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Weighing up the costs and benefits of East West Rail

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Opinion | By Cambridge Approaches

In January 2019 the total cost of East West Rail central section’s cheapest option was £1.9bn. By January 2020 the preferred route option cost was £5.6bn. In today’s money that is around £9,000 per household in the Ox-Cam Arc between Bedford and Cambridge. The benefits were announced to be £3.6bn.

East West Rail protest , signs in Shelford near Scotsdale Garden Centre and Shelford Rugby Club . Picture: Keith Heppell. (47489759)
East West Rail protest , signs in Shelford near Scotsdale Garden Centre and Shelford Rugby Club . Picture: Keith Heppell. (47489759)

HM Treasury normally demands that the benefits are at least twice the costs. But East West Railway Company says there are wider benefits for the railway and in view of this, we asked for their strategic outline business case. It has a draft but won’t release it. Apparently, it’s not normal to release it at this stage.

Post-Covid, all 50 of the UK’s biggest employers questioned by the BBC recently said they did not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time, even in the long term. If people work at home two days per week, that’s a 40 per cent reduction in benefits for the railway.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority rated the East West Rail Western Section project as red in 2020. This means that successful delivery of the project appears unachievable. Given this track record, the costs for the central section are only going to go up.

We learn from the sponsor’s requirements that the railway should achieve modal shift for both passengers and freight; that it should stimulate economic growth, housing and employment. It should provide an attractive commuter and inter-urban passenger service and that extension east of Cambridge station should be considered. Maybe there are some wider benefits here, so let’s have a look.

The proposed route has the very worst residential impact from freight, high embankments and junctions in villages to the south west and east of Cambridge, and passes through residential districts in the south and east of the city. How attractive is that? So, either the business case misses the freight opportunity or all the residents suffer a lot of noise – which will it be? When questioned, East West Railway Company says first that what happens beyond Cambridge station to the east is out of scope and secondly that it is still studying freight. CamBedRailRoad’s northern route could allow freight to bypass Cambridge altogether.

The route alignment is to be chosen in advance of any Greater Cambridge Shared Planning’s Local Plan and of the Ox-Cam Arc spatial framework. Consultations on both are due later this year. For example, should we have a station north or south of Cambourne? Without a housing plan, who knows?

East West Railway Company describes Northstowe as it is today, not how it will be in 2030 when the railway is supposed to start service. It needs to look at the plans from Homes England. Residents of existing villages don’t want major housing developments, but it will be even worse for them without good transport infrastructure for those developments.

Cambridgeshire County Council map of major employment sites (47489713)
Cambridgeshire County Council map of major employment sites (47489713)

In a recent presentation, East West Railway Company said that its transport model showed 70 per cent of journeys would be local. If this is right, why is it still giving comparative journey times from Oxford to Cambridge when its own figures predict less than one passenger per train on that journey pair? If it’s about local commuting, we need more stations and a commuter service like those from Cambridge to London. Let’s see the company’s full transport model.

Greater Cambridge Planning Service has shown that most major employment sites in Cambridge are to the north. But East West Railway Company is quite happy for its railway not to go to Cambridge North station, even though they say it must go to Cambridge South.

Could that be because, by its logic, the four-tracking to the north of Cambridge station would then be required anyway? But we are told that is beyond Cambridge station and therefore out of scope.

When are we going to get some sensible answers from East West Railway Company about this project? And where is the joined-up thinking?

The East West Railway central section forms part of the plans for the Ox-Cam Arc which has the “transformational” goal of adding £163bn per year to the UK economy. So, it should be easy to fund this railway, right?

Well, professor David Rogers’ analysis of the underlying Cambridge Econometrics study shows that more than 90 per cent of this growth comes from increasing the population in the area and a huge, unsubstantiated increase in productivity per worker by 2050. Only nine per cent comes from the “agglomeration factor” of the Arc.

East West Rail Company's proposals for the approach to Cambridge. Map: East West Rail Company (47489750)
East West Rail Company's proposals for the approach to Cambridge. Map: East West Rail Company (47489750)

On the other-hand, the environmental impact of increasing the number of homes in the Cambridgeshire area by 81 per cent from 2014 to 2050 would be catastrophic. One has to assume that much of this growth will be along the line of the A428 and any new East West Rail.

What will be left of the Cambridge green belt by 2050? It’s really hard to see that the East West Rail could be carbon neutral when you include construction costs and impossible when you factor in the Ox-Cam Arc.

We have talked to East West Rail Company’s head of business case about housing during the consultation process. He told us that they don’t have a single assumption about the level of housing growth and pointed us at South Cambridgeshire District Council.

When we flagged that there might be development corporations around EWR stations, then they pointed us at the Ministry of Housing. When asked about the 81 per cent increase in the number of houses in the Cambridgeshire area, they said: “East West Rail Company’s remit is set by the government and its primarily to deliver the railway; it’s an interesting challenge you raise William but not one that I can really answer, sorry”.

If there is anyone in government that does feel responsible, please step forward.

Read more:

Using diesel trains on East West Rail would be ‘ridiculous’ says South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne

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

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

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

East West Rail would create ‘Great Wall of Cambridgeshire’

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

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

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