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Road will always win over rail

James MacColl

Shedding light on how local and national government favours road over rail.

In the last month Campaign for Better Transport has been involved with two very different approaches to transport and growth, throwing into relief the local and national government approach to transport infrastructure, which institutionally favours road over rail and shuns local need.

The first in Wisbech shows that we remain ill-equiped to consider potential benefits of rail infrastructure projects. The second deals with a welter of new road proposals around Greater Manchester, and the mess that the government’s dash for tarmac policies is creating in the planning system. Together, they say a lot about what is wrong with the way we plan transport infrastructure, and how we might make things better.

This concerns an uphill battle to reconnect the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech to the rail network. Wisbech has a population of about 30,000 with a decent sized hinterland of villages. Its rich history is reflected in the high quality Georgian architecture that makes up the town centre. Well-known figures associated with the town include slavery abolition campaigner Thomas Clarkson, Octavia Hill (co-founder of the National Trust) and writer William Hazlitt. But Wisbech has fallen on hard times. It suffers high unemployment, low average pay and wards in the town have child poverty rates of 35%.

There is no quick fix to regenerating towns like Wisbech, but a broad coalition agrees that restoring rail connections with prosperous south Cambridgeshire and beyond are a key part of the solution. Local MP, Stephen Barclay, the county and district councils, the train operators and Campaign for Better Transport are among those pushing for the town’s rail link to be restored. The last of the three lines which once served Wisbech was closed to passengers in the 1960s, but the main line to Cambridge is still largely insitu having been maintained as a freight line until 2002.

Although it would have challenges (for example, there are several level crossings to negotiate), putting the rail connection back would dramatically improve the prospects for a disadvantaged area. It would knock a third off the journey time to Cambridge and its fast-expanding jobs market. It would support a growing population within Fenland District, which has seen population increases well above the national average in the last decade. It would support business and the economy, making the flow of people and freight in and out of Wisbech significantly easier. It would help rectify the patchy rail infrastructure in the East of England, a notable weakness in a part of the country otherwise showing strong growth. Finally, it would help tackle road congestion in and around Wisbech, which has one of the largest Air Quality Management Areas in the East of England.

In the first instance, the proposal is to put in place a shuttle going 12km to the town of March on the existing network. In time, the hope is that this would be replaced by direct services to Cambridge. Years in the development, the scheme would cost in the region of £50M, but in return would provide a strategic piece of transport infrastructure, which would have associated benefits for people in increasing the Cambridge commuter area and regenerating the surrounding local economy. Unfortunately, the government appraisal and modeling systems for rail reopenings come nowhere near recognising this benefit to Wisbech of being back on the rail network, and as a result, projects like this are going unexplored, to the detriment of national economic inequality.

Compare the hoops that local campaigners are having to jump through at Wisbech with the way plans for roads to the south and east of Manchester are being taken forward. The Department for Transport, Highways Agency and the local authority are all separately bringing forward major road building proposals. This would create a new 48km strategic road by stealth, encircling a vast area of green belt and countryside all the way from the M60 in Stockport to the M6 in Cheshire, generating new traffic, pollution, development pressure and ecological damage. This is a particular shame as it would bring more traffic to the urban areas of Manchester, undermining some really positive local progress in recent years, which has successfully stopped traffic growth and prioritised public transport.

Nowhere is the cumulative impact of these road plans being considered. Local people are being marginalised, with the result that campaigns are springing up demanding new studies to look at alternative ways of providing transport, including local public transport and new strategic rail lines.

Together, these two schemes highlight the shortcomings in the way infrastructure investment is being made. Outside the national infrastructure strategy, the government is throwing money at road building with insufficient oversight of the impacts. Meanwhile, more valuable projects risk being delayed or lost because they do not fit into the standard model of appraisal. We badly need a more strategic approach if we are ever going to consolidate economic growth for everybody around the country.

  • James Macoll is campaigns manager at Campaign for Better Transport

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