Threat to cancel or 'indefinitely pause' £450m Ely rail upgrade

A round table meeting was held at Downham Market Town Hall to discuss the future of the Ely North Ra

Six years ago, a round table meeting was held at Downham Market Town Hall to discuss the future of the Ely North Railway Junction with Network rail. - Credit: Archant

The Government has indicated that the projected £450m cost of upgrading Ely rail infrastructure may be too high a price to pay.  

It could be one of those that “will have to be cancelled or indefinitely paused”. 

Wendy Morton, minister of state for transport, has told regional business leaders and local MPs that changes in “travel patterns” means the scheme may mean putting Ely on hold. 

She accepts that the recently concluded business case put forward by Network Rail has positive elements. 

“The programme continues to demonstrate sound decarbonisation and connectivity benefits”, says the minister. 

“But it also continues to require a significant amount of public funding, with a total cost of over £450 million.  

“As we continue to build back from the pandemic, it is becoming clear that travel patterns are likely to have changed into the longer term. 

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“The government is therefore having to make difficult decisions to restore the railway’s financial sustainability.” 

Ely North Junction

Ely North Junction - Credit: Archant

Ms Morton said that following the 2021 Spending Review “I am considering the necessary changes to the national enhancement portfolio. 

“And some projects will have to be cancelled or indefinitely paused”.  

The minister said she fully recognises the benefits of the Ely programme “and its strong alignment to Government’s strategic priorities.  

“Should the outcomes of the Spending Review impact on the Ely programme, my department would continue to work with industry to explore opportunities to realise at least some of the desired outcomes”. 

These, she said, would be through “wider operational changes to the network or through smaller, targeted investment enabled by future funding settlements”.  

The minister’s response follows a letter sent by the East of England All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). 

The group represents East of England MPs, local council leaders and representatives of the private and third sectors. 

 2018: Elizabeth Truss MP and George Freeman MP at the Queen Adelaide level crossing close to Ely North Junction.

2018: Elizabeth Truss MP and George Freeman MP at the Queen Adelaide level crossing close to Ely North Junction. - Credit: Archant

APPG says the Ely scheme is a “huge collaborative, region wide and cross-party effort” to ensure the long-planned improvements take place.  

“These now appear to be under threat,” says its spokesperson. 

 “MPs and other regional leaders reject the argument that changed travel patterns post Covid are relevant.  

“In fact, the planned improvements are essential if Government is to move freight from road to rail and deliver its ambitions to level up the country, achieve net zero, and drive global Britain forward.  

“It would simultaneously increase the East of England’s already net contribution to the Treasury.” 

APPG says MPs and other regional leaders “have therefore called on the Transport Secretary to ensure the planned funding goes ahead”. 

Last month the group wrote to Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport.  

They included issues at the unresolved upgrade also needed for Haughley in Suffolk.  

“Although there have been some capacity improvements on the Felixstowe branch line, capacity constraints around Ely and at Haughley Junction significantly limit the number of freight trains,” they told Mr Shapps.  

The capacity issues “add more HGVs to the road and also force trains to travel to and from the Midlands via north London.  

“What is specifically needed now is a commitment to fund the next phase of development work for Ely Junction within Control Period 6 and £20million for Haughley Junction so improvement work can begin in 2023. 

“It is clear that without such critical investment in our transport networks, current challenges will worsen and prevent the region, and country, from reaching its full potential, environmentally, socially, and economically.” 

Last year Network Rail secured £13.1m to begin a vital stage in planning massive improvements to the rail infrastructure at Ely.  

MP Liz Truss said it built on the £9.3m secured in 2017 from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and the Strategic Freight Network to start the feasibility study on the Ely North rail junction. 

The Ely area capacity enhancement (EACE) programme is a proposal to upgrade the railway to allow more trains to run through Ely. 

This section of railway is a restraint to allowing more trains to run and it needs to be improved to meet the increasing demands. 

The aim is to improve connectivity and reliability for passenger services and meet the demand for more rail freight between the Port of Felixstowe the West Midlands and the north to support sustainable, long-term economic growth. 

A combined authority report, also last year, accepted that direct Wisbech to Cambridge services are dependent on other Network Rail projects (most notably at Ely North). 

Any delay or rejection of the Ely scheme could impact progress on re-opening the Wisbech to March line.