The Anonymous Widower

Is Cambridge University Being Pragmatic About The East West Rail Link?

I must admit, I was a bit surprised, when it was announced in this article in Global Rail News, that the East West Rail Link would go via Sandy between Bedford and Cambridge. This is said.

Network Rail has selected the Bedford-Sandy-Cambridge corridor as its preferred route for the Central Section of the East West Rail project.

The preferred route was chosen from 20 options and will now be developed further with a view to producing a ‘line on a map’ route in May.

They also show this map.

East West Rail Link

East West Rail Link

Various other articles suggest that the route will also be via Bourne Airfield and Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

I have traced the old route of the Varsity Line and very little seems to have been built on the route of the old line. Much too, seems to be on flat Cambridgeshire farmland and farmers are usually easily persuaded by alternative and profitable land uses.

The big problem is the old line is used as the track for the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory‘s Ryle Telescope. I’ve heard several times from astronomers in Cambridge was that it is very important and it was the major reason, why the railway line couldn’t be rebuilt on the old track-bed.

I do wonder, if Cambridge University values a direct link to Oxford highly and that as the Ryle Telescope is getting quite old, that it is better value to move it to allow the railway to be built.

A Quick Look At The Route

I’m starting at the Cambridge end and going East, as that is the area I know better.

The Varsity Line In Cambridge

This Google Map shows how the old Varsity Line connected to Cambridge station.

The Varsity Line In Cambridge

The Varsity Line In Cambridge

Note how the M11 curves to the West of Cambridge. You will notice, that there is a sandy coloured line going West from the motorway, which starts at the second blue market by the kite-shaped field, that identifies the road on the map. This is the disused trackbed of the Varsity Line and after passing under the motorway, through some housing in a cutting and under another road, it turns North to join the main Cambridge to London Rail Line.

Cambridge station is in the North-East corner of the map.

Cambridge Station

This Google Map shows Cambridge station and the rail lines going South from the station.

CambridgeStationAndThe VarsityLine

Note how after going under the bridge at the South End of Cambridge station, the main rail line goes off in a southerly direction pass the sports ground and then under the A1134.

Branching off from this rail line and going slightly to the West, there appears to be a second rail line. This is the trackbed of the Varsity Line, which has been converted into the Cambridge Guided Busway.

Cambridge station is a very busy station and has recently been upgraded with a long pair of island platforms and it is going to get even busier with Cambridge North station opening soon and Thameslink services due to call in a few years time.

The opening of Cambridge North station, may ease access to Cambridge station, as those living in or to the North of Cambridge, will be able to use the second station.

Addenbrooke’s Hospital

I have believed for many years, that there needs to be a Cambridge South station at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. This is the view of many in Cambridge and the surrounding areas.

This Google Map shows Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the land to the West.


In addition to being a large general hospital, Addenbrooke’s is surrounded by major research institutions as the map shows.

It is generally sited to the East of the main railway line between Cambridge and London, which runs North-South down the map, with Cambridge station to the North and the junction where the Cambridge Line to Hitchin and the West Anglia Main Line divide just off the map to the South. The diagonal line to the South-West corner of the map, is the route of the Varsity Line, which has been partially reused for the Cambridge Guided Busway.

But there appears to be plenty of space to build a station for the hospital, which would be on both the main line and the East West Rail Link.

There is scope and space on this site to create a truly world-class station.

  • It would serve the hospital.
  • It would provide services on the West Anglia Main Line to London, Cambridge, Cambridge North, Ely, Kings Lynn and Stansted Airport.
  • Thameslink would provide services to all parts of London and many places in the South like Gatwick Airport.
  • The East West Rail Link would provide services to Bedford, Ipswich, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Oxford and Reading.
  • Cross country services would call, but would passengers use the East West Rail Link and a change at Beford or Milton Keynes?
  • Would the station be connected to Haverhill and Sudbury, by reopening the Stour Valley Railway? This would give Essex good access to the East West Rail Link.

I think that a truly bold station will take the pressure of the current Cambridge station, which is squeezed into the centre of the city.


The Mullard Observatory

The next section West of Cambridge and the M11 is currently the Mullard Observatory.

This Google Map shows the area.

Mullard Observatory

Mullard Observatory

The telescopes seem to be clustered to the north of the track in a triangular grouping around the middle. They used to be strung out along the line. So perhaps, the astronomers don’t need it any more, as their research has moved in a different direction.

Bourne And Gamlingay

From the Observatory, the old line is more or less intact and it curves to the South of Bourne Golf Club and through the village of Gamlingay, which used to have a station. An industrial estate has been built on the trackbed.

A more northerly route could also be taken, if it was desired to have a station to serve Cambourne.

There is certainly a lot of open countryside and a couple of sizeable villages, that could benefit from a station.


The line then goes on to Potton, where this Google Map shows the village, which had a station.



The green scar of the line can be seen, as it curves around the North-West of the village. I wonder if York House was the station.



After Potton, the line goes through the countryside to Sandy, where the old Varsity Line came alongside the East Coast Main Line through Sandy station, before crossing the main line.

This Google Map shows the area.

Sandy, The East Coast Main Line And The Varsity Line

Sandy, The East Coast Main Line And The Varsity Line

Sandy station is towards the top of the map and you can just see how the old line curves around the headquarters of the RSPB.

One possibility in this area, is that there are proposals for a Sandy-Beeston by-pass on the A1, to remove a bottleneck. Surely, if the routes of the by-pass and the railway were considered together, planners might come up with a superior solution.


The original route went via stations at Blunham, Willington and Bedford St. Johns and it still shows on the Google Map.

This Google Map shows the route as it joins the East West Rail Link at Bedford St. Johns station, which is on the Marston Vale Line, which is being incorporated into the East West Rail Link, to form the link between Bedford and Bletchley.

Bedford St Johns Station And The East West Rail Link

Bedford St Johns Station And The East West Rail Link

Note the green scar going between the bus garage (?) and the retail warehouses to the East. This was the old Varsity Line to Sandy.

If it were to be connected directly to the Marston Vale Line as it originally used to be, not all traffic would need to go to Bedford station.


I have some questions.

  1. How many of the old stations at Gamlingay, Potton, Blunham and Willington will be rebuilt?
  2. Will a more northerly alternative route from the Mullard Observatory to Sandy be better?
  3. Will there be a station at Sandy to link the East West Rail Link to the East Coast Main Line?
  4. Will a route be safeguarded to reopen the Stour Valley Line to Haverhill and Sudbury in the future?

Hopefully, these and other questions will be answered, when the definitive route is published.


After writing this, I’m surprised how much of the original line can be reinstated.

Certain factors have helped.

  • The desire of Cambridge to have a station at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
  • A change in direction of the research at the Mullard Observatory or a pragmatic attitude on the part of the University.
  • The need to build a bypass on the A1 at Sandy and Beeston.
  • The ability to thread the railway through Bedford to link up with the Marston Vale Line.

I doubt there’ll be too much demolition of domestic properties or opposition to the route.

I also think, it will be pretty easy to build, as there don’t appear to be many bridges and viaducts.



March 30, 2016 - Posted by | Transport | , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] the last one being the route of the section between Bedford and Cambridge, that I talked about in Is Cambridge University Being Pragmatic About The East West Rail Link?, was published in March […]

    Pingback by Sometimes You Win Slow « The Anonymous Widower | September 8, 2016 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.