5bn East West Rail line, which will bring a new link from Oxford to Cambidge via new stations near St Neots and Cambourne, and link up to the forthcoming Cambridge South station on Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

Dr Harris said: “The first phase would seamlessly link all of the main campuses of the University of Cambridge, including the colleges, with major commercial, research and health delivery centres in Cambridge.

“We think this represents a very strong initial core from which to grow the network outwards, extending reach to the Science Park in the east, Cambourne in the west and Granta Park in the south in phase two.

“At phase three, links to East Cambridge and Haverhill would be brought forward.

“This is an integrated strategic plan that links with development in the heavy rail network, including reinstatement of railways to Wisbech and Haverhill, twin-tracking of the line to Newmarket - with stops at Fulbourn and so on - and would complement East West Rail.”

The letter in full

Cambridge Connect has written to Cambridgeshire county councillors setting out its vision with Railfuture. Here is its letter, in full.

Dr Colin Harris, of Cambridge Connect
Dr Colin Harris, of Cambridge Connect

Cambridge Connect and Railfuture have collaborated closely for over seven years developing alternatives for enduring public transport in Cambridgeshire.

In particular, we have proposed an integrated light rail scheme that would serve Cambridge city, South Cambridgeshire and beyond. Railfuture in particular has developed excellent proposals for reinstatement of railways to Wisbech and Haverhill, with which our light rail scheme would integrate. These could employ modern ‘TramTrain’ technology.

Recently, we have concentrated effort on defining in more detail how our light rail scheme inCambridge City and South Cambridgeshire could be delivered in a way that is both practical and financeable.

The purpose of this letter is to outline the main features of a possible Phase One of the scheme. In most cities where light rail has been adopted it has been delivered in phases, starting from a core and working outwards.

Light rail does, however, need to connect with bus services, active travel, cars and other modes for reach and flexibility. When combined, this approach offers a very strong and enduring alternative to bus-only plans.

A light rail scheme will:

attract investment into Cambridgeshire, with permanent high-quality infrastructure;

provide quality and capacity to support growing needs, is more reliable and will achieve greater modal shift;

offer better environmental performance (energy efficiency, emissions) to help the region and UK towards net zero;

bring lower long-term operating costs, including by driverless operation.

Sources of finance can accelerate and enhance what is possible, and we support equitable ways of raising finance to enhance public transport. For example, a combination of a ‘Cambridge accommodation supplement’ (explained overleaf), parking charges (eg as successfully implemented in Nottingham for light rail), and other financial tools (eg tax

increment financing) could be employed.

If concerns about the proposed Congestion Charge could be addressed, some variation of this scheme could also offer benefits should a genuinely attractive alternative for public transport be in place.

Phase one: Cambridgeshire Light Rail

Phase one (see map) would provide a rapid and seamless light rail link from the University West Campus to Addenbrooke’s and Trumpington. This core axis connects some of the most important employment, commercial, retail, research, education, healthcare and residential areas of Cambridge, and is connected with two National Rail stations and two Park & Rides. It is a model that keeps the city open for business, rather than imposing constraints on city access.

Over the last eight years there has been much discussion of transport plans. There has been substantial expenditure but little consensus or practical progress equal to Cambridge’s phenomenal success. Yet supporting the future success of Cambridgeshire is too important for this region and the UK to ignore, and needs sound long-term strategic investment.

We believe our scheme would provide a solid foundation of public transport investment that would boost sustainable economic, social and environmental development. That investment would repay the region over time, and grow.

With support given to longer-term investment in light rail, there remains every opportunity to deliver shorter-term improvements to bus services (eg bus lanes, bus priority and scheduling improvements) and active travel.

The scale of investment currently directed to busways is misplaced, and they are likely to need major upgrades in capacity to meet future needs even as they would be delivered. Moreover, it remains unclear how the anticipated major increase in bus frequency can be practically accommodated within the Cambridge City centre at the same time as maintaining an urban realm that is both pleasant and safe for cyclists and pedestrians. Our scheme addresses that problem up front using a short tunnel to facilitate mass transit. We hope you will give the proposals close consideration.

Yours sincerely

Dr Colin Harris

Cambridge Connect

Costs, times and distances

 Overall cost = £632million (around £600m if light rail vehicles are leased)

 2.6km tunnel (eg one of 8m diameter) – 2 portals: 1 Rail station car park; 2 West Campus

 1 full underground station in city centre (£100million)

 1 cut-and-cover station at Parkside (£50m)

 Overall distance – 10.4km, around 20 minutes end to end

 14 stops, including two at national rail stations and two at Park & Ride sites

 Average distance between stops – around 1km (industry standard)

 Time from Cambridge central rail station to termini in each direction – around 10 minutes.

Phase one: Strengths and benefits

 Manageable scale of capital investment

 Relatively fast to deliver – 50 per cent of line is straightforward conversion of existing busway

 Tunnel boring is quick – around 20m per day (slower than CrossRail) means a four to five-month project

 Tunnel avoids most surface disruption: spoil could be removed on the railway rather than lorries

 Around £350m in potential funding for scheme already exists in City Deal, if repurposed

 Directly linked into main rail network and Park & Rides from the start

 Strong commercial component to core

 Demand high with stations, P&R connections and tourist footfall

 Future-proofed for further extensions – eg Cambourne, Science Parks, Cambridge East

 Seamlessly connects all three university campuses and significant business activity

 Serves sixth form colleges at Hills Road and Long Road.

Phase one: Weaknesses and costs

 Tunnel and central underground stations are expensive to finance up-front

 Average of £60m per km for phase one, which is relatively high. However, this does mean the cost per km for phase two would be much reduced, making extensions attractive

 Reach into surrounding villages, north and east side of city and important Science parks (eg North West Cambridge, Granta Park) is deferred until phase two.

Phase one: Capital expenditure finance

 Existing City Deal repurposed: £100m of City Deal retained for buses/active travel – £250m

 Existing Combined Authority devolution deal funds reallocated – £100m

 Tax increment financing (or similar) on new developments – £100m

 Local business rates retention for term of 10 years at £5m pa (upfront) – £50m

 Private sector investment (eg ‘Cambridge Green Infrastructure Bond’) – £100m

 Central government investment to reflect Cambridge economic contribution/growth through to 2030 (eg National Infrastructure Bank) – investing in critical UK industries – £100m

 Overall capex finance – £700m.

Phase one: Operational expenditure finance

 Farebox revenue (estimate is less than Nottingham NET) – £10m per year

 Cambridge accommodation supplement – around £10m per year

 Parking charges – around £10m per year

 Commercialisation/advertising revenue – £5m per year

 Operating costs (estimate is more than Nottingham NET) – around £25m per year

 Overall Opex revenue per year – £35m

 Costs – £25m per year

 Operating surplus – £10m per year.

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