Oxford to Cambridge transport links

This is an extension of some musings on housing and transport issues that I blogged about earlier. It’s also partly on the back of some responses from Cllr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, John Lawton, Hugh Morris (of Cambridge First NewspaperPaul Bernal and John Elworthy of CambsTimes on Twitter. I also am blogging this having just endured over three hours of a stomach-churching journey on Stagecoach’s X5 service that runs between the two university cities.

The first thing I note from Stagecoach’s X5 service is their text:


If you use route X5 every day to get to work then you could save loads by buying a long term pass.

Anyone who has to use that route as part or all of their commute has my sympathies – which is saying something given that my old commute to Whitehall from Cambridge took three hours a day every day out of my life during the working week.

I’m not going to pretend to be one of Stagecoach’s biggest fans. I decided this long ago during my Brighton days – both comparing Stagecoach’s services to the far superior (at the time) Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company services (who were also years ahead of their time by registering the domain name http://www.buses.co.uk/ before anyone else did) but also because of of the views on Section 28 of Stagecoach’s founder (though note that in Scotland, it is known as Clause 2A due to their different legal system). Generally I also have issued about privatised public transport systems based on my experience of them (vs experience in London and with continental European publicly owned public transport systems) & from what I can remember of my economics degree from ages ago on things like merit goods and natural monopolies.

Who stole our railway?

There used to be an Oxford to Cambridge railway – The Varsity Line. But then Dr Beeching stole it (and most of the rest of the railway) from us in the 1960s. Actually, to be more specific, the governments of the day wanted to stem the losses being made on the railways & also recognised that people were moving away from trains and onto the roads. Hence there was political pressure to come up with a solution for which Beeching recommended shutting down lots of stations and lines. Ministers of the day chose to go with it rather than scrutinising in detail what was going to happen afterwards as well as failing to study future scenarios that may require the preservation of certain rail lines in the future. Government now has that function – Government Foresight that is part of the Department for Business.

What do you mean “There’s no direct road link”?!?!

Well…there isn’t. It’s one of the reasons why Lord Wolfson recommended that the Government builds one – a recommendation that was condemned by the Campaign for High Speed Rail. As things currently stand, the journey too and from Oxford (I’ve done the journey back to Cambridge from Oxford by road and it’s not pleasant) is full of roundabouts and junctions. This means lots of stopping and starting – not good for vehicles and certainly not good for the environment or the roads themselves. So part of the problems that any coach provider faces is not of their making.

The Stagecoach Service

This means that having a direct Oxford-Cambridge coach service has its challenges. So what does Stagecoach go and do? It goes and makes the services even more difficult for people. A day-trip from one to the other is not on the cards – nearly seven hours on the roads for a short conference? May as well not bother.

There are at least two markets that Stagecoach needs to serve. The first are the local commuting markets that require the X5 service to stop all over the place to pick up people heading mainly between Milton Keynes & Bedford, Bedford & St Neots & St Neots & Cambridge. The second market is those that just want to get to and from Oxford and Cambridge. They’ve provided for the first but not the second – the lack of faster more direct non-stopping services to and from the university cities means that the only people who use those services are those who do not have cars who can stay over with friends or who can afford to stay over in hotels or guesthouses.

London by train…again?

The only ‘reasonable’ rail link between Oxford and Cambridge requires travelling into London – making the journey over the Hammersmith and City line between Liverpool Street or Kings Cross to Paddington. That’s two changes and an unnecessary journey into London where the public transport system is more than crowded on the best of days. Can’t we come up with something better?

An integrated transport system?

We were promised this by Labour in the run up to the 1997 general election – indeed, the then Deputy Prime Minister John (now Lord) Prescott responded to a Parliamentary Question from Tom Brake MP in October 1998 that he (Prescott) would have failed if by 2002/03 there were not far fewer journeys by car. It didn’t happen. The report On the Move: delivering integrated transport in Britain’s cities, published in 2008, highlighted the challenges still facing us.

So where does this leave us?

One of the biggest developments over the past decade has been the increasing availability of data to help politicians and professionals make sound decisions. As I’ve mentioned previously, the data visualisation work by Chris Osborne at OpenTech left me speechless. Why weren’t more civil servants aware of the power of GIS & data mapping? His presentation which unpicked a number of statements made by politicians on things like congestion charging (and its impacts) spoke volumes. It was a case of “Here’s what someone said. Let’s see what the evidence says!” It’s much more powerful with data visualisation than having an opposition politician spouting off statistics from the other dispatch box in the Commons.

A future vision?

The most popular link that readers of this blog have clicked through to is the map of England’s old rail network – the New Adlestrop Rail Map. I’d love to see the Department for Transport take this map (or its equivalent), digitise it, update it & integrate it with other maps to make it clear which are the routes that can be reopened and which cannot.

I’d like to see the Department publish a map that people could use, look at, mash up and work out for themselves what the physical and geographical opportunities and barriers there are for having decent local integrated public transport systems.

I’d like to see the Department publish a map that shows where all the bottlenecks there are in the various public transport networks there are – whether rail or national & local coach services, & in effect ‘crowd source’ solutions to some of them &/or encourage people to get together to come up with both solutions and, dare I say it the finances to help overcome them. For example, between Cambridge and Kings Cross, there are two BIG bottlenecks – the Welwyn Viaduct (& the tunnels north of it, where the East Coast Mainline reduces from four rail lines to two between Welwyn Garden City and Kneworth) and the Hitchen Junction – hence proposals for a new rail flyover. I’m sure you have your own in your localities. My request is for the Department for Transport to publish all of its information that it and its agencies hold – & encourage the transport professionals and organisations to do the same, so that more people can get involved with coming up with possible solutions to these problems. If people know that there are possible solutions to these problems, there is a greater chance that they will start campaigning on those issues.

East West Rail

East West Rail is a consortium trying to reopen “a strategic railway connecting East Anglia with Central, Southern and Western England.” This is something that will incorporate a proposed reopening of the Oxford to Cambridge rail link. The problem is linking Bedford to Cambridge. This is because the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory has some very expensive kit that trundles up and down the old railway line.  Can that barrier be overcome? Can we get rail links between Cambridge, Sandy and Bedford to help take some of the traffic off of the roads that lead westward out of Cambridge? Will the entire project help lead to the dualling and electrification of the line from Cambridge to Norwich? Probably not in the next few years.

The issue of freight

There has been much generic talk of moving freight off the roads and onto the rails. The Sage of Public Transport Christian Wolmar wrote about the options of a ‘freight only line‘ being an alternative to HS2. One thing that I – and I guess lots of others are not aware of is the wear and tear that freight wagons do to normal railways. There’s also the issue of when to do repairs on the railway lines given that a lot of freight moves at night while people need to move during the day. There are a number of freight rail issues flagged up by the Freight on Rail group. Yet it feels that we’ve been moving in the wrong direction on the issue of freight on rails for quite some time – depressingly exemplified by Royal Mail’s decision several years ago to stop using the railways.

To conclude?

We know that the global economy is a mess. We know that public finances are a mess. Yet we were in a far worse position at the end of the Second World War & the politicians of the day had the vision to build the National Health Service. Do the politicians of today have the vision, calibre and competency to overcome our transport & related housing problems (that force some people to commute crazy distances)? And if not them, then who? Any senior politician fancying championing investment in public transport infrastructure? Or are they going to leave it to others – one of whom is best friends with a dragon fairy?


6 thoughts on “Oxford to Cambridge transport links

  1. There is the need for HS2 to open the links from Bletchley to Bicester via Calvert for the maintenance depot connections to WCML and Chiltern Lines to make the investment in the depot more attractive to the private sector who operates this depot in the future.

    Suggest Lord Wolfson and others make the case for a Chiltern Railways and/or Cross Country Trains to operate from other locations across this route. There is one wildlife trust nature reserve where the cord for Aylesbury Parkway to Bletchely will be and this needs to be addressed. These additional routes do not require HS2 to be reopened. There will also require to be a junction from the Chiltern Line. Perhaps you should approach Richard Eccles and Adrian Souter with Lord Wolfson to discuss these requirements.

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