Whitehall weighing up East Anglia rail franchise split

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith - Credit: Simon Finlay

Senior officials at the Department for Transport are working on proposals which could see the region split in a similar fashion to that which existed before 2004 when the single franchise for all rail services operating out of Liverpool Street Station was created.

One franchise would be responsible for main line 'InterCity' services from London to Norwich, as well as the local and regional services like Norwich to Great Yarmouth.

The other franchise would run outer suburban trains from London to Ipswich and Cambridge, also running to Southend, Clacton, Walton, and Harwich.

MPs are hoping to quiz officials from the Department for Transport at a Rail Summit in Westminster on Tuesday about the plans, which are not yet official policy.

Senior figures in Whitehall believe that the Greater Anglia franchise is very large, and that two smaller businesses could be more responsive to public demand.

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It would also re-introduce competition from stations like Ipswich, Manningtree and Colchester.

Before 2004 this competition meant it was possible to buy cheaper 'Great Eastern only' tickets for commuter trains, or more expensive tickets valid on any trains.

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The franchise split was originally created by John Major's Conservative government to boost competition and give passengers more choice.

But under the last Labour government it was felt it would be easier to co-ordinate rail services if a single rail franchise operated from Liverpool Street to remove the need for delicate negotiations between train operators with Network Rail for 'paths' over the tracks.

It also created a financially stronger service – with the hugely-profitable suburban trains able to subsidise the loss-making rural services.

Services in the region are currently run by Greater Anglia and a spokesman for the company said it was unable to comment on speculation about the new franchise.

An announcement from the government is not imminent, but details of the franchise changes are expected to be confirmed next year well in time for bids for the new franchises which are due to start in October 2016.

Guy Dangerfield, manager of campaign group Passenger Focus, said the group was 'entirely agnostic' on the structure.

He said: 'I think at the end of the day passengers are not concerned about how the thing is structured and who is running the trains. All they are interested in is whether the trains will run on time, whether they will get a seat and value for money.

'I think we are entirely agnostic on the structure.'

Norwich MP Chloe Smith, (pictured below), who is one of a group of East Anglian MPs trying to improve rail services in the region, said she was open minded about what the best option was and wanted to draw out the benefits of a split franchise from officials at the Department for Transport.

'I think the thing here is identifying what is best for passengers in drawing investment to our region,' she added.

The current 'Metro' service from London to Shenfield will be transferred to the new Crosslink franchise when that opens in 2017 and inner suburban services on the Cambridge line are to be transferred to Transport for London's 'Overground' route.

Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, who has also been involved in lobbying the government for better rail services, said: 'I think the idea of breaking up the franchise is very interesting, and people look back at the time of the original franchise as an innovative period for the rail industry – spurred on by competition.

'The idea of one company able to concentrate on the main line trains serving the region's main centres is attractive, although there would clearly be a lot of details to sort out.'

However, Suffolk cabinet member for Transport Graham Newman said he would be concerned about splitting the franchise.

'The franchise was brought together to create a large enough company to run services across the region.

'People look back fondly at Anglia Railways as an innovative and quite exciting company – which it was.

'But it was a minnow in the rail industry and it was not very secure financially.' He added: 'You need the profits from the busy suburban lines near London to underpin the costs of the rural services – they may be busier and bringing in more revenue than before, but they still need support.' Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, (pictured), said: 'As the government reviews different models of franchising, whilst there may be benefits from greater competition, I also think it is worth looking at the benefits of better integration of track and train services.

'That is why I have suggested the government considers the idea of an integrated East Anglia rail company connecting track and train with a longer franchise. It would have greater freedom to raise investment from local users, shareholders and via infrastructure bonds to raise money to really modernise the network and upgrade our stations and put more new housing that we need on or close to the railway lines, thus reducing congestion.'

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