Tuesday 14th December 2021
The winter rail timetable began on Sunday incorporating LNER’s new once a day direct service between Middlesbrough and London; a much improved timetable from GWR on the Severn Beach branch; a new direct hourly shuttle service linking Crosskeys with Newport in South Wales; and the return of Gatwick Express branded trains running on Gatwick Express branded journeys between Brighton, Gatwick Airport and Victoria as opposed to Gatwick Express banded trains running on Southern branded journeys between Brighton, Gatwick Airport and Victoria; but more on these developments in the next blog on Thursday.
Today I’m reporting on my visit to Britain’s newest station which opened yesterday in Soham. It’s located in what used to simply be called Cambridgeshire, but for rations and administration now comes under the more convoluted Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority nomenclature with an elected Mayor too.
The station officially opened on Sunday but engineering works meant no trains ran on the line that day, so yesterday was its first operating day with trains calling.
It’s been quite a tight timetable to deliver the station from receiving approval in June 2020 to enabling works last autumn with the main construction commencing in spring 2021.
Soham is situated five and a half miles south east of Ely and twelve and a half miles north east of Cambridge. The station is on the Peterborough – Ely – Bury-St Edmunds – Ipswich line and reinstates a station for the community which closed in 1965.
The line is single track between Ely and Soham and frustratingly becomes double track on to Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich just beyond the new station rather than at the station itself.
Soham’s population is around 10.500 but it’s a “growing market town with housing and job opportunities increasing quickly” according to the Combined Authority. The Authority has provided all the finance for the station, and that’s meant a lot of finance.
It’s cost a somewhat incredulously eyebrow raising circa £21.8 million to provide ….. a 99 metre (108 yards) single platform (big enough for a four car train) together with “waiting shelters, lighting, information screens and a public address system” according to Network Rail’s inventory list. Bumping up the cost a bit has been a footbridge across the railway to connect to an existing public right of way “which has been designed for any future installation of lifts for a potential second platform for any scheme”.
The station forecourt has a ticket machine, cycle parking and a car park for 50 vehicles. But how on earth has this modest list of facilities added up to over £20 million?
This year’s other new station, a similar one platform affair at Bow Street near Aberystwyth which opened in February was delivered for £8 million, and even that sounded expensive compared to Horden near Hartlepool which opened in June 2020 comprising two platforms and an enormous footbridge and ramps for just £10.5 million – around half the cost of Soham.
I took a trip over to Soham yesterday morning to try and find out how on earth it’s cost so much for what sounds like pretty basic facilities in that description.
The current timetable sees a two-hourly service with eight trains in each direction between 06:49 and 20:51 on Mondays to Saturdays towards Ely and Peterborough (08:38 and 22:34 towards Ipswich) and five departures both ways on Sunday with the first train at 10:43 to Peterborough and not until 12:36 towards Ely.
Greater Anglia had a franchise commitment to increase the service to hourly but where that stands in the new Covid DfT all controlling Direct Award arrangements is unknown. I suspect it won’t be happening any time soon, so for the foreseeable future it’s not a particularly frequent service for Soham residents.
Managing director of Greater Anglia Jamie Burles is on record as saying the train company has the rolling stock and resources ready for the hourly service but infrastructure upgrades are needed including level crossings and some junction improvements before it can happen.
It should be noted the line is well used by freight trains making their way from Flexistowe to the midlands and north, especially now the Werrington dive under is open north of Peterborough so any expansion of passenger trains mustn’t compromise track capacity for these movements.
Stagecoach provide an hourly bus route 12 between Ely, Soham, Newmarket and Cambridge on Mondays to Saturdays wih no Sunday service. Journey time from Ely to Soham is 25 minutes whereas the train takes just seven minutes. However there’s no direct train service from Soham to Newmarket and Cambridge necessitating a change in Bury St Edmunds but the connections are either a tight 3 minutes in one direction or an inconvenient 58 minutes in the other, making the bus the obvious better option for these popular destinations.
I travelled out to Soham catching the train from Peterborough as it passed through Ely at 10:32 arriving into Soham at 10:39.
Quite a crowd had already assembled on arriving as it turned out I’d inadvertently timed it perfectly for the official opening ceremony at 11:00 by the elected Mayor for the Combined Authority.
It was good to see so many locals excited enough at getting their rail station back after 56 years to turn out and mark the occasion.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many media and corporate affairs people including regional TV and radio broadcasters, YouTube vloggers as well as an orange army contingent from contractors Murphy (who built the station) for the opening day of one platform.
I did ask the Murphy gang why it had cost so much to build and although they couldn’t help they did reassure me they hadn’t used gold platted diggers.
It seems it might have something to do with the footbridge, but although it’s certainly a sturdy structure, I can’t see why that’s bumped the price up by so many millions. As said, Horden has an even bigger one and with two lifts too. Mind you I’m not too sure what the point of the footbridge is until that second platform is ever built.
It’s got a long tarmac topped, fenced in, pathway on the south side of the track leading you to the Soham Lode river which must have cost a bob or two ….
…. before it leaves you to wade through the muddy footpath along the river.
I can’t see many people making use of this facility during the winter but I assume it’s enabled a foot crossing over the railway to be closed.
The two shelters and two sets of triple seats on the platform aren’t exactly luxurious so they wouldn’t have added enormously to the bill…
…. indeed, both shelters are rather narrow and offer scant protection from any wind and rain. The bin bag holders are normal issue so it’s not them inflating the finances either.
And the twin ticket machines are standard Greater Anglia fare.
As are the two information displays.
There’s a fair size cycle rack, but again offering minimal weather protection…
…. a large turning circle for drop-offs and pick-ups ….
…. and the car park for fifty cars ….
…. which interestingly was well occupied yesterday making me wonder how many of the people who’d come along to the opening from afar had done so by train.
There’s also a metal container with some smaller yellow ones close by presumably containing ‘gubbins’ of some kind which look like they might have cost a bit to install.
The Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson) performed the ritual unveiling of the plaque as cameras whirled and clicked – after all, he’s the one who’s come up with the £21.8 million, well, strictly speaking his Tory predecessor James Palmer did, until he got ousted in a closely fought election contest back in May, but that’s politics for you….
…. and there was a whole welter of senior Network Rail and Greater Anglia directors present as well as the Deputy Lord Lieutenant for Cambridgeshire to mask the occasion. (Deliberate typo.)
There’s was also a rather nice touch with the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the tragic incident in June 1944 when heroic selfless actions of a fireman and train driver avoided what would have been a major disaster when a munition train passing through the station caught fire. Sadly fireman James Nightail and signalman Frank Bridges were killed but countless others were saved from certain death as the burning carriage was detached from the train. I had a chat with relatives of James who attended including his granddaughter wearing the George Cross which had been posthumously presented to him – it was very poignant.
There was also a nice moment when three local school children were presented with their winning posters to mark the new station opening.
And then the cake was rolled out for everyone to enjoy and not worry about how much the platform had cost to build.
There again, it was notable no-one mentioned the £21.8 million. At all. It was the proverbial elephant at the station opening.
Finally one quirk about Soham is its three letter code used in the National Rail database. It’s been christened SOJ with a number of theories of why the J. It’s because all the other obvious combinations using its letters – SOH. SOA, SOM, SHM have already been taken, as have SOB, SOC, SOE, SOF, SOG and SOI which brings us to SOJ …. I assume SOD was diplomatically avoided. It remains unused.
Next blog: Thursday 16th December 2021
Is travelling to Cambridge via Ely not allowed?
Yes it is allowed, it is the default option. About 17-19 minute connection towards Cambridge, 8-9 minute connection on the way back.
Another link reopened after a gap of 60 years is the Crosskey’s to Newport Service.
When the Ebbw Vale line reopened trains normally only ran to Cardiff although occasion they were diverted to Newport. Mainly when the mainline to Cardiff weas closed due to electrification work on the mainline. Trains will run hourly Monday to Saturday
I assume the trains are only running to Crosskeys due to track capacity as some of the line is single track
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£21.8m. when you think what else it would buy, there is a realisation of ‘we saw you coming’ by Murphy
A development of 54 houses valued at £400,000 each.
or, 73 new EV Buses
or, Funding for the Operation of a two bus service all day, every day for about 72 years.
or, Not quite a Bus Franchising Assessment study in Greater Manchester
or, 21,800,000 Cadbury selection boxes from a leading supermarket.
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“I assume SOD was diplomatically avoided”
I’ve just spluttered cornflakes all over the breakfast table!
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Maybe they’ve factored in the cost of all the extra vinyl, paint, etc, when they need to re-do it with the new ‘GBR style’ branding?
Interesting to see they brought a defective unit with a ‘non-multi’ sticker in the cab window, for such a prestigious event. Are they not laid up enough sat at Crown Point doing nothing to be fixed?
Thanks for asking the awkward question; it’s highly pertinent too, as it’s figures like this that will sink future expansion.
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There has been some talk of trying to reopen the Bishops Stortford to Braintree Branch. A small stump of the line remains in use to serve Stanstead Airport. Reopening the line would provide better rail links to Stanstead from North Essex.
The stations were at Bishops Stortford, Hockerhill Halt , Stane Street Halt, Takeley, Easton Lodge Halt, Dunmow, Felsted , Banister Green Halt, Rayme, Braintree & Bocking. An existing rail line Connects Braintree to the mainline at Witham. Potentially trains could be run from Colchester to Stansted visa Braintree
Most of the old track bed still exists and now forms the Flitch Way a cycling and walking route
Looking at that tarmacked path it looks as if you are entering a high security prison. The station does not look very attractive at all. Surely they could use some more attractive fencing
Why in one of the pictures is there a compound dived up into four sections ?. Did they have some spare fencing to use or is it just to increase costs ?
Why does the line appear to use 4 rails ? or is it they had some spare rails they needed to find somewhere to put them ?
Do they ever consider costs when building these stations as it seems not and consideration of the aesthetics of the design of these stations seem not to be considered neither
£30M for a station that only serves a small town seems to be a lot of money. Given the population they are probably only looking at 10,000 passengers a year about 245 to 30 a day
Always good to see a station reopened, but the cost is ridiculous. But everyone has to have their slice of the pie – so British!
Network Rail, in all its press releases, quotes a figure of £18.6m as the cost of the Soham station reopening project. Although that’s less than the £21.8m mentioned by Roger, it is still a huge amount of money for what is, effectively, a simple four carriage platform. Perhaps it’s just as well the double track section starts beyond the station, as another platform may well have pushed the cost up to £30m!
It’s unfortunate that the service frequency is only two hourly, and also that it’s not possible to travel to the obvious destination of Cambridge without a change at Ely. Nevertheless, there are now many journey opportunities that have opened up for the people of Soham, so let’s hope that passenger numbers justify the very considerable investment.
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Great post! It’s about time that something is done at national level to look into the reason of the mega-high cost of new stations and ways to reduce this as I can’t see too many being built at this price…
In 1973, according to Martin Bairstow’s ‘Railways of Airedale and Wharfedale’ Baildon station was reopened, funded by Bradford Council. It cost £2,500, or £32,500 at current values. Admittedly the platform was already in situ, though disused for nearly 20 years, but Soham cost 646 times as much…..madness. No wonder the Treasury, according to a report in The New Civil Engineer, is trying to stall electrification plans.
It certainly looks like the most expensive station that doesn’t take passengers to where they want to go.
Yes, it’s great that the station has reopened (although the price tag is concerning when there doesn’t appear to be any obvious reason for it to be so expensive), but as the majority of traffic is likely to be to Newmarket and Cambridge then until that chord is rebuilt and direct services reinstated, it is unlikely to fulfil its potential.
Ideally, that would be tied in with reopening the branch to Wisbech, allowing a service from Wisbech – March – Soham – Newmarket – Cambridge.
This compares very unfavourably with recently reopened Okehampton. For twice the price we got a completely re-laid track covering 11 miles, with brand new sleepers and rails, upgraded level crossings, repaired bridges AND a fettled up station.
The miserably narrow Soham platform calls for an urgent review of the accounts. This is more scandalous (to me) that a year old Christmas party in Downing Street, but our media never think to question things like this.
Network Rail states that it wants to open the Snailwell Curve to allow direct running to Cambridge. Perhaps they’re waiting for someone to put up the money, especially as the rest of the libe to Ely really does need doubling and Haughley Junction remodelling. Might Felixstowe Port put in some cash?
Felixstowe has already put up money for relatively minor liner upgrades. A part of the line still remains single track in spite of the high level of traffic on the line. More capacity is needed for both the freight and passenger services
Bulk container traffic is ideal for transport by rail and would remove a lot more lorries from the roads
I guess the big problem will be the crazy price that would be quoted to upgrade the line
Reopening the line from Sudbury to Cambridge would also be sensible
I can’t be the only one who thinks that if the foot crossing was fine for the past however many years surely it would still be fine today – that is a massive and quite ugly bridge
Stagecoach and National Expess to merge
Stagecoach and National Express have formally agreed to merge I assume it still requires shareholders agreement and the regulator could possibly object
“In 1973, according to Martin Bairstow’s ‘Railways of Airedale and Wharfedale’ Baildon station was reopened, funded by Bradford Council. It cost £2,500, or £32,500 at current values. Admittedly the platform was already in situ, though disused for nearly 20 years”
As a very young child, I was at the reopening of Baildon Station which obviously was quite momentous in its day, possibly one of the earliest reopenings?
Martin Bairstow, a family friend, has produced many excellent books on railways in Yorkshire and further afield.
Whilst pleasing to see yet another station re-open, hopefully attracting car drivers rather than passengers from the 12, the cost is beyond absurd.
And if Peter Hendy of all people doesn’t know why it cost that much, questions need to be asked.
How ungrateful of ex-Mayor James Palmer’s constituents not to re-elect him, after spending all that on their Christmas present!
You shouldn’t have mentioned the formal opening, though. We’d have thought the gathered multitudes were your fans Roger, waiting to greet you! Maybe they were?
You can absolutely guarantee that 90% of those people arrived by Car.
Just about sums it up.
Two things come to mind, firstly if the station should have opened on the Sunday, did it receive a replacement bus service that day? Secondly, presumably the contract for the construction of the station was put out to competitive tender, rather than just being given to Murphy on a plate, so there must have been something in the specification that raised the cost to such an astronomical level,
Just like to add a few comments to this very interesting article from my view point as a nearby resident of Soham Railway station.
1. Fencing: awful looking and much of it has not been fixed correctly. It rattles during high wind and a number of uprights have come off.
2. Footbridge: while I appreciate the access given to a public footpath along the river it has meant the closure of the old foot crossing at Spencer Drove. Rather than opening up the area for walking, as claimed that it would it has reduced the possibility walk of circular walks.
3. Car park: a larger area of woodland was removed for the construction of this 50 car park. Other than on the day of opening no more than 4 cars have parked there and since the start of March when charging was supposed to start the car park has been empty.
4. Station Announcements: these boom out across the near by countryside and residential area, when no trains are due. Is it not possible to schedule announcements with train times!