Puffles breathes fire into the Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign


Crossing the county boundary to sprinkle some dragon-fairy dust to help transport campaigners in Suffolk reconnect with Cambridge – and raising the political temperature too

Puffles at Haverhill Arts Centre with a banner for the Haverhill-Cambridge Rail Campaign
Puffles at Haverhill Arts Centre with a banner for the Haverhill-Cambridge Rail Campaign

Actually, it was just as much learning as commenting in Haverhill earlier. It was through Facebook that I found out about the Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign – see here. I learnt that the campaign has been running for quite some time and a huge amount of work has already been done. In particular the technical work alongside offline campaigning has raised the issue locally to astonishingly high levels – a petition signed by 12,000 people.

Taking the X13 bus journey from Cambridge to Haverhill

It was a lovely sunny evening – nice to see the horse chestnut trees in a state where they are not visibly affected by that horrible moth that turns the leaves prematurely brown. I’m also at the stage where I feel I need a bit of a break from Cambridge – but somewhere that’s not London. If anything just to get away from the noise.

Although not the most picturesque of countrysides – large intensively farmed fields of monoculture crops here – it was nice to get out of the city and see some green and fresh air – even if we were on a bus. We’re at that time of year when, if the sun shines it’s at just the right temperature and intensity, along with a gentle breeze. Anything more and it’s too hot for me. At the same time, I reflected on the loneliness of my escapade. Other than Puffles, there is no ‘partner in crime’ in all of this activism I’ve been doing over the years. Hence feeling even more vulnerable and exposed at doing this – which doesn’t help my anxiety and mental health issues at all.

A high accident route

The road link between Cambridge and Haverhill is full of road signs telling drivers that the route has a history of road accidents. Big red signs that you cannot miss. I spotted a couple of memorials put up by friends and relatives of those that had died in accidents. All the more important I thought that they re-open the rail link between Cambridge and Haverhill.

Rural bus routes don’t make for the easiest of journeys either. Not for the queasy. A reminder of pot-hole-Britain. But again, all the more reason to invest in transport that reduces car journeys and road freight.

Discovering good stuff that Cambridge doesn’t have

It was just as much re-treading a path not trodden since childhood in my case. For some reason I find rail travel much more suitable for ‘turn up and travel’ than buses. There’s something about the weaving and winding routes, along with the irregularity of services due to traffic that creates too much uncertainty for my liking.

The route out of Cambridge going towards Haverhill is south-easterly. Past Wandlebury (where the witches gather for hallowe’en – the first nightmare I can remember having as a child), past Abington where we went for camps (and is now the subject of a campaign to keep it open), past Linton with the zoo, past Chilford Hall where I once helped steward an Oxfam walk, and onto Haverhill. Plus there’s a fair share of inns and farm shops.

Arriving at Haverhill

It’s certainly picturesque in the evening spring sunshine. At the same time, there were tell-tale signs that not all was entirely well with the town. The alcohol prohibition zones indicated that street drinking is a problem. Getting off the bus and heading towards the Haverhill Arts Centre – the old town hall – I got the sense that the economic downturn had hit the town centre too. This despite a growing population and new homes going up. Something tells me there’s some sort of unofficial ‘Cambridge-Haverhill corridor’ that developers and firms have picked up on. Yet at the same time the public institutions haven’t yet been able to put in place the transport and civic infrastructure needed to support it.

Walking into the town hall

When I saw the building, I thought: “Oooh! This is pretty!”

The hall had a proper ‘old school’ feel to it, combined with modern audio-visual support at the back of the room. I noted that the event was being filmed – all the more important from a social and digital media perspective in getting the many important points made at the meeting out to a much wider audience.

Fifty people turned up to an event where we talked about trains

As I tweeted through Puffles, the organisers had clearly done their homework and had put a lot of effort into their campaign over the years. People in Haverhill care. The reason why I turned up with Puffles is that I got this feeling that the campaign probably wasn’t on the radar of Cambridge residents interested in transport. So we went along with the idea of changing all that and connecting their campaign up with transport policy-watchers in Cambridge.

Not the only person from Cambridge in the room

I was pleasantly surprised to meet Peter Wakefield of the Rail Future East Anglia Branch, who was one of the three guest speakers, who is based in Cambridge. As it turned out, he also caught the bus from Cambridge and had similar observations about the route between Cambridge and Haverhill. The third of three speakers, he gave us all a regional picture of where we are. The other two speakers from the Haverhill-Cambridge campaign, Chair Malcolm Hill and Secretary David Edwards gave the audience a history of how we got to where we are. (My thanks to Debra Fox from Cambridge Newspapers (in a Haverhill Echo capacity) for paying closer attention – she was also live tweeting).

“Sounds like #diversityfail on the panel”

This is an industry-wide problem. As an on-off reader of Modern Railways magazine (due to spending lots on train tickets – I want to know where the money goes), adverts for rail events show photographs reflecting a lack of diversity in the industry – particularly at management level.

At the same time, I had a strange admiration for the panel, all of whom are at least a generation older than me. The reason is simple. It will take at least a decade before the rail connection is restored. They’ve all spent decades already campaigning on this issue. Chances are if it is completed, they will be much older than they currently are – and possibly less mobile. I don’t mean that pejoratively – rather they have been and are still campaigning on something, but something that future generations will benefit from. From their knowledge, you could see that all three were passionate about restoring the link and putting right a historical wrong. I don’t know about you, but I think there’s something ‘noble’ about that.

As someone who is a historian by heart, I was also interested to hear the personal anecdotes they retold – ones that stemmed back to a political era that, in our age of social and digital media feels like it is far more distant than perhaps it actually is. To hear about the raw emotion of how people felt when the Beeching axe took away their railways was quite sobering. (See my thoughts here).

Unleashing the power of young people

Well…given that secondary school students in Cambridge can do it (see here)…

When it was my turn to speak at the Q&A session, I told the audience that it was the existence of their Facebook page (see here) that informed me about what they were doing. Peter Wakefield also mentioned the impact of the Wisbech rail campaign’s Facebook page (see here) in opening up not just rail engineering but campaigning and local democracy up to new, younger audiences.

I then said that many of the students from Haverhill that go to Long Road and Hills Road Sixth Form Colleges – both in my neighbourhood – use the No.13 buses to get there. Had they thought about reaching out to these people in their campaigns? Or perhaps secondary school students that may be thinking of applying to those institutions? To my delight, the campaign said:

“Yes – we’ll do that!”

The way I framed the point was about inspiring people to learn both about big engineering in a hyper-local context, and about campaigning and local democracy too. I got the sense that this point clearly resonated around the room. So here’s hoping that West Suffolk College, Linton Village College (which was on the bus route and used to have a station too), Long Road Sixth Form College (whose students have been campaigning for ages for a railway station serving them and Addenbrookes) and Hills Road Sixth Form College will be hearing from the campaign, along with the secondary schools in Haverhill.

Puffles also helped things along a little in Whitehall. One of Puffles’ long time followers on Twitter is Clare Moriarty, Director General of the Rail Executive of the Department for Transport in London.

The Haverhill-Cambridge rail campaign is now on her radar. Can a new generation of campaigners go after their elected politicians (via WriteToThem) to lobby ministers about the case for this link? After all, Cambridgeshire County Council is already on the case. (See here).

“What’s the next step?”

As Debra Fox tweeted quoting the campaign, a business case and feasibility study

“That’s not cheap”

Hence the need to persuade politicians that such things will be value for money. But it needs local people that will benefit from a rebuilt rail link to make the case.

“Aren’t there elections on soon?”

That was my final point – as Debra Fox tweeted.

I invited the room to use the internet and social media to find out the politicians’ views on this.

“A message to people in Haverhill?”

Haverhill has councillors from Labour, UKIP and the Conservatives, and can all be found here. Alternatively, go to WriteToThem.Com where if you type in your postcode, it will give you details of your MP, MEPs and councillors. It also has a template for you to fire off ***lots of questions*** about what they are going to do to help things along.

Even if you don’t have the vote (for example you’re under 18), you can still ask questions, make suggestions and demand answers from politicians. If a group of year 9 students in Cambridge can succeed in changing the culture of an institution by lunchtime – something I failed to do in 2 years of campaigning, who knows what you can achieve?

It’s your future. Be the change.

(And do let me know how you get on!)




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