This article summarises the various arguments put forward against the proposed route of the East West Rail link from Bedford to Cambridge – ‘Route E’, as it was designated in the consultation that ran from January to March 2019 – and considers whether they stack up.
It focuses on the arguments relating to the railway, not to matters of local politics, although it seems fair to say that local leaders in Bedford have been pushing for East West Rail since at least the mid-1990s, that there has been broad consensus on the desirability for bringing it into the town, and that these facts have been as well publicised as matters of local government policy ever tend to be.
We’re not looking here at ERTA’s proposal for re-opening the route through the old Bedford St John’s station, which East West Rail discounted as a non-starter even before the consultation phase.
For background, this blog’s article on the route decision when it was announced over a year ago is still available to read.
East West Rail will be used for regular diesel freight trains, which wasn’t made clear before the consultation
This is perhaps the most widely-circulated argument on social media and elsewhere. It is almost entirely untrue – the only correct element is that East West Rail will be, at first, a diesel railway. The rest of the argument has no basis in fact.
It has been advanced in the petition to the Council set up on February 2nd, was raised by Cllr Tom Wootton at a subsequent Council meeting, is referenced by the environmental group CPRE Beds, has been repeated in sundry social media posts, and features on the ‘Boot Route E’ campaign site, which states: “It is now clear that Diesel Freight [sic] will run through the night.”
No, it isn’t.
Nothing has changed ‘now’ – there has been no announcement or policy change about freight on the line.
And in fact, it’s not even been decided whether the Bedford to Cambridge line (the ‘central section’ of East West Rail) will be capable of carrying freight trains at all.
At the Bedford Borough Council meeting held on February 24th, Cllr Michael Headley confirmed that it is currently unknown whether there will be freight on the route, and added that EWR’s upcoming consultation may say more on this.
An East West Rail spokesperson confirmed to the Cambridge Independent on February 1st that any freight on the line is only ‘potential’: “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.”
Maggie Simpson of the Rail Freight Group gave similar confirmation in this recent Q+A with Tangent Rail: “It’s an open question at the moment. We don’t have a definitive position on whether or not the East West Rail Company is building freight capacity in the central section. Rob Brighouse [Chairman at East West Rail Company] was vocally clear that this line was not for freight.”
Indeed, the 2019 consultation document’s only mention of freight was the following: “The current indicative cost estimates are based on building a rail link that accommodates all types of rail freight. EWR Co will continue to consider whether providing capability for all types of freight is affordable and provides value for money in the context of anticipated freight demand.” In other words, while they are working out how much it might cost to make the line freight-capable, they may or may not ultimately decide to do it. That decision has still not been taken.
Remember, this is the central section, from Bedford to Cambridge. There will be some capacity for freight on the western section, which runs to Oxford and is not being newly built (including the Marston Vale line, which has long had freight traffic, though not so much these days).
Some online campaigners have pointed to official documents stating that the strategic case for East West Rail includes that it can be useful for freight. This is true, but applies to the whole line from Oxford to Cambridge and beyond, not necessarily the central section specifically. These documents were also published before the consultation period, so any claim that this is new information is untrue.
Fundamentally, the line between Bedford and Cambridge is a passenger railway. The business case for building it rests on passenger traffic.
There may or may not be some freight on it.
If it is built to take freight – which it may well not be, as it would probably require some extra spending, and the Treasury is holding down costs on the project fiercely – it’s not even clear that it would be used very much. The direction of the junctions at both Bedford and Bletchley would only make it useful for freight coming in from the east and heading south, whereas the greatest need is for capacity running from Felixstowe up into the Midlands and North. It could well be decided to invest in upgrading existing routes from the eastern ports to the rest of the country (eg Felixstowe to Nuneaton) instead of making some effort to incorporate EWR into the strategic freight network.
A related argument sometimes advanced is that freight will not pass through Oxford, Cambridge or Milton Keynes because they will have stations outside of town (at Bletchley, in the latter case – which is hardly out of town), and therefore Bedford is the only town seeking to “welcome” freight. What this doesn’t recognise is that while the stations may be out of town, the lines still pass through the towns in question: there are no separate freight routes that somehow bypass Milton Keynes, Oxford or Cambridge; freight trains can and do pass through them.
The one valid element of the criticism is that the line is being built for diesel trains: in the twenty-first century, with de-carbonisation an imperative, there isn’t really any excuse for not electrifying the line from the outset. Unfortunately it’s another example of how the Treasury is holding down costs and refusing money for up-front investment beyond the bare minimum.
There are no benefits from having the line come through Bedford
This argument is put forward in a variety of forms, but is not justified.
Those who put it forward don’t go so far as to try to argue the case that Bedford will flourish from being less accessible, which would clearly be ridiculous – but that’s what it amounts to.
EWR will better link Bedford into the economic activity of the Oxford-Cambridge arc, making it a more attractive place to set up new businesses or new sites for existing ones. Having it by-pass Bedford to the south, which was the other option, would not achieve this to anything like the same extent.
Very simply, the more households are served by the railway, the greater the economic benefits, and the benefits only flow to Bedford if Bedford is actually on the route.
There are positive knock-on effects as well: having EWR come through Bedford station should get Bedford back on the Intercity map, restoring our rail connections with the East Midlands and North.
Route E causes a worse environmental impact
Compared to the route options that would have taken EWR to the south of Bedford, Route E is far less disruptive to environmentally sensitive sites.
This interactive map shows historical and environmental sites, as recorded by Natural England, local authorities, DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Historic England and others, in relation to the proposed route. Even if you’re not interested in East West Rail, it’s a fascinating map to pore over.
From the map, it’s really striking how much emptier of environmentally sensitive sites the northern corridor is than the southern one. The same goes for historical sites. The map below shows the Route E corridor, and below it the areas that would be crossed by the various southerly route options. It makes clear that the belt of sites running north-south between Moggerhanger and Old Warden was guaranteed to be hit at some point if a southerly option was chosen, and many consultation respondents expressed concern at the impact of southerly routes on RSPB Sandy and Biggleswade Common.
A more general variation of the environmental argument is that the railway will spoil some beautiful countryside – “North Bedfordshire’s beautiful, undulating, green Countryside,” as the ‘Boot Route E’ website puts it. Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and some will agree with that assessment. Others might feel the countryside in question is certainly pleasant, but not notably beautiful or otherwise outstanding, as the relative lack of designated sites within it might be taken to attest.
There is a third variation of the environmental argument, which is simply to oppose any urban development in the area at all. This is the position of the Bedfordshire branch of CPRE, formerly the Campaign to Protect Rural England, although it’s a bit hard to square it with their statement that they support the development of the line “in principle” to reduce road traffic.
EWR’s environmental policy is available here, should you want to read it, since CPRE Beds don’t provide the link.
The consultation process was flawed
The most common allegation of a flaw in the consultation process is that people weren’t alerted to it. This includes complaints about inadequate involvement of local government.
This seems hard to agree with, although it’s certainly true that however much communication work is done around a consultation exercise of this sort, some people will always miss it for whatever reason.
East West Rail have published abundant evidence of their work to publicise the consultation.
This document contains 358 pages of detail about the consultation, including all written responses from prescribed consultees; Bedford Borough Council (starting on page 64) and Ravensden Parish Council (page 269) are among those whose responses are available to read.
It includes lists of people who were invited to take part, including from local authorities.
It includes (on page 30) a copy of the postcard sent to households in the area where the different route options might have been built (120,000 in total). Appendix 6 shows advertising in the local press. Appendix 7a shows the media distribution list for PR around the consultation, and the material sent to them.
It also confirms that all councillors and parish councillors were written to and offered briefings. People who are discussing their concerns about the scheme with their councillors and parish councillors might wish to ask them what interaction they had with EWR during the consultation process, and what they did to alert their constituents to the proposals.
The cost figures were somehow fiddled
By the time Route E was selected, new analysis of likely costs and benefits had been carried out, which were used in preference to the older figures available at the time of the consultation.
Critics of Route E insinuate that there was something fishy about this, although few spell out what or why. To the extent that any reason is ever given, most commonly it appears to be that the Council is keen to put housing developments alongside parts of the route.
The changes in the cost-benefit analysis were indeed important to the route decision. The costs of all the possible routes rose, but Route E was no longer the most expensive, in part due to greater costs identified for reducing the impact on environmental sites along the southerly routes.
The estimate of benefits for the two routes were pretty similar, with slightly shorter journey times for the southerly routes being balanced out by the benefits of serving more households via the northerly route (and remember, those are benefits from the scheme in aggregate; the benefits only flow to Bedford specifically from the route coming through the town). The increase in costs for other options, with benefits being numerically comparable, tipped the balance in favour of Route E.
Readers keen for more detail on this should consult the preferred route option report, which was published when the route was announced and has therefore been available for scrutiny for over a year. It is 140 pages long: see chapter 9 and Annex A for details on the modelling and analysis, and the section starting on page 88 for the specific analysis of Route E.
There is nothing to suggest there’s anything going on here other than the analysis developing as more work is done and more information is gathered.
What’s certainly not true is that the figures were changed ‘without explanation’, as the petition alleges – the explanations can be read as outlined above.
It’s also worth pointing out that it’s not just Bedford that had a preference for Route E: Huntingdonshire did also, so that the line could serve development around St Neots.
A related argument sometimes advanced is that some people who disliked Route E were minded not to respond because it was presented as the most expensive option, and therefore they assumed it wouldn’t be chosen and didn’t stir themselves to respond. Of course, that’s no argument at all, other than a life lesson in the dangers of complacency and making assumptions.
There are more ‘logical’ routes
This argument is presented as a mix of the southerly routes offering quicker journey times, and generally being flatter and therefore superficially easier to build. As we have seen, these points are countered by the failure of these options to serve the maximum number of households, and the greater difficulties mitigating environmental harms.
The construction process will cause disruption
This argument has been put forward occasionally, for instance in this Facebook post. But it’s the weakest of them all, as it’s an argument against ever building anything.
Yes, construction projects tend to cause disruption, and certainly it’s not fun for those caught up in it. But a few years’ disruption has to be weighed against the delivery of infrastructure that will be in use for many decades, and it’s a rarity indeed for a project of this sort to be abandoned on the basis that the short term disruption is too great.
Pollution will be increased in Bedford
As East West Rail makes more journeys viable by rail rather than needing cars, overall it will reduce pollution (and more so when it is electrified, as it doubtless will be one day, current policy notwithstanding).
However, this argument specifically focuses on pollution around Bedford Station, which will be more heavily used and in particular, it is suggested, visited more by people in cars. This very much depends on how the station is redeveloped, and wider decisions made about transport policy in Bedford: in fact, the investment to rebuild the station offers a major opportunity to improve bus links and encourage cycling and walking to and from it.
So there we have it. The arguments against Route E are diverse, but overwhelmingly rely on misunderstandings, facts taken out of context, or plain untruths. Occasionally there is a smidge of truth in them: building the line without electrifying it is certainly a stupid decision, for instance. But why has this barrage of demonstrably weak arguments been floating around on social media and taking up time at Council meetings over the last few weeks? This article explores that question.