Enhancing the Eastern Section


A high-level study has concluded there is a positive economic and strategic case for improving East West Rail’s Eastern Section, from Cambridge to Norwich and Ipswich, and beyond.

Atkins’ Conditional Outputs Statement, commissioned by the East West Rail Consortium, found that current demand for rail is constrained by limited direct links and low service frequencies in locations to the east of Cambridge.

Consequently, east-west rail travel tends to be restricted to shorter distance journeys, while those who do make long distance trips experience disproportionately high journey times. Passengers who wish to make longer east-west journeys often have to travel on crowded routes via London involving multiple changes, or by car on congested routes .

The Western Section route between Oxford and Bedford, including the link from Aylesbury, is due to be completed in the early 2020s, while the link between the Bedford area and Cambridge could open in the early 2030s. Atkins concluded that an enhanced Eastern Section could build on these improvements and bring major benefits to the entire East West Rail scheme.

Atkins’ study states: “The case for an intervention such as the East West Rail Eastern Section is therefore strong, in terms of both catering for existing demand and forecast growth, as well as acting as a catalyst and driver for further development and regeneration.”

The Consortium is now considering the details of the report and its next steps.

Why improve the Eastern Section?

Atkins identifies a number of reasons for improving the Eastern Section.

These include:

  • Promoting economic growth: Very few of the key locations for people living and working in the east of England are served by a direct rail link, with many requiring two or three interchanges. There is potential to improve the rail service offer, enabling better labour market participation and business interaction, thereby promoting economic growth.
  • Shorter journey times: The longest east-west rail journey times are from the east of Cambridge when travelling west beyond the city, as most journeys must be made via London. Improving the Eastern Section would cut journey times, improving business connectivity and ensuring Anglia was no longer cut off from key business markets west of London.
  • Getting the most value out of East West Rail: The Western and Central Sections will dramatically improve journey times between Oxford and Cambridge, eliminating the need to travel via London. The Eastern section could build on the improvements that the Western and Central sections will bring. Without Eastern Section improvements rail journey times from east of Cambridge to west of Cambridge and vice versa remain poor.
  • Reducing over-crowding in London: Demand for journeys to and from London is forecast to increase. Improved connectivity could remove the requirement to travel via London for many east-west journeys and reduce crowding on these London routes.
  • Reducing car dependency: Owing to a mixture of low quality road infrastructure and congestion, there are long highway journey times from the east to the west of Cambridge. For example, Oxford to Norwich takes around three hours. An improved Eastern Section could increase travel by rail and reduce demand on the highways.
  • Adding freight capacity: Infrastructure enhancements to enable up to five freight paths per hour between Ipswich and Ely are proposed in the Network Rail Anglia Route Study. An enhanced Eastern Section could improve the onward route via Bury St Edmunds to Chippenham Junction. It could also offer an alternative to the existing route via Ely by providing a new link via Newmarket and Cambridge for onward routing to/from the north of the UK via the Midland Mainline, or to/from the west of England, the south coast and Wales via Oxford.
  • Supporting regeneration: There are opportunities for improved rail connectivity to the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich, as well as coastal towns of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, targeted for regeneration and where in some locations there are typically higher levels of deprivation.

Key journey pairs

By analysing passenger demand and journey times across modes of transport, and population and employment growth trends, Atkins produced a list of the journey pairs which, with an improved Eastern Section, would provide the most benefits in terms of journey time reduction, impact on GVA  (Gross Value Added) and getting people out of their cars and onto trains by 2031.

These are:

Key target markets for an improved Eastern Section 

  • Local commuting into Norwich, Ipswich and Cambridge, including from coastal towns, as well as new commuting flows to the west of Cambridge.
  • Long-distance business and leisure journeys (including travel to other mainline destinations through interchanges). There is an opportunity to transform East-West travel from Anglia through shorter journey times and reduced interchanges.
  • Airport journeys: improved connectivity to Luton and potentially Heathrow in conjunction with other schemes. Stansted did not perform strongly based on competition with road journey times.
  • Freight: In addition to the passenger market, significant rail freight growth is forecast to 2043 and the Felixstowe-Ely-Nuneaton corridor is a priority for freight. The case for an intervention is therefore strong, in terms of both catering for existing demand and forecast growth, as well as acting as a catalyst and driver for further development and regeneration.

Further reading

Full report

Summary document

 Page published on August 11, 2017