Home Page Serious thoughts on a passenger link seem to be miles away 09/12/11

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

I never thought the day would come when I would be forced to admit that Suffolk County Council were taking one of Haverhill’s most important issues more seriously than Haverhill Town Council.


In general the rule holds good in local government that the further away the authority is based the lower down you come in its priority list. Thus, although we have traditionally felt, probably a bit unfairly in recent years, that Haverhill has low priority in the corridors of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, that is nothing to the invisibility the town achieves at Endeavour House in Ipswich.


Hardly a week goes by but there is some list of awards, or grants or provisions being made by Suffolk County Council, or achievements of Suffolk youngsters through the council’s efforts, and you scan it vainly for any mention of Haverhill or anyone who comes from here.


Meanwhile Haverhill Town Council goes on taking up the slack of the bigger authorities and trying to provide the best it can for Haverhill residents – and does a pretty good job, too, most people think.


However, when it comes to the bigger picture, I was surprised to find a very different contrast between the two authorities.


Suffolk County Council’s portfolio holder for transport, Cllr Guy McGregor, has been quoted as saying the council is ‘seriously considering’ proposals for a large-scale passenger link between Haverhill and Cambridge. This might be a form of railway or it might be a ‘guided bus’ along the lines of the St Ives-Cambridge one, which opened in August, years late, at a cost of nearly £200m, double the original estimate.


Furthermore, Haverhill’s former MP Tim Yeo has been quoted as saying Haverhill should have a rail link in the light of the expected growth of Addenbrooke’s Hospital.


Haverhill’s current MP Matthew Hancock has even raised the issue with the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, as part of the cross-country rail link the Government is proposing between Oxford and Bedford.


One theory is that this could be continued to Cambridge and then via Haverhill to Harwich and the east coast ports, because freight would be crucial to viability.


This is all very air-fairy, castles-in-the-air sort of talk, but it shows that the problem has been flagged up at very high levels, more so than the many more parochial issues which obsess Haverhill’s representatives locally.


That tiny band of Quixotic enthusiasts who make up the Cambridge to Sudbury Rail Renewal Association see this as encouraging.


But they also met Haverhill town mayor, who expressed an interest in what they do, and they offered to make a presentation to Haverhill Town Council about progress to date – and remember that includes a 12,000-signature petition in 2004, handed in to Parliament, one of the biggest ever.


As yet, no invite to make that presentation has been forthcoming. In the intervening time there have been all sorts of presentations made to the town council about everything from executive housing to fencing for a football pitch – all very worthy and important in their way.


But I don’t think there is a more important issue than this one, because everything else stems from it and relates to it - shopping, health, jobs, facilities and economic wellbeing.


I remember one seasoned councillor telling Richard Spring, when he was a new MP for Haverhill, to look into the railway idea. "If you can deliver that they’ll elect you for ever,” he said.


You may think it is barmy, but what harm could it do for councillors to hear from people who actually know about the effectiveness of all forms of mass-passenger transport and their cost, being keen enough – some might say nerdy enough - to read about and experience them in all parts of the world, and some of whom have actually worked on them?


The world is changing. Someone made a very valid point to me the other day. They had been forced by circumstances to use the bus service from Haverhill to Cambridge regularly for a few weeks – a bus service which is pretty regular, it has to be said, and, I believe, one of only four in the region that makes a profit.


He said the problem is that it is completely dead time. You cannot do anything while travelling because it lurches around so much it is difficult even to read, let alone write or type. On a train, however, you can use your travelling time for important work, and that is crucial for today’s busy people.


We’ll see how the guided bus progresses through its teething difficulties, and also how it copes with the winter weather. But even if the idea was used for the Haverhill-Cambridge link, it would probably just use the road like a normal bus until it gets close to the city, and that, by then, will be totally obsolete.


The cost of creating an actual guided busway all the way to Haverhill is probably as great, if not greater than a railway, without any of the benefits. For once, it seems, the bigger authorities do at least seem to be looking in the right direction.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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