Transport Secretary Justine Greening backs rail ideas from Norfolk MPs

PUBLISHED: 10:26 16 March 2012 | UPDATED: 11:15 16 March 2012

Transport Minister Justine Greening at King's Cross station in London, where Mayor of London Boris Johnson officially opened the newly refurbished concourse.

Transport Minister Justine Greening at King's Cross station in London, where Mayor of London Boris Johnson officially opened the newly refurbished concourse.

PA Wire/Press Association Images

Sitting in a briefing room on the fifth floor of the Department for Transport the secretary of state does not need to refer to her notes when asked about the ideas two Norfolk MPs brought forward to transform rail travel in East Anglia.

She is well versed in Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman’s plan to bring back Victorian-style rail companies and also in Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis’ idea of allowing developers to revamp train stations at no cost to the taxpayer.

There were some clues in the 78-page “Command Paper”, the government’s vision for the future of the country’s rail industry released last week, that ministers had taken a shine to the MPs’ concepts.

But speaking to the Eastern Daily Press yesterday she revealed she has been meeting with the pair in a bid to see how their proposals might be brought to life for the benefit of passengers.

“I’ve actually spoken to both of them. Brandon came into the department to speak to me last week and I talked with George only this week. I think both of their ideas are really interesting ones,” she said.

Paragraph 4.27 of the Command Paper talks about the potential benefits of “vertical integration” – which in layman’s terms means the possibility of a company running train services and a company responsible for maintaining track and infrastructure working ever more closely together.

Passengers in East Anglia, accustomed to delays and bus replacement services, will be only too aware of the problems arising from having two different companies that don’t work together as well as they should running the track and services.

In a bid to remedy that situation Abellio Greater Anglia, the firm which recently won the franchise to run services in the region, has decided to move into the same offices as Network Rail, the national body that maintains track.

But Mr Freeman has proposed things go further – he envisioned a single private company in East Anglia running services, responsible for all track and infrastructure, possibly owned by local authorities and part-funded through investment from the pensions of the region’s residents.

Ms Greening went on: “I think if you then take [Mr Freeman’s idea] together with the decentralisation proposals that we’ve got and what we’ve consulted on, it does show that there is potentially in the future a much bigger role for local and regional communities, local authorities, working together in the way that George is talking about to perhaps even run their own railway.”

The Mid Norfolk MP has also suggested that once in control of land along the rail corridor, the company could develop it, building houses and commercial buildings, providing jobs, homes and construction opportunities.

The transport secretary pointed out that South West Trains has already set up a joint management team with Network Rail to run services and track together on the Wessex line.

Ms Greening went on: “If you have a franchise where there is really just one or two train operating companies using the track [like in East Anglia], then it is a lot more straightforward to look at what that kind of integrated partnership might look like.”

Fingering forward through the Command Paper to paragraph 4.39 the report talks about the possibility of “greater commercial freedoms” to develop train stations, the gateway to any town or city.

But under draft proposals which Mr Lewis took to the transport secretary before the paper was published he explained just how much potential benefit allowing development at train stations might have for passengers.

He suggested giving developers the right to completely rebuild stations using the land around them, and in particular the space above them, to build flats, shops, offices or any commercial venture that might make money.

The developer then gets the profit from leasing those properties, while passengers get the benefit of having a brand new station and the town gets new facilities and regeneration – all at little or no cost to the taxpayer.

Ms Greening said: “When I spoke with Brandon he did talk to me about how he sees this real opportunity for stations and I think he’s right to point out that we should be looking to see what we can do to improve stations and that was actually one of the parts of the rail Command Paper that I thought was really important.

“Because at the heart of all this we were saying what can we do to improve passenger experience and that’s not just when they get on the train, but when they get off it and the station is a key part of that.”

There are technical and legal hurdles to bringing the plan to life, but Ms Greening admitted ministers were already seeing how they could move in that direction.

She said: “We are looking at whether we can allow train operating companies more of an ability to control that station environment and to develop stations in a way that will really make a difference for passengers.

“For example in the Command Paper we said we might even see some stations having crèches. Brandon Lewis has got some really interesting ideas about how those might be realised.”

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