Smarter Cambridge Transport organised a public meeting at Wolfson College, Cambridge, on Friday 14 Oct 2016 to examine whether the Greater Cambridge City Deal is working. The venue was packed, with more than 200 people attending, a vivid testament to how much people care about this amazing city, and an indication of the level of frustration many feel about plans advanced to date by the City Deal. Cambridge Connect commends Edward Leigh and the Smarter Cambridge Transport team for taking this initiative, and for their dedication and hard work to fight for solutions that are right for Cambridge.
Colin Harris presented on the Cambridge Light Rail concepts that Cambridge Connect has been developing in partnership with Railfuture and UK Tram. Colin outlined the main elements of City Deal plans based on busways and bus lanes that aim to get more people using public transport in Cambridge, and thereby reduce congestion. At the heart of City Deal proposals lie peak hour inner city road closures to enable the numerous additional buses required to run freely. However, the closures face strong opposition for their potentially devastating impact on inner city residents and businesses. Moreover, the substantial increase in the number of buses has major environmental implications for the inner city, including on air quality, heritage, landscape, safety and amenity. The scheme has been sharply criticised, and even the City Deal has admitted a need for a major re-think. Given the number of buses that will be required to serve projected demand in even ten years, Colin questioned whether the approach was practical or sustainable. It is clear that if this aspect of the scheme proposed by the City Deal is unlikely to work, then the entire strategy of busways and bus lanes on radial routes must be called into question.
Cambridge Connect believes a radically different approach is required, and the solution lies – in part – underground. This would place public transport infrastructure using light rail – which has the capacity and scalability needed – in a tunnel under the historic city core, thereby protecting the globally outstanding heritage, landscape and environmental values of the city. This would greatly reduce traffic on the surface, making the city more pedestrian and cycle friendly, and yet maintain rapid and convenient access for people to reach inner city businesses and cultural attractions. Buses on the surface simply cannot match that package.
Colin outlined the priorities Cambridge Connect has identified for Cambridge Light Rail, including the ‘Isaac Newton Line‘ and extensions, and for regional integration to outlying towns such as Cambourne and Haverhill and with the heavy rail network. Preliminary estimates of the costs were provided, and although considerable we believe they are manageable when spread over a suggested phased development period of 10 – 15 years. The costs are comparable to other major infrastructure projects, the investment is affordable, and projected revenues demonstrate that operating the line will not require subsidies. Colin suggested more creative approaches to financing should be explored, leveraging both public and private interests to achieve outcomes that are right for Cambridge.
Both Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambs, and Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge City, and many others have called for the ‘Pause button’ to be pressed on the City Deal. Cambridge Connect strongly endorses this view, as it could enable a more strategic and long-term approach to be developed that will provide enduring value from the investments made for Cambridge. We need to recognise that the drip-fed funding model for the City Deal package was wrong for Cambridge, and that times have changed since the City Deal was agreed, not least the implications of Brexit and devolution. Should this pause be achieved, Cambridge Light Rail should be brought firmly onto the table for serious consideration as a key element in the multi-modal mix of solutions to address the transport challenges facing Cambridge.