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Freeman wants 'new Victorian' spirit to revive our railways

PUBLISHED: 06:00 07 August 2019 | UPDATED: 08:11 07 August 2019

Transport minister and Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman. Picture: Victoria Pertusa.

Transport minister and Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman. Picture: Victoria Pertusa.

Archant 2018

The east of England could be at the forefront of a transport revolution, with smart technology and the building of new towns reviving how our railways were built nearly 200 years ago.

A First Capital Connect train passes through the Queen Adelaide level crossing heading to King's Lynn along the Fen Line after the Ely North junction. Picture: Ian BurtA First Capital Connect train passes through the Queen Adelaide level crossing heading to King's Lynn along the Fen Line after the Ely North junction. Picture: Ian Burt

That is the "new Victorian" vision of Mid Norfolk Tory MP George Freeman, who was given a ministerial post at the Department for Transport as Boris Johnson formed his government last month.

Mr Freeman has for many years been writing on the importance of technology to move our society and economy on, and with his new role has the brief of shaking up antiquated practices.

And it is tackling disconnection, a focus on decarbonisation, and looking at digitisation that he hopes he can hone in on.

But he hopes to also look to the past as well as the future as he said in the country where the railways were born it was necessary to look back on the methods used Victorian times to revitalise transport now.

A bridge or underpass could now be needed before the Ely North junction improvements can go ahead. Picture: Chris BishopA bridge or underpass could now be needed before the Ely North junction improvements can go ahead. Picture: Chris Bishop

Mr Freeman, who was elected in 2010, said: "The new prime minister has absolutely understood that many of the people who voted leave [in the Brexit referendum] were also voting for a much bigger vision and set of policies to tackle the very real crisis felt by so many communities in an increasingly London-centric Britain.

"This new brief at the DFT has been created specifically for me to drive new approaches to make quicker and better connections, for the people and places left behind."

In the east, Mr Freeman said he hoped this would mean a faster delivery of the doubling of the Ely North Junction - work that would be crucial for enhanced services on the line - but which has stalled for a number of years.

Also, improvements between Ely and Wisbech, Great Yarmouth and Norwich, and Norwich and Cambridge, where he would like to see a half hourly service, with a hope this would mean places like the Norwich Research Park would flourish.

But as well as improving the physical infrastructure, Mr Freeman saw more radical changes being needed to save towns which felt forgotten.

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This could include a potential East Anglian Rail Company - an idea first floated by Mr Freeman when he was the prospective parliamentary candidate for Mid Norfolk.

The idea would be to allow a 20-year franchise to run the services and look after the track, signalling, tunnels, bridges, level crossings. The company would have special development rights along the routes, and would have to commit to a long-term housing and infrastructure investment programme.

This could mean new towns popping up along railway lines, for example on ground no longer suitable for farming bought under compulsory purchase, with old routes potentially reopening.

Writing for think tank ResPublica in 2013 Mr Freeman said: "There is potential for 'new Victorian' mutual rail companies with the power to issue an 'infrastructure investment bond' to raise and invest the private capital needed for new high quality housing surrounding a network of fast rail, road and broadband links.

"Let's apply the lesson of the Victorians and use the development gains unlocked by road and rail investment to finance it."

At the time, Mr Freeman said East Anglia would be an ideal place to start and unlock this potential, and he remained committed to that now.

He said other initiatives such as smart ticketing, apps, expanding the infrastructure in place for electric cars, and travel cards which worked on all transport similar to a London Oyster Cards, would improve matters.

Plus tapping in to areas he felt were currently under used such as Liftshare, a Norwich-based company offering car shares to regular commuters and those looking for one-off journeys alike.

He said: "Having championed this as a Norfolk MP for the last 10 years I know there are some exciting new approaches waiting to be adopted here in East Anglia.

"And I look forward to making us a test bed."

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