Why a Cambridge Underground is a Very Bad Idea @LewisHerbert1


Britain’s first new underground railway in decades could be built as part of a radical plan to run trains into the heart of Cambridge.

Transport chiefs want to create a tram link that will travel through four miles of tunnels beneath the city.

It is hoped that the line, which has the backing of senior figures in central government, can be built in six years and could be open by the middle of the next decade.

It would make Cambridge only the fifth city in Britain to have a rail network that runs at least partly underground, after London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle. It would be the first since the completion of the Tyne & Wear metro which was opened in the early 1980s.

This article is all spin without substance.  The ‘transport chiefs’ are just a lobby group Cambridge Connect.

Some background.

Professor Lord Robert Mair professor of Geotechincal Engineering (note not Civil or transport engineering) is an expert on tunnelling in soft ground.  For years he has claimed that because Cambridge has soft ground it should have an undergound system.  By the same logic the white cliffs of Dover should be turned into a chalk mine, just because there are limited physical arguments for doing something underground it does not mean there are no practical or economic arguments when considered as a whole.

He helped found Cambridge Connect a Lobby group – their map – not that of any transport consultant – is shown within the Times.

They influenced the conservative group locally – a minority locally but a majority in Cambridgeshire – and so the newly elected Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayor James Palmer who ran on this as part of his ticket.  

He of course has limited powers on transport.  Investment is done by the City Deal, which hitherto had argued the short time horizen of the City Deal ruled out light rail or metros.  They agreed however, as something of a sop to Mr Palmer, that

Cllr Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council and chairman of the City Deal’s executive board, said: “We are having a meeting this week, on this and related issues, set up by the City Deal. We have agreed with board members there will be a comparative study of improvements, including looking at rail links, light rail, and an underground.

“We will be working with the mayor for a high-quality, arm’s-length approach to looking at these options.

“There are issues with tunnelling we need to understand and we need to agree a brief. I expect the mayor and City Deal together will agree a brief for a detailed study. The mayor is clearly committed to this idea.”

This is politely known as kicking something into the long grass as it is inevitable that any independent study will rule it out.

Why is it a bad idea?

Cambridge is small, and has a relatively low population density in its city centre and its centre is not a major office area. Its major tourist sites are all within easy walking distance of each other.  There are no concentrated high density hotel areas.  Underground metros as designed to take people to work in large cities to high density offices centres and tourists between multiple points and attractions.  No city anything like as small as Cambridge, even including its hinterland villages, has an underground metro.

Even if you can tunnel easily you need to get to ground level and here at surface you face a massive concentration of listed and other historic buildings.  Being soft ground if you tunnel close to the surface you risk harm to the buildings, if you dig deep you face the massive cost of getting passengers up and down, let alone the time delays which can make travel by metro uneconomic, especially given the relatively short travel distances in Cambridge.

Professor Mair’s approach is that when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail.  Cambridges transport problem is not one an underground can economically solve.  Its problem is servicing growth areas around its periphery and in new settlements nearby and connecting them to science parks and employment centres like Addenbrooke’s that are scattered.  The solution to this is not underground, as it would have to service a wide area, but a large bang for buck system, like a busway, which is of course what we have and is being proposed for expansion.

The road space is limited for buses in central Cambridge, its biggest problem is finding more space to handle the increase in population and employment.  It needs to make the hard choice in limiting car use in the centre (needed anyway on air quality grounds – as per Oxford) and in providing more bus stops – even if the only choice in some cases is limited loss of open spaces to provide them .  These are common and inevitable hard choices faced by every city developing BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) systems.  Yet in Cambridge every blade of grass in fought over leading to fantasizing over expensive and impractical alternatives.

Apart from China (whose large high density cities justify it) very few underground metro systems have opened internationally since the millenium.  This s because it has now been recognised though dozens of examples, most of which make money rather than requiring public subsidy, that Bus Rapid Transit is a better value investment.

So far theere has not yet been published any proper study into an underground metro any calculation of construction costs, financing ridership or benefit cost ratio.  It is just pretty lines on a map.  The Times quotes the early results of the study cost (2.8 billion  pounds- you won’t get change out of 5 billion when you count the inevitable cost overuns on major projects but tellingly no benefit cost ratio.  How can the cost of 50 busway systems be value for money?

The only two metros for cities with anything like as low as Cambridge I know, Catania in Sicily (250,000) and San Juan in Puerto Rico (395,000) have the lowest riderships of any metros in teh developed world.  Both cities, despite having notoriously long commutes and bad congestion, having failed to invest in buses, only choosing metros as the construction contracts gave more opportunity for gangsters to cream off kickbacks.  Not good examples to follow. Both have been spectacular wastes of public money.

Its proponents argue that its cost and risk of subsidence can be reduced through use of very small tunnels and carriages carrying only 30 or 30 people.  This undermines the capacity argument for metros, 20 or 30 looks like a bus to me, with narrow aircraft like seating and no walkways it would take 5 minutes to load each carriage.  Quicker walking or getting a bus.

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