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East West Rail Company makes its case: ‘Route will be a catalyst for growth and provide affordable, sustainable public transport’

Hannah Staunton, head of communications at East West Railway Company, responds to the open letter from Dr William Harrold.

At an East West Rail event in Great Cambourne are, from left Nasreen Ullah, stragic stakeholder manager, Simon Scott, engineering director for the project, and Caroline Eglinton, head of inclusion. Picture: Keith Heppell
At an East West Rail event in Great Cambourne are, from left Nasreen Ullah, stragic stakeholder manager, Simon Scott, engineering director for the project, and Caroline Eglinton, head of inclusion. Picture: Keith Heppell

The support for East West Rail (EWR) from residents, businesses, academics and council leaders in Cambridgeshire echoes long-standing demands from local authorities for an east-west rail link between Cambridge and Oxford.

There is widespread recognition that EWR will transform everyday journeys in the region, supporting local people and stimulating economic growth locally and nationally.

Recent shows of support provoked a detailed response from Dr William Harrold that was published in your newspaper last week ('Cambridge Approaches’ co-founder takes apart the case for East West Rail').

The campaign group ‘Cambridge Approaches’, which Dr Harrold represents, has asked EWR to consider entering Cambridge from the north, and submitted outline proposals for a route they would prefer during the last consultation. As with all the consultation responses we received, their submission is currently being considered.

However, Dr Harrold’s recent letter raises some interesting questions which we welcome the opportunity to answer – particularly around the issues of most relevance to people living and working in Cambridge and nearby.

Unlocking the constraints on Cambridge’s world-renowned life sciences industry

Dr Harrold questions the value for money of the EWR Project when government resources are stretched. We agree wholeheartedly that public funds need to be used responsibly.

The current cost-of-living crisis demonstrates exactly why EWR should be developed. Put simply, local people need access to the jobs and opportunities afforded by the science cluster and other industries in Cambridge. In turn, businesses are crying out for more space and access to a larger pool of talent and skills.

EWR can unlock the constraints on the life sciences industry in Cambridge, where available lab space is at capacity. Global competitors in life sciences have an ample supply of lab capacity and a skilled workforce to go with it. By improving east-west connectivity between Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford, we can help space-constrained businesses in Cambridge expand westwards and increase access to the growing number of skilled jobs in the area, which will help safeguard Cambridge’s economy and secure the UK’s future as a world leader in science and technology.

By providing reliable, affordable and sustainable transport for people in and around Cambridge, businesses will thrive and grow, igniting an exciting ecosystem of business and academia that The Economist recently reported could contribute up to £274bn per year for the UK in gross added value. Seen in that context, the value driven by EWR is clear. More than that, it’s a catalyst for economic growth that will support the wider UK recovery.

Rail: an environmentally-friendly way to travel

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

Trains are one of the most sustainable transport modes around. They offer so much more capacity than a car or bus and emit far fewer CO2 emissions.

It’s important that we build EWR in the right way too. From the types of construction vehicles we use to how we manage our work sites, we’re actively exploring how we can be environmentally friendly during construction.

Significant environmental gains have already been made on the parts of EWR that are already being built by the EWR Alliance. The section under construction between Bletchley and Bicester was recently recognised as a “genuine trailblazer” by Rail Innovation, when it awarded the project their prestigious Environment & Sustainability Award, citing inspirational, collaborative and forward-thinking approaches to delivering really positive outcomes for the environment. This included the use of industry-leading techniques to protect the environment during construction and the commitment to 10% biodiversity net gain (BNG), which is the first time a public commitment to a specific BNG target has been made on a rail infrastructure project of this scale.*

Not everyone can or wants to own a car

Dr Harrold points to the A428 improvement scheme as an opportunity to improve connectivity in Cambridgeshire. He also states that future journeys between Cambridge and Bedford will be quicker by car as a result of that scheme – although factors such as parking in and around Cambridge will of course add more time onto people’s journeys.

More broadly, there are a variety of reasons why owning a car is not an option for many people. Perhaps the purchase, maintenance and running costs of a car are just too much, their homes do not have access to parking, they have physical limitations which don’t allow them to drive, or they are prioritising sustainability for themselves and their families.

There are a wealth of reasons why people don’t drive. Local communities – now and in the future – deserve to have the option of fast, reliable, and sustainable public transport.

The current options are not appealing: travelling between Cambridge and Bedford by public transport – a journey of around 30 miles – currently requires a 90-minute bus journey and usually involves a lengthy wait at St Neots Market Square. EWR will cut that journey time to around 35 minutes, transforming opportunities to travel in the area.

Even for those who do predominantly use a car, the railway will provide an additional option on days when they want to travel door-to-door without parking, do some work as they travel, or travel home safely after a glass of wine.

People deserve affordable options

A high speed train
A high speed train

While it’s too early in the development of the project to confirm precise train ticket prices just yet, we expect EWR services to be cheaper than current railway journeys between Oxford and Cambridge, which require multiple changes via London.

Linking up the towns and cities in the area by rail will improve access across the area for local residents and open up new places for talented employees to live and work. EWR is a key ingredient to help unlock the area’s potential – and this is widely recognised locally. Local authorities between Oxford and Cambridge have been calling for better public transport links to strengthen its world-leading research hubs since the 1990s – and EWR will help deliver this.

If anyone would like more information about the Project, visit eastwestrail.co.uk or get in touch at contact@eastwestrail.co.uk.

*The Railway Industry Association’s 2022 Environment and Sustainability Award was recently awarded to the East West Rail Alliance for section of EWR that is currently under construction between Bicester and Bletchley. In particular, the judges noted the innovative approach being taken to mitigate negative impacts during construction – as well as being able to deliver a 10% net gain in biodiversity.

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