Network Rail: Land needed for Ely upgrade

Local communities have been advised that improving rail services in and around Ely, including facilitating better intermodal freight services from Felixstowe, will require land purchases. Those are the messages from Network Rail as the consultation continues on the contentious but urgently needed remodelling of lines in and around the Cambridgeshire town of Ely. The current layout is constraining passenger and freight development. The project has been the subject of concerns over costs, but it is generally agreed that the project is needed for targets for net-zero operations will be hampered.

The flat and low-lying East of England land around Ely is proving a problem for Network Rail and all concerned parties who seek to upgrade rail services through the area. The project is in the second phase of consultation, and local media has reported a raft of concerns raised. The biggest concerns are finding ways to grade separator lines and avoid low bridges, at least one of which is a frequent victim of ‘bridge bashing’ – which causes further disruption to the busy tangle of lines.

A critical safety risk

Safety reasons and operational considerations mean that Network Rail has, for a long time, refrained from building any new level crossings where road and rail meet. However, there is a stretch of rail in Ely, where three level crossings exist – all nearby – and Network Rail say the issue is a significant challenge to increasing rail capacity.

The complex layout at Ely North Junction (Network Rail Air Services)

In a statement to local newspapers, Network Rail said it recognised the problems for rail users and the community. “Any changes to the level crossings will have a significant impact on the residents and businesses that rely on the road connection to Ely”, says their statement. “We need to tackle the challenge of potential increases in road traffic volumes over time which may result in vehicles queuing over level crossings at busy times, which is a critical safety risk.”

Building bridges that carry objections

The Ely Enhancements Project has been the subject of budget concerns. Network Rail has contested the issue, saying that changes to the project’s scope have been conflated into additional costs. Regardless of that, there are additional costs to be borne by the railway project, including the provision of alternative road routes. That aspect of the project will most likely require land purchase and could mean some homes have to be demolished.

Options include building new bridges (which carry some aesthetic objections given the nature of the flat land with open views). Other options would require the compulsory land purchase, including residential gardens and potentially outbuildings, say Network Rail. A further option would require homes themselves to be demolished.

Solutions include road closures

A critical bridge in the community of Stonea is also a matter of concern. At only two metres tall over the road below, it is frequently struck by vehicles – an issue commonly known as ‘bridge bashing’. This always requires a delay to services and an inspection – with traffic from Felixstowe affected. Network Rail is concerned that improved services will be more frequently delayed. They have proposed closing the bridge and diverting the road.

Network Rail schematic of the area around Ely

Network Rail has told local media that there are good reasons for finding an alternative. “Closure of the underpass will prevent bridge strikes, reduce the disruption of the railway and reduce the burden of having to inspect and repair the bridge following a vehicle strike regularly”, said a statement. “The underpass would remain open to pedestrians and cyclists.” Presumably, except very tall ones.

Network Rail says their Ely Enhancement Project proposals for increasing rail capacity into the city won over three-quarters of the community’s approval following the first round of public consultation earlier this year.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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