Intermodal train from Felixstowe in close up at Ely in Cambridgeshire

Network Rail responds to costs and consults on Ely project

Intermodal traffic from Felixstowe its set to grow, but how much of it will be able to traverse the rails though Ely in Cambridgeshire Image: © Luka Chalklin.

Infrastructure enhancements around the East of England town of Ely are vital for east-west freight capacity and five passenger routes. This was said by Network Rail, the UK infrastructure agency. However, following reports of vast cost rises, the company is to consult extensively on the programme. The enhanced project replaces a minor upgrade plan submitted in 2016 for the North Junction layout. The wider plan will require radical remodelling within the city boundary. However, the flat landscape is dotted with level crossings, which could be expensive to upgrade and replace.

The designated Ely Area Capacity Enhancement (EACE) has been in the news for perceived cost overruns, based on the five hundred million British pound (550 million euros) price tag. Local media have claimed the project is much more expensive than the original proposals, tabled in 2016. However, some say that reporting has largely failed to grasp the new scope of the project, which is much more ambitious and justifies the cost.

Railfreight Solutions

“Ely will be challenging from a civil engineering perspective” says managing director of Railfreight Solutions, Jonathan Moser, who has looked into the project in detail. “Grade separation is needed if capacity is to be increased and delays are to be minimised. But this is low-lying ground, and the Fens are famous for their high water table. Digging bridge foundations could be a wet affair, and even if feasible, over bridges stick out from a long way away. I can’t imagine many residents will be as excited about a utilitarian railway bridge on the horizon, detracting from views of the iconic cathedral. Under these circumstances, I can see why the costs would potentially start to escalate”

Jonathan Moser of Railfreight Solutions says the flat landscape around Ely and the Fens adds to the cost of the project because of the number and complexity of level crossings. However, Great Catch Bridge (in the trees) has already been rebuilt with provision for two tracks (Railfreight Solutions / Network Rail)

Residents of Ely also have another challenge relating to the railway There are a four level crossings to the north of the town including one on each of the three diverging routes at Ely North Junction, all traversed by the same road. Whilst far from ideal from a rail perspective, this is a greater issue for road users kept waiting while trains approach. Ideally this problem will also need to be resolved at no small expense.

Act of foresight enables much of the project

Just a few months ago, in September, Network Rail revealed that the rail upgrade could cost as much as 500 million British pounds (550 million euros). This was in stark contrast to a modest 25 million British pounds (28 million euros) proposal to upgrade Ely North Junction, which was put forward in 2016 but subsequently shelved. The vastly more ambitious project covers an array of projects around the town, taking account of increased demand, notably from Felixstowe freight passing through Ely.

Ely is at the centre of a complex confluence of routes

There are also provisions being made to build out the line towards Soham and make it double track. Fortunately, in an act of foresight, a bridge south of Ely, which required replacement several years ago after a derailment incident, was built with passive provision for double track, rendering the project more achievable.

Consultation, consultation, consultation

Addressing an industry conference, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris, who is a parliamentary colleague of transport minister Grant Shapps, and his effective deputy for rail matters, said costs in the industry are increasing at an exponential rate, which accounts for some of the increased cost of the EACE project. “It’s a really big project and every minute it’s delayed or there’s an extra bit of design that’s required, the costs go up and that makes its business case less and less,” he said. “Therefore, you’re spending money on not actually getting something over the line and potentially not making it happen at all.”

All the main freight operators use Ely, and all are compelled to wait in the station loops at some part of the day (Image courtesy of Luka Chalklin)

Network Rail, not surprisingly – given the potential for disruption – put their plans out to public consultation earlier in 2020. According to the infrastructure agency, the railway through Ely is operating at full capacity, and economic potential is being stifled. After assessing responses to their consultation, Network Rail intend to conduct a second round of consultation in 2021.

Costs have some spiralling left to do

Although passenger services will benefit from better opportunities for more frequent operation, the advantages for freight are obvious. With better capacity and less idle time around Ely, the rails around East Anglia open up considerably. Ellie Burrows, Network Rail’s route director for Anglia said the consultation process was a vital part of their planning. “It is important that we provide opportunities to engage with the communities that could be impacted by our work”, she said. “It is even more important that we listen to people and gather their views to help inform our development and design process, and progress these proposals together, finding the right solution for the railway and for Ely.”

Ely Cathedral, canals and low bridges (Wikipedia)

Network Rail has secured 13.1 million (14.5 million euros) funding from the Department for Transport, and 9.3 million (10.3 million euros) funding from local administrations, representative business groups, and the Strategic Freight Network fund, to understand the scale of the challenge to increase capacity through Ely. Submission of consents is subject to securing additional funding from the Department for Transport following their Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP) process. Back to Mr Heaton-Harris, then, who may well remind us that delay exposes the project to further spiralling costs. Check back in a year or two for headlines about that 500 million pound budget being something of a pipe dream.

Main image – courtesy Luka Chalklin

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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