Abandoned proposals for Cambridge Light Rail Transport – 1991 by Colin Buchanan & Partners

I’m hoping Cambridge City Council will enable this paper commissioned by them can be digitised and made public along with their past historical papers stored in archives. The same goes for the surrounding district councils & Cambridgeshire County Council given that the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough is soon to go to consultation on a revamped transport & connectivity planas I called for in the Cambridge Town Owl here.

Type in the phrase Transport Plan into the Cambridgeshire Libraries online search engine and you’ll get nearly 200 titles in response. Sometimes you’ll find these documents hidden away in some forgotten corner of a council website – such as the Cambridge & South Cambs Transport Plan 2014 produced by the County Council that sits on a South Cambs page. Or the one from 2015 by the County Council that’s supposed to cover the period 2011-31. We’re halfway through – can we have a progress update? Perhaps not – because the Government invented the Combined Authority and county mayoral office in 2015/16 and took the transport planning powers away from the County Council and gave them to the new mayor. And a couple of years after that Local Transport Plan (2018) was published, it became obsolete as a result of the pandemic, the mayoral elections (new mayor, new priorities), and some big changes in Government policy following changing public moods following months in lockdown.

The above-mentioned paragraph is a very short, partial/incomplete summary of contemporary history as far as local transport planning in and around Cambridge is concerned. A lot of planning, little delivery. And I’ve not even mentioned the complication of the Greater Cambridge Partnership / City Deal as yet.

Old light railway plans – mainly for agriculture and transport of goods

The British Newspaper Archive has a number of articles on the unbuilt Cottenham to Oakington Light Railway

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive in Feb 1900 here.

The public inquiry at the old Lion Hotel on Petty Cury shows that a number of farmers and manufacturers such as brick makers were paying considerable sums to get their products to market – to the extent they were losing contracts. They gave evidence that a light railway would significantly reduce cartage costs. Note this was at a time before motorised trucks and lorries became common – but not before long. One of the biggest social changes was the development of infrastructure to make the use of fossil-fuelled motor-vehicles efficient. This included the construction of a network of petrol/refilling stations, repair garages, and a significant programme of expensive road improvements that led to the development of Tarmac – asphalt on roads so as to reduce significantly the dust clouds kicked up in rural areas by motorists on unimproved roads.

The Cambridge Street Tramways

The Cambridge Museum of Technology round the back of Newmarket Road Tesco hosted a talk by Chesterton historian David Stubbings on the old horse-drawn tramways. You can watch it below.

You can find out more about the Chesterton Local History Group here.

Although Cambridge Borough Council approved the principle of electrifying the trams in 1904, ultimately the firm went bankrupt and was wound up in 1914 – six months before war broke out.

Until the launch of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail proposals in 2016, little seems to have been said about using light rail irrespective of power/traction. That or information on them is very difficult to find. Throughout the mid-20th Century, many towns and cities got rid of their electric street trams and their electric trolley buses in what today seems like collective acts of madness as municipalities surrendered their roads to the private motorist. In the development plans by Davidge in 1934, and Holford & Wright’s of 1950, there is no mention of electric light rail or trams. The Buchanan Report of 1991 is the only one I’ve found so far that has light rail proposals from within my lifetime (i.e. from the very late 1970s onwards).

Above – the Buchanan Report in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

I had a quick look at the Buchanan proposals in my short video at the Collection courtesy of the archivists, below:

The report goes into a fair amount of detail on the assumptions needed to make a light rail model work – and that includes bringing in a system of congestion charging for motorists along with the removal of on-street parking for non-resident motorists.

Above – the map from Buchanan and Partners for Cambridge City Council citing Cambridgeshire County Council’s Light Rail proposal from 1991.

Essentially it’s an electric street tram model that makes use of two old railway lines – the old Varsity Line and the Cambridge-St Ives line, both of which have now been incorporated into the controversial Guided Busway – a scheme bitterly opposed by the Cambridge – St Ives Railway Organisation, and one which legal action against the main contractors by the County Council is still ongoing because the final cost was well over twice what was agreed/budgeted.

Looking at the map, the main roads used by the LRT model are Hills Road, Emmanuel Street, Emmanuel Road, Maids Causeway, and Newmarket Road. They did however propose a one-way loop – which they conceded would cause problems. That in itself indicates two services – one for the north and one for the south that don’t connect, rather than the through-service as proposed by Cambridge Connect at present. The Park-and-Ride car parks are proposed for Oakington in the north, Chesterton Junction – where North Cambridge Station now is, and at the M11 Junction just south of Trumpington / north of Hauxton in the south.

Assumptions for the 1991 Light Rail proposals

The building of new relief roads, including:

  • A new eastern relief road linking the A14 at the north eastern edge of the City with Newmarket Road (2 on the map below), a Cherry Hinton eastern bypass (that did get built), and an ongoing relief road bypassing Queen Edith’s but splitting off Wandlebury, the Beechwoods and Nine Wells Nature Reserve from the city. (Which explains why that hasn’t been built).
  • Improved cycling facilities
  • New bus lanes
  • The improved Park & Ride proposals
  • A reduction in availability of street parking
  • Bringing in congestion charging

Interestingly the consultants go onto explain why they disagree with the assumptions and the costings that the County Council came up with – mainly on the grounds that the County Council were assuming they could get rid of a number of bus services including P&R bus lines once the Light Rail was in place. Buchanan & Partners did not do this – on the grounds they said that the provision of bus services was already so low that any further reduction would cause a greater disbenefit compared with any money saved. This was around five years after Thatcher’s Government privatised the buses -with catastrophic consequences.

Moving forward to the present day and we read from Smarter Cambridge Transport that ministerial demand for jobs, growth, and housing in and around Cambridge can only be delivered with significant improvements to infrastructure – including water, electricity, and in particular public transport. In particular they note the ministerial demands from the local economy cannot be delivered without both a new light rail/tram network, and significant improvements to the heavy rail network.

Either way, when the Combined Authority publishes their draft Local Transport & Connectivity Plan in the next month or two, I will be calling on them to publish in an easy to find place digitised copies of previous transport plans, along with short summaries of what happened to them and how we got to here.

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