Rail handover should be delayed until after Games

Ministers are being urged by business leaders in Norfolk to delay plans for a new rail operator to run trains in the region until after the Olympics amid fears that a changeover before the Games risks causing too much disruption to services.

Current operator National Express East Anglia will cease running services next February after being stripped of its franchise.

The government is expected to announce a new operator this autumn with three companies in the running, Abellio Greater Anglia, Eastern Railway, and Stagecoach Anglia Trains.

However that short-term contract will only run until the following year when ministers want to introduce longer 15 year franchises as part of an overhaul aimed at encouraging closer working between operators and Network Rail.

Now Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, has written to transport secretary Philip Hammond calling for the introduction of the new franchise to be delayed until Autumn 2012.

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'The current operator has been integrally involved with the planning of the Games,' she said. 'Any new operator can only become fully involved with the Olympic planning process towards the end of the year. We believe the transition from one franchise to another in February 2012 creates an unnecessary level of risk to service provision during such an important event.

'It is unacceptable for there to be any chance that Norfolk and Suffolk's ability to optimise the business and tourism benefits from the Olympics might be compromised in any way,' she added. 'Such issues can be avoided simply by moving the start date for the new franchise back to a point after the Games have ended.'

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The call comes amid mounting fears that poor rail links could derail business hopes of cashing in on the expected surge of visitors coming to the county of the back of London 2012.

Yet, industry insiders are believed to be sceptical that the government will pay heed to the delay call, while supporters of a shake-up believe a change in operator offers a much-needed fresh start for services.

Norfolk MPs have also drawn up a rail 'manifesto' calling for the successful company to put investment before profit and improve services both to the capital and to Cambridge. The manifesto also called for the new operator to demonstrate it had a plan for 'maximising the economic opportunity of the Olympics'.

But Ms Williams said the government had already agreed to delay the West Coast re-franchising process to ensure continuity through the Olympics, and Mr Hammond should give serious consideration to the idea.

'The 2012 Olympics are a crucial opportunity for Norfolk and Suffolk to attract new investment, tourism, and jobs,' she said. 'We are concerned that changing the rail franchise so close to this 'once-in-a-lifetime' event constitutes too much of a risk and we believe that the handover of the franchise should be pushed back until after the Olympic and Paralympic Games are over.'

'The Greater Anglia franchise is the main train operator for Stratford regional station - the key interchange for the Olympic Park site - and for direct services from Norfolk and Suffolk to Stratford and London. It is arguably the most important rail franchise for the Olympics and will probably carry the greatest number of rail passengers to the site.'

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