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East West Rail Company responds over debate on northern approach into Cambridge, freight and technology

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We asked East West Rail Company to respond to community concerns and questions about the new £5bn East West Rail line that will run from Oxford to Cambridge via Milton Keynes, Bedford and Cambourne. Consultation on the route it will take is ongoing.

Here is their response in full.

What is East West Rail for and what are we trying to do?

East West Rail Company’s proposals for the approach to Cambridge, plus the northern route that it assessed. Map: East West Rail Company
East West Rail Company’s proposals for the approach to Cambridge, plus the northern route that it assessed. Map: East West Rail Company

East West Rail is a once in a generation opportunity to provide frequent, fast and reliable rail links for communities between Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Cambridge, connecting people with the things that matter most to them.

It's not just about commuting or long-distance travel. The railway will need to serve a number of distinct, but over-lapping markets and types of customer: from easy opportunities to travel between home and work to days out with friends and family; and by facilitating new connections between businesses and their employees, suppliers and customers as well as longer-distance business and leisure trips.

In order to achieve this, the railway will need to find the right balance between journey times, capacity and connectivity so that we can maximise the benefits provided throughout the region for as many people as possible, while also minimising and mitigating impacts on residents, businesses and the environment.

How will we serve Cambridge?

East West Rail Company's map of the potential routes from Bedford to Cambridge, on which it is consulting. Map: East West Rail Company
East West Rail Company's map of the potential routes from Bedford to Cambridge, on which it is consulting. Map: East West Rail Company

In order to serve Cambridge, the new railway will need to connect to the existing railway network so that the new train services can reach Cambridge station – this is one of the project objectives that we are required to deliver. A number of options were looked at, including connecting to the existing West Anglia Mainline both north and south of Cambridge. It was decided to approach Cambridge from the south as this would have lower impacts on properties and the environment, as well as providing greater operational flexibility once the new train services start running.

The public were invited to comment on this decision during the non-statutory route options consultation held in 2019 and, as part of the announcement of the preferred route option in 2020, the decision to approach Cambridge from the south was confirmed.

We understand that there are a number of issues which have been matters of public interest recently so we have set out some key facts and figures below in order to 'bust' some of the myths.

Has the decision to approach Cambridge from the south been back-checked?

As part of the development of more detailed alignment options for the railway between Bedford and Cambridge – these form part of the current second-stage non-statutory consultation which runs until 9 June 2021 – further work was undertaken to confirm whether the decision to approach Cambridge from the south remained sound.

Our conclusion was that the inherent constraints and complexities meant that a northern approach continued to perform less well operationally; it is not as easy to construct; it will take longer to build - and will therefore be more expensive to build; it has lower transport user benefits; and it impacts more people, directly and indirectly, when compared to the southern approach that we are proposing.

Details of this have been published as Appendix F of the Technical Report accompanying the ongoing consultation. Because of the nature of the impacts of an approach to Cambridge from the north, further study is likely to confirm or worsen its impacts – for instance, it is likely to make impacts on properties even more likely because the land-take would be known.

Benefits of serving Northstowe

It would be possible for a new station to be built at Oakington for Northstowe. However, due to the existing development plans in the area this would be located around 3km to 4km away from most of the new settlement – roughly a 40 to 60 minute walk for most people.

By comparison, the guided busway will provide a more convenient public transport connection passing right through the new town with fast, frequent services to the northern part of Cambridge, Cambridge North station and the city centre. From Northstowe to the Science Park, door-to-door journey times would be quicker on the busway than by rail.

In addition, Cambridgeshire County Council and the developers of Northstowe themselves have previously confirmed that public transport infrastructure provision is already in place or planned to address the needs of housing and economic growth north and northwest of Cambridge, including at Northstowe. A northern approach into Cambridge would therefore be duplicating, not complementing, other public transport provision and is not necessary in order for the Northstowe development to move forward.

Embankments between The Eversdens and Hauxton

Between The Eversdens and Hauxton, the new railway would be approximately 7km long. This would be a mixture of embankments, viaducts, cuttings and 'at grade' railway – at grade means that the railway is level with the existing ground level. No single stretch of embankment would be longer than 1,800 metres and no single stretch of viaduct would exceed 330 metres.

The exact height of the railway at any particular location depends on the surrounding topography as well as existing features in the area. For example, where the railway has to cross a road we would need to leave sufficient clearance to allow road traffic to continue to pass underneath. Current proposals present a ‘reasonable worst case’ and there is still more design work to do to refine this and we will look for possibilities to reduce the height further as part of the engineering design process.

All parts of the railway would be subject to detailed design, including by specialist landscape architects who would design the embankments and cuttings, as well as any planting to help the new railway to fit in with its landscape.

East West Rail Company's proposals for Hauxton Road level crossing, released on March 31, 2021. Map: East West Rail Company (46642781)
East West Rail Company's proposals for Hauxton Road level crossing, released on March 31, 2021. Map: East West Rail Company (46642781)

Floodplains north of Cambridge

There are significant areas of floodplain north of Cambridge and the wider, low-lying land is liable to flooding, as happened earlier this year. Embankments can cause serious issues in floodplains because they trap floodwater, which can exacerbate flood risk nearby as well as having detrimental effects on water flow and ecological sites downstream.

In order to cross the A14 west of Girton and the guided busway near Oakington, the railway would need to be elevated by more than [7m] above the road surface and the surrounding land. The short distance in between those two crossings means that the track here would also need to be elevated as it passes Oakington. An embankment in this location would pose a serious risk of exacerbating flood risks for Oakington residents – the village is already in a location identified by the Environment Agency as being at risk of flooding – and a viaduct would be a substantial structure adding significantly to both construction and maintenance costs.

Any embankment or viaduct here would also be more visually prominent and intrusive than a comparable structure further south due to the flatter prevailing land levels north of Cambridge.


We have looked at whether the existing two-track railway between Milton and Cambridge station would have sufficient spare capacity to add the new East West Rail trains in addition to the existing services. It would not. As a result, in order to approach Cambridge from the north, we would need to add an extra two tracks to increase the number of tracks between Milton and Cambridge station to four. There are no technological solutions to this capacity problem.

Providing two new tracks in addition to the existing railway would be expensive, complex and potentially require:

  • between 39 and 84 property demolitions, including the homes of Cambridge residents – this property impact is significantly higher than for a southern approach which we expect would require no more than five properties to be demolished;
  • significant modifications at Cambridge North station, including new platforms, resulting in greater service disruption on the wider network whilst works take place as well as higher costs to compensate the existing operators, passengers, residents and businesses;
  • a complex level crossing closure at Fen Road;
  • a new railway bridge over the River Cam and, potentially, a new road bridge as well; and
  • the modification, demolition and re-building of every road bridge that crosses the existing railway between Milton and Cambridge station – the A14, Newmarket Road, Coldham’s Lane and Mill Road – causing significant disruption on all of these key routes in and out of the city centre – a southern approach would require only one road bridge – Long Road – on the outskirts of the city to be modified.

An approach into Cambridge from the north would also pass close to a higher number of properties. For example, data from Ordnance Survey indicate that roughly 4,600 properties would be within 200 metres of a northern approach whereas there are roughly 3,800 for a southern approach. This does not mean that every property in this area would in fact be affected, but the higher total number for a northern approach means that there is potential for more extensive indirect impacts to arise compared to a southern approach.

We are aware that some members of the public have suggested that driverless car technology might mean that the additional tracks would not be needed. Railways are constructed and operated to very high safety standards, and it is important to remember that we have to design the railway now on the basis of current engineering possibilities, as opposed to unidentified and untested technologies – sometimes referred to as 'gadgetbahns' – that may or may not be available, suitable or safe in the future.

Choice of onward destinations

The decision as to whether to approach Cambridge from the north or the south does have implications for the choice of onward destinations that could be served by extended East West Rail services.

By approaching Cambridge from the north, passenger trains would need to reverse at Cambridge station in order to be able to head further east to Norwich, Ipswich and other destinations in the future. This would lead to significant increases in journey times for through journeys (i.e. those not ending or starting at Cambridge station), uses up more capacity as trains have to pass over the same section of track twice, cross lines used for other services, reducing their capacity, and occupy platforms for longer, which increases the risk of delays as timetabling is more complex.

Stansted Airport railway station is very unlikely to have sufficient capacity to accommodate the extra EWR trains on top of the existing services due to the single-track tunnel under the runway and limited platform availability. The station is located underneath the main airport terminal building which means that it would be very complex and expensive to increase the number of platforms. Similarly, capacity on the lines to London Kings Cross and Liverpool Street is limited which will constrain the possibility for East West Rail services to be extended and expanded in the future to Kings Cross and Liverpool Street.

East West Rail Company's current proposal for a southern approach to Cambridge, which has been put out to consultation. Map: East West Rail Company
East West Rail Company's current proposal for a southern approach to Cambridge, which has been put out to consultation. Map: East West Rail Company

By comparison, approaching Cambridge from the south would allow services to be extended to a greater choice of destinations such as Norwich, Ipswich, Kings Lynn and, potentially, a reopened rail link to Wisbech, without requiring trains to reverse at Cambridge. This means that an approach from the south offers greater opportunities and potential to improve connectivity for the wider region than a northern approach, including supporting opportunities for economic growth in towns and cities outside London by connecting them together.

We are aware of suggestions put forward by some members of the public that on a northern approach some trains could – in the future – by-pass Cambridge when travelling between Bedford and, for example, Norwich in order to avoid the need for them to reverse en-route. While this is possible in theory, the practical effect of this type of service pattern would be to use up extra capacity on the new East West Rail line while diluting the benefits and attractiveness of the new service by significantly reducing potential choice and convenience for passengers.

East West Rail Company's proposals for the area from Long Road Sixth Form College to Cambridge station, released on March 31, 2021. Map: East West Rail Company
East West Rail Company's proposals for the area from Long Road Sixth Form College to Cambridge station, released on March 31, 2021. Map: East West Rail Company

Remote working/reduced need to travel

Covid-19 undoubtedly generated immediate changes to working practices and travel patterns, with restrictions on movement causing understandable drops in rail passenger numbers in 2020. However, no consensus has formed about the long-term effect this might have on rail demand within the UK.

While it is possible that more people may choose to work remotely in the future, recent research from the US and Norway indicates that over 60 per cent of jobs cannot realistically be performed from home and many of these jobs are lower paid. The potential for remote work is highly concentrated amongst highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations, and geographies, generally in higher-paid jobs.

In addition, East West Rail is not just about commuting, but leisure and longer-distance inter-regional travel too. We want to improve connectivity for as many people as possible by providing frequent, fast services that take people where they want to go and offer a good selection of destinations – without the inconvenience and extra time required to change trains in London. For example, journeys from Cambridge or Norwich to Oxford via London would still require customers to change between London termini or at least two changes of train if using Crossrail (once it opens).


We’re aware that the East West Rail Consortium has a desire for East West Rail to support freight, but the remit of East West Railway Company is to develop infrastructure for passenger services between Oxford and Cambridge, while making sure East West Rail will support existing freight services. it’s too early to make any assumptions about freight on East West Rail and how much freight would use the railway is not yet known. We have a study under way, and no decisions have been made. More detailed information on this will be available at the statutory consultation.

The call to action

We are designing a railway for the next hundred years or more – and feedback from local residents and businesses will be vital in ensuring that we get it right. We would encourage everyone along the route – and beyond – to respond to our on-going consultation which runs until June 9, 2021.

Read more

East West Rail: Why a northern approach via Northstowe should be considered

East West Rail launches new consultation on route: Huge flyover proposed for South Cambridgeshire countryside

Why East West Rail Company says it is rejecting a northern route into Cambridge

East West Rail would create ‘Great Wall of Cambridgeshire’

East West Rail: ‘People are frightened for their communities’

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