Years of campaigning by Railfuture are almost over. The East-West Rail Link, once written off by many as ‘pie-in-the-sky’, has now become part of the nation’s economic orthodoxy. It enjoys the backing of all the region’s local authorities and MPs, the Department for Transport, the region’s business organisations, Network Rail and most importantly (!) the Treasury.
To these we can now add the National Infrastructure Commission, which in the last month has been instructed by the Chancellor to work with the EWR Consortium to support this project.
This is an important development as their involvement could help to free the funding log-jam building up in the next control period.
More good news came in March with the expected announcement from Network Rail that we are now down to a single route ‘corridor’ via Sandy. The capital cost of a route via Hitchin turned out to be almost as high as a more direct route with lower operating costs.
The ‘Sandy corridor’ includes several route options from which one will be selected by September this year in order to meet the deadline for the next Network Rail Initial Industry Plan.
At the Bedford end, the line could run out of Midland, St.Johns or a new parkway station on the Midland Main Line to the south. The line could then pass to the south or north of Sandy itself (with an interchange to the ECML) on its way to Cambridge, where all options show the entering the City via a new station at Addenbrookes. All options show positive benefit:cost ratios.
Planning a new railway in the 21st century involves making similar choices to those faced by the pioneers in the 19th. The straighter you make your line, the shorter the route and the more attractive the journey time but this can present greater engineering challenges. Serving intermediate settlements can bring extra revenue but this has to be weighed against the costs of operating a slightly longer route. All these factors are included in the evaluation process.
There are though some significant differences that apply today. Newer technology means that, unlike the former ‘Varsity’ line, the new railway can be built with 125mph capability and this alters the business case. The rapid growth of both the economy and population of East Anglia have made it one of the UK’s more significant regions and the new railway can benefit the cities of Norwich and Ipswich, each with science and telecommunications industries of their own, as well as Cambridge itself.
Rail campaigning has been likened to pushing a very large boulder uphill; it requires a lot of effort and progress is very slow. One day you reach the top and your boulder starts to take on a momentum of its own until it becomes unstoppable. That is where we seem to be with East-West Rail.
Network Rail press release
Network Rail East-West Rail project
East West Rail Consortium
Railfuture Oxford - Cambridge campaign