Light Rail for Cambridge – Connecting Cambridge

Cambridge has major transport issues to overcome to cope with predicted growth. Lanna Blyth outlines a light rail solution for an ancient city with fiercely protected heritage.


With roots dating back to the Roman age and beyond, the English city of Cambridge is proud of its deep-rooted history. Famous for its globally-renowned University, established over 800 years ago, its centre is a cobbled maze of ancient colleges, museums, high walls and narrow alleys. They all muddle along the path of the river Cam, itself a twisting, watery highway of students and tourists meandering – or charging – along in punts.

The city’s University is indelibly linked with both its identity and attraction, acting as a magnet for scholars and intellectuals from around the world; its landscapes and architecture, and the thousands of people who that cram into the city each day, reflect this proud heritage and reputation.

This academic prowess has spurred growth of another kind as the city and wider region are also a world-leading centre for scientific research, pioneering medical and digital technologies. Ahead of growth figures elsewhere in the UK, its economic impact on both the county it serves as a county town and the country as a whole is growing exponentially – this has led to a brisk rise in population figures.

Since the start of this second decade of the 21st Century, the city population has grown by nearly 10% and combined with its surrounding region this number rises to around 650,000. This growth is projected to increase substantially by 2050, and conservative studies suggest it could reach 800,000; others suggest a million. This trajectory doesn’t take into account more than five million tourists who use the city’s congested streets each year, further straining capacity on the transportation network.


Examining the issues

Because of its historical layout and legacies, and because of the controlling ownership the University has over much of the city centre’s land, green spaces and commons, there has always been a reluctance to significantly alter the landscape.

Dr Colin Harris, a director of Cambridge Connect, explains: “This environment is one that the residents really cherish. It’s held very dearly and people are keen to see that the values in the landscape and the heritage are strongly protected, so any new transport proposal in Cambridge is almost by definition controversial.”

The city has also been perceived as being ‘too small’ for light rail, and has instead been subject to increasingly strained bus services and a collection of disparate and somewhat disconnected cycle paths. Emanating from its suburbs, a northern guided busway runs from nearby St Ives to the northern edge of the city, and the shorter southern busway which extends from Trumpington to the main rail station area via Addenbrooke’s, the main hospital. These measures have all been implemented to reduce congestion along the main transport corridors and make crossing the city to its outer reaches easier and safer. Yet by its ancient nature, Cambridge is a constrained city and there’s only so far these measures can resolve the problem.

But given the significance of its growth and importance to the national economy, Dr Harris argues that Cambridge is now big enough for light rail to be a viable – and he suggests, the right – solution: “Taking the most recent period, from 2011-31, we’ve got this dramatic growth that in effect means 140 000 new residents. Cambridge itself has only 130,000 people, so that’s vastly increasing the population of the region.” The medieval make-up of an already overly-congested core, surrounded by green belt, means that these people cannot take up residence in the city itself – so the new population influx must look to the surrounding areas. Dr Harris points out that growth in these areas is projected to exceed 30% by 2031: “That’s important in terms of design of the transport system you might contemplate. It means more than 50,000 new houses are needed by 2030, to cater for the new residents and to support more than 41,000 new jobs in the region.”

This is key, he argues, in understanding why Cambridge is different to other UK cities. Industries related to science and technology have grown 7% per annum for the last decade, with turnover growth of around 100% over the same period contributing to a total of £36bn (€40bn) – comparable to the much-larger city of Manchester. “It certainly punches above its weight for its economic contribution to the UK,” observes Dr Harris. While the city and region are booming economically – and high-paying employment and city growth are all good news – this has meant a significant drain on housing resources, with affordable property in the city in very short supply. Dr Harris points out that almost £500,000 (€560,000) is now required for a typical ‘two-up, two-down’ terraced property. This growth is also taking its toll on transport, he says: “It’s not fit for purpose… it is creaking”.

The UK Government’s ‘City Deal’ – one of a series of initiatives designed to give decision making power back to the regions – constitutes an investment of £500m (€560m) principally for transport infrastructure and affordable housing interventions across the region. Another was the formation of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority in May 2017, for which an elected Mayor has been given responsibility for strategic transport planning throughout the region, again with additional funding for housing and economic development.


What the Deal means for Cambridge

The Greater Cambridge Partnership (formerly the ‘City Deal’) is to make £100m available for development in the five years from April 2015, with two further tranches of £200m from April 2020 and April 2025 if the first investments are proven to drive economic growth. Local public-private partnerships will match fund those totals, giving a potential £1bn for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire to spend on transport infrastructure and housing by 2030.

Two years ago, the City Deal board initiated a series of consultation measures around bus-based solutions, including segregated bus lanes and busways. However, Dr Harris argues against this strategy: “We already have a busway on the north and south side of Cambridge, but they thought ‘this should just be expanded’. It appears they did not give a lot of consideration to the population of 2030, the high number of tourists, and how that bus solution is going to work in terms of getting people into and around an already congested city centre.”

Residents were also concerned about how the bus-based approach would potentially compromise the values of Cambridge, organising a series of protests.

“Currently, ten buses come into the city centre every five minutes, or 125 buses an hour. By 2031, taking into consideration the increases in population, you would need to bring in 20-25 buses every five minutes to convey just 15% of people into the city, which is 230 buses an hour. The central bus station on Drummer Street is already heaving. It’s not a practical solution,” says Dr Harris.

An alternative proposal from Cambridge Connect involves light rail. “It’s a technology that is well-proven, well-established and implemented in hundreds of cities worldwide. It’s reliable, frequent, fast, has high capacity and it’s very scalable. It’s good for the environment, and crucially for Cambridge, it could help to protect the inner city heritage,” Dr Harris argues.

One of the most interesting and controversial elements of this light rail solution, however, is the suggestion that any future network should run underground in the city’s core due to the impractical nature of street-running through the old and narrow part of Cambridge.

Cost inevitably has a significant impact with underground running, but Dr Harris suggests: “If you think about the economy in Cambridge and the heritage values within the city, we need to weigh that up against the investment.”

There are three separate campuses in Cambridge and the objective of the University is to connect them to better integrate different disciplines. But rather than run lines across the city centre, Dr Harris suggests that an important part of the proposal is to keep the inner city open for business by tunnelling: “The medieval street layout is not well-suited to trams, and the river is also an important constraint as there’s only five bridges in that area, so if you go on the surface you’d have to cross one of them or build a new bridge. Environmentally, another bridge would probably attract enormous opposition.”


Going underground

Cambridge Connect’s proposal is a network that links many of the city’s business, education and residential hotspots, including the large biomedical campus (part of the University) and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the south, the new campus on the west side of Cambridge (West Campus), as well as a new development called Eddington that comprises 3,000 houses and research space. Currently under-construction, the University has already invested £1.2bn in establishing the community there.

The scheme includes a new park-and-ride at the Girton Interchange, itself at a strategic convergence of the main road routes into and out of the city (the M11, A428 and A14); light rail routes would go underground through the city to the central rail station, then extend south to the Hauxton junction on the M11, as well as to the biomedical campus and out to Granta Park, a major science and technology centre in the south.

Looking further ahead, there is potential for a number of additional routes: Extension A would be partly-underground to the north-east to service the science park and employment centres in that area; while an eastern route on the main rail line would link the nearby town of Newmarket, another important employment centre. The final extension within the city would link the lines together, in effect creating a ‘Circle Line’ to offer various travel options around the network.

With a fully-developed network, around a third of the city’s residents would lie within a 500m distance of a tramstop – making it very accessible by design. Dr Harris adds: “90% of the city would lie within a 20-minute walk or eight-minute cycle ride of the network, and we think that this would help people make choices to use the public transport system. That should reduce the amount of driving in the city, reducing congestion and improving air quality.

“We recognise that due to the population distribution we also link into the wider region. We’re looking at two principal routes, one out to the town of Cambourne, and potentially St Neots, and a second to Haverhill. Both of these are important as they provide relatively low-cost housing and people who cannot afford to live within the city often locate to these peripheral centres. At the moment they’re driving in – we want to change that.”

Looking wider still, Peter Wakefield of campaign group Railfuture recognises that many workers travel to and from Cambridge from further afield – the railway between King’s Lynn and Cambridge through Ely has had all the perceived spare capacity stripped back over the years. Mr Wakefield says: “The network is running at capacity. At peak times four-car trains running every half-hour between King’s Lynn and Cambridge are bursting. In the near future, that’s going to be doubled to two eight-car trains an hour throughout the day, so 16 cars an hour – that will help capacity, but more needs to be done.

“Once you get to Cambridge station – bear in mind that the number of people currently using the station is pretty large for a city of 130,000, something like 12-13 million footfall each year. That’s more than Derby and Nottingham stations together – it’s a busy place and you’ll need efficient, effective transfers.”

People are using the road network because there’s little real alternative, Mr Wakefield argues; the way to convince them otherwise is to make regional rail networks work harder.

He suggests that in addition to light rail the region needs a ‘metro’ of enhanced rail services to link together the market towns and cities that are part of the employment jigsaw: “The northern market town of Wisbech, for example, can be linked up so it takes some of the burden from Cambridge. Wisbech has already said it is willing to build 12,000 houses over the next 30 years and it’s a place in dire need of regeneration, so if the railway can link it to Cambridge in 35-40 minutes it will take some of the residential and commuter pressures off Cambridge at the same time as revitalising this town.”

Wakefield adds: “We’ve highlighted 14 interventions, mainly focused on Cambridge, where the network needs regeneration, putting back that redundancy that was stripped out. The main station is being relieved by a new one that has just been built to the north, and the ongoing problem is highlighted by the fact that the planned Cambridge South station will serve a medical campus that already has 25,000 jobs. With people currently trying to access this site every single day, it’s become an enormous problem for the city.”

Rail is key in helping to weld the region together and provide for the planned future growth, Wakefield concludes: “Together, regional rail and light rail can penetrate the urban realm, enable modal shift, strengthen sustainable development, and hopefully, keep all the citizens happy.”


The figures

“We openly acknowledge that it’s going to cost a lot,” Dr Harris says. “In the order of £1.6bn (€1.8bn) for the city-based extensions, and if you include all the lines out to the region you could be looking at £2.2bn (€2.5bn).”

This can be compared to the development of Nottingham Express Transit, which cost around £850m (€954m), and the current A14 upgrade by Highways England that is costing £1.5bn (€1.7bn), to put those figures into perspective.

Fare revenue will be important to fund its development, Dr Harris says: “The upfront investment needs to be funded through a 30-year strategy of borrowing and repayment, but the operational income will help repay that debt. These figures are just broad estimates based on population projections, and by 2031 with an average fare of about £2 per person and with 10% of commuters using light rail, you would generate about £20m each year. But this figure excludes tourists, which are around five million a year in Cambridge, and that makes the city somewhat different. Our figures exclude non-commuter journeys as well.”

Initial funding would be sought through a combination of public and private sources, and the Greater Cambridge Partnership, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, land value uplift, borrowing and bond issues have all been put on the table for discussion. Add it all together, and Colin Harris believes that the scheme could be financially feasible – at least in concept.

The next step is proper feasibility studies, which is an aim for early 2018: “I’m confident that those studies will demonstrate that this is the right way forward,” Dr Harris says, “I don’t think the bus-based solution is really up to the task, especially if you look ahead to the 2030 scenario. And we do need to invest in that kind of timeframe because you’re building major infrastructure – it needs to be durable and last the test of time, and we think that this is the right kind of investment for Cambridge.”


Originally written by Lanna Blyth for the January 2018 edition of the Tramways & Urban Transit magazine – part of the Light Rail Transit Association.

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