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