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What does transport secretary Chris Grayling’s rail shake-up mean for Norwich and Ipswich?

PUBLISHED: 16:56 06 December 2016 | UPDATED: 16:56 06 December 2016

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

JONATHAN BRADY

What has been announced?

Transport secretary Chris Grayling is setting up a new body - East West Rail - which he hopes will speed up the development of the rail link from Cambridge to Oxford. The idea is that the body would raise money, build and operate the routes – effectively by-passing Network Rail. It is a similar idea to Crossrail - the body set up to build new rail links across London.

What happens at the moment?
The railways are run by two distinct bodies. The train operators - private companies like Abellio and Govia - who are in charge of the actual trains and who we tend to deal with on a day to day basis for tickets, complaints and at the station.

Network Rail - a public body funded by the Department for Transport - is in charge of infrastructure like tracks and signals.

Didn’t we have a line from Cambridge to Oxford before?

Yes, the line from Cambridge to Oxford was closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s – although much of the route survived as branch lines or freight routes.

So why can’t Network Rail built and East West Rail link?

The infrastructure body’s woes have been well documented. It had to announce that it wouldn’t be able to do everything it had previously planned to do before 2019. Part of the Oxford to Cambridge line was delayed, along with projects like Ely Junction.
Cabinet office minister and Ipswich MP Ben Gummer says the problem has been that Network Rail never seems to have regarded the Oxford to Cambridge link as a priority. They had done all they could to slow things down without actually pulling the plug on it.

But why will the new body be different?

It is hoped that the new body will be able to work with the private sector, such as developers who will benefit from the infrastructure and have the finances. It’s main job will be to look for the vast sums of money needed.

George Freeman, Mid Norfolk MP and chairman of the prime minister’s policy forum, said the fragmentation of train and track had led to a lack of joined up service planning.

He wants to emulate the Victorians with a new type of “Rail Partnership” to reinvest the profits from development into new infrastructure.

So what has been done on this project?

The project is split into three sections - Western, Central and Eastern.

The first bit of the Western section is almost done and trains will start operating between Oxford and Bicester to Marylebone next month.

What is still to be done?

A lot. The second phase of the Western section involves upgrading and re-instating lines and infrastructure between the key stations between Oxford and Bedford, It was initially thought that the whole of the Western section would be done by 2019 and was in Network Rail’s original plans, but amid the delays announced last year it was pushed back to 2022 and 2024.

The Chancellor announced £177m in his Autumn Statement for the link to be built as far as the HS2 line.

The central section - Bedford to Cambridgeshire - is the most costly and difficult part of the route and expected to cost about £2bn because the former railway between the two places has been dismantled and the land has been sold.

What about Norwich and Ipswich?
Cambridge into East Anglia is the final “Eastern” section of the plan. A study - due to be published early next year - is looking at the benefits of enhancing existing rail services along existing routes.

But this section of the route is not going to be under the auspices of the new East West body. Train operators Abellio and Govia have been awarded new franchises reasonably recently.

But Mr Freeman said he would be pushing to get the new development partnership extended to Norwich, so it could benefit from the model too.

New trains which are being introduced in East Anglia from 2018 will be “hybrid” powered by either electricity from overhead wires or diesel motors.

Ipswich MP Ben Gummer hopes that the opening of the route will create long-distance travel opportunities.

He said: “We could have trains running from Ipswich and Norwich through Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford to Bristol. It would create an Arc of Prosperity around London. They would be express trains like the Cross-Country services that already exist.”

What will happen once the line is built? Will it be a private rail line?

A decision has not been made about what will happen once the line has been built. It could go back to the old model. It will be up to the new East West body to come up with possible options.

So will this speed up Ely Junction - the key junction between Norwich and Cambridge which will improve frequency between King’s Lynn and Norwich?
It doesn’t look likely at the moment. The DfT confirmed that the East West Rail body would only go as far as Cambridge under the current plans, so Network Rail is still responsible for Ely Junction at the moment.

Is this the only part of the announcement?

No. Transport secretary Chris Grayling has also called for Network Rail and train operators to be better coordinated. He wants the two to form joint teams for upgrade work.

What do Grayling’s political opponents say?

Andy McDonald MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, said he is worried about inviting private train companies to take responsibility for safety critical repairs and maintenance, warning: “We don’t want to see a return to the bad old days of Railtrack, where underinvestment and a poor safety record led to passengers being put at risk.”

Jenny Randerson, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, agreed there was a need for private investment.

But she said she was concerned that it could be the start of cherry picking easier routes for privatisation in a network which has to be integrated.

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