Many isolated towns across the UK remain cut off from the rail network. But for a town that once had railway lines going in five different directions, until the final freight link was closed for good in 2001, it is astonishing that Wisbech has no rail links at all.
Current rail access for the north Cambridgeshire town is via March (ten miles away), the Norfolk towns of Downham Market (12 miles) and King’s Lynn (13 miles), or Peterborough (20 miles) - journeys that can take half an hour or longer on the poor-quality Fenland roads.
There have been calls for many years to re-open the mothballed March-Wisbech line, which has been closed to passenger traffic since 1968 - not as a result of the Beeching cuts, but because of decisions made later on.
Back in 2009, the hopes and dreams of campaigners received a boost when the Association of Train Operating Companies published its Connecting Communities report. This made the case for 14 new lines, mainly on re-opened track, with the potential for six more.
Since that report was published, the local branch of Railfuture (among others) has lobbied councillors to make sure that the national rail reconnection to Wisbech was included in the latest version of the Cambridgeshire Local Transport Plan.
Local Railfuture chairman and campaigner Peter Wakefield tells RAIL that this was “an important milestone, as generally county councils must be the sponsor of such projects”.
Reinstatement of the railway has also found support in the form of local MP Steve Barclay - formerly of the Commons Transport Select Committee and thus well informed on rail issues, and “a superb supporter of the project”, according to Wakefield.
And so the campaigning machinery was set in motion. Websites and Facebook pages were set up. Railfuture petitioned Cambridgeshire County Council, and had thousands of leaflets printed that drew attention to the possibilities and to the petition.
Members were mobilised to hand-deliver a leaflet to every household in Wisbech (13,000 of them in total), while adapted versions went to more than 3,000 homes in March and 800 in Manea.
By and large the petition was kept local, and more than 4,000 individuals quickly signed it - mainly online, although several hundred signatures were collected on paper at Wisbech library.
Perhaps as an indication of the poor digital infrastructure in the area, Railfuture realised that only about 75% of households had access to the internet. “People were contacting Steve Barclay asking how they could sign,” says Wakefield.
Wakefield was given permission by the first full county council meeting after the 2014 local elections to present the petition at Cambridge’s Shire Hall.
But he notes the disadvantage of Wisbech straddling the border of two counties (Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, while other petitioners lived nearby in South Lincolnshire): “It was duly accepted, but about 500 petitioners were not, as they lived in Norfolk.”
In fact, the effects of the town’s isolation from the rail network are evident in all sorts of ways.
“Only recently have the economic circumstances been favourable,” says Wakefield. “The synergy of huge development and good quality of life indicators in Cambridge and the south of the county, compared with the economic decline and poor indicators of health, education and aspiration in the north of the county, particularly in and around Wisbech, has become a real issue in Cambridgeshire. One startling statistic is that life expectancy is seven years less in Wisbech than in Cambridge.”
So how many people would benefit from a re-opened March-Wisbech line? What would be the catchment area for a new Wisbech station?
Wakefield suggests that the potential passenger market is even higher than estimated six years ago by the Connecting Communities report, which envisaged a new station at Wisbech Town and potentially a park and ride station adjacent to the A47 serving a population of some 26,500 people (with 50,000 in the wider station catchment area, including villages and towns such as Long Sutton).
“The continuously built-up area of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk is over 33,000,” says Wakefield.
“The catchment area is thought to be about an additional 40,000-plus in North Cambridgeshire, the Marshland district of Norfolk, and South Lincolnshire - particularly the ‘mini-conurbation’ stretching through Sutton Bridge and Long Sutton to Holbeach.”
Wakefield suggests that March (population of 24,000 and already on the rail network) will greatly benefit from additional trains, while there are nearly 2,500 people in nearby Manea. Nearby Chatteris has a population of 10,000.
Although the Wisbech park and ride option is no longer included in plans, the proposed single-track line would use the formation of the former freight line, which remains in situ 14 years after the last train traversed it. The line is seven miles long from March Whitemoor Junction (the yard there is still in use by Network Rail), and six years ago the project was tagged with an indicative capital cost of £12 million.
Helpfully, as a result of Eurostar moving its maintenance facility to Temple Mills in 2007, which caused the relocation of Network Rail Infrastructure to Whitemoor Yard, much of the necessary upgrade of track and signalling to access the mothballed Wisbech branch at Whitemoor Junction has already been done - and should prove beneficial to the full re-opening of the branch.
“This was a very large investment by NR,” says Wakefield. “Since closure of Whitemoor as a marshalling yard, the track layout had been much degraded. The current track layout will allow Up and Down Wisbech services to use the Up platform at March.”
Eight new level crossings would be required, most critically where the line crosses the busy A47 trunk road.
So would the existing (albeit mothballed) railway infrastructure need to be completely replaced? Obviously quite a lot of it is still there.
“No doubt the GRIP3 process will identify if any of the mainly bull head track is reusable,” says Wakefield.
“However, costs will (or should) be lower, as the route is currently mothballed - not closed - and expensive possessions will not be required.”
This is a fundamental difference from many re-opening projects - the route itself has never left NR ownership.
“Any renewals should be logistically relatively cheap, as Whitemoor yard literally leads off the Wisbech line and it is stuffed with appropriate cheaper second hand rails and sleepers. One would hope NR would appreciate this.”