Underground tunnels and a 24-hour service – inside the plans for Cambs’ metro

New technology for the metro and the wider ambition to take routes beyond the greater Cambridge area requires a more joined-up approach, the mayor has said.

Mayor James Palmer, the leader of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, is proposing a separate company to carry on the development of the Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro (CAM).

In a wide-ranging interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Palmer outlined his argument for a single company to deliver the CAM strategy, suggested his request to join the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) looks unlikely to be accepted, and said it is the 2029 in his 2023-2029 delivery timeline that people should focus on.

At the August 5 meeting of the Combined Authority executive board, leaders from councils across the county will be asked to approve the establishment of a “Special Purpose Vehicle” – a company “which will provide the dedicated resource and focus needed to deliver a programme of the scale and complexity of the CAM”.

The mayor says a separate company will deliver on his vision of a “one CAM” approach, warning against a “fragmented” alternative. He argues his desire to take the routes beyond the greater Cambridge area, to run a 24-hour system and develop innovative technology all require a single approach and a plan for the wider network before construction can begin.

The mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Conservative James Palmer
(Image: Richard Marsham)

Latest report on technology ‘proves ability to deliver’

Potential metro routes have been the source of public clashes between the Combined Authority and GCP.

The GCP has proposed a number of routes around Cambridge, which could be constructed and act as off-road busway routes in just a few years, which, it says, can be connected with and converted into the early phases of the metro, should it go ahead.

The GCP has funding for its routes and in some cases significant design work, but it has paused its Cambourne to Cambridge route following a public spat with the mayor, who questioned its compatibility with his own plans.

The mayor has no such financial guarantees for his own plan, and has released no specifics publicly of where exactly his routes could run.

A new paper from the Combined Authority’s CAM Technical Advisory Committee suggests the cost of the project could be more than halved – from more than £4billion to less than £2billion – by using smaller vehicles.

Mr Palmer said that has “proved that we have the ability to deliver world class public transport in Cambridgeshire including tunnels under Cambridge, and the costs associated here are game-changing”.

The Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro would see underground tunnels connect parts of Cambridge
(Image: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority)

But even if costs hit the lowest estimate currently on the table, even though Mr Palmer claims he has a plan for funding it, the funding is not guaranteed in the same way as the GCP’s plans are at this moment in time.

Asked if his plans for “one CAM” risk the county ending up with nothing, the mayor said: “No, because we are able to put in public transport systems in the interim anyway as I proved with the Cambourne to Cambridge new buses, so it isn’t an all or nothing, but what it is is it shows an ambition for Cambridgeshire that has not been met before.”

‘There’s no phases of CAM. You deliver CAM or you don’t deliver CAM’

He insists he is “more confident than ever” his vision will be achieved, and described routes built that do not fit in with a wider strategy as “fools gold”.

He added: “It has become very apparent that in order to deliver this world-level transport system we need to set up a special purpose vehicle to do so.

“We have looked at other systems and how they have been developed, of this significant size – and this is the largest public transport scheme that has ever been attempted outside of London in the UK by local government – and it’s become very clear that unless you look at the system as a one CAM system, unless you bring in world-level experts to deliver it, it’s going to be fragmented and it’s not going to happen.”

Explaining “one CAM,” he said: “What one CAM is about is trying to make sure that the public are aware of what we are delivering here, and the government are aware what we are delivering here is a transport system for Cambridgeshire.

“And I think that people look at the tunnels and think that we are building an underground for Cambridge.

It will go underground in some parts.
(Image: Natalie Harmer)

“Because we are going under Cambridge doesn’t necessarily mean we are building an underground for Cambridge. Cambridge isn’t very big, it doesn’t need a full underground system, what it needs is a transport solution that takes people from having to travel by car around the city, and sometimes through the city, so they have a public transport system that avoids that and gets people off the roads.

“So the thing is what the CAM will achieve is levelling up of Cambridgeshire.

“It will mean if you live in the Fens or Huntingdonshire your ability to take advantage of the Cambridge phenomenon will be absolute because the transport system will be so successful.”

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He said the routes and tunnels will not solve the problem without being joined up.

“They are much less likely to be effective,” he added.

“You have got to have an approach where it is one system rather than breaking it down. You often hear people talking about phases of CAM, there’s no phases of CAM. You deliver CAM or you don’t deliver CAM.”

No estimated start date

A scheme like the CAM is “over and above” what local authorities are used to creating, the mayor said, and a bespoke solution requires a bespoke delivery body.

“If you look at examples of how major schemes are delivered, like HS2, the London Olympic games, or the Elizabeth Line, all of these are delivered using a special purpose vehicle, which is set up and brings in people of world-renowned experience of delivering schemes which are similar to – not the same as – what we are trying to achieve with the CAM. You can only do that if you look at it as one CAM, rather than fragmented,” he said.

He said it has been a “journey” from a process started in 2017, and that it is now in a position, following the latest work from the Technical Advisory Committee, where the plan is “so innovative, so groundbreaking and so exciting it demands a one CAM model”.

Plans are being drawn up for a Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro which would operate across the county and under Cambridge
(Image: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority)

He said a system such as the latest proposal of autonomous smaller vehicles – “which is going to lead the world in public transport” – and the learning acquired along the way through each phase of development so far has led to the conclusion of a need for a delivery body with “one vision”.

He said the GCP will still be able to deliver parts of the network, but “they have to be done to allow us to deliver the CAM beyond that and as I said it’s why that’s important that we work very closely to make sure that happens”.

He added: “It will obviously be phased if there were bits that were built, but it has to be built with a complete focus on a joined up scheme.”

The GCP has already said that the Cambourne to Cambridge route – which is supposed to form part of the first phase of the metro – is “unlikely” to be delivered by 2024 following the mayor’s intervention. The mayor says the GCP stopped that work, not him, despite a number of comments he made and even a suggestion he would dig up the GCP’s Cambourne to Cambridge route.

Asked when construction could start on routes under his vision, the mayor couldn’t say. “The delivery of the metro is 2023 to 2029. I think the most important thing is the 2029 and that we don’t go beyond that,” he said.

Offer to join GCP not accepted

He said the disconnect between the two authorities is “not necessarily” the GCP’s fault, because “the GCP are working to the area that was given to them by government”.

Ultimately the mayor is pushing for a change in governance structure in the county for a more joined up approach, but in a letter from the minister for regional growth and local government, Simon Clarke, which was revealed by the Ely Standard on July 21, the government said new powers will be conditional on addressing concerns over governance and deliverability inside his own authority, and urged better relations with the GCP.

Since receiving that letter, but before it was revealed in the press, the mayor wrote an open letter of his own to the new chairman of the GCP, fellow Conservative Roger Hickford, asking to join the GCP’s executive board.

The ticket hall in one of the proposed stations.
(Image: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority)

Asked if he will be joining the GCP, he said: “At the moment I don’t think it is [going to happen], but we will continue to work closely with the new chairman.”

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