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Cambridge to St. Ives. The Great Eastern Railway's branch line from Cambridge to St. Ives lost its passenger service on 5th October 1970, but survived for freight until 1992. ARC, the aggregate company, was very active in the area, extracting sand and gravel which exist here in huge quantities. In about 1976, this company laid a tarmacced road over the trackbed from St. Ives eastwards to Fen Drayton, so that its 30 ton lorries could use this part of the line as a haul road. However, at Fen Drayton, the sand and gravel were then transferred to rail for onward shipment over the 14 miles of track that remained, joining the Cambridge-Ely line at Chesterton Junction on the northern edge of Cambridge.

After 1992, this traffic ceased and the whole branch settled into a long period of hibernation when it became the domain of locals walking their dogs, plus the occasional explorer of old railways. At this time, the Thatcher government was preparing to privatise the railway industry, and introduced new rules for freight contracts which now had to show a 10% return on capital. This arrangement usually resulted in the price of rail freight contracts shooting skywards so that previously loyal customers abandoned the railway in favour of road transport. Closure of the branch was the usual consequence, as happened with the Chichester to Lavant line in Sussex, which had been kept open by a long-standing contract with Tarmac. We assume that similar circumstances led to the demise of the Cambridge to St. Ives line. (This information is supplied in good faith, but please let us know via our Contact page if any of these details are wrong.)

In February 2007, the long hibernation of the St. Ives branch came to an end with the start of its conversion into a controversial guided busway. This will consist of two pre-cast concrete channels which will 'steer' the buses, so that they require much less clearance than on ordinary roads. Over 100,000 tonnes of concrete will be required, which is enough to cover 70 acres. The cost of the project is quoted as £116.2 million, with central government contributing £92.5 million. It is in the nature of large civil engineering projects to overrun their budgets, so the final cost may be more than this, which has led some commentators to question whether it would have been quicker and cheaper to have simply restored the railway. (Click here for further details.) Further bugbears are that the busway is being installed in order to cope with 47,500 new homes to be built in the Cambridge-St. Ives corridor, while busway technology has not proved an unqualified success where it has been introduced elsewhere, e.g. Germany. However, Cambridgeshire County Council has clearly decided that a busway is the transport of the future, so it is on its way. One benefit is that the busway will be accompanied throughout its length by a new cycle trail, which will give walkers, cyclists and horse riders the opportunity to explore this part of the county. However, until the busway is opened in 2009, the whole route remains a building site and should not be entered.

We offer our thanks to non-members Nigel Callaghan and Steven Parker for supplying us with a good selection of photographs of this old line before it is lost forever (quite literally) beneath a sea of concrete. To see more of Steven's railway work in this area, click here to view his disused railway photos on flickr.com.

Above: The abandoned track at Fen Drayton, where the railway retained a run-round loop. This is where sand and gravel were transferred from ARC's lorries on to railfreight wagons. The lake visible through the trees to the right is artificial, being the result of sand and gravel extraction. Similar artificial lakes occupy many acres in this area. March 2007. (Steven Parker)

 
Above: 'What a waste.' This is what happens to an old railway if it is totally neglected for nearly 15 years. It is extraordinary that the St. Ives branch remained abandoned for so long. What were the local authorities and the railway thinking of? March 2007. (Steven Parker)
 
Above: In the midst of all the dereliction, it was extraordinary to find a new post and wire fence! – a post and wire fence, moreover, with an old railway box van behind it. We assume that the box van was purchased by a local farmer for use as a store. However, the black marks on the metalwork reveal that arsonists set light to it, thereby destroying all of the wooden components. April 2007. (Steven Parker)
 
Above: The railway viaduct over the River Great Ouse was situated between Swavesey and St. Ives. As can be seen, this part of the line accommodated ARC's haul road. The strength of the viaduct was tested prior to work starting on the guided busway, but it was found lacking. At the time this picture was taken, the spans were due to be removed and replaced by pre-cast concrete structures. Note that tree-felling had already started in order to make the site safe for the cranes that would soon be working here. April 2007. (Steven Parker)
 

Above: A close-up of the main span of the Great Ouse Viaduct, in rather better lighting conditions than before. As can be seen, the local graffiti artists, presumably from St. Ives, have been at work. April 2007. (Steven Parker)

 
Lowering one of the spans from the Great Ouse Viaduct
Above: Goodbye to 131 years of railway history. On 3rd August 2007, one of the two wrought iron spans from the Great Ouse Viaduct is lifted out by a Sarens crane. Seeing the hardware deployed here, it is easy to appreciate why the busway project is going to cost over £116 million. Each span weighed 100 tonnes, but the crane was capable of lifting 1,000 tonnes. Despite the rather grainy quality, this image is so unusual that it was considered worth including; we presume that it was taken on a mobile phone. (Nigel Callaghan) Amazingly, our other photographer was there as well – move mouse over picture to view the scene a few minutes later. After lifting, both bridges were left on site to be cut up for scrap. (Steven Parker)
  
Above: Histon station, seen here, was the first stop on the St. Ives branch out of Cambridge. Despite its long term preservation by a local landowner, it was expected that this building would have to be demolished to make way for the busway. However, in autumn 2007, it was announced that the station would be saved. It is rather curious that it is now painted in Southern green and cream; for many years, it had sported British Rail's corporate identity of black and white. Believed to date from Autumn 2006. (Nigel Callaghan)
  
Above: Most of Histon station and its outbuildings were in reasonable condition, including the little gate-keeper's cabin, seen here complete with its chimney. The cabin has been removed pending re-erection when construction work on the busway is finished. Having been a refuge of tranquillity for 15 years, Histon was besieged by contractors in autumn 2007. 'The busway cometh.' Believed to date from Autumn 2006. (Nigel Callaghan)