Stations galore and electrification, oh my!

February 22nd, 2015

It’s almost certainly because there’s an election coming, but a lot of announcements have appeared in the local media about rail improvements in the Cambridge area. Some are vague promises or very early stage investigations, and some are a bit more concrete.

Let’s start with stuff that’s actually happening right now.

Cambridge station area redevelopment (aka CB1): this is now in full swing. The old police station, the Swiss Laundry, the various buildings in the carpark (the CityRoomz Hotel and Station Cycles) and quite a lot of the old carpark have now been knocked down and torn up. Work has started on the hotel/cycle park building, (which is adjacent to platform 5, occupying what was partly carpark and partly the police station, and the new office/retail building One Station Square is being built where the old short term carpark was. In the mean time, we have a hodgepodge of pedestrian and cycle routes through the remaining carpark and through part of what will become the new access road. I’ve got to say that I’m very disappointed by the way that Brookgate, the developers, have totally failed to engage local people or rail users with what’s going on. Their website is mostly marketing material, and there’s no project timeline or progress blog anywhere. Even worse, big changes have been made to road layouts, cycle parking, car park and pedestrian and cycle routes at very short notice with only quite perfunctory laminated signage. Other works are going on inside the station, but Abellio Greater Anglia and Network Rail are giving out little or no information either. There is supposed to be a larger ticket hall and various changes to the passenger flow through the building, but nothing appears to be published about exactly what will be changed and when.

Cambridge Science Park station: the access road and busway works are due to wrap up pretty soon. The County Council’s project page gives a few details about the project, though mostly concentrates on the access issues. They seem to be very slow to publish the minutes of their liaison meetings, and again there’s no project progress website. The latest news comes from the local paper, with a story saying that the project has been put back by six months, with completion now ready for the December 2016 timetable change. The actual details of rail services to the new station are still “to be decided”, though the “probable service” included the London-King’s Lynn trains, the Stansted-Birmingham, Cambridge-Norwich and the Liverpool St stopping services. I note that the Melbourn, Shepreth & Foxton Rail User Group have been told that “from 2018 our stopping service will terminate at the new station”. 2018 is the year that the stopping service becomes a Thameslink service to Tattenham Corner in Surrey (via central and south London), so it seems likely that the new station’s bay platform will be used for terminating at least one of the two Thameslink train services. Nothing has yet been said about the other Thameslink service from Cambridge to Brighton via Gatwick – that may yet remain at the main station.

East West Rail: the Oxford to Bicester section is nearly finished, with trains due to start running to Oxford Parkway in September. Following a rejig of the trackwork and signalling north of Oxford station, trains will run through to Oxford from the May 2016 timetable change. The construction website is rather poor on progress reporting, but it does make an effort to keep local residents informed about road and path closures and the like. The Bicester-Bletchley section is still at the stage of investigating the state of the existing infrastructure and ecology, but there are now site compounds set up and much more of the trackbed has been cleared. Trains are due to run on this section from March 2019, though only the Oxford-Bletchley section will be electrified at this stage. This might mean an Oxford-MK electric service connecting with the existing Marston Vale Line service to Bedford until the electrification reaches Bedford.

Several new-ish ideas have been firmed up somewhat by an announcement by David Cameron in Cambridge last week. These are:

  • exploring the case to electrify the Felixstowe to Birmingham railway line, launching a new competition for the new East Anglia franchise, considering reviving the Wisbech-March-Ely line and welcoming £260m new private investment at Felixstowe Port
  • government will also extend the study already underway of the East-West Rail (Bedford to Cambridge) to explore the options for the Eastern section of the line and consider the possibility of a new station south of Cambridge at the new Addenbrookes campus. Specifically the study will consider how East West Rail could connect Oxford with Ipswich and Norwich.
  • a “task force” to look into ways of improving the Cambridge-Liverpool Street line, which is currently at capacity.

So, all this points in the direction of improvements in infrastructure and services. Electrification of freight routes to the major ports has been on the agenda for a while, but there are lots of potential passenger benefits from the Felixstowe-Birmingham upgrade. First and foremost it would mean that the line from Cambridge to Peterborough via March is electrified, and that almost certainly will allow for a better passenger service on that route. If completed, it would give Cambridge an all-electric route to the ECML northbound, and also to the soon-to-be electrified Midland Main Line at Leicester and West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton. This gives the potential for electric inter-regional services.

The Wisbech reopening campaign gets useful endorsement here, which is encouraging – and given it’s actually a pretty short branch from March this would again make sense for electrification at reopening if the wires are already going to reach March.

The Felixstowe electrification would also mean that the Ely-Ipswich line would be electrified, and since the Newmarket-Cambridge section is an obvious “infill job” it seems likely that Cambridgeshire and Suffolk will be much better connected with faster electric trains.

The East West Rail announcement is interesting, too – this reads to me like the existing paper studies will be re-run to look at ways of providing more benefit to Norwich and Ipswich. The existing report notes that the top demand for journeys of an hour or so is actually Cambridge-Northampton, and no journeys from Ipswich or Norwich make the “priority journey” rankings. If the study is re-run assuming that the Cambridge-Ipswich and Cambridge-Norwich lines can be upgraded (with higher linespeeds and electrification), it may bring them more into scope. An interesting exploratory report from Network Rail has already mooted the idea of a Norwich-Cambridge-London service which would operate along the same lines as the King’s Lynn service – using the existing hourly fast service from London to Cambridge, with a front portion that continues to Norwich. If this connects well with the eventual Cambridge-Reading service, Norwich gains a second fast route to London and connections across the whole of southern England.

I’m pleased to see that an Addenbrooke’s station has been formally “considered”, too – the County Council have it in their development plans, and the land has been reserved for it in the present development. It should help take pressure off the main station, provide a better service for the new housing in Trumpington and people in South Cambs, and probably also presents a nice opportunity to enhance Cambridge’s southern rail approaches. At the moment, the two lines from London converge at the confusingly-named “Shepreth Branch Junction” just north of Great Shelford. The four tracks briefly become three, and then merge down to two (an unusual case of where facing points on running lines have been used in place of a double junction – this is unusual because it’s considered less safe, as a train could end up routed down the “wrong line” into a head-on collision, though the interlocking should prevent it). Just north of Long Road, the line becomes three tracks again to approach the station. A new station at Addenbrooke’s is likely to cause a bottleneck if it was just built as-is (especially given the increased services once Thameslink starts, and even more so if the East West Rail route ends up being via Royston and Hitchin as seems most likely to my mind), so it seems likely that the whole area would be remodelled, with the two main lines becoming four parallel tracks as far as Addenbrooke’s, and then three or four tracks from there to Cambridge. This allows fast trains to pass slow ones and gives a lot more resilience.

Just to mention the Liverpool St line – it currently feels like the poor relation compared with the King’s Cross route, because the Cambridge services stop everywhere, with no real fast service. The line’s actually completely maxed out in the Lea Valley south of Bishop’s Stortford, not least because the Stansted Express is using a lot of the available paths. There are all sorts of ideas about how to solve this, a lot of which are expensive and involve trying to widen an existing two-track railway into four, which will take a long time to happen. There seems to be some traction around the ideas though, so it may well happen.

What are universities for?

February 16th, 2015

I have been riding a bit of a hobbyhorse about the shortcomings of universities (particularly those in the UK, I’ve less experience of those elsewhere in the world) for a good few years, but it’s taken me a while to settle it into anything like a coherent argument until recently. So, here goes…

What are universities for? I think we might traditionally argue that they are about the pursuit of knowledge, and the distribution of that knowledge to wider society – both via teaching, and via outreach, consulting, spin-off companies, research collaborations, media appearances, expert witnessing and all the other ways that practicing academics share their knowledge with others. They have their origins in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, and the lecture, with one person speaking andh students taking notes, was originally the only cheap way by which books could be copied: the lecturer dictated from the original, and the students wrote it down. Of course, lecturers took to sharing their margin notes and other thoughts and this evolved into teaching.

But what are they really for? My suggestion is that the 21st century British university is in the business of the pursuit and distribution of reputation rather than knowledge. Let’s unpack that. As an undergraduate student, I apply to study a subject at university partly because of my intrinsic interest in the subject, and partly because I hope very much that having a university degree will help me to get a job. In fact, I choose to apply to the University of Somewhere Famous, because I know that having a degree from U. Famous enhances my reputation much more than a degree from U. Nowheresville would ever do. The admissions tutor eyes my application with a view to deciding whether I, the prospective student, am likely to enhance the reputation of the university in the short, medium and long term. If so, they award me a place. Having worked to complete the course, and hopefully learned something about the subject and some transferable skills along the way, I leave the university with my BSomething from U. Famous, and find that indeed, the borrowed reputation of the university helps to open doors. Once I begin my paid work, the reputation transfer starts to go back the other way – my career helps to enhance the reputation of U. Famous, especially if I go on to be a Notable Alumnus. But even in a graduate level job, the positive experience of my colleagues and managers of my skills and knowledge shapes their impression of U. Famous, and thus I start to pay back the reputation that was loaned to me on my degree certificate.

Of course, universities also undertake postgraduate study and research, but I would argue that these, too, are now about the pursuit of reputation. PhD students are the indentured apprentices of academic research, undertaking much tedious gruntwork on behalf of their supervisors whilst being paid relatively little, and all because of the pursuit of the reputation that a U. Famous PhD will bring them. The lucky few will enjoy the experience, and the majority will feel that it was probably worth all the sleepless nights, frustration and despair in the end (you can tell that I’m a little bitter about my PhD!). But the transition to postgraduate study makes the reputational transaction more complex – if the research results in published papers, that enhances the university’s reputation as being a centre for research (and, in the UK, can directly influence the amount of funding it receives). The new doctor that leaves and seeks a job outside academia benefits from the university’s reputation, and the reputation of the institution of the PhD itself, in their new career, and again repays that reputation to the university as their career progresses.

For those that stay to be post-docs, and those appointed to be faculty, it has become ever more clear that their role is to enhance their personal reputation, and that of their group, department and university, as quickly and effectively as possible. This means bringing in more and larger research grants, publishing more and more peer-reviewed papers, and (perhaps also) speaking in public or in the media where they will of course be credited as “Dr X from U. Famous”. The actual research outcomes matter not – in fact, the overwhelming majority of academic research is in obscure and niche fields specifically so that they can ensure ease of publication. Generating reputation allows the university to enhance its income through sponsorships and donations, build nicer facilities, attract better undergraduates, and (in many places) charge higher fees. There are several cases now where academics have been sacked for failing to generate sufficient grant income – that is, failing to enhance the reputation of their institution sufficiently quickly – and so the idea of the pursuit and sharing of knowledge plays very much second fiddle to climbing the reputational greasy pole. The deepest irony is that the pursuit of research reputation often means that the best and brightest researchers can ill afford time to teach the undergrads and supervise the postgrads who come expecting to benefit from their knowledge, experience and reputation.

I should also briefly mention that the plight of the post-doctoral researchers, caught on short term contracts with very little job security and precious little hope of being appointed to a permanent role. Most university departments give menial jobs to post-docs (writing and indeed printing and stapling lecture notes for a professor, in the case of a friend of mine) because it looks better to employ more post-docs than it does to employ proper support staff (or to pay for the university’s own support departments on the internal market). The universities exploit the need for post-docs to continue working in their field for the sake of their own personal reputation in order to swell the reputation of the university itself.

So, what’s to be done? I might suggest that we break apart the “teaching” and “research” aspects of universities into separate but closely-linked institutions. The teaching institution concentrates on undergraduates, and employs those who primarily enjoy teaching. The research institution undertakes research and employs researchers. There will be those who enjoy both, and they are primarily employed by one institution and have part of their time bought out by the other. The management and funding structures are separated, so that neither aspect can be crowded out by the other. On the research side, I would end the pursuit of heavily metric-based management of research, and ensure that research institutions have a steady flow of basic funding to pursue “national capability” research, with project grants awarded on top. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t think the present situation is sustainable for too much longer. Universities need to be freed from the pursuit of reputation to re-focus on sharing knowledge with wider society.