Greater Anglia boss shares plans for connectivity improvement with MPs and business leaders at Norwich event
Norfolk MPs have welcomed news from the county’s biggest rail operator that it is orchestrating a multi-million pound revamp of connectivity on its trains.
A meeting of businesses and MPs heard Greater Anglia is investing £38m in upgrading Wifi and mobile connectivity in its carriages – with knock-on effects expected for nearby residents.
Speaking at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce MPs event in Norwich on Friday, the company’s managing director Jamie Burles also spoke about the company’s plans to replace more than 1,000 carriages – the largest ever full-fleet replacement in the UK.
Mr Burles said Greater Anglia would be installing new mobile phone masts along its railway lines to improve mobile signal and is negotiating with BT to improve the Wifi connections in its stations. Both initiatives, he said, would benefit both railway customers and those living near the lines and stations.
He was speaking on a panel with West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham, North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, and Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman.
While acknowledging Abellio’s “great work in the region”, Mr Freeman raised questions about the future of Norfolk’s more neglected stations – including Attleborough in his constituency – which he said could act as “big gateways onto the rail network” if developed.
Mr Burles said money had become available for such projects through a housing development dividend, with local areas able to bid for funding to renovate their stations.
He added that the Ely North junction remained the biggest priority for the franchise to open up the region’s railways.
The debate on transport and infrastructure, chaired by BBC political correspondent Carole Walker, also saw questions on the future of the A47, which businesses and MPs felt would continue to hold back the region’s development until it is dualled.
Sir Henry Bellingham said improving the A47 was crucial to retaining “the brightest and the best” entrepreneurs in Norfolk.
Mr Freeman argued steps had been made with the Department for Transport and Highways England towards the dualling, but maintaining pressure was key.
“I do not think Highways England are urgent enough and do not share our priorities enough,” he added.
East Anglia and the “digital economy”
The importance of improving Norfolk’s broadband and mobile connectivity was on the agenda at the MPs event.
North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb believed there was a “growing rural divide” in the county with regard to connectivity, preventing businesses from operating in “the most remote locations”.
“It has the potential to be an economic boost to our county but if we do not have connectivity we will fall behind.”
George Freeman, Mid Norfolk MP, said the final 5-10pc of households in the UK without super-fast broadband connectivity made up a disproportionate amount of constituents in Norfolk and Suffolk.
South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon added: “Quoting the stats to people who are living in that bottom 5pc does not help.”
Mr Freeman, who is on the Prime Minister’s policy board, said the “digitisation of the economy” was at the top of the agenda and suggested businesses and local politicians work together with MPs to create a business plan “to show what a digital East Anglia would look like”.