Last year, concluding this article analysing the selection of ‘Route E’ for the central section of East West Rail, going through Bedford and looping around the town to the north, Bedford Rail wrote: “The exact route has yet to be laid out on the ground, so expect a lot of local bunfights over exactly where it goes” Well, those bunfights are well and truly here, with some people disputing not only exactly where the line should go, but even the legitimacy of the previous round of decision-making.
Is it anything other than NIMBYism writ large thanks to social media? No, probably not. One really striking aspect of the campaign against Route E is the wide and slightly desperate mish-mash of arguments being promoted, all of which rest on a mix of misunderstandings and at best half-truths (summarised and discussed in this article), suggesting a general desire to resist it rather than a specific, well-founded case. The uninformed, weak and sometimes plain incorrect nature of the arguments further suggests that this is a NIMBY-ish reaction, trying to throw whatever might stick at the project.
That’s not to dismiss the concerns of people who will have a new railway passing a little way from their back gardens, particularly those who had missed information about the development of the scheme, and for whom this must have come as a shock (when it was announced last year; some people will probably have missed the news even until recently, or even to this day, but inevitably rather fewer). It’s precisely because those people are entitled to ask what this means for them, and to be given the facts, that the recent spreading of disinformation and whipping-up of alarm has been so irresponsible.
And although there has been a significant amount of argument locally over the last month, any idea that opposition to Route E is in any way widespread should be checked. For all the posts on social media, there have been local residents popping up to argue forcefully against the critics (including, but by no means limited to, the author of this blog). And while the petition aimed at Bedford Borough Council has attracted over 1,800 signatures at the time of writing, and no doubt those signatories overwhelmingly added their names in good faith, many will have been misled by the arguments spread on social media by campaigners, which have been partial in every sense of the word.
One of the most fascinating questions about all this is not merely why, but why now? Bedford Rail doesn’t have a complete answer to that. Probably the campaigners are a small number of people pushing very hard, though quite why they’re doing it now is unclear; or maybe they’ve been trying for a while and are just gaining traction now for an unclear reason. It’s not because anything about the scheme has changed, certainly not as far as the route over to Cambridge is concerned: that’s all as it was. Possibly some of the (even more over-excited) bunfights over the route that the line will take into Cambridge have spilled over and caught a few people’s attention here in Bedford; certainly there seems to be some commonality in the bogus arguments being put forward about freight trains.
This article will look at the shape and nature of the campaign, and try to analyse what’s going on. Spoilers: there’s no very clear answer. (The arguments about the route itself are dealt with separately in this article, including discussion of the real picture about those ‘freight train’ claims and why they’re untrue.)
Where has the lie about freight come from?
The false assertion that the line between Bedford and Cambridge will be used heavily by freight trains (and that this has recently become ‘clear’) has cropped up all over the place. While many people are repeating it in good faith, and no doubt for some people it’s a genuine misunderstanding, it’s a stretch to believe that everyone is simply getting muddled: it seems highly likely that in some cases, falsehoods are being knowingly peddled.
It appears in the petition published on February 2nd, which states, “since EWR’s consultations on route options, there has emerged a clear and increasing demand for the use of the railway for freight traffic to and from the East Coast ports.” Now, on a very semantic level this might not be totally wrong – after all, if someone demands something, it doesn’t mean they’re going to get it. But the text then continues, “the noise from which, especially at night, will significantly adversely affect all those living near the proposed route, not just in the rural areas, but in the town as well.” So clearly it’s suggesting that the freight trains will actually happen. Cllr Tom Wootton, perhaps coincidentally also a Ravensden man, raised the spectre of freight trains in the Council meeting the day after the petition was published.
CPRE Bedfordshire also makes the case about freight trains. Its statement was published on February 22nd, so followed the petition and may simply be taking information from it. It states: “CPRE Bedfordshire is very concerned by the East West Rail Consortium’s recent confirmation that East West Rail will be a freight line as well as a passenger transport rail route.” Again, there has been no such confirmation as regards the line between Bedford and Cambridge. The statement is all the more weird because in the same statement they refer to the possibility of freight trains as, “this ambition for the railway, which features in the East West Rail Consortium Prospectus of January 2019…” So they seem to be saying simultaneously that it is new and that it has been known since January 2019.
The origins of this fake news about freight are a bit of a mystery. Some campaigners have clearly found various documents that make general statements about the desirability of freight moving onto rail from a strategic point of view, either nationally or with reference to this region, and wrongly made the leap to assuming that this means EWR somehow must be used for freight, and used heavily. But what got the bee in their bonnet about freight in the first place?
In terms of timing, all of this kicked off just after some media publicity around the confirmation of funding for phase 2 of EWR – the section that links in with Oxford, and re-opens an old line, and not the Bedford to Cambridge section (which is phase 3). In truth it was a non-announcement in some ways: it would have been a hell of a shock of the money hadn’t been provided and the whole thing binned off. However, it did also confirm the decision first made three years ago by the benighted Chris Grayling not to electrify the line, so perhaps this has sparked someone into agitation about diesel traction – but again, it’s not news to anyone who’s been paying attention.
Much more significant, but less highlighted locally, is that this appears to have been the first confirmation that trains between Oxford and Bedford will not begin as part of ‘phase 2’ (as well as the slippage of the completion date for phase 2 to 2024 or 2025). Instead, they will only run between Oxford and Bletchley / Milton Keynes. This is a much bigger blow to Bedford, although does appear to mean that the redevelopment of the station will have to happen sooner, as part of a phase ‘2a’ to enable the Oxford services to start, and in advance of the line to Cambridge being built. But this piece of genuine news has been rather obscured by the fuss over the imagined news about ‘diesel freight’ trains.
Who’s opposing Route E?
While the names of a few local individuals can be associated with the campaign through social media activity, their roles in local political meetings and so on, nobody has identified themselves as responsible for the organised campaigning activity – for instance, on the ‘Boot Route E’ website. There may be more transparency about this in the non-public campaigning Facebook group – the current author has not attempted to join it, as he would be recognised as one of the people who has been trying to combat the disinformation on social media! And to be fair, the names of the admins and moderators of the group are publicly visible, though whether they are the same people who are organising the campaigning work is unclear.
It’s tempting to theorise that this is all a matter of local party politics, and there are some circumstantial indications that there’s some of that going on. But it doesn’t appear to be straightforwardly a matter of this or that party seeking local advantage. True, some of the information that is circulating highlights that the Mayor and Cllr Headley for instance are Liberal Democrats (such as this flyer). But equally, there is clearly a divergence of views among the Council’s Conservative grouping, which their official statement tacitly acknowledges by specifying that, “some Councillors oppose a route exiting Bedford to the north…” Beyond that, it mostly repeats the usual bogus arguments. Indeed, the Conservatives were unhappy at the Council vote on February 24th precisely because it highlighted that they do not have a unified position. Interestingly, their candidate for mayor in 2019 was in favour of a northerly route for the line through Bedford, though curiously preferred option D to E (the difference lying in where it goes further east, not around Bedford).
The opposition of CPRE Beds is noted above, and has at least been consistent, as they opposed Route E in their consultation response in 2019.
The Wildlife Trust Beds, Cambs and Northants are also calling for the route to be re-evaluated, though very much from a Cambridge perspective, supporting the campaigns for alternative routes into the university city.
Social media activism
The way in which certain messages are being repeated all over the place, particularly the same factual errors being precisely replicated, suggests some co-ordination of action among opponents of Route E. This isn’t a criticism: if that’s what they’re doing, it’s good campaigning practice. However, if there is co-ordination it also makes it more likely that at least some of the people concerned are aware that they are spreading disinformation – they must have discussed their arguments amongst themselves, after all – which in turn makes it all look rather cynical. Indeed, the author of this blog asked in response to one of these social media posts whether it was a co-ordinated effort, for instance to post regularly to the We Are Bedford Facebook group; although other questions asked at the same time got a reply, nobody took the opportunity to deny that there was a concerted effort going on.
Since the Council meeting on the 24th, the issue has gone somewhat quiet on social media. Maybe it will pop up again, but hopefully the long-standing and firm commitment of Bedford Borough Council is now better understood, and likewise the status of the Route E decision as a done deal. If there’s been one up-side to all this, it’s that very few people who missed the announcement first time round can now be unaware of it, although some will have gained a skewed understanding of it due to the nature of the campaign messaging. Hopefully this article and the review of the arguments on this site will help people gain a more rounded perspective of the scheme, whether they ultimately welcome it or not.