1 Bedford st Johns signalbox Phil Marsh

Its back to the future for the East West Rail Central section!

Published: 4th September 2015

Study identifies two former rail routes as best option to link Bedford and the East Coast Main Line

Work on the East West Rail project is forging ahead and the only question remaining is now well on the way to being answered following the announcement that the original seven options had been whittled down to two for the ‘missing link’.

The last train over the mothballed line via Claydon Junction was advertised to run to Portsmouth on 4 September 1993 but the line was closed in March that year so the train was cancelled but it shows how long the re-opening campaigners have been active.

This is the central section linking Bedford and Cambridge (and the East Coast Main Line) and the choice is between two former cross-country routes. These are the original Varsity Line route between Bedford and Sandy and the Hitchin to Bedford line via Henlow on which Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ was filmed.

Network Rail (NR) has been assessing the options as part of its long term planning process to be funded perhaps in CP6, the financial period between 2019 and 2024. The work was announced in November 2014 in a presentation at Westminster and subsequent work shows the two former rail routes offer the best value for money at the current development stage. These options will now be further studied to see which one will become the preferred option.

The East West Rail Consortium has undertaken research that showed that improved rail services in the Eastern region could deliver significant economic benefits, sufficient to justify further investment. The preferred route will be included for consideration for inclusion in the Initial Industry Plan to be published in Sept 2016.

For the record, the seven routes were:

1A Bedford Central – Sandy – Cambridge

1B Bedford South – Sandy – Cambridge

2 Bedford Central – Sandy – Hitchin – Cambridge

3 Stewartby – Flitwick – Luton – Stevenage – Hitchin – Cambridge

4A Bedford Central – Hitchin – Cambridge

4B Bedford South – Hitchin – Cambridge

5 Ridgmont – Luton – Hitchin – Sandy

How is a route assessed?

It is not just the construction cost but the ongoing operational costs and economic benefits which have to be estimated. These factors affect the ‘value for money’ that each corridor offers and includes journey times, resources used such as staff and train leasing costs, fuel and NR track access charges.

They said: Cllr Ian Bates, of Cambridgeshire County Council and Chair of the East West Rail Consortium’s Central Section Board said:

“In order to secure investment for the Central Section, we need a robust business case that is aligned to local and regional growth plans as well as the strategic rail network. This important work is providing valuable evidence that will support our long-held ambition to reinstate east west train services that will benefit individuals, communities and businesses all the way from East Anglia through Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and beyond.”

The investment case for the central section was strengthened with the introduction of regular direct services between Cambridge and Norwich and Ipswich since 2002 and 2004 respectively. These were due to a successful joint bid by Anglia Railways and the East West Rail Consortium to the Strategic Rail Authority and the award of a £9.2m grant from the Rail Passenger Partnership Fund.

Network Rail is also looking at services heading east from Cambridge into East Anglia and the east coast ports is also being reviewed as part of the planning work underway to identify how the rail infrastructure may best deliver the train services that will unlock the greatest potential benefits.

A piece of history

The EWR Central section started life as the Potton to Sandy Railway in April 1858 using a small engine called ‘Shannon’. At the opening dinner, hopes were expressed that the line would be extended to Bedford. A Parliamentary Act was passed on August 6 1860 authorising the Bedford to Cambridge Railway. The London & North Western Railway subscribed £70,000 towards the venture and this brought them three directors on the Board.

The line was viewed at the time as an extension to the Bletchley to Bedford branch and so the Varsity Line could be said to be born. The investment prospectus forecast the cost at £186,000 but the Authorised legal powers allowed £240,000 with an overdraft of £80,000. All this was consumed by the line’s construction, plus more!

The Potton to Sandy line was omitted from Bradshaws between January and July 1862 due to re-construction and re-appeared in August that year as part of the LNWR Cambridge branch. Works included a new layout at Sandy to enable the trains to cross the ECML just north of the station on a bridge.

The line was formally opened on July 4 1862 with a special 26 coach train carrying the directors and friends from Cambridge to Bedford and back! The line opened to the public on July 7 with five trains a day.

The line lasted a century before pre-Beeching closures started but now another grand opening beckons.

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