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East Anglia: “Now it is our time,” says rail boss looking ahead to major improvements on the region’s lines

12:22 08 July 2014

Abellio Greater Anglia managing director Jamie Burles.

Abellio Greater Anglia managing director Jamie Burles.

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Rail passengers in East Anglia should see major improvements over the next 15 years with new trains, improved infrastructure and faster journeys.

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East Anglia: Rail renaissance extends to rural lines

While most of the calls for new rail investment have focused on the main line between the region and London, rural lines have also seen a sharp increase in passenger numbers.

More regular services on lines like Ipswich to Lowestoft and Ipswich to Cambridge have attracted many more travellers – and within the next ten years there are hopes of electrification of the line from Felixstowe to Peterborough through Bury St Edmunds and Ely.

The line from Kennett to Cambridge would also be wired up.

Mr Burles said it was important to keep up the pressure to get this work included in the next Network Rail control period, which will run from 2019 to 2024, in a bid to ensure it is carried out during the middle of the next decade.

That could be followed by the electrification of the line from Ely to Norwich, meaning that many of the secondary routes in the region could be served by electric trains. As well as providing a more reliable service, that would also free up diesel units.

One of the problems facing local services in the region is a shortage of diesel units across the country – that has resulted in the company being forced to run replacement buses on routes like Ipswich-Felixstowe and Marks Tey-Sudbury.

It has also led to heritage trains being used on some services between Norwich and Lowestoft/Great Yarmouth and is preventing the company from increasing services on the Norwich-Cambridge and Ipswich-Peterborough lines.

“You talked about rail unit shortages, and that is something that needs to be addressed in the next franchise. That is absolutely part of our message, of our lobbying.”

Mr Burles added: “Electrification is being discussed and evaluated. There are compelling arguments to support it. The benefits are numerous.”

That’s the view of the new managing director of Abellio Greater Anglia as the rail operator prepares to upgrade its InterCity trains over the next two years.

Jamie Burles recently took over the top job at the rail company and is convinced that the region’s services are set for a transformation over the next decade and a half.

He was talking just before it was announced that the Office of Rail Regulation was fining Network Rail £53 million after a number of delays across the country over the last six years.

Mr Burles said: “I think the fabric of the network in terms of rolling stock and the nature of the service will have changed measurably. Of course I want that to happen, but I also expect that to happen.”

He expected passenger numbers in the region to continue to grow – they have doubled since privatisation in the mid-1990s – but thought the growth might not be so rapid as the market matures.

Abellio has just been given an extension to its short-term franchise which had been due to run out this month. It will now continue to run the region’s trains until the end of 2016 – but will give its InterCity carriages a major refurbishment as part of its extension deal.

However that will only extend the life of the trains until the early 2020s, at which time new trains are likely to be introduced.

The Department for Transport would decide over the next 12 months on the shape of the new long-term franchise which is due to kick in at the end of 2016. Key to that would be the level of new investment required as part of the franchise, which would determine the standard of new trains to be ordered.

Mr Burles said the establishment of the task force of East Anglian MPs to press for improvements to the rail network was crucial. Both local MPs and the Department for Transport now accepted that this region needed a major upgrade.

The company had a key role in the discussions about running trains from London to Norwich in 90 minutes and Ipswich in 60.

Mr Burles said: “We are developing a coherent and cohesive voice that can influence the Department for Transport and politicians that Greater Anglia, the region, is overdue the type of long-term focus and investment that has been seen on other lines. Now it is our time for that.”

The region’s voice had been taken to government far more clearly over the last three years thanks to the lobby efforts of MPs led by Ipswich’s Ben Gummer and Norwich North’s Chloe Smith as well as New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

Mr Burles said that while progress was being made, the battle was not over. He said: “There is still influencing and there is still lobbying to be done and that is the crucial role of these groups that have been set up because the job certainly isn’t done yet but it needs to be done.”

He said the region deserved to have a rail service that reflected that fact – it relied far less on public subsidy than most other parts of the network.

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