East West Rail: Why a northern approach via Northstowe should be considered
Opinion | By James Perry
As a scientist, local resident and keen builder of transport networks in computer games, I’ve found myself drawn to the debate about East West Rail, and the question of how to connect a new line from the west with Cambridge’s existing railways.
The guided busway having already taken the obvious routes, we are left to choose between a detour to the north or south. The East West Rail (EWR) Company say a southern approach makes more sense, for reasons explained recently. I’m not a rail expert, but decided to speak up in the hope that it will help encourage those who are to offer us definitive answers to some major unanswered questions.
It may be that a southern approach is ultimately the best option, but there is unease at the lack of transparency as to why a northern approach has been ruled out. Most notably, concerns have been voiced at the lack of detail about why new track would be needed through the city, the viability of combining with existing services to reduce terminus stops in Cambridge, and clarity regarding how much freight traffic the new line will carry. There’s a chance a northern approach could keep freight trains out of Cambridge, be easier to electrify, and help solve some of our biggest local transport issues – so I’d argue it’s worth thinking really carefully indeed before we decide it’s unfeasible.
We now know that the southern approach could involve, among other things, what has been dubbed the “Great Wall”: an eight to 10-metre high, many-mile-long mix of alternating embankment, viaduct and even deeper cutting from north the Eversdens to a huge new junction at Harston, to carry the new railway over the biggest hill in the area.
Cyclists will know it as the infamous “Chapel Hill”, which offers fantastic views across the county, and has historical and spiritual significance as a stopping point on pilgrimages to Walsingham. In an otherwise flat landscape, the proposal has come as quite a shock to local residents, to put it mildly.
When there is no ideal solution, it is much harder for those affected by the decision to accept the outcome if they struggle to understand why it was made.
The biggest reason why a northern approach is worth considering is the possibility of a station at Northstowe. The new town’s planned size cannot be underestimated – in a few years’ time it will be bigger than either Ely or Newmarket, and will stretch from the far end of Longstanton to Oakington.
It is too far from Cambridge for most to regularly cycle, and I understand that before the pandemic the guided busway (which also serves passengers from Huntingdon and St Ives) was already reaching its peak capacity with only around 700 of 10,000 houses built.
For a local commuter town specifically designed to be accessible to workplaces in Cambridge, public transport from Northstowe to the biomedical campus or West Cambridge is largely impractical, and it’s already standing room only to Cambridge North at rush hour. A railway station near Oakington/Northstowe (with attached cycle routes to nearby villages, lots of bike racks and “blue badge” parking) could connect a population of around 35,000 with Cambridge’s stations (and London) via a short cycle and train ride; buses could then focus on passengers less well served by the rail network.
The Barbastelle bats at Wimpole and astronomers at Lord’s Bridge would presumably also be in favour.
Freight is difficult to assess because, while there is provision to add infrastructure along the route to facilitate up to 24 a day in each direction, EWR Co’s focus is on passengers, and little information about expected freight traffic has been published.
A freight-friendly new chord at Coldham’s Lane is probably impossible due to lack of space. If there will only be very occasional overnight freight movements, then they could perhaps reverse near Cambridge station. If it is to be a major aspect of EWR, however, then significant additional investment would likely be needed. One solution could be to send Felixstowe-bound freight north at the proposed Milton junction, and along a new chord & bridge to the south of Ely. Some of the costs might be offset by a reduced need to add tracks to the Cherry Hinton branch and around Cambridge South, and – unlike a southern approach – it would mean diesel freight trains are kept out of urban Cambridge.
Track to the north of Cambridge would cross low lying floodplains, so would necessitate raising the track on an embankment. Although challenging, a few-metre-tall rise (with associated flood mitigation measures) may not be unreasonable when compared against the proposed “Great Wall”.
The land was deemed suitable for 10,000 new houses, and Oakington has had a station before, so a new one should be technically viable. Digging out the rowing lake that has been vaguely on the cards for years could even provide soil for the embankments, although its planned location would need revising.
EWRCo argue that the increased traffic from a northern approach would require the line between Milton and Cambridge station to become a ‘quad’ track, which would be impractical to build given nearby properties, the river and Newmarket Road bridge – implications which have formed the backbone of EWR Co’s current defence of their southern approach.
Determining rail capacity is surprisingly complex, but there is frustration that EWR Co have not published their reasoning to explain why they are convinced quadrupling is necessary.
A ‘northern approach’ (plus wiggle room for future services and freight) is expected to require at most 14 or 15 trains per hour in each direction. To put that in context, the French can manage that throughput at 200mph; Thameslink and Crossrail are designed to run at 24 per hour. Comparisons with the troubled ‘Castlefield Corridor’ in Manchester are overblown, as Cambridge’s much more streamlined network has far fewer trains crossing over one another.
I understand some of the current signalling dates from the 1970s, but is already in the process of being upgraded. For the short section where all passenger trains travel at the same modest speed, there is a strong argument that – contrary to EWR Co’s claim – existing track will have plenty of capacity.
Arguably the biggest obstacle for a northern (or indeed any) route is that Cambridge is connected to so many towns and cities in different directions. Nowadays it feels like you need a London salary to live in Cambridge, and a Cambridge salary to live near a station serving Cambridge – meaning few can afford to live near their work, leading to high demand for both public and private transport. Finding a way to route all that traffic in and around a city where the main employment areas are quite widely spread is undeniably a challenge.
Today, a train from London reverses in Cambridge every 10 minutes. But Cambridge is not the end of any lines. With a southern approach, even with the mooted new routes to places like Wisbech, there will always be far more demand heading south than north out of the city.
This would mean we’d always be burdened with many terminating services, which need longer at stations and reduce line capacity. EWR Co claim a northern approach would require all EWR trains to also terminate in Cambridge. But is there another way?
If the new line were electrified then it would be possible, in principle, to run trains from Oxford, through Cambridge to London, by combining EWR and existing services. I suspect it would be a challenge to make it work (and may ultimately prove impossible in practice), but given the potential benefits – fewer terminating trains and thus reduced pressure to expand stations and track in Cambridge, direct trains to London from Northstowe and Cambourne, and perhaps also from Oxford/Bedford to Stansted Airport – surely it’s worth serious consideration?
Carrying your energy store with you will always add weight and complexity to rolling stock, so overhead lines remain by far the best option, and retrospective electrification is always more costly. Opening a new diesel-reliant railway at the same time as banning new diesel cars seems completely unconscionable, but is what EWR currently plans to do.
I suspect reluctance to build EWR as an electrified route has arisen in part because a southern approach doesn’t just enable trains to continue through to Norwich and Ipswich, it probably requires it to some extent due to the terminus problem. As a result, the existing lines to Norwich and Ipswich would require electrification at the same time. These routes are relatively quiet, and low down the UK’s priority list.
So, is providing direct services to Norwich and Ipswich critical for EWR? The fraction of passengers heading from one side of Cambridge to the other is small, and they would either be swapping an all electric route through London on Crossrail for a diesel service, or removing a single transfer at Cambridge. Nonetheless, if the answer is yes, then with a northern approach those passengers could be served by an ‘express’ train calling at Cambridge North only, avoiding a detour through busy central Cambridge – in much the same way as EWR will call at Bletchley but not Milton Keynes.
Ultimately, the question is whether we want to prioritise high-speed travel for long distance commuting into Cambridge, or instead focus on facilitating efficient, high throughput local routes to help more people to be able to live closer to their place of work?
The elephant in the room is whether, particularly post-pandemic, a railway between Cambridge and Bedford with very few stations is the best use of limited funds which could otherwise be spent on more local, electric, ‘metro’ style solutions.
Years before EWR, Cambourne will likely be served by the CAM metro, which could perhaps be extended to decrease journey times to St Neots too. Local light rail and buses are much cheaper to build, and the idea that high-tech research necessarily involves constantly zooming back and forth on the train between one another’s labs has largely been replaced with, well, Zoom.
Does it really make sense to design a transport network where it’s quicker to commute to Addenbrooke’s from Bedford than from Northstowe?
- For more views and news on East West Rail, don’t miss this week’s Cambridge Independent, out from Wednesday.
- Look out for East West Rail Company’s full response to the arguments in favour northern approach - coming soon.
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