New rail contractor Abellio promises improvements on Norwich to London line

Transport campaigners have pledged to maintain pressure on East Anglia's new Dutch rail operator to honour its promises of improvements for the region's train passengers.

Nederlandse Spoorwegen, operating as Abellio Greater Anglia Ltd, has been chosen by the Department of Transport as the new operator for the 'Greater Anglia' franchise across Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex.

While making the announcement this morning (Thursday), rail minister Theresa Villiers said the franchise would play a 'significant role' in transport for the London 2012 Games, providing crucial services to the Olympic Park.

Abellio beat off competition from rival bidders Go-Ahead and Stagecoach to win the government contract, through which it has committed to a series of station improvements, new ticket facilities and better passenger information.

But a note of realism was sounded by passenger groups and MPs, who warned that fundamental improvements in journey times and reliability should not be expected within the short-term 29-month contract, due to start in February.

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Improvement commitments of the new franchise include:

-New information desks at major stations including Norwich, Ipswich and London Liverpool Street.

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-A text messaging service to keep passengers informed of service disruption.

-Updates to existing ticket machines to make them more user-friendly, the installation of 28 new ticket machines at stations across the network and the introduction of online season ticketing.

-141 stations will be 'refreshed', the majority of the train fleet will be deep-cleaned, some will be refurbished and more carriages will be fitted with CCTV.

-A new cycle hire scheme at Norwich station.

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith, who led Norfolk MPs in lobbying for improvements to the county's rail links, said the overwhelming priority of faster services between Norwich and London may have to wait until after the contract is renewed again in 2014 – with that franchise expected to last 15 years.

But she said she would urge the short-term contractor to 'commit to investment over profit' and lay the foundations for long-term future improvements.

'I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a commitment to the long-term benefit of the Norfolk economy, and to provide the residents and businesses of Norwich with the high-quality rail service they deserve,' she said.

'What I would expect is that the owner of this short-term franchise does everything they reasonably can to contribute to work that will enable us to get higher speeds in the time to come. There is a longer investment period coming down the track which will really enable us to get to those speeds that would unlock our economy in both the city and the county.

'I look forward to working closely with Abellio to ensure that the urgent improvements needed to the Greater Anglia rail network are delivered.'

Passenger groups said they also hoped for greater improvements in the longer term.

Peter Lawrence, president of Railfuture, said: 'My suspicions are that there will be very little change for the next 18 months. I don't think there will be anything major to speed up services – to do that, you have to tackle the problem of rail capacity between Colchester and Shenfield and that will be a long-term effort.

'We welcome the minor improvements that they are proposing but we look forward to seeing much better improvements when the long-term franchise is let.'

Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus, said: 'Congratulations to Abellio, although it is a short franchise we look forward to working with them, ensuring they keep delivering for passengers. Passengers will want to see a clear focus on punctuality, improving information and management of any disruption, and attention to driving up the overall quality of service.'

Abellio chief executive Anton Valk said he was 'delighted' the company had been selected. 'This win adds to Abellio's already successfully operated franchises in the UK, Northern and Merseyrail, and is a testament to the growing confidence that the Department for Transport has in our ability to bring positive change to rail services,' he said.

The Dutch company will replace previous franchise holder National Express East Anglia, which did not make the shortlist for the new contract.

So far, only overall figures for franchise performance have been published but Abellio has committed to break down of punctuality figures by route. Services from King's Lynn will still be run by First Capital Connect, but Abellio will run services from Norwich.

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