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East West Rail CEO says line can help drive major growth

Failing to develop around railway stations on the East West Rail route through Cambridgeshire would be a “missed opportunity”, says its chief executive.

Beth West told the Cambridge Independent the £5bn route is not just a railway but an “economic project” that is designed to bring sustainable growth across the region.

East West Rail drop-in event in Cambridge
East West Rail drop-in event in Cambridge

She said the route gives planners the chance to avoid “piecemeal development” but admits the East West Railway Company (EWR Co) is only responsible for creating the opportunity.

Ms West also said the company was “working our socks off” to ensure that diesel trains do not run on the railway.

“If you look at East West Rail as an economic project rather than a railway project then what can East West Rail bring, what are the land opportunities around those stations and what is the potential for development,” Ms West explained.

She said it was these opportunities that led to the EWR Co suggesting that the population of Cambourne – which is due to get a new station on the line – could grow from 9,200 to a massive 53,400, while Tempsford in Bedfordshire, the site of another proposed station, could swell from 600 people to 44,000, a figure dubbed “insane” by the parish council chairman David Sutton.

Ms West said: “If you have a masterplan for a place, you’re able to put in the social infrastructure as well, so that’s schools and GP surgeries – all the things that we all get really stressed about when there’s piecemeal development. By looking at the station location like at Tempsford, there’s an opportunity there to do some really great placemaking. So that’s what the basis of those numbers was about, and because East West Rail is an economic project that’s designed to bring sustainable growth across the region – but ultimately this is up to local authorities.”

Ms West said they had looked at the region’s Local Plans, noting “somewhere that there’s not a railway station means that you can’t really get that kind of growth there”.

She said in her view it “would be unfortunate” for local authorities to not consider the stations in their plans for future development.

Ms West also addressed the controversial topic of electrification of the new railway, which has not yet been confirmed.

She told the Cambridge Independent: “Nobody wants a diesel train on a new railway. We are working really hard to look at what the options are going to be to make this an electrified railway. The technology is evolving rapidly in terms of trains.

“We are looking at whether or not it’s going to be fully electrified with wires, if it’s going to be a bi-mode so you’ve got a wires and battery combination, and we’re just working hard to come up with the right solution – and it may involve financing that as well in order to get that delivered.

“You have my commitment that we’re working our socks off to make sure it is not a diesel railway.”

A preferred route for the new section was announced by EWR Co at the start of June and features a southern approach to Cambridge.

While some of the western sections of the route use existing lines, a new section of track must be built between Bedford and Cambridge.

But residents living near the proposed route fear they will face “all of the misery” of the new £5bn railway line with “none of the benefits”.

Campaigners have raised issues over the environment, the visual impact, the route choice and the lack of information from the EWR Co.

Commenting on the reaction, Ms West said: “I think it’s really natural for people when something new is coming along. There’s something that’s big and you don’t know what's going to happen.

“I think one of the big things for us is how do we engage with people who are a bit apprehensive or nervous or worried about it? How do we mitigate those benefits?

Beth West, CEO of East West Rail Company
Beth West, CEO of East West Rail Company

“One of the things we need to spend a lot more time doing is explaining to people how the railway might not be coming to their village, but what it will be doing is taking cars off the roads to their village.

“We want to enhance people’s communities and make them better and the only way we will get that right is by engaging.”

The chief executive pointed out that people in the region had been calling for East West Rail for more than 30 years, and it was also referenced in the City Deal, which was signed in 2015.

She said EWR Co was also working with local authorities to explore whether or not a cycle path could be created to run alongside the route.

But Ms West was clear that the southern approach into Cambridge is their preferred route.

“We looked at it many, many times now. And the team I have to say have worked really hard to test those two different routes and come up with some really viable ways to make both options work, which was great. Because, quite honestly, when I started, I didn’t think that the northern approach was viable at all,” she said.

She added: “But in terms of where we think the benefits are going to be greater, it was the southern approach. That won’t completely be finalised until we get DCO approval.”

A report by EWR Co published as part of its preferred route announcement stated that a northern approach “may potentially be cheaper to build and quicker to construct, and have less potential environmental impact, but it wouldn’t be an alternative to a southern approach in terms of economic growth”.

Ms West responded: “There are obligations that if you’re doing any kind of development that you have biodiversity net gain. You had to return what you had and then add 10 per cent biodiversity. We take that commitment really, really seriously.

“The thing that I’m really keen to do that’s probably different from other developments and infrastructure projects is work with the local authorities and use the money we’re going to spend to get multiple benefits.”

She said, for example, if the local authority wanted to build a nature reserve then EWR Co could help support that with funding.

“It will mean that there will be more money available for the councils if we’re providing that, rather than them having to do it themselves,” she said.

The company aims to hold its first statutory consultation in the first half of 2024.

She said communities would have further details about the design of the scheme, along with how EWR Co intends to limit the heights of proposed embankments dubbed the ‘Great Wall’ by campaigners.

A proposed 12-metre-high flyover will land just 200 metres from Lorna Sorrentino’s home in Harston, from which she can currently see as far as Foxton, Chapel Hill and Bassingbourn.

Lorna told the Cambridge Independent: “I own the bit of land where the flyover is going to land and two years ago this landed on my lap – a nice map with a huge red drawing across it. I’m going to be 200 metres from this two-mile, 12-metre high embankment and it’s going to be noisy.”

Ms West explained that the assumption made ahead of the non-statutory consultation in 2021 was that the railway will go over all roads.

She said: “Then we saw that the embankments were going to be really, really high. So we’ve looked at that assumption again and said maybe that’s not the right assumption in all cases.

“There are going to be some places where we will go over roads, some places we will go under roads or build a road bridge over the railway, so that we can have less of an impact on those heights.

“That’s one thing that I think we’ve done already – to bring down that visual impact that people are really concerned about.”

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