Call for faster trains from Norwich

Faster trains, increased reliability and extra investment in track – those are the key improvements which need to be made to rail services which operate from Norwich, campaigners say.

From February the majority of services in and out of Norwich will be taken over by Abellio, which has won a short-term 29-month contract for what is known as the Greater Anglia franchise.

The Dutch-based company Nederlandse Spoorwegen saw off competition from rival bidders Go-Ahead and Stagecoach to run the service.

They will be responsible for the Norwich to London Liverpool Street services, some services from Norwich to Cambridge and for other routes currently run by National Express East Anglia, such as the Wherry Line to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and the Bittern Line to Cromer and Sheringham.

The company has so far not spoken to the press about their plans for the service beyond re-iterating their intentions outlined when they were named last month as the winner of the contract.

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At that point, the company committed to a series of station improvements, new ticket facilities and better passenger information.

Improvement commitments of the new franchise included:

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

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;

A commitment to publish a breakdown of punctuality figures, route by route.

Notable by its absence from that list are any promises of new rolling stock, but, given another, longer-term contract will be up for grabs in a couple of years' time, that is hardly surprising.

However, that is sure to be discussed when MPs from Norfolk and Suffolk meet train operators, local councils, business leaders and Network Rail next month.

The 'rail forum' in Westminster on Thursday, December 15, has been organised in an attempt to forge a 20-year plan to improve the region's rail services, with one of the goals to reduce train times between Norwich and London to 90 minutes.

Chloe Smith, Norwich North MP, who is chairing the forum, said: 'One of the main problems that everyone experiences on the mainline route are the delays and those times when you find yourself having to change to get onto a bus in goodness knows where.

'The reliability of the service is very frustrating and has been for many years. That is something I want to see the train operators and Network Rail working together on.

'There are always going to be engineering works and, if we get the investment we want there will be more, but we need them to be done efficiently and sensibly with far better communication than there has been up to now.

'Other problems are about bringing services up to the basic standard you see on trains elsewhere. We need trains that can cover distances in a reasonable time and we would love to see Norwich in 90.

'I do not see why Norwich to Cambridge takes so long either, so I would like to see that come down in the longer term, as that route is vital for places such as Norwich Research Park and the world class science which is done there.

'The quality of the service on the trains also needs to improve. Some steps have been taken, such as Wi-Fi, but I don't see why they can't have much more business-like standards which are taken as standard elsewhere.'

While Abellio have said little publicly since they won the short-term contract, the company last week made clear it will be bidding for the 15-year franchise, due to start in July 2014.

Ipswich MP Ben Gummer came away from a meeting with chief executive Anton Valk confident the company would improve services on the line and that passengers would benefit.

He said: 'I was impressed by Mr Valk. He has been in Britain heading Abellio since 2001 after being a senior manager on Dutch railways and he clearly knows the industry.

'He accepts there is only a limited amount a company can do in 29 months, but he wants to be much more customer-focused, improving reliability and customer service.'

Mr Gummer said Abellio were already thinking about longer-term improvements that it would introduce if it were given the 15-year franchise starting in 2014, including what kind of fresh trains would be introduced on the main line.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the service from Norwich to London and back in recent times has been the number of occasions when trains are disrupted, particularly at weekends, because of engineering work.

Peter Lawrence, president of passenger group Railfuture, said: 'The engineering work has been ongoing on the Norwich to London line simply because some of the overhead cables to the south of Chelmsford go back to 1949 or earlier.

'But the biggest problem standing in the way of increased line speeds is the area between Colchester and Shenfield.

'That's heavily used and there are only two tracks there, but the opportunity to do much to improve the capacity there is limited.

'It will be interesting to see how the new operators will approach that.'

In tomorrow's EDP we turn the spotlight on rail services in King's Lynn.

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