Cast iron versus concrete

This article was published in 2003, in Newsletter 50.

At the eleventh hour, a serious and well organised group has got together to try to have the old St Ives railway line run trains again. This is instead of the guided bus that Cambridgeshire County Council proposes for the same route (see Newsletter 49).

The new group, CAST.IRON (The Cambridge And St. Ives Railway Organisation – a very clever acronym – billed as ‘Britain’s first community commuter railway’) is taking a different approach from previous groups. Ambitiously, they propose not just to campaign for rail, but to actually run the line themselves. They say this has been done before, though, and recently: Wensleydale’s line was reopened privately by leasing the line from Network Rail, refurbishing stations, purchasing a works train and hiring a diesel passenger train.

These are the main issues, from a purely cycling perspective, distinguishing light rail and guided bus proposals for this route:

  • The prospects for a cycle route alongside. The County Council guided bus proposal incorporates an under-publicised cycle route as part of an adjacent service road. A link from Histon to the Science Park is probably the most important element in the short term, though a new town at Oakington will make other sections become increasingly important and less Cambridge-centric later on. While constructing a cycle track alongside the railway is not substantially different, it is not an integral part of the railway scheme, so is less likely to happen. Given CAST.IRON is raising funds privately, it seems inevitable that any cycle track would have to be obtained by an independent method. Were the County Council (and the Government) to change its mind and support rail, this would be less of a concern.
  • The ability of the route to have an impact on traffic levels. Many people think that rail is a much more attractive option for attracting commuters than bus. On the other hand, a train is likely to be very much less frequent than the very busy schedule envisaged in the County Council bus scheme. Even with the best will in the world, the single track places severe limitations on frequency. We must also consider the change from car, bus or cycle required by most people at both ends of the route.
  • Cycle parking at stops. There seems no particular reason to think either bus or rail would differ much here. Cycle parking standards can be enforced through planning permission.
  • The ability or otherwise of a service to actually carry bikes. It is almost certain that no bus service using adapted buses, as proposed, would carry bikes. The more tram-like vehicles once mooted (see Newsletter 38) had more, but still not much, potential. Trains, on the other hand, often do carry bikes, and a local community-based service would probably be more responsive to this need than a big railway company. Experience shows, however, that peak services usually ban bikes.
  • The impact on cyclists of the service away from the route. Lots more buses have the potential to reduce other traffic, but the County Council seems determined to promote bus priority measures inside Cambridge itself at the expense of cyclists. This is a serious and worrying aspect of the guided bus proposal. However, the CAST.IRON proposal initially stops at Milton Road, requiring more buses too. Completion of the railway to Cambridge station would help, but the difficulty of mixing light and heavy rail on the main line was one of the main reasons rail did not win out originally.

Is CAST.IRON just too late?

Cambridge Cycling Campaign has taken the view that it strongly supports public transport use of this corridor, but that it is neutral on the type of transport, provided that any proposal includes a cycle track along the route.

What’s left of Histon station and level crossings.

So we wish CAST.IRON luck. We have a lot of sympathy for a project which is grass-roots based and community led. Many of us see the wider benefits of rail at a regional level and prefer it as individuals. But as an organisation the Cycling Campaign can’t support it over the County Council’s scheme, especially as CAST.IRON does not currently promote a cycle track as part of its proposals. If it were to do so, it would probably have to double its budget.

Is its budget realistic anyway? CAST.IRON says it needs less than £2 million to reopen light rail between Swavesey and Milton Road. A single station at Addenbrooke’s on the main line was estimated at £2 million two or three years ago. There were other considerations there, such as additional track and electrified lines. However, if official support were forthcoming the sums of money which would be raised for transport in connection with the Oakington new town development should be able to finance a realistic budget.

We also have to consider what happens south of Cambridge. Would a guided bus be viable if it only ran from Trumpington to the rail station? And if not, would we lose the potential for a cycle route along that line that would accompany a guided bus system, or would it make space available for cycling which would otherwise be used as a bus track?

But in the end isn’t CAST.IRON just too late? Hasn’t the decision in principle already been made by all the people who have the power? Might it be that it will simply delay having anything happen on the St Ives line that has already been unused for far, far too long? Might the consequence be that construction of a cycle route is put off and more cars come into Cambridge? We’ve no wish to be hostile to CAST.IRON, and many of us may offer it individual support. But if only it had been there ten years ago!

David Earl