The latest summit to tackle the ‘Ely Solution’ took place on Friday as industry leaders and politicians headed by Mayor Dr Nik Johnson met to discuss best ways to pressure the government to unlock funds for major rail infrastructure improvements.
Souvenir pix of Ely North rail 'summit' – but can you name all 5 MPs in the photo? pic.twitter.com/UbhL49cSEC
— Wisbech Standard (@wisbechstandard) March 2, 2016
It concluded with them agreeing to send a letter to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Transport Secretary “to help inform their consideration of which rail improvements to approve in the next funding round”.
The summit discussed how boosting Ely rail capacity could transform transport across the country – with a Combined Authority spokesperson noting the summit had suggested a further “comparatively modest investment” to give Soham a direct link to Newmarket and Cambridge.
Newmarket, in turn, would gain new access to Ely, Peterborough, King’s Lynn, and Norwich.
“Wisbech Rail, the Snailwell Loop, and Alconbury Station are small-scale interventions which would pack a big punch in challenging inequality and levelling up across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the wider Eastern region,” said the spokesperson.
NE Cambs MP Steve Barclay would agree with that.
— CAMBRIDGESHIRE (@DailyCAMBRIDGE) May 1, 2018
Nine years ago, Mr Barclay hosted his own summit in parliament with Transport Minister, Stephen Hammond and a host of political leaders and rail experts.
The transport minister described the reopening the March to Wisbech line as “a strategic priority”.
Little happened, of course, prompting Mr Barclay, four years later, to show signs of losing his cool over delays to re-opening the line.
“Like many constituents I find it odd that we fought a Second World War in fewer years than it seems to take to reopen a few miles of track,” he said.
“I will continue to do everything I can to make the case to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and the Department of Transport and remain optimistic that we will get this scheme delivered.”
SW Norfolk MP Liz Truss has also favoured the summit route to attract attention to Ely’s rail problems.
Five years ago, she hosted a summit in Ely which heard from Meliha Duymaz, Network Rail’s route managing director for Anglia, that the improvements were originally due to be carried out between 2009 -14 but the scheme had been deferred.
Mayor Johnson co-chaired today’s summit with former transport minister, now Better Transport Campaign chief, the Rt Hon Norman Baker.
“The influential gathering discussed how action on Ely would be quick to ripple growth out through Cambridgeshire, the wider East, the South-East, the Midlands, and the North, right up into Scotland,” said the Combined Authority spokesperson.
Business, transport and industry leaders, farmers and growers, local authority and political leaders – everyone who supports the Ely Solution, wherever they are in the country, is urged to get their signature on to the letter, currently available here on the Combined Authority website, before it is delivered on Friday 14 July.
The letter accompanies an Investment Prospectus detailing for the Chancellor the beneficial impacts of improving capacity at Ely – for example, £4.89 for every £1 spent, 100k lorries off the road annually, and almost 3000 extra freight services to and from the UK’s busiest container port each year.
The summit heard that Ely Junction sits on the cross-country rail route linking the Port of Felixstowe and its new trade zone, Freeport East, to the rest of Great Britain.
The route is the UK’s most intensively used freight corridor – but Ely’s mixture of single-track sections, restricted speeds, level crossings and signalling limitations have created a stranglehold where five lines compete for one track.
“Ely is now viewed as one of the chief impediments to UK growth, hampering freight to and from all parts of the mainland, and placing an unnecessary obstacle in the country’s path to global trade,” said the spokesperson.
“The summit heard that if the government did approve £466m – a relatively small cost for a ‘quick win’ in infrastructure terms – to boost capacity at Ely, there would be 2,900 extra freight services through Felixstowe each year and a staggering £2.2 billion benefit would pour back into the UK economy.
“Delegates discussed how the knock-on of futureproofing capacity at Ely would make the most of Government investment already spent on the new station at Soham, and on rail assets in other parts of the country, all made less effective by bottlenecking at Ely.
“Government money earmarked for Cambridge South, East-West Rail, and Peterborough Station Quarter would also work harder if better joined-up and more frequent services were facilitated by improving Ely.”
Dr Johnson said: “The public money spent on rail in many areas can yield a much better return if Ely Junction is widened to release freer and more frequent and reliable rail traffic.
“The cost-benefit ratio of fixing the Ely pinch point is an incredible return of £4.89 back for every £1 spent. It’s a win-win investment with quantifiable reward far beyond the opportunity that will be felt for decades by people and communities across the country.
An excellent morning as part of the panel at the "The Importance of Rail for the South-East & East of England" Summit hosted by @CambsPboroCA
— Jamie Jones (@jones_jamie) July 7, 2023
“Dividends will include more freight and passenger services and better connections, at least 100k fewer lorries on the road each year, a massive drop in carbon emission, improved air quality and less need to spend government money on roads, as rail freight options for imports and exports become more viable.”
He said the summit builds on the East of England All Party Parliamentary launch last month of ‘Keeping Trade on Track’.
Dr Johnson said the report from England’s Economic Heartland and Transport East presents “persuasive evidence of the regional, national, and international benefits of upgrading the Ely junction”.
Cllr Liz Leffman, interim chair of England’s Economic Heartland, said: “Our conversations with the freight industry have only reinforced that there is significant unmet demand for increased levels of rail freight.
“The rail capacity improvements needed at Ely are of national significance. The scheme is an important connector for the economies of the Midlands and North and provides significant potential to relieve congestion on strategic roads while reducing emissions caused by HGV journeys which could more appropriately be made via rail.”
She said the summit underlines the report’s conclusions and now piles on pressure for the Government to consolidate its investment by linking rail assets into more frequent freight and commuter services that will spread prosperity and boost growth.
Dr Johnson added: “If the Government is committed to delivering UK growth and supporting international trade, it has to commit to investing in Ely junction widening and improvements.
“The problem is longstanding and any delay to delivering a solution to the Ely bottleneck will come at a heavy cost to the UK economy.
“Our message to the Treasury and Government is clear: Let’s work together – we all want to see good economic development for UK plc.
“If the Government is serious about levelling up, we must progress Ely. If we are serious about meeting net zero targets and getting thousands of HGVs off the roads across the United Kingdom, then the Government must progress Ely.”
He said his final message to Government ministers was this.
“We hope that you will now move to agree the required funding for the Ely rail improvement.”
Today’s summit took place at the new Cambridge North station.
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