Hart of the Matter
Over the years I have attended quite a few pressure group meetings at Haverhill Town Hall, now the arts centre, but none quite so hopelessly utopian, on the face of it, as those of the Cambridge to Sudbury Rail Renewal Association.
Started 15 years ago, the association occasionally seems to produce a puff of steam, but realistically its marathon quest has not even left the station.
Led by its quixotic chairman Malcolm Hill for all that time, the group truly is tilting at the original windmills. Mr Hill is now 81 and, with the best will in the world, can hardly expect to see the railway in his lifetime, so one might be moved to ask why anyone would devote any time to such an apparently lifeless cause.
The answer is that these people believe in it wholeheartedly, almost religiously, as the single most effective way of improving the life of local people.
If one could believe the claim of the group’s secretary and treasurer that the railway would pay for itself within five years, one might think someone would have invested in it. It is tempting to dismiss such talk as pie in the sky. And yet these are knowledgeable people - you might almost say anoraks.
The extraordinary thing is that these people, unlike almost any other similar group, do not represent a minority interest, or something which no one cares about.
Some years ago they started a petition to Parliament for the return of the railway and collected over 11,000 signatures – one of the largest ever – many from Haverhill.
Most local people – even St Edmundsbury Borough Council, we were told last week – are fundamentally in favour of the idea. I once heard a very experienced local politician tell a colleague who was just starting out that if he could get the railway renewal idea moving, voters would re-elect him for life.
So it is not that there is a lack of will. The problem is a lack of belief. Very few people – probably just the members of the railway renewal association – actually believe it could ever happen.
There was a brief spark of hope some years ago at a meeting I attended where the possibility of the line being an alternative to upgrading the Ipswich-Cambridge line as a gateway to the east coast ports was mooted. But it all came to nothing as that upgrading is now going ahead at vast expense.
The reasons why people cannot bring themselves to believe in the return of the railway mostly boil down to money. No one has come up with a serious costing for the project, partly because it is impossible, in that the figures are so high they would change almost from day to day.
I have heard everything from £50million to £250million, which sounded ridiculous enough even before 2008, but in the current economic climate is even more bizarre.
Then there are the engineering problems. Trains can’t go uphill, except very gradually, so everyone points to the A11 and asks how the line could get across it. But it is more complex than that. The railway network south of Cambridge is choc-a-bloc and it is hard to see how a new line could be fitted in.
The alternative, which seems to make a lot of sense, is for a new line to be built across country to link up near Dullingham, which is the closest railway station to Haverhill, eight miles as the crow flies. Trains from Haverhill would then enter Cambridge south-facing and could go direct on to London. But the terrain is more hilly and difficult.
At any rate, everyone is agreed there is no chance of re-instating the old railway line completely. Rural bits of it might come in handy, but a Haverhill station would need to be built on the edge of town – Hanchet End, for instance.
Anyway, unless a philanthropic Haverhill person wins an £85million rollover jackpot and donates £80million on the condition of getting match funding from Government, Europe or both, it is just a fantasy.
And yet... Ten years ago a small congregation at Haverhill’s Roman Catholic Church had no chance at all, it appeared, of realising the long-standing hope of replacing their temporary building with a new church costing the best part of £1million.
By this time next year, that church will be built. So what happened? A miracle? Well, yes and no. The answer, in a word, is Addenbrooke’s. The hospital has grown phenomenally and large numbers of its employees live in Haverhill because it’s cheap. They come from all over the world – Poland, the Phillipines, India, Africa and so on. And many of them are practising Catholics.
The church is bursting at the seams and needs a bigger building, so the congregation has now (almost) raised the required cash.
Addenbrooke’s is currently embarking on an even more massive expansion, from the present 9,000 employees to a projected 17,000. They look like being practising train passengers to me, given the chance. Anybody know a brave venture capitalist?