Night Freight Trains through Cambridge?


A guest post from campaign group Cambridge Approaches.


The East West Rail (EWR) project is planned to connect Oxford to Cambridge and then on to the east coast or Haven ports. Part of the project near Oxford has already been constructed but the Central Section between Bedford and Cambridge is currently being designed. EWR Co. took a decision to approach Cambridge from the south, rather than the north, and various route alignments are being prepared for a public consultation in early 2021. The Eastern Section, eastwards from Cambridge, is still in the very early planning stages.

Campaign groups Cambridge Approaches and CamBedRailRoad, have joined forces and are calling for alternative approach options to be considered. We believe that the current approach is misguided and will result in massive amounts of noise from freight trains in central Cambridge, potentially at night.



Reliable information points to significant freight train use on the EWR route between the east coast Haven ports (including Felixstowe) and Cambridge through to Bedford and Oxford.

The Network Rail report into routeing of rail freight forecasts1 shows that about 50 freight trains (all types) per day could use EWR in 2043. This assumes that the route will be electrified (which is not yet certain) and significant capacity upgrades including a new chord where EWR connects with the West Coast Main Line at Bletchley. The Cambridge to Newmarket single track line would also need upgrading to realise this capacity. 

At opening of the EWR in 2025, we estimate that freight demand would be about 20 – 30 freight trains (all types) per day based on England’s Economic Heartland report.2 This would also require capacity upgrade of the Cambridge to Newmarket line.

The EWR Consortium who are, in contrast to the EWR Company, responsible for delivering the EWR east of Cambridge have recently signed a contract with rail consultants Steer. In the draft tender documents, EWR Consortium have stated:

East West Rail presents a huge opportunity to become a secondary freight route, enabling more services to bypass congested London routes currently used to get to the South West, Midlands and the North. It also presents an opportunity to move aggregates for the development of new housing and nationally significant projects, such as Sizewell C.3

Even EWR Company have confirmed that the route will be freight capable in responses to our specific questions on this. It is possible that spent fuel rods from Sizewell C nuclear power station will use the route on the way to Sellafield.


Cambridge Approaches think this is likely.

While it is not possible to be definitive about exact numbers of night-time freight trains, we think that it would not be feasible to run the forecast number of freight trains during the day with the projected passenger timetable of about 4 EWR trains per hour into and out of Cambridge, especially using the freight figures for 2043 (see above). 

This scenario is endorsed by the England’s Economic Heartland report referred to above (p.67) which states: “However, there is a risk that capacity for freight trains, in terms of daytime timetable slots, will be limited.”

This has been further verbally confirmed by Ian Parker, EWR Co.’s Operations Director, who said that passenger and freight rail traffic do not mix well together.


Yes: with a southerly approach into Cambridge, there are no feasible alternative routes for EWR freight trains going towards Felixstowe – see sketch maps below.

East West Rail indicative route map
Cambridge area map, showing key rail lines

Cambridge City could potentially ban all night-time freight trains from central Cambridge. While this would alleviate the potential night-time noise issue, the huge environmental opportunity of maximising the reduction in road freight would be missed. The Department for Transport’s Rail Freight Strategy states that each tonne of freight transported by rail reduces carbon emissions by 76% compared to road (as of 2016).4

The obvious alternative would be a northern approach into Cambridge. This would allow freight trains to avoid passing through Cambridge Central station. There are several options possible, some entirely avoiding the built-up areas of Cambridge and others that join the existing Cambridge to Newmarket line via a new chord on a corner of Coldham’s Common. All could be routed to pass close to new housing developments, such as Northstowe, which could be designed to minimise the impact of noise on residents. Such options could be partly located in existing road corridors and so reduce the overall environmental impact.


We urge EWR Co. to undertake a fair assessment of, and public consultation on, northern approaches into Cambridge. 


1 NR Report – Routeing of Rail Freight Forecasts Aug 20 p.16
2 EEH report Freight Study Jun 19 p.64
3 EWR Consortium draft SOBC invitation to bid p.8
4 Williams Rail Review – Rail in the future transport system May 19 p.12

The publication of this post by Mill Road Bridges should not be considered an endorsement of the views of campaign groups Cambridge Approaches and CamBedRailRoad. Neither should this statement be read as one of opposition to their views. Our mission is to facilitate information and debates about all matters affecting Cambridge’s Mill Road. This post is open for (polite) comments.