Which way will the railway run?
We’re talking East-West rail here, not the myriad of other rail issues that are around at the moment, such as Cambridge South station which will serve the bio-medical campus and Addenbrookes, or the Whittlesford travel hub, or the exciting but expensive Mayoral plans for a CAM Metro, or the possibility of Foxton becoming of a rail hub.
East-West rail is a project that will not be an actual train steaming into Cambridge packed with academics fleeing Oxford until the mid to late 2020s. And that assumes building it doesn’t slip - and Crossrail isn’t an encouraging precedent there, although obviously tunnelling under London is a tad more challenging that laying track across fields.
So all this is possibly ten years away - but it will be the biggest infrastructure project impacting South Cambs, after the current A14 widening, since the opening of the M11 thirty years ago.
East-West rail’s public consultation has finished and now the issue goes back to the government for a decision, due later this year. To be honest, there are two - among all the others - frontrunners for where the line will run across South Cambs.
he County Council has come out in favour of the southern route running through Bassingbourn, where it is highly likely a town would be built on the MOD land there. The county’s reasoning is this is lowest cost and delivers fastest journey times. South Cambridgeshire District Council has opted more for the northern route, running down through Cambourne, on the basis that it would afford that expanding settlement the boost of a rail station, reducing car usage, and lessen the impact on historic Wimpole Hall.
The two routes, A and B, backed by the county and the district respectively, come out about equal in terms of economic impact and house building opportunities etc etc. but the A route via Bassingbourn is about half a billion cheaper.
Which brings us to the crux of East-West rail - is it about improving connectivity or is it about enabling a lot of houses to be built. Probably somewhere in between, in order to stimulate the growth that the government believes exists in the Ox Cam arc. Originally, though, the aim of the project was much more about connectivity, boiled down into a target of “a journey time between Oxford and Cambridge of 60 minutes.” The National Infrastructure Commission report in 2017 moved the needle much further over towards house building, and in response East-West Rail stated that one of its revised aims was “better connectivity for short-distance journeys between towns and cities across the Arc and areas that could provide opportunities for new homes.” East West Rail now reckon that short distance journeys with fast journey times are likely to generate most of the demand for EWR services, with up to 300,000 trips each year between the Sandy area and Cambridge.
The East-West rail technical report closes with one of those laconic sentences which the eye could easily glide over. It reads
“Routes B, C, D and E are significantly more expensive than Route A but could be justified if the potential opportunities to support additional growth and housing that have been identified could be realised.”
The report therefore lays the ground for more housing if the Cambourne route is chosen. In other words, if the lobbying locally against the Bassingbourn route succeeds, and the Cambourne route is chosen, then it will come with a price tag of considerably more housing for South Cambridgeshire. I have heard a figure of 40-50,000 more houses. Would they all be in South Cambs? Probably not, but if the purpose of those extra houses is to meet the higher costs of the line, then building them nearer to Cambridge, where they can sell for more, makes sense.
That doesn’t mean the Cambourne route is wrong - Cambourne has recently declared town status, and having the expectation of its own rail station would do a great deal more. People say Waterbeach is going to be exciting. Cambourne could overtake it as the destination new town.
But for South Cambridgeshire as a whole, that carefully worded sentence does mean that we have to be careful what we wish for.