Although the railways are often seen as a Victorian invention, the first commercial railways began under the reign of William IV. Indeed, it was his Consort, Queen Adelaide, who had the first Royal Railway carriage built for her. Adelaide, famously, gave her name to the eponymous city in Australia but, less well known is the tiny hamlet of Queen Adelaide in Cambridgeshire, just a mile and a half to the northeast of Ely. Today it is the location of Ely North Junction.
The junctions at Ely are a notorious bottleneck on the UK network. To the south lies the City of Cambridge, with a growing commuter catchment. To the north, services to Birmingham, Kings Lynn and Norwich divide in their respective directions at Ely North Junction and there are ambitions to increase the frequency of services on all three routes. The routes to Lynn and Norwich approach the junction by first combining into a ‘single lead’, limiting capacity. All have been the focus of campaigning by the group Railfuture which also supports the need to increase capacity for freight.
The problem for freight is that Ely also lies on the main Felixstowe to the Midlands and North strategic freight route. The location of Felixstowe on the main shipping routes from east Asia to the main European ports makes it a prime destination for shipping containers bound for the UK to be offloaded. Many of these are then transported to the Midlands and North but only a proportion of these go by rail due to the capacity constraints at Ely. Works to improve capacity will involve replacing level crossings and also replacing two rail bridges, currently the subject of permanent speed restrictions, also constraining the flow of freight.
Freight from Felixstowe approaches Ely from the southeast and must cross the paths of other services in order to continue to the North-West. On its way from Felixstowe, it must also negotiate another ‘single lead’ junction at Haughley, north of Stowmarket on the Great Eastern Mainline. This too requires replacement. The line out of Felixstowe itself, following recent improvements at both Ipswich and Felixstowe, can take 48 trains per day in each direction. But of these, only 38 can run until capacity is improved at Ely and Haughley, the rest go by road!
The approach to Ely from Soham is another constraint that will eventually need tackling, being a single line for about 5 miles. Proposals to double this line have been around since 1947, ten years before the invention of the shipping container! Work was almost about to start on this section until it was shelved under the ‘Hendy Review’ in 2015.
The immediate priority however is the junctions at Ely and Haughley. They have the backing of MPs, County and District Councils, The Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authority and four Sub National Transport Bodies in England and Transport Scotland. They were the main focal point of Transport East’s State of Rail in the East report, launched in the Houses of Parliament on 28th February. Development work has already been undertaken but waits on the Treasury and the Department of Transport to move to the next stage of the investment pipeline.