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East West Rail embankment plans could be abandoned

An embankment dubbed the ‘Great Wall’ to carry the new East West Rail line through South Cambridgeshire into Cambridge could be scrapped after a huge backlash from campaigners, residents and politicians.

East West Rail event at Cambridge Belfry Hotel & Spa, Back Ln, Great Cambourne. Picture: Keith Heppell. (58917222)
East West Rail event at Cambridge Belfry Hotel & Spa, Back Ln, Great Cambourne. Picture: Keith Heppell. (58917222)

The East West Railway Company, which is developing the plans for the £5bn route, has revealed that it is considering ways it can “reduce or remove embankments and viaducts” following comments made during its consultation last year.

These options include taking the railway under roads instead of building viaducts over them and diverting roads over it.

It is also exploring whether the potential route alignments could be changed to allow the railway to be lowered.

But the news has received a muted response from some residents and campaigners, who believe the preferred route remains flawed and could have a massive detrimental effect on some communities in South Cambridgeshire.

South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP Anthony Browne has warned that the company still “needs to show they will use” the alternatives proposed.

Residents and campaigners are also concerned about the lack of information about the proposed changes – and are still waiting for the results of the 2021 consultation.

Mr Browne said: “I have consistently made clear that the ‘Great Wall’ of South Cambridgeshire is totally unacceptable. When I first saw the proposal I was horrified, and thought it had to be some sort of mistake. The vast embankment, a profound and unnecessary eyesore that exacerbates the impact of the line, must be brought down to earth.”

A spokesperson for East West Railway Company said: “During our 2021 non-statutory consultation, we presented outline details about where the new railway might need to be ‘in cutting’ or ‘on embankment/viaduct’ and displayed the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’. Following responses to this consultation, we took a look at ways we could reduce the height of proposed embankments and viaducts – or remove them altogether.

“The work we’ve been doing since the consultation closed has helped us to identify some potential opportunities.

East West Rail's vision of a cutting (58766975)
East West Rail's vision of a cutting (58766975)

“Once a preferred route alignment has been selected, a fully-developed route design will be published for review by residents, communities and other stakeholders. There’ll then be an opportunity to share feedback as part of a future public consultation.”

Drawings within the consultation showed the embankment running for 16km (9.9 miles) from the A428 bridge near Highfields in Caldecote to the planned grade-separated Hauxton Junction.

Campaigners said the elevated line would have an enormous visual impact, be noisy and lead to the destruction of farmland.

But the East West Railway Company said that depending on the surrounding land levels and topography, the railway would either be at ground level or on a mixture of embankments, viaducts and cuttings, over the approximately 15km distance from Highfields, Caldecote to the M11 near Hauxton.

It, however, confirmed the plans included a 6.3km (3.9-mile) section of embankment from the Eversdens to Hauxton Junction.

The embankment would also split the villages of Harston and Newton, leaving pupils in Newton with no access to their local primary school in Harston by severing Station Road/Newton Road.

Campaigners said the impact of the embankment would be avoided if a northern route for the £5bn railway line was fully considered.

Mr Browne continued: “My top priority throughout has been to raise the concerns of residents. Alongside all manner of public and private meetings, I have taken East West Rail representatives, including the past and current chief executives, on tours of our constituency to see the impact this ‘Great Wall’ would have across South Cambridgeshire. I am delighted they can now see that.

“While I welcome these common sense alternatives, including options I’ve brought to them, East West Rail needs to do more than look. They need to show they will use them.

“In the meantime, my asks have not changed. We need clarity on their business case, first and foremost, to ensure the project is not a massive white elephant – the last Oxford to Cambridge railway line was closed down because it was under-used.

Anthony Browne with the new chief executive of East West Rail on a recent tour of South Cambridgeshire (58763585)
Anthony Browne with the new chief executive of East West Rail on a recent tour of South Cambridgeshire (58763585)

“Our communities must not be separated by any route, with all roads serving the same villages they do now. It must be electrified, and there must be clarity on freight travel. This is a real victory, but my work continues.”

Last month, the government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) gave a red rating to the Bedford to Cambridge section, meaning “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”.

It came as two letters emerged, signed by Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians along with business and university leaders, which expressed “full support” for the ambitious scheme to connect Oxford and Cambridge, via new stations at Cambourne and St Neots/Tempsford.

The Department for Transport said the scheme is in “early development stages” while East West Railway Company says it continues to keep the “business case and delivery programme under review”.

Earlier in July, transport secretary Grant Shapps said he would scrap the remaining stages of East West Rail to cut government spending.

Mr Shapps said the project would be the first to face the axe when asked what he would cut from the transport budget during an interview with LBC.

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