Home Page We may be a footnote, but it may also be a foot in the door 27/03/15

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Hart of the Matter

Among all the competing news items during the past week it has been easy to overlook the publication of the Suffolk Rail Prospectus – a prestigious looking document that pulls together the aims for improvement of Suffolk’s rail services, as the county council sees it.

There have been conferences and public consultations which have fed into this documents, along with meetings with the rail operators and the Government minister responsible.

Ho ho, I thought, this will make entertaining reading. And in many ways it does fulfil my predictions that Haverhill would be little more than a footnote. But that is not the whole story.

Most of the document is concerned, of course, with the rail network. A lot of space is devoted to how services can be improved on the main line between Norwich and London, on the Ipswich-Peterborough line or on numerous other smaller lines which carry people and freight across country.

There is some worthy stuff about the main stations, the market town stations and the rural stations. But then there is a piece about towns with no station at all. Haverhill, of course, features here, along with Mildenhall, Aldburgh, Leiston, Hadleigh, etc, although there is no real acknowledgment that Haverhill is more than twice the size of any of the others and therefore, one would think, a more urgent case.

The document champions the idea of a rail-bus for both Haverhill and Mildenhall. This is a bus entirely dedicated to carrying train passengers from the town to a nearby railway station. It would have a timetable dovetailing with rail services, and passengers would be able to buy their rail ticket on the bus.

In theory this is an attractive idea, and it would certainly be a major step forward. In the case of Mildenhall the bus would presumably go to either the Bury or Newmarket stations, which is quite a short journey, and probably not too difficult to regulate.

However, anyone who travels on the current Haverhill to Cambridge service knows how variable its timekeeping can sometimes be – and that is no fault of the bus operator. The A1307 is an unpredictable corridor.

A dedicated bus lane would help to ensure that the 18-mile journey could be covered quickly and to time, and a complete dualling of the road, which has already been mooted, would also help.

Hopefully, it won’t be Suffolk County Council which has the final say in creating this rail-bus, because the rail prospectus betrays only the vaguest familiarity with the geography west of Haverhill.

Apart from the assumption that a rail-bus would operate from Haverhill to Cambridge station, which would not necessarily be the most efficient, it also comments on the ‘close proximity’ of Haverhill to Great Chesterford station.

I don’t know if you have ever driven to Great Chesterford station, but I have, in the days when it used to be a restaurant, and it is a fair old trek.

This puzzled me to begin with, but I think they probably mean Great Shelford, which was where the old railway line from Haverhill used to join on, and has always been seen as the place where any renewed one would also join.

Because, believe it or not, the rail prospectus does mention renewal of the Haverhill rail link. Having said that the proximity to Great Chesterford means there should be some sort of link, it says that Suffolk County Council is mindful of the campaign to provide one. They have heard of it!

Not only that, but they go on to state, in black and white (or blue and white, actually) that this remains ‘a long-term aim’. Well, I’ll go to the bottom of our stairs, as we used to say.

I don’t suppose this means they expect it to happen within the lifetime of anyone over 50, but at least it’s there – and that is important in these matters.

More important would be to see some reference to it in an equivalent document for Cambridgeshire, or some sort of acknowledgment that Network Rail had been made aware of it.

In the end, with the best will in the world, Suffolk County Council is probably not going to be able even to enable a rail-bus service from Haverhill to Cambridge on its own. It will be down to Cambridgeshire, who would address the Cambridge to London main line, into which the rail-bus would need to feed.

A rail-bus to Bury or Newmarket from Haverhill is not much good. One to Sudbury would be more useful if only the road was not so appalling. Much more sensible would be one to Whittlesford because, if nothing else, it could relieve the massive parking pressure there.

But that would only work if the bus goes at the times people require – and that could be anywhere from 5am going to 11pm coming back. Is that going to be commercially viable?

Because in the end, the main point of a rail link for Haverhill, would be to make it easier for townspeople to commute to London or Stansted to work. Of course, it would be nice to have a commuter train, or better bus service, to Cambridge for people who work there. That would free up the A1307 a bit, if it went at the right times.

But that isn’t a rail-bus, because no one would actually need to get on a train. So we are talking about links further afield than Cambridge, and for that, Whittlesford or Audley End are more convenient. Perhaps a bus could shuttle between Whittlesford and Audley End via Haverhill, making it more viable.

It would be nice to think we might live to see that.

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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