Historic agreement reached on Wisbech-March rail link with only the small matter of finding £220m to restore it outstanding

PUBLISHED: 17:06 05 June 2020 | UPDATED: 17:06 05 June 2020

Historic board meeting of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Held remotely via Zoom it signed off agreement on re-opening the Wisbech to March rail link. Those at the meeting included (from left) county council leader Steve Count, FDC leader Chris Boden and mayor James Palmer. Picture; JOHN ELWORTHY

Historic board meeting of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Held remotely via Zoom it signed off agreement on re-opening the Wisbech to March rail link. Those at the meeting included (from left) county council leader Steve Count, FDC leader Chris Boden and mayor James Palmer. Picture; JOHN ELWORTHY

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History was made at the meeting (Wednesday), of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA), when proposals for the next steps to reinstate the rail-link between Wisbech and Cambridge were approved.

A map of the rail network in the Infrastructure for Growth report includes a link from March to Wisbech.A map of the rail network in the Infrastructure for Growth report includes a link from March to Wisbech.

The last passenger train service had run on September 9, 1968, with the last freight train running in 2000.

After which the line was closed and dismantled as part of a series of countrywide cuts to the railways originally orchestrated by former British Railways chairman, Dr Richard Beeching.

Those cuts, which saw more than 4,000 miles of train routes removed across the UK, left the Fenland town somewhat isolated, especially for those who can’t drive or afford a car.

But after 52 years, that’s about to change.

This special excursion train on September 23 1978 was the first passenger train to leave the old Wisbech Station for ten years.This special excursion train on September 23 1978 was the first passenger train to leave the old Wisbech Station for ten years.

The full business case presented to the board has taken over five years to complete, cost £1,445,376 and has been financed by the CAPCA over the 2019/20, 2020/21 financial years. A further £987,606 has been approved by the CAPCA board for a detailed design study and proposed land acquisitions.

Having completed the full business case, it will now be put to Network Rail and the government who will be funding the construction costs currently estimated at £218.4m.

This includes a 20 per cent risk allowance and based on 2019 prices but does not include optimum bias or land acquisition costs. This figure will continue to be refined as the project develops.

Cllr Chris Boden (Conservative, Leader Fenland District Council), said: “This really is quite a historic moment in that it brings us closer to getting a restored rail-link to Wisbech than we have been at any time in the last 52 years.

Wisbech to March railway.Wisbech to March railway.

“Members may or may not be aware that Wisbech is one of the largest towns in the entire country to be without a rail-link and it is the second largest community in the Eastern Region to be without one.

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“Wisbech is by far the most deprived town in the Combined Authority area, and the economic and housing expansion – which are desperately needed in Wisbech – are absolutely dependent upon better transport links.

A cautious Cllr Steve Count (Conservative, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council), added: “Great news to see this project get this far with a positive benefit cost ratio (BCR) behind it. “I am slightly concerned that the report has come to the board in its unfinished form and still has to be finalised through the transport committee and I would’ve liked to have seen the full, finalised case come to the board – but I can understand the merits of doing it this way so that we can highlight this as early as possible.

Wisbech to March railway.Wisbech to March railway.

“Moving forwards however, we now have a strong case to build the Wisbech-Cambridge rail-link because the biggest problem has always been the blockage at Ely North Junction in getting the trains to and from Cambridge.

“I’ve felt in the past that we would never achieve a positive BCR without the Cambridge-element included.

“However, the report in front of us clearly indicates that we can run an interim solution at this present point in time without Ely North Junction being dealt with.

“So, there is no reason – apart from money – to stop this project going forward; and while £218m is nothing to be sniffed at, like all the CPCA projects, it’s not the quantum of money that’s the most important, its whether it makes financial sense to spend it.

Wisbech to March railway.Wisbech to March railway.

“With a positive BCR it does make sense for the British government to spend money, here, in the Wisbech area.

“I must add this project meets one of the core aims of the CPCA in equalising those areas of multiple deprivation with those that are more affluent and have better outcomes. These were aims that we built into the founding of the CAPCA with central government.”

Mayor, James Palmer, said: “The re-opening of the March to Wisbech transport corridor is critical for supporting future growth in Wisbech. We want to transform Wisbech as a place for great rail connectivity, affordable housing and good employment and education.

“Cllr Count mentioned that one of the blockages was the Ely North Junction, but I would add to that we’ve never really had a proper business plan up to now. That’s the fundamental difference today, we do have that positive BCR and a Network Rail GRIP 3b business case”.

Wisbech to March railway.Wisbech to March railway.

Where the new station at Wisbech will be built is still to be decided. A large chunk of the funding will be needed to upgrade and restore 22 rail crossings.


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