East West Rail (EWR) is a project to build a new rail link between Oxford and Cambridge, via Bicester, Milton Keynes and Bedford.
As part of its proposals for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, the UK Government has identified EWR as essential for improving east-west transport links to unlock the region’s economic growth potential and support accelerated housebuilding, including four new settlements being proposed along its route.
The rail connection between Oxford and Cambridge is due to open by 2030. The western section between Oxford and Bedford is at an advanced stage, being built by reinstating sections of the old Varsity Line that was closed in the 1960s and upgrading existing lines. In contrast, connecting Bedford to Cambridge requires an entirely new rail line along a new route, presenting additional challenges to minimising negative impacts on nature.
Despite commitments to decarbonise the UK transport sector, which contributes more than any other to domestic greenhouse gas emissions (27 per cent in 2019), Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps MP has confirmed that EWR will not be an electrified line from first operation, leaving open the possibility that it will run more polluting and GHG emitting diesel-electric trains.
In an interview with the BBC Mr Shapps suggested EWR “might potentially bypass overhead wire technology altogether" and ultimately run hydrogen or battery-powered trains:
"We're building it in such a way that we can use, probably, the very latest technology, potentially, in the future," he said.
But, as the caveats – "might potentially", "probably", "potentially" – highlight, these new technologies are not ready. In the meantime, a non-electrified line will only add to the UK’s overall GHG emissions.
We are also concerned that the route for EWR between Bedford and Cambridge could be chosen without proper consideration of the full scale of environmental impacts – including indirect impacts – as a result of not just the railway, but also of the rapid urbanisation that will follow it.
The most recent public consultation on East West Rail, including options for the route between Bedford and Cambridge, closed on 9 June 2021. You can read our formal consultation reponse here.