Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

You’ll think I’m talking like a plate of beans negotiating their way out of a cow’s digestive system

Posted in Customer service, Great Britain, Infrastructure by Chairman Pip on 15 April 2011

The penultimate episode of The West Wing, Institutional Memory, which is set in the last two weeks of the Bartlet Administration, is primarily concerned with what the staff of The White House will do once the new administration moves in and they have moved out. One of the threads concerns C.J. Cregg, the Chief of Staff, who has no real desire to remain in politics, but feels pressured to do so. Instead though, she follows her conscience and her heart, and elects to run a philanthropic foundation for a multi-billionaire (a la Bill Gates) who wants to spend $10bn saving the world. Her idea on how he can do this is to use the money to build roads in Africa, and work on plumbing if there’s any left over. I was reminded of this yesterday when I read an article in the newspaper about the idea of building a new trunk road that connects Oxford and Cambridge. Although these towns are home to the country’s premier high education institutions, and are only around 75 miles apart, the roundabout route that is recommended by The AA route planner takes around 3 hours (although if anyone knows of a faster route, by all means let us know). Of course, in the modern world there is a huge amount of stigma when it comes to road building, and naturally Friends of the Earth have come out strongly against such a scheme:

Our brightest minds should be ­helping in the fight against climate change not making it worse by suggesting unnecessary new roads. A new motorway would damage our countryside and create more pollution. Instead we need the east-west rail link between Oxford and Cambridge to be completed.
Richard Dyer, Friends Of The Earth

Indeed, there are quite well developed plans for a restoration of the Varsity Line by a group called EastWest Rail, who want to make that the core of a new trunk route between East Anglia and the Midlands. These plans have been well received by the Government, who have suggested that funding for it might come from the private sector (as, well received it may be, high on the priority list it is not). The thing is though, for the Varsity Line to be what Friends of the Earth want, which is a genuine replacement for any road, then it would likely have to be a full up, quadruple track, high speed (probably at least 100mph) route, with both stopping and fast services. With the best will in the world, even with the fact that Oxford and Cambridge will be at the forefront of the new research based economy, there wouldn’t be enough traffic to warrant what would essentially be “The Oxbridge Main Line”. So, if and when it is built (or rather re-built), then the Varsity Line will probably be an ordinary, double track suburban/rural route, with a fairly standard timetable (perhaps 2-4 trains per hour). As a consequence, and this is where you’ll think that I’m talking like a plate of beans, I think that both the road AND the railway line should be built. The road wouldn’t have to be what Lord Wolfson, who is promoting the road idea, has suggested, which is a full up motorway, as I think that an A-Road, with dual carriageway for the busiest parts, would suffice. This, in combination with the Varsity Line, would then provide a nicely integrated transport network between the two universities; trains would run, the road lobby would smile, everyone’s happy.

“The Road to Riches”
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