Historic step towards re-opening Cambridgeshire rail line

A major step towards reopening a rail line between Wisbech and Cambridge has been taken after an independent study found that the project would be financially viable.
The original line at Kilsby proved very difficult for early engineersThe original line at Kilsby proved very difficult for early engineers
The original line at Kilsby proved very difficult for early engineers

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA) board, approved funding for a design study and investigations into proposed land acquisitions at its meeting this week.

The last passenger train service had run on 9 September 1968, with the last freight train running in 2000.

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After which the line was closed and subsequently dismantled as part of a series of country-wide cuts to the railways originally orchestrated by former British Railways Chairman, Dr Richard Beeching.

Could new rail tracks link Wisbech with the national network soon?Could new rail tracks link Wisbech with the national network soon?
Could new rail tracks link Wisbech with the national network soon?

Those cuts, which saw more than 4,000 miles of train routes removed across the UK, left the Fenland town isolated from the rail network.

The Full Business Case presented to the board this week has taken over five years to complete, cost £1,445,376 and has been financed by the CPCA over the 2019/20, 2020/21 financial years.

A further £987,606 has been approved by the CPCA Board for a detailed design study and proposed land acquisitions.

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Having completed the Full Business Case, it will now be put to Network Rail and the government who will be funding the construction costs currently estimated at £218.4m.

Cllr Chris Boden (Conservative, Leader Fenland District Council), told the board meeting: “This really is quite a historic moment in that it brings us closer to getting a restored rail-link to Wisbech than we have been at any time in the last 52 years.

“Members may or may not be aware that Wisbech is one of the largest towns in the entire country to be without a rail link and it is the second largest community in the Eastern Region to be without one.

“Wisbech is by far the most deprived town in the Combined Authority area, and the economic and housing expansion – which are desperately needed in Wisbech – are absolutely dependant upon better transport links.

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A cautious Cllr Steve Count (Conservative, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council), added: “Great news to see this project get this far with a positive benefit cost ratio (BCR) behind it.

“I am slightly concerned that the report has come to the Board in its unfinished form and still has to be finalised through the Transport Committee and I would’ve liked to have see the full, finalised case come to the Board – but I can understand the merits of doing it this way so that we can highlight this as early as possible.

“Moving forwards however, we now have a strong case to build the Wisbech-Cambridge rail-link because the biggest problem has always been the blockage at Ely North Junction in getting the trains to and from Cambridge.

“I’ve felt in the past that we would never achieve a positive BCR without the Cambridge-element included.

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“However, the report in front of us clearly indicates that we can run an interim solution at this present point in time without Ely North Junction being dealt with.

“So, there is no reason – apart from money – to stop this project going forward; and while £218m is nothing to be sniffed at, like all the CPCA projects, its not the quantum of money that’s the most important, its whether it makes financial sense to spend it.

“With a positive BCR it does make sense for the British government to spend money, here, in the Wisbech area.

“I must add this project meets one of the core aims of the CPCA in equalising those areas of multiple deprivation with those that are more affluent and have better outcomes. These were aims that we built into the founding of the CPCA with central government.”

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Metro Mayor, James Palmer, said: “The re-opening of the March to Wisbech Transport Corridor is critical for supporting future growth in Wisbech. We want to transform Wisbech as a place for great rail connectivity, affordable housing and good employment and education. Cllr Count mentioned that one of the blockages was the Ely North Junction, but I would add to that we’ve never really had a proper business plan up to now. That’s the fundamental difference today, we do have that positive BCR and a Network Rail GRIP 3b Business Case”.

The study, commissioned by CPCA, states that a station located near the town centre would be the most commercially viable option, with a two trains per hour service running between Wisbech and Cambridge.

It notes that the rail upgrade represents less than half the projected cost, with most of the funding needed for highways solutions to bring the 22 level crossings on the historic line up to modern safety standards with closures and road diversions.

The board welcomed the findings of the report and an accompanying GRIP3b (Governance for Railway Investment Projects) study that outlines the bespoke business case requirements for rail projects expected by Network Rail.

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The Board delegated authority to the Transport and Infrastructure Committee to approve the final version of the FBC, which will be published in due course, and approved continued engagement with the Department for Transport, and other central government departments to explore funding of the project through the £500million Restoring Your Railway Fund.

Cllr Samantha Hoy, district and county councillor for Wisbech and Leader of Wisbech Town Council, said: “I’m so happy about this news. Wisbech Rail is such an important project for the town and residents have waited a long time for it. The reopening of the line would be a huge boost for Wisbech, worth tens of millions of pounds to the local economy and Cambridgeshire as a whole, and provide many benefits for people living and working here.”

Cllr Chris Seaton, Fenland District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Transport, added: “Never before has the Government been so committed to driving forward the reversal of the controversial Beeching cuts and I’m hopeful that some of the investment going into reopening Britain’s railways makes its way to Wisbech.

“Improving connectivity and infrastructure is essential to regenerating the area, levelling up access to opportunities, cutting congestion on our roads and allowing our economy to grow.”

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Combined Authority officers are expected to meet with the Department for Transport, the Office of Rail and Road and Network Rail officials in July to present the outcome of the FBC and GRIP3 and discuss next steps.