Aerial view of the civil engineering works for the crossing of East West Rail over the HS2 line

Progress on East West Rail despite audit and questions

Aerial view of the civil engineering works for the crossing of East West Rail over the HS2 line (Image: © HS2 / EWR) HS2 / EWR

From the railway industry point of view, January has been an unqualified success for East West Rail. Reconnecting Oxford and Cambridge passed a significant milestone. The multi-billion pound project to re-establish a direct railway connection between the university cities now has rails – or at least sleepers. Contractors VolkerRail have quietly celebrated laying that fundamental component for the entirety of the second phase, working eastwards from Oxford towards Bedford.

However, the railway industry is not the only point of view. East West Rail is proving as divisive as the proverb, and the two may never meet. Questions have been raised about the financial viability of the project. There is also significant opposition to the third stage, the brand-new alignment between Bedford and Cambridge. Industry and economic alliances have lined up in favour. The impartial hand of the National Audit Office, and a raft of very partial local interests, have expressed views to the contrary.

Too much growth and not enough growth levelled at the EWR

East West Rail represents a seven billion pound (8.4 billion euro) investment to support growth in a part of the UK that the government regards as economically important. Despite the strategic price tag, there was no fanfare when contractor VolkerRail prepared and laid the last sleepers on Phase Two. Rails are now going in on the project. It is complicated by the fact that the route follows a mixture of existing, reinstated and upgraded tracks. There’s a whole alignment at Bedford too and even an interface with HS2.

There is however no complication over the easternmost part of the project, the connection between Bedford and Cambridge. It is this final phase that has raised the most opposition. Not surprisingly, in a brand new alignment, there are local fears in Cambridge. concerned residents say that the railway will further accelerate the rapid development of the city, to the detriment of the environment. Conversely, the business case has been called into question by the independently appointed parliamentary body, the National Audit Office, because it doesn’t identify enough economic growth attributable to the project.

An inefficient solution without merit

“It is not yet clear how the benefits of the project will be achieved”, says the National Audit Office report, which criticises conflicting UK government plans for growth in the region. “The rationale for East West Rail does not rest on the strength of the benefit–cost ratio for the project alone, which is poor. Its wider strategic aim of overcoming constraints to economic growth in the Oxford–Cambridge region [has] underpinned decisions to approve and continue with the project.”

Other local concerns have been more direct. “The diesel East West Railway is an inefficient solution without merit for modern ecological inter-city travel”, says a statement from pressure group Bedford For a Re-Consultation. “Building a greenfield railway without a corresponding spatial transport plan, using taxpayer money, must be called out as unacceptable. The EWR line will not even provide a sensible solution for rail freight transport.”

Robust reply from stakeholders

The question of lack of electrification or freight provision has been raised in the past. Initially, the East-West Rail project ruled out the capacity to accommodate freight, however, that position has been modified. A joint statement from the East-West Main Line Partnership, representing local authorities along the route, and from England’s Economic Heartland, the regional development agency, says the NAO report serves to highlight the well-known complexities of capturing the wider benefits of transformative schemes such as East West Rail. However, they point out that there are benefits not examined that lie outside their remit.

East West Rail logo on jacket (East West Rail)
East West Rail logo on a jacket (East West Rail)

“Speak to businesses big and small along the line, and the global companies thinking of investing here”, said their joint statement. “If an appraisal process is unable to adequately capture the benefits of a project which links three of the UK’s most dynamic and fast-growing cities, in a region world-renowned for expertise in science and technology, where there are already-significant levels of housing growth, but where poor east-west connectivity is limiting its economic potential – then perhaps it is the process, rather than the project, that the NAO needs to be investigating.”

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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