Hopes boosted for the reopening of the Wisbech line

Wisbech line
Image caption There are fresh hope for the restoration of the Wisbech line

Whitehall, it seems, now realises that rural parts of the country have been neglected when it comes to spending on infrastructure.

The latest transport route in the region to be declared by a minister to be a "strategic priority" is the eight-mile branch line that used to run between Wisbech and March in the Cambridgeshire Fens.

Closed to passengers in 1968, it has been the focus of a long-running campaign to restore the line.

After listening to a presentation by local business leaders and politicians, Stephen Hammond, the transport minister, told them: "I recognise that reopening this line is considered a strategic priority."

Welcome words indeed to those who attended the summit and who left with a spring in their step.

"This is something I've worked for for years and for the first time in a long career I suddenly have realised that something is going to happen," said Alan Melton, the leader of Fenland District Council.

"The difference (if the line were reopened) would be phenomenal. Growth in Cambridgeshire is so unbalanced at the moment: it's all focused around the south and west of the county. What we're looking for is to get some of that growth into the north."

Mr Hammond told them that he was always impressed when politicians and business groups worked together on an infrastructure project. He also revealed that the success of the Norwich in 90 campaign (to speed up rail services to London) had led to what he called "a re-prioritisation of transport schemes".

Local growth

"I'm sensing there is more of an enthusiasm to see money invested in schemes which local people believe will drive local growth," said Graham Nix from the Local Enterprise Partnership.

"We really need this rail line. We have two of the fastest-growing cities in the country in Peterborough and Cambridge, so getting connectivity to places like Wisbech, so we can get people to those centres of employment, is really important."

The argument goes that if the line was re-connected to the Ely to Peterborough route it would suddenly make it easier for people to travel from the growing town of Wisbech to the rest of Cambridgeshire. The journey time to Peterborough would be halved and Cambridge could be reached within 40 minutes.

The cost of the project has gone up considerably, from the initial estimate of £12m to between £35m and £52m but the minister was told that the route could still be profitable. As many as 78,000 people would be expected to make the journey from Wisbech to Peterborough.

Jonathan Denby from train operator Greater Anglia said that past experience suggested that once a new line was open passenger numbers were always much higher than original estimates.

"The track is already there, the land is available there so we can move quickly on this," said Stephen Barclay, the MP for North East Cambridgeshire who organised the summit.

"Work on the line wouldn't interfere with other parts of the network. People in Wisbech have been waiting a very long time for this scheme to go ahead and I believe now is the time to deliver on it."

The next stage will be trying to get funding for the scheme. The first wave could come later this year, courtesy of the regional growth fund. After that there would need to be more feasibility studies and a lot more money.

No one will say that it's full steam ahead but the plans for the Wisbech link do finally appear to be out of the sidings.