For the second year running, I was invited to speak at the Suffolk Rail Conference which is a really effective form of campaigning by the council and a variety of other local ‘stakeholders’ to boost the case for better services in the region.
Suffolk – and indeed East Anglia generally – is a region which does not have the railway it deserves. The services are relatively slow and infrequent partly as a result of the local history of the railways which were built in the 19th century by penurious companies that always skimped and were often close to bankruptcy. That may have been fine for when East Anglia was a relatively poor and sparsely populated region but it is something of a boom area today with Cambridge and Felixstowe both becoming increasingly important in their different ways and therefore the railways are in need of investment to both support that growth and provide a further boost to it.
A key demand of the campaign to improve Suffolk railways is London – Norwich in 90 minutes which is hardly ambitious for a 115 mile trip. Indeed, the fastest trains can almost achieve that at the moment but the problem is capacity, particularly south of Colchester where a two track railway is inadequate for the competing demands of commuter and intercity passengers. However, with possibly £200m required for a ‘dynamic loop’ at the southern end, and the need to cut out some of the level crossings that require permanent speed restrictions, the 90 minute target – which would mean 60 minutes for Ipswich – may cost as much as £600m if it were to be met regularly rather than just for the occasional train.
There is no shortage of other issues in the region. The Port of Felixstowe is now a major rail user, having increased its daily trains to 30 each way per day but further expansion is hampered by the fact that it is connected to the rest of the network by single track. There has long been a scheme to double the line but a row between the port and the Department for Transport stymied it. Essentially, this centred on the fact that the company which owned the port was happy to pay for the improvements provided its rivals such as Southampton and Tilbury had to do the same in relation to their rail links. Years of deadlock ensued, as those other ports’ rail improvements were paid for by central government. Now, at last, I was assured by Andrew Harston, the Port’s development director, who also spoke at the conference, a way is being found to double track the line.
One disappointment is that the clear demand for hourly trains between Ipswich and Peterborough cannot be met because there is simply not enough rolling stock available, as Ruud Haket, Managing Director of Greater Anglia stressed. Indeed, Haket warned of a nationwide shortage of diesel units since manufacturers are now reluctant to make any – and rolling stock companies equally unwilling to fund them – because of the overall move towards electrification. This, actually, is a much wider issue and ripe for discussion in this column in the future. There may be a point where electrification has to be speeded up simply because of the lack of alternative rolling stock but then there is a serious capacity issue since the UK is hardly geared up for such a programme given the previous reluctance to electrify lines.
I asked the organisers of the conference if much progress had been made since last year. They were frustrated that much was on hold because of the short term franchise which is now being let. Indeed, they were worried that the delayed letting of the permanent franchise, not due to start until the autumn of 2016, will mean that there will not be sufficient time to have the new rolling stock in place when the current trains, which are not compliant with disability legislation, need to be replaced. (That incidentally is a tragedy – it seems the scheme to refurbish the fabulous Mark 3s and use powerful new Traxx locomotives, which I wrote about in Rail 709, is not being properly considered which is be a lost opportunity of keeping the best rolling stock on the tracks).
Nevertheless, Suffolk’s clever campaigning may well bear fruit. The conference was attended by Stephen Hammond, the minister for rail, as well as the very pro rail local MP, Ben Gummer. Hammond’s very presence made it clear that the government is serious about supporting rail in the region and Karen Letten, the project franchise director, who spoke after the minister also made it clear that the Department is committed to a step change improvement in rail services in the area. The conference also attracted lots of favourable publicity in the local media and it is surprising that other areas do not try this sort of tactic more often, as a way of galvanising support for rail. There is often a really strong groundswell for better services, and this type of event is a way of ensuring that local support is well focussed.
I was struck by what a difference campaigning can make. There was a presentation at the conference by Patrick O’Sullivan who for the last seven years has worked for the East West Rail Consortium. This is a pretty amazing success story and one which surprised O’Sullivan himself who for a long time thought that the scheme would never be realised. Then suddenly, the mood within government changed and the line between Oxford and Bedford will now be completed within the next Network Rail Control Period and O’Sullivan is optimistic that the goal of reaching Cambridge, which involves some 20 miles of new railway, will be achieved.
The success of the East West lobbying is a credit, too, to Railfuture (of which I am honorary president) which has undertaken campaigns like this around the country, many of which have proved to be successful. It is not always possible to predict which ones come to fruition either – who would, for example, have ever thought that the London Orbital route, proposed by a relatively small group of campaigners, would now be a reality with trains from my local station, Highbury & Islington going in both directions to Clapham Junction! So the lesson for 2014 is that, like those forward-looking councillors in Suffolk and elsewhere in East Anglia, keep on making a noise and working up good cases for rail investments.
As an aside, and this is the season of goodwill, a word of commendation for Greater Anglia’s on board catering. This was about a third (or possibly even more) cheaper than the fare offered on Great Western and there was a plentiful selection of food. It was really excellent value compared with other on-train food and, indeed, compared favourably with the food available at stations.