By Paul Geater
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
FEARS are rising that the award of the long-term franchise for East Anglia could be delayed by two years.
And that has prompted the alliance of MPs and local authorities from across the region to step up their pressure on ministers to get some early decisions on train investment taken in advance of the franchise award.
Another regional rail summit is due to be held at the end of the month. And this time the summit will be joined by transport minister and Chelmsford MP Simon Burns.
The summit, on January 31, comes after Waveney MP Peter Aldous asked a parliamentary question asking for the Department for Transport to say investment in the region’s trains should be authorised before the franchise is granted if there is a delay to the process.
Current rail operators Abellio, running services as Greater Anglia, have a short-term franchise which is due to run out in July 2014.
However, the collapse of the West Coast rail franchise process has forced the DfT to reconsider how it awards them across the country.
Many expect the Greater Anglia franchise to be delayed, possibly by up to two years.
Suffolk county councillor with responsibility for transport Guy McGregor said such a delay would be disastrous for rail services in the region if there was no investment until the long-term franchisee was appointed.
He said: “If we don’t get the operator in place until 2016, and there is no commitment to new trains before they take over, realistically we won’t get any new trains on the line until 2018.
“That will mean there has been no substantial new investment on trains on the line for nearly a decade. With increasing demand and capacity problems that is unacceptable.” Mr McGregor said he would be pressing the minister to get the DfT to specify in the new franchise that the new operator should use upgraded carriages of the type currently in use on the line – enabling the work to start immediately.
“There is capacity at British rail workshops to carry out this work. Upgrades have already been successfully carried out for Chiltern Railways – and carriages for us could piggy back on that.”
Mr Aldous said the consortium of MPs and local authorities had been successful in getting some investment on the line, but he was keen this should not be stalled by any delay in the franchise process.
“That was why I raised the question with the minister and hopefully we can take the issue of getting an early decision forward at this month’s summit.”
However, Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, who will also be at the summit, warned that all options needed to be considered before any final decisions were made.
He said: “I know Guy is keen on refurbishing existing trains, but it might be that bringing in brand new trains is a better solution – we should not rush this.”
The timescale for the award of the long-term franchise could become clearer in the near future. Once a decision on that is made it should be easier to talk to DfT officials about investment needs.
A Greater Anglia spokesman said: “We have been instrumental in developing the East Anglian Rail Prospectus which sets out the region’s rail aspirations for the future and makes the case for further investment and improvements in our railway.
“We have also been helping to build the coalition of regional stakeholders – including MPs, local authorities, business organisations and rail user groups – to lobby in support of those aims.”