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What does the future hold for Norfolk and Suffolk’s train services?

PUBLISHED: 11:13 23 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:00 23 October 2015

EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Claire Perry, Rail Minister, Department for Transport at the launch of Virgin Trains East Coast at Londons Kings Cross station. PRESS ASSOCIATION

EDITORIAL USE ONLY Claire Perry, Rail Minister, Department for Transport at the launch of Virgin Trains East Coast at Londons Kings Cross station. PRESS ASSOCIATION

All this week we’ve been looking at how well the region’s train services are performing. But what does the future hold? David Powles reports.

Andy Newman byline photograph
Photo: Bill Smith
Copy: Andy Newman
For: Archant
Archant © 2009
01603 772434Andy Newman byline photograph Photo: Bill Smith Copy: Andy Newman For: Archant Archant © 2009 01603 772434

It seems clear our train services need to improve. So what happens next?

In terms of the main service for this region, the Greater Anglia network, we are at a crossroads. The nine-year franchise to run the service from October 2016 is up for tender and three bidders have made it on to the shortlist.

They have until next summer to convince the government they have what it takes to successfully transport 354,000 passengers a day on five main routes across the region.

Some critics have raised concerns that all three bidders have run the service previously – without exactly shining in the role. We challenged the bidders to take our questions on their plans – they all declined, saying it would be improper during the franchise process.

Nicola Shaw, CEO of HS1Nicola Shaw, CEO of HS1

What priorities does the government have for the region’s main service?

“For too long, passengers in East Anglia have not had the high-quality rail services that they deserve. Our ambitious requirements will change that by making journeys significantly better than they are now. These plans will also ensure that East Anglia finally has a rail network that supports its growing economy.”

These are the words of rail minister Clare Perry, and outline the fact that, on paper at least, big things are expected from the new operator.

Just a few weeks ago the government outlined its expectations, including a much-sought-after Norwich In 90 and Ipswich in 60 service.

Initially, the new operator only needs to provide that twice a day in the week, but MPs say this is just a start to it becoming more regular.

Other requirements include:

- introduce 180 additional weekly services, running on Mondays to Sundays to stations including Cambridge, Norwich, Stansted Airport, Southend and London Liverpool Street

- to dramatically improve the quality of trains running on East Anglia’s network

- free Wi-Fi for all passengers across the network

- meet challenging targets to reduce crowding on the busiest services

- at least one additional 60-minute service per day in each direction between Ipswich and London

Will this be possible though if network rail can’t improve its performance?

This is the juxtaposition facing our rail services. The operator gets much of the blame for any problems - but most of them aren’t their fault.

For services to improve, so too does the creaking infrastructure upon which it runs. It is worrying that in June this year a review was ordered into Network Rail’s £38billion, five-year upgrade plans across the country by the Department for Transport after it admitted it had over-estimated how much it could achieve.

Nicola Shaw, the boss of the HS1 line between London and the Channel Tunnel, has been drafted in to look at the plans in a wide-scale review. She declined to take our questions on the project.

In its most recent plan projections, NR does still boast, however, that it is on track with a £1bn investment across 800 miles of track in the Anglia region, which includes electrification of lines and new signalling.

And what about passengers? Do they get a say in any of this?

According to the Department for Transport, they will. It says that for the first time in a franchise, the operator will be set customer service targets and will be monitored through independent ‘mystery shopper’ exercises and passenger surveys. Year-on-year improvements will be expected with a financial penalty if targets are not met.

Various passenger groups were consulted about the new franchise and David Sidebottom, passenger director at Transport Focus, told us: “East Anglia passengers tell us they want more punctual services and better-quality, more comfortable trains.

“We will now be looking to bidders to demonstrate they have got the passenger at the heart of their plans.”

There has also been talk of radical changes though, hasn’t there and a return to nationalisation?

As always with public services, radical changes seem to loom on the horizon. Incoming Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, says he would put train services back into the hands of the public.

Labour claims it would enable them to offer a cheaper and more reliable service, but Conservative opponents say that franchising has led to the most improved railways in the EU with record levels of investment,
passenger numbers and punctuality rates.

For this to happen would take not only an act of Parliament – but a Labour government, of course.

IN MY VIEW

Public relations executive Andy Newman gives his verdict on the Norwich to London line.

“I’m an occasional commuter to London, and every time I go, I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to do it every day – because it is usually a story of delay, frustration and lack of information.

“Given the age of the rolling stock, frequent train breakdowns are no great surprise. Fitting new seats and new carpets is simply papering over the cracks, I’m afraid, and fools no-one.

“Many of the delays are not Greater Anglia’s fault. Problems with signalling, points failure, and the sadly all-too-common fatalities on the line are things which the operator can do nothing about. But given how often they happen, you would have thought that Greater Anglia would be better at dealing with such problems.

“Lack of information is the major issue. As a passenger, you are too often left trying to work out for yourself what is happening, what train you should get on, and whether/where you should change.

“Like most people, when I travel to London for a meeting, I build in an extra hour to allow for potential delays. This means that realistically, getting to the capital is a three hour process, which is ridiculous.

“Whilst the Norwich In 90 and Ipswich in 60 campaigns aims are laudable, building reliability into the existing timetable should be the first priority – along with treating passengers with respect and keeping them fully informed when things do go wrong.”

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