Tunnels under Cambridge could solve congestion, says expert


Tunnelling under central Cambridge could provide a real solution to some of the city’s growing traffic congestion problems.

Any idea that Cambridge has not got a suitable geology for tunnelling could not be more wrong. It is ideal for tunnelling.

That is the expert view of Professor Lord Robert Mair, Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering and Director of Research at Cambridge University and President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. “An important myth to explode is that Cambridge is inappropriate for tunnelling,” he told a capacity crowd at last week’s Cambridge Network Future of Transport event.

He said that Gault clay, widespread around the city, is ideal for rapid and economic tunnelling. Its stability meant that settlement effects – which could now be predicted accurately – would be minimal, and would therefore not cause undue movement or problems for Cambridge’s historic buildings.

“Any idea that Cambridge has not got a suitable geology for tunnelling could not be more wrong. It is ideal for tunnelling,” he said.

Robert Mair at FoT eventStressing that he was not advocating any specific scheme, he suggested that a 4-metre diameter tunnel could be built rapidly at a cost of roughly £15million per mile.

He cited the Cambridge Affordable Very Rapid Transit (AVRT) feasibility study, led by Professor John Miles of the University’s engineering department. One option proposes electric battery-powered, driverless, rubber tyred vehicles, which could travel both above and below ground. Such a vehicle could accommodate 40 passengers and use a 4m diameter tunnel to connect the city centre with four key points on the outskirts –  the Science Park, West Cambridge site, the airport and the biomedical campus. However, “there are lots of permutations and the opportunity for different routes or vehicles is enormous.”

The total cost for such a scheme, which from his experience would typically take just three or four years to complete, would be in the region of £400 - £800million, including stations, he said. And although applicable to many medium-sized cities, it would be the first of its kind, so Cambridge could lead the world in this.

The Future of Transport event on Thursday – which also featured exhibitors including Tesla, RealVNC, Cordic, Cambridge Connect, Cambridge Cycling, Cambridge Electric Transport and Hubl – was sponsored by AstraZeneca, whose VP of Strategy and Operations, Andy Williams, pointed out that because only 20% of the company’s 2000 personnel live in Cambridge city, its sustainable solution depended on travel hubs and public transport. When the company fully locates to the biomedical campus, he said, “80% will not be travelling in by car.”

The audience also heard from Charlene Rohr of RAND Europe, who outlined RAND’s Travel in Britain in 2035 study and pointed out that autonomous vehicles might increase congestion rather than reducing it. 

Rachel Stopard, CEO of the Greater Cambridge Partnership, said Cambridge’s growth means investment in its infrastructure is needed.

Rachel said the organisation was looking at the viability and feasibility of a rapid transit system, underpinned by smart technology. “Through technology and investment, we think we will be able to help people to make the shift from private car to public transport to reduce congestion,” she said.

Other speakers at the event talked about technologies that could influence transport efficiency. These included autonomous pods, which are already being trialled on Cambridge’s guided busway, as described by Richard Fairchild of RDM, and drones, demonstrated by Nathan Wrench of Cambridge Consultants. He showed a video of the company’s DelivAir concept for last mile delivery, which uniquely delivers parcels to individuals – using smartphone GPS location facilities – rather than physical addresses.

Watch a short video (~10 minutes) from the event, courtesy of Cambridge TV

Watch a Cambridge TV interview with Greater Cambridge Partnership’s Chief Executive Rachel Stopard, read about the event and see the slides from her talk here

See other short interviews from Cambridge TV taken at the event:

Nathan Wrench, Head of Industrial & Energy, Cambridge Consultants

Richard Fairchild, Director of Autonomous Mobility Programmes, RDM Group

Hugh Frost, Managing Director, Hubl


Cambridge Network is a membership organisation based in the vibrant high technology cluster of Cambridge, UK. We bring people together - from business and academia - to meet each other and share ideas, encouraging collaboration and partnership for shared success.

Cambridge Network Limited