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Thousands call for rethink on approach of East West Rail line into Cambridge



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Thousands of people are calling for a rethink on the approach the new East West Rail line will take into Cambridge.

Residents in villages from the Eversdens to the Shelfords fear there will be environmental destruction if current proposals to take a southern route from Cambourne through the countryside to the planned Cambridge South railway station proceed.

Stephanie Jack in Great Eversden, with children Alfie, 6, Millie, 9, and Phoebe, 5. Picture: Keith Heppell
Stephanie Jack in Great Eversden, with children Alfie, 6, Millie, 9, and Phoebe, 5. Picture: Keith Heppell

They are calling for a northern route, following the A428 corridor and heading via Northstowe into Cambridge North, to be given equal consideration.

William Harrold, co-founder of the East West Rail Cambridge Approaches Action Group, said: “From a rational perspective, we just don’t get it. That is why we are asking for a consultation. This is such an important decision for Cambridge.

“If there is reasonable doubt, surely there ought to be a proper consultation on routes north and south. That has never happened.”

Signs opposing East West Rail can now be seen in villages along its proposed path, which could run from Cambourne, close to Bourn, Toft, Comberton, the Eversdens, Barton, Haslingfield, Hauxton, Trumpington and the Shelfords.

The East West Rail Company, which is in charge of delivering the new line from Oxford to Cambridge by the end of the decade, has promised its second consultation on the detailed route alignment from Bedford to Cambridge at some point “early in 2021”.

This follows the announcement in January 2020 of the preferred ‘Option E’ route via a new station at Cambourne, rather than a more southerly route via Bassingbourn.

While this was widely welcomed, there were many who felt the line should continue on a northern path into the city.

This, however, was not among the five options put forward in the initial 2019 consultation despite pressure from the CamBedRailRoad (CBBR) group, which put forward the alternative.

The East West Rail Company's preferred route for the new line would go via Cambourne and through the countryside to Cambridge South
The East West Rail Company's preferred route for the new line would go via Cambourne and through the countryside to Cambridge South

The East West Rail Company said it had already asked the public if it had been right to prioritise routes from the south, but Option E had proved “the most popular among people who took part in the 2019 consultation”.

A spokesperson said: “In addition our economic, environmental and technical analyses indicated that an approach to Cambridge from the north was more expensive, problematic for future operations, and posed some significant environmental challenges.”

The company’s favoured southern route would directly serve the new Cambridge South station, due to open by 2025, although passengers could then continue on to Cambridge’s central and North stations.

Campaigners, however, have now collected more than 6,000 signatures on a Change.org petition demanding the East West Rail Company reconsiders.

“If you look at the number of residents within 200metres of the southern Option E route between Cambourne and Cambridge, there are seven times more than on the CBRR route,” said Mr Harrold, a retired engineer.

“If you look at the environmental impact, there was a study by the Wildlife Trusts, which counted the number of sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), county wildlife sites and scheduled ancient monuments, which showed that the CBRR route crosses fewer than half as many protected sites.

William Harrold in Haslingfield. Picture: Keith Heppell
William Harrold in Haslingfield. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We also compared the number of road crossings. They add cost to the construction and severance or changes in community, if they are not properly restored. In terms of motorways and dual carriageways, it is about the same, but the number of A-roads and B-roads crossed is about half on the CBBR route.

“And if you look at the length between a Cambourne North station and the point where the two possible routes would come together, which would be Coldhams Common in Cambridge, as it heads on towards Ipswich, the northern route is 2.3km shorter.”

The Cambridge Approaches group suggests that the northern route could even save money on the cost of the £5billion project, although a “couple of hundred million pounds” would be needed to fund a station at Northstowe.

“This is the biggest new town in England since Milton Keynes, so the benefits in terms of commuting and supporting land value increases are huge,” said Mr Harrold.

The East West Rail Company has pledged a net gain in biodiversity from the scheme.

But the Wildlife Trusts complained in 2019 that no strategic environmental assessment (SEA) had been carried out and said it was “very concerned” that no consultation on the northern route was being carried out.

It said that the route to the south could be “potentially extremely damaging to the natural environment”, and could “cut through the West Cambridgeshire Hundreds ecological network, potentially affect more county wildlife sites and almost inevitably pass through the Trumpington Meadows country park and nature reserve”.

East West Rail Company put forward these routes for public consultation, before announcing Option E as its preference. None of the options went to the north of Cambridge
East West Rail Company put forward these routes for public consultation, before announcing Option E as its preference. None of the options went to the north of Cambridge

East West Rail said an SEA did not apply to this type of project. Instead, an Environmental Impact Assessment would follow later.

A spokesperson added: “We found that an approach from the south enabled us to avoid ancient woodlands and SSSIs, whereas a northern approach presented a significant problem with floodplains and would also have impacted on Coldham’s Common, a designated protected area.”

The scheme’s environmental credentials have also taken a hit after it emerged that the line will not be fully electrified and trains running on the line will be diesel-powered, although transport secretary Grant Shapps has said he hopes they could eventually be replaced by something “more environmentally friendly” like hydrogen or battery-powered trains.

Further questions for the East West Rail Company surround freight.

“We have a line here that will connect the port of Felixstowe – the largest container port in the country, handling 40-50 per cent of all container traffic – with the Midlands,” points out Mr Harrold, adding the freight traffic is already back to full capacity despite the pandemic.

“The plan is to build one million houses in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, so there is a great opportunity to bring that in by freight. It’s low-carbon and a great way to move things around in general compared to using the A14, but it needs to be in the right place.

East West Rail protest signs in Shelford near Scotsdales Garden Centre and Shelford Rugby Club. Picture: Keith Heppell
East West Rail protest signs in Shelford near Scotsdales Garden Centre and Shelford Rugby Club. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Travelling through lots of rural villages and through central Cambridge is sub-optimal.”

There have been mixed signals over freight, with a presentation last week from the Rail Freight Group, an industry association, suggesting it did not believe the central section would support freight.

Cambridge Approaches has warned that freight could be moved at night, which could disturb residents.

“They are going to consult on details for the route alignment in the Option E area, but they haven’t presented a business case, they haven’t presented a housing plan and we don’t know whether freight is going to be supported,” said Mr Harrold.

The East West Rail spokesperson told the Cambridge Independent: “We are aware that freight is a topic of great interest to the local communities we will serve, and we are currently undertaking a study to understand potential freight use.

“We hope communities will give us their views on a wide variety of topics including freight at the upcoming non-statutory consultation, which we are aiming to hold early this year.

Last October, the company did agree after feedback to consider placing the new Cambourne station to the north of the town, rather to its south.

The government confirmed £760m to break ground on East West Rail in late January, as the Cambridge Independent reported. The money will be used to lay track along a disused railway line between Bicester and Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire, with services beginning in 2025.

Why was the northern route rejected by East West Rail Company?

In its technical document in January 2019, the East West Rail Company said it had revisited the case for approaching Cambridge from the north but ruled it out because it would:

  • require potential modifications to the Cambridge North station and add more tracks to a longer section of the West Anglia Main Line, adding significant cost, whereas four-tracking of the line immediately to the south of Cambridge was likely to be required for Cambridge South anyway
  • incur higher capital and operating costs and result in slower journey times due to the greater route length
  • not directly serve Cambridge South, foregoing an opportunity to support growth, housing and employment
  • require a reversing move and journey time penalties for any onward journeys to and from Norwich, Ipswich and other destinations to the east of Cambridge.

It also noted that existing transport infrastructure such as the guided busway already catered for growth opportunities north of Cambridge.

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