Rail Summit hits treasury with strong message from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

Sending a clear message to the Treasury, business and transport leaders have urged Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to agree improvements to the Ely Junction bottleneck which notoriously holds back trade and the wide prosperity it should bring.

The case that the ‘Ely Solution’ holds what is perhaps the most vital key to growth across Great Britain was given fresh impetus by a rail Summit hosted by the Combined Authority at Cambridge on Friday.

The Summit discussed how boosting Ely rail capacity could transform transport across the country  – with comparatively modest investment giving Soham a direct link to Newmarket and Cambridge.

Newmarket, in turn, would gain new access to Ely, Peterborough, King’s Lynn, and Norwich.

Lack of rail connectivity, especially in Fenland, deprives rural communities of opportunities to work, learn and socialise in economic, leisure, and cultural hubs like nearby Cambridge.

Wisbech Rail, the Snailwell Loop, and Alconbury Station are small-scale interventions which would pack a big punch in challenging inequality and levelling up across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the wider Eastern region.

Co-chaired by the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Dr Nik Johnson, and former transport minister, now Better Transport Campaign chief, the Rt Hon Norman Baker, the influential gathering discussed how action on Ely would be quick to ripple growth out through Cambridgeshire, the wider East, the South-East, the Midlands, and the North, right up into Scotland.

Now a letter from the Summit pressing home the value of delivering the Ely Solution will go to the Chancellor and Transport Secretary Mark Harper to help inform their consideration of which rail improvements to approve in the next funding round.

Business, transport and industry leaders, farmers and growers, local authority and political leaders – everyone who supports the Ely Solution, wherever they are in the country, is urged to get their signature on to the letter, currently available here on the Combined Authority website, before it is delivered on Friday 14 July.

The letter accompanies an Investment Prospectus detailing for the Chancellor the beneficial impacts of improving capacity at Ely – for example, £4.89 for every £1 spent, 100k lorries off the road annually, and almost 3000 extra freight services to and from the UK’s busiest container port each year.

Ely Junction sits on the cross-country rail route linking the Port of Felixstowe and its new trade zone, Freeport East, to the rest of Great Britain. This route is the UK’s most intensively used freight corridor – but Ely’s mixture of single-track sections, restricted speeds, level crossings and signalling limitations have created a stranglehold where five lines compete for one track.

Ely is now viewed as one of the chief impediments to UK growth, hampering freight to and from all parts of the mainland, and placing an unnecessary obstacle in the country’s path to global trade.

The Summit heard that if the government did approve £466m – a relatively small cost for a ‘quick win’ in infrastructure terms – to boost capacity at Ely, there would be 2,900 extra freight services through Felixstowe each year and a staggering £2.2 billion benefit would pour back into the UK economy.

Delegates discussed how the knock-on of futureproofing capacity at Ely would make the most of Government investment already spent on the new station at Soham, and on rail assets in other parts of the country, all made less effective by bottlenecking at Ely. Government money earmarked for Cambridge South, East-West Rail, and Peterborough Station Quarter would also work harder if better joined-up and more frequent services were facilitated by improving Ely.

Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Dr Nik Johnson:

“The public money spent on rail in many areas can yield a much better return if Ely Junction is widened to release freer and more frequent and reliable rail traffic. The cost-benefit ratio of fixing the Ely pinchpoint is an incredible return of £4.89 back for every £1 spent. It’s a win-win investment with quantifiable reward far beyond the opportunity that will be felt for decades by people and communities across the country.

 “Dividends will include more freight and passenger services and better connections, at least 100k fewer lorries on the road each year, a massive drop in carbon emission, improved air quality and less need to spend government money on roads, as rail freight options for imports and exports become more viable.”

The Summit builds on the East of England All Party Parliamentary launch last month of ‘Keeping Trade on Track’. This report from England’s Economic Heartland and Transport East presents persuasive evidence of the regional, national, and international benefits of upgrading the Ely junction.

Cllr Liz Leffman, interim-chair of England’s Economic Heartland:

“Our conversations with the freight industry have only reinforced that there is significant unmet demand for increased levels of rail freight. The rail capacity improvements needed at Ely are of national significance. The scheme is an important connector for the economies of the Midlands and North and provides significant potential to relieve congestion on strategic roads while reducing emissions caused by HGV journeys which could more appropriately be made via rail.”

Friday’s Summit underlines the report’s conclusions and now piles on pressure for the Government to consolidate its investment by linking rail assets into more frequent freight and commuter services that will spread prosperity and boost growth.

Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Dr Nik Johnson:

“If the Government is committed to delivering UK growth and supporting international trade, it has to commit to investing in Ely junction widening and improvements.

“The problem is longstanding and any delay to delivering a solution to the Ely bottleneck will come at a heavy cost to the UK economy. Our message to the Treasury and Government is clear: Let’s work together – we all want to see good economic development for UKplc. If the Government is serious about levelling up, we must progress Ely. If we are serious about meeting net zero targets and getting thousands of HGVs off the roads across the United Kingdom, then the Government must progress Ely.

 “We hope that you will now move to agree the required funding for the Ely rail improvement.”