Pre Metro’s Charlie Merrell argues the case for Very Light Rail is the correct solution for March and Wisbech

We believe that the introduction of a bidirectional light rail route between Wisbech and March is an exciting and necessary solution for Fenwick’s transport needs, with the utilisation of Very Light Rail (VLR) to provide passenger services being one of the most feasible railway restoration projects currently under consideration. VLR will be able to serve both communities, decrease congestion, and allow greater accessibility to Cambridge.

Wisbech is one of the largest market towns in Fenwick with more commuters travelling into the town than out, despite being amongst the 20 largest towns in England not to have a train station. This proposed route would seek to change this by restoring the 8-mile Bramley Branch Line between Wisbech and March. This route would also connect the 30,000 people living in Wisbech with the railway network and simply introducing a new station in the town would generate patronage demands, with 9,000 people living within one kilometre of the station.

Mott MacDonald’s ‘March to Wisbech Transport Corridor Full Business Case’ Report (2020) helps to establish the need for an effective transport solution. It states that: ‘Wisbech typifies the disconnect in the economic performance of north and south Cambridgeshire. North Cambridgeshire’s economy and particularly Fenland District (in which both March and Wisbech are located) underperforms on key economic indicators compared to CPCA and national averages. The greater Cambridge area, in contrast, has grown into a highly successful city region where economic success, high quality of life and quality of place are inextricably linked.’

The 2011 census found that 43 per cent of residents were in jobs that are generally associated with lower wages, such as plant and machine operatives, compared to the averages of 29 per cent in the Fenland region and 18 per cent across England. A new railway link can establish greater access to higher-skilled job opportunities across the region. Without this link, the most likely outcome for those residents seeking high wages is to either move away or commute long distances via car. Growing Fenland’s Wisbech: Market Town Masterplan (2020) stated that a 45-minute link to Cambridge would increase employment and allow people working in Cambridge to access more affordable housing.

Improved access to Wisbech also supports the Combined Authority and Fenland District Council’s ambitions of substantial growth of the market town via a major dedicated urban extension, known as Wisbech Garden Town (WGT). This development plans to introduce 12,000 new homes in the town and establish multiple employment sites in the south of Wisbech. Very Light Rail could not only innovate local public transport provision within Fenwick but also introduce new employment opportunities and manufacturing industries.

The nearby market town of March faces a different problem. Whilst March has its own railway station, a 2020 report by the local council discovered the very high volume of traffic and personal vehicle use was becoming a public health hazard. For example, the 2018 twelve-month average concentration of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) on March’s Broad Street was 39.59 μg/m3, pushing the European Union’s legal limit of 40 μg/m3. The utilisation of innovative, green, and clean VLR technology will support the improvement of air quality in March and enable commuters to ditch their car in favour of a lightweight, light rail solution. March received £2 million as Market Towns Programme Funding and the Government’s Future High Streets Fund awarded the town £6.4 million to overhaul and improve the city centre. Collective funding for these high street and traffic improvements totals £8.4 million.

The local Council will use this money to redevelop the town centre’s vacant buildings, make hospitality and retail much more attractive, and redesign the traffic flow through the centre by encouraging walking, cycling, and local activities. The introduction of a connection with Wisbech would support these developments by reducing traffic congestion, improving local air quality, facilitating interregional tourism, and generating an economic and employment boost that would support both current and future developments and innovations within the city.

It can be expected that the first regions and towns to adopt Very Light Rail technology will be able to establish manufacturing hubs for the export of this new development. The Black Country’s newly opened Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre and the proposed Coventry Very Light Rail scheme are prime examples of this.

The route itself could utilise the track and nearby depots at Waldersea or introduce one at Coldham for VLR engineering and development. The route then acts as a test bed for future innovations within the space and supports any eventual extension of the service onto Cambridge once patronage demands increase. This improves regional connectivity and supports the provision of future Light Rail schemes and services put forward by the Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA).

Landmark projects such as the Revolution VLR; a sustainable, lightweight system which provides a modern, attractive, and cost-effective solution for rural-to-urban connectivity, could also support the provision of this project, with the restoration of the Bramley Branch demonstrating the untapped potential of rural-to-urban VLR as a sustainable solution to the nation’s various connectivity needs, alongside its capability to support urbanised growth and create an exportable light rail industry within Britain.

Thus, we believe Very Light Rail is the most appropriate form of transport to reopen the March to Wisbech route, with the existing mothballed track able to be redeveloped and utilised in the short term, and a bidirectional service providing an easy-access, affordable and scalable solution.

The suggestion that heavy rail services ought to be prioritised for this route discards the reality that VLR is more economic in terms of CAPEX and OPEX, VLR offers greater potential for regional transport innovations, and VLR offers a faster and more convenient solution in a short-term time frame focused on patronage growth and clean, green connectivity.

 

Charlie Merrell is Marketing And Public Relations Specialist at Pre Metro