Greater Anglia rail franchise: We look at what has changed one year on

Greater Anglia train. Picture Archant Library.

Greater Anglia train. Picture Archant Library. - Credit: Archant

The new Greater Anglia rail franchise started a year ago with big promises for passengers, but are things any better 12 months on? Today we look at the state of the region's train services.

Jamie Burles, managing director of Greater Anglia

Jamie Burles, managing director of Greater Anglia - Credit: Archant

The franchise started with many great promises. Few have so far been realised – but most were never expected to start coming through until 2019/20.

There are also new challenges being faced by the company – industrial relations difficulties, a slow-down in passenger numbers, and fears that infrastructure problems could curtail planned problems.

When Abellio won the Greater Anglia franchise, it promised to put new trains on every service in the region in deals with British manufacturer Bombardier and Swiss company Stadler valued at £1.4bn – but first they have to be designed and built.

The trains will be coming into service in 2019 and should have taken over all routes by 2020. The first carriages are now being built in Derby and Switzerland.

In the meantime Intercity trains have been refurbished and there have been improvements to some of the suburban trains used across the region.

Train reliability has improved with new practices being introduced at Greater Anglia's service depots at Norwich and Ilford – and the company is building a new depot at Brantham in south Suffolk.

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Ipswich station has been largely rebuilt and remodelled inside and out in partnership with Suffolk County Council.

However there have been problems for passengers.

Network Rail has continued to carry out major rebuilding work between London and Shenfield which has caused major disruption at weekends and bank holidays – and has had an impact on the number of passengers.

There is also not yet any commitment from the government-owned infrastructure company to carry out major investment that is needed in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk to ensure the new trains can operate at their full potential.

Schemes like extra track near Chelmsford, a rebuilt Haughley junction near Stowmarket, and improvements to the approach to Norwich station have not yet been approved by Network Rail.

Greater Anglia has become embroiled in an industrial dispute with conductor/guards who are members of the RMT union and while trains ran as normal on the first two one-day strikes, the company has been told to justify its training and safety measures to the Office of Road and Rail after some safety incidents were reported.

And a levelling out of the growth of the number of passengers – especially season-ticket holders – has prompted concerns that Abellio, which promised to pay £3.7bn to the Treasury on top of the £1.4bn investment in new trains, may have over-bid on the contract.

Franchise holders on the East Coast Main Line routes from London to Scotland, Yorkshire and the North East have already got into financial difficulties after passenger growth failed to meet projections – now some experts including leading rail analyst Christian Wolmar – have raised similar concerns over the Greater Anglia bid.

Dutch Railways-owned Abellio has spread the risk by selling 40% of Greater Anglia to the Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co and company managers insist that the relatively high proportion of season ticket holders who use its trains means that the company's income is relatively easy to project – but the concerns remain.

Greater Anglia Managing Director Jamie Burles said the company had got off to a flying start and was looking forward to the arrival of the new trains.

He said: 'We're the first train operating company in the country to replace all of our trains in one go and it's a very exciting proposition.

'We've set up a team whose sole focus is to work on bringing in our new trains. It's a complex job. We want to get the design of the new trains absolutely right for our customers.'

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said the franchise has been a 'major achievement' for Norfolk.

She added: 'There is more work that needs to be done, for example to improve the tracks and other infrastructure.

'We have seen a mixture of issues on our line. Some are Network Rail's responsibility and I am constantly working with them to improve it.

'Some are also to do with having older carriages and that is why it is so important to have these new trains.

'I think Greater Anglia is progressing as expected.'