Oxford and Cambridge, at least, are ideal candidates for growth in every way but one: they are almost uniquely constrained in transport. If current plans succeed, more transport demand will inevitably pour into them. Yet their roads are already at or near capacity, and their historic centres are inviolable. So what’s the answer? New roadbuilding is impossible; gone are the days when plans could be drawn up for a highway through Christ Church Meadow. A tunnelled metro, suggested by some for Cambridge, would also be destructive, disruptive and prohibitively expensive, would take a decade or more to deliver and would not serve most of the journeys that people will need to make. In the centres of these cities, especially Oxford, there isn’t even much room for more buses.
One far simpler, cheaper, quicker and less obtrusive answer is staring Oxford and Cambridge in the face, even as they commission studies into busways, light rail and the like.
At the suggestion of the new Greater Cambridgeshire mayor, James Palmer, a study has beenlaunched into building tunnels beneath Cambridge for light rail, buses or the untried concept of
“affordable very rapid transit” using bored tunnels only 12 feet wide. Another option, according to the published brief, is a monorail.68
105. It is fair to say that all those I discussed this with were sceptical about it. Indeed, tunnelled light rail should perhaps be seen as a way of avoiding the actual issues rather than addressing them. It is sometimes cited as a magic alternative to politically difficult subjects such as traffic reduction, but it is not a realistic answer and it will not deal with Cambridge’s problems.
106. Even if the Fenland soil allows it, any tunnelled project would be colossally expensive, disruptive and destructive; nearly all tunnelling requires the demolition of some buildings on the surface. At 2017
prices the closest comparable UK tunnelled project, a recent extension of the Docklands Light Railway, cost around £150 million a mile;69 the most recent surface scheme, in Edinburgh, around £115 million a
mile.70 These sums exclude operating costs; any scheme in Cambridgeshire would need sizeable ongoing subsidies, since the population of the area is much lower than in any other place given a light rail system
in the UK and not high enough to cover its operating cost through fares.
107. It would take too long to deliver; Edinburgh took 11 years from approval to opening, and six years
to build, for less than nine miles of (surface) route. In a city developing as a series of hubs, any rail project would be overly focused on journeys to the city centre (though orbital routes are also suggested).
108. Most importantly, it is unneccessary. Cambridge is a small place. It already has an affordable rapid transit system which could be expanded much more easily, cheaply, quickly and usefully: the bicycle.