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Our rail services may cause some frustration – but don’t judge them just yet!

PUBLISHED: 05:30 13 December 2018

Greater Anglia's Intercity trains are decades old.

Greater Anglia's Intercity trains are decades old.

Archant

The region’s rail services have taken a double whammy this week with the news that reliability fell during the middle of the year – and then we had confirmation that there would be another three-month weekend blockade of the main line to London.

New trains built by Stadler in Switzerland (left) are now arriving in East Anglia and will be replacing existing trains like Turbostars (right) over the next two years. Picture: GREATER ANGLIANew trains built by Stadler in Switzerland (left) are now arriving in East Anglia and will be replacing existing trains like Turbostars (right) over the next two years. Picture: GREATER ANGLIA

That’s not pleasant reading for anyone who regularly travels by train, especially the growing army of commuters in this region.

However I do feel there needs to be a bit of perspective and historical context to the situation we are in now – and a realistic look at what can be done to make things better.

For a start, despite all its problems and issues with delays, rail remains the most efficient way of getting from city centre to city centre.

You may complain if your train is five to ten minutes late into Liverpool Street, but could you have any confidence about driving to central London and arriving within a five to ten minute window?

I don’t want to repeat a history lesson, but the rail network – and particularly the East Anglian rail network – has suffered from chronic under-funding since the Second World War.

Network Rail has been replacing the overhead wires between Stratford and Shenfield since Christmas 2015 and should be finished by Easter next year.

That is a massive undertaking and it should have been done years ago. The technology being replaced dates from the late 1940s. That it is still in operation in the second decade of the 21st century is an indictment of the lack of investment of previous years.

The InterCity trains on East Anglia’s network are pulled by locomotives that are up to 28 years old and the carriages are up to 43 years old.

They are actually very well maintained and are among the most reliable trains in the UK over the last few months . . . but the new trains being introduced next year are bound to be much easier to keep running reliably. That has to be good news.

However the new trains will only be able to improve reliability substantially if the track is able to cope – and while state-owned Network Rail does have money available for maintenance in the region over the next five years, but it is still waiting to hear whether it will have the money it needs to enhance the track and make services faster as well as more reliable.

Without getting into the thorny, and political, issue of privatisation-vs-nationalisation over the ownership of the railways, I do think the current set-up has worked reasonably well for passengers in East Anglia.

I don’t think a nationalised rail operator would be looking to replace every train in the region with new stock (certainly BR regarded East Anglia as the natural home for stock “cascaded” from “primary” routes) and the abject failure of Railtrack to maintain the infrastructure adequately showed that private operation of that sector was undesirable.

The problems currently being faced are, to a large degree, historic – and that means in many cases there is no quick or easy fix.

Cutting off the region’s access to London at weekends for four successive winters has been bad news – but what is the alternative? Leave the obsolete overhead wire in place and allow it to become increasingly unreliable?

The issue that is facing Greater Anglia and Network Rail over the next few years must be the absolute determination that they are able to live up to the promises they have made since the franchise was awarded in 2016.

For Greater Anglia to spend £1.4bn on a fleet of new trains is a great vote of confidence in the region – hopefully the limited improvements planned by Network Rail will allow them to achieve something nearing their true potential.

Network Rail does have problems. As a nationalised company it is hopelessly bureaucratic and it does have to bid for government funds against other priorities including schools, hospitals, and roads. It is never likely to be self-financing through the service charges from train operators – so from that point of view rail services are subsidised to some extent.

But now is not really the time to judge our rail services. It’s very easy on a miserable December evening on the commute home to think “This will never get any better” but it really should over the next two years.

And if by December 2020 the rail services in East Anglia are still no better than they are today then complaints will be justified – but don’t give up hope on an improvement just yet!

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