Wisbech to March light rail signalled in ‘levelling up’ bid by Mayor   

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson at Shippea Hill

In September, Mayor Dr Nik Johnson stopped off at Shippea Hill - a previous holder of the least-used railway station. He described it as a 'hidden gem'. - Credit: Dr Nik Johnson

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson could substitute the pipe dream of a £200m rail link between March and Wisbech with a cut-price revolutionary light rail system.  

The mayor has already shown his ruthless approach to prohibitively expensive transport schemes after abandoning his predecessor James Palmer’s £1.5-£4bn Cam Metro project.  

Now, in a new paper drafted for the Combined Authority board which he leads, Dr Johnson has afforded a glimpse into his ‘levelling up’ thinking. 

Rowland Potter, his head of transport, says that a refreshed transport strategy “should focus on areas of greater need such as Fenland and Peterborough”. 

These, he says, “have a historic legacy of underinvestment and greater productivity and connectivity gaps”. 

Mr Potter says despite costs incurred on the One CAM scheme – now to be written off – its work has highlighted some benefits.  

“The One CAM work to date has, nevertheless, demonstrated the potential for innovative Mass Rapid Transit and similar models to transform mobility in the area,” he says.  

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“This learning is important and remains applicable.  

“Officers have been exploring more innovative approaches to transport delivery, some examples of which exist in the West Midlands, and these ideas will be reflected in the Local Transport and Connectivity Plan (LTCP).” 

Although Dr Johnson has declined to comment on projects being trialled in the West Midlands, he has been there since being elected and will be aware of, for example, of the work being undertaken in Coventry.  

Late last month Coventry City Council brought together Warwick University boffins to showcase what is described as an ‘affordable very light trail track’ to revolutionise urban travel.  

Coventry believes the ‘very light rail’ will transform public transport in the city and is suitable for “smaller and medium sized towns and cities, enabling the next generation of clean, green transport”. 

Abandoning current proposals for a March-Wisbech rail line and substituting a light rail option, would almost certainly sound the death knell for a mega incinerator for Wisbech.  

Without a freight link to carry waste – that a new rail connection would allow – it is unlikely an incinerator could remain viable by simply relying on roads for waste delivery.  

If Mayor Johnson opts to sanction a light touch rail link locally, he would almost certainly look to the Wisbech to March connection where a route already exists.  

If successful it could become a pilot for places such as Cambridge and Peterborough city centre and suburbs.  

Mr Potter says Combined Authority policies will reflect “the effects of Covid-19, and the need to avoid a predominantly car-based recovery during the establishment of the ‘new normal’”. 

Once a new LCTP is published it will set out “challenging, but achievable, objectives” which the public will be invited to comment upon prior to approval in the spring.   

Mayor Johnson is determined lessons will be learned from the abandoned CAM project to deliver innovation. 

Mr Potter’s summary includes demand responsive transport, bus rapid transit/mass rapid transit where appropriate.  

And light rail/very light rail consideration “where geographically appropriate” is high on the agenda.  

Mr Potter will tell the Combined Authority board that the projected cost of One CAM was very high and was anchored in a funding strategy not yet identified. 

It was partly reliant on housing growth “not within current or anticipated local plans”. 

Andy Burnham in Cambridge.

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson hosting a visit this summer to Cambridge by metro mayor Andy Burnham from Manchester. The visit has been reciprocated. Transport was a key topic of conversation. - Credit: Dr Nik Johnson

He says: "There is no Government financial support for the CAM programme and emerging policy is directed towards more immediate interventions in future travel planning, such as active travel and zero-carbon buses.”  

The focus currently, he says, is heavily skewed towards the Greater Cambridge geography “which already benefits from significant proposed investment from the City Deal; and  

"The transport strategy should focus on areas of greater need such as Fenland and Peterborough which have a historic legacy of underinvestment and greater productivity and connectivity gaps”. 

Mr Potter says Mayor Johnson was working on an overarching principle. 

And that is that “those currently deprived of a public transport solution have a provision that is safe, reliable and affordable, wherever they are in the region”.