Is Ipswich in 60 the start of a new rail era – or just a false dawn?
PUBLISHED: 05:39 23 May 2019 | UPDATED: 08:45 23 May 2019
This week Greater Anglia launched its “Norwich in 90, Ipswich in 60” services – a key element of its 2016 franchise agreement – but is it really a great leap forward?
Monday's inaugural trains ran like a dream, the 9am from Norwich opened its doors at Liverpool Street at 10.28, and the return made the journey in exactly 90 minutes. It reached Ipswich in just 52 minutes - equalling the record run.
But while this does meet the letter of the franchise commitment, there is still a long way to go before rail services are truly transformed. And the fact is that is down to infrastructure weaknesses rather than Greater Anglia's efforts.
There are real positives from the new services - and some of the carping about them is unjustified.
Yes, the trains only make the fast run by only stopping at Ipswich - but that does have a knock-on benefit for passengers from other stations that they run through.
They are extra trains - two minutes after their departure a normal "stopping" train leaves either Norwich or Liverpool Street for passengers heading to other stations.
And they, of course, have more seats for passengers heading to or from Diss, Stowmarket, Manningtree, or Colchester because those travelling direct between Ipswich or Norwich and London have been on the fast train.
There are those who say "Ipswich in 60" is nothing new - the 5pm out of Liverpool Street has done the journey in 59 minutes for years.
That's true. But there are now two trains a day in each direction timetabled to break the 60-minute threshold - the fastest is due to make the journey in 55 minutes. It might be a small improvement, but it is an improvement.
Having said that, I am dubious about whether all the hype about this launch is really justified.
It is only two trains in each direction a day. They are not at "peak" times (9.30am and 5.30pm from Ipswich, and 11am and 7pm from London) and there are real problems with keeping to the very tight timetable, especially in the approach to London.
For the launch train on Monday morning the lines were cleared of anything that could have held us up and the trains full of MPs and other VIPs made the trip fairly comfortably.
By the second journey of the day the problems had already set in - congestion at the entrance to Liverpool Street meant that the train was held at Bethnal Green for a few minutes, arriving seven minutes late.
That has to be regarded as an occupational hazard when running trains over such congested tracks - but if you were driving into the heart of London would you consider a seven-minute delay exceptional?
It does, however show the difficulty with running such a service - and why it is simply not feasible to try to run such fast trains throughout the day.
Until the track is upgraded, it won't be possible to run many more trains to this timetable - even after Greater Anglia's new express trains arrive later this year.
To do that there is a need for a new section of track between Chelmsford and Witham, and Network Rail has still to commit itself to that - or other improvements at Haughley and the outskirts of Norwich.
Without them, there is scope for some speed increase when the new trains come in, but not enough to achieve the Norwich in 90, Ipswich in 60 aspiration throughout the day.
And I am starting to wonder when we will see the new trains. Greater Anglia has been testing the new regional trains for six months, and they still have no date for them to start carrying passengers.
So far only one 12-car train, mechanically identical to that used on the Intercity route, has arrived in Britain - and its testing has only just started. The aim of getting all 10 12-car sets in operation by the end of the years starts to look very ambitious!
What worries me is that these delays are all putting off the day when Greater Anglia's other franchise commitments are met.
The proposed hourly service between Ipswich and Peterborough has been put off indefinitely because Network Rail doesn't know how to improve Ely North junction.
The through service from Lowestoft to London may come in next May - but there's no firm commitment. And the idea of running through trains from Sudbury to Colchester looks like being quietly dropped because Network Rail cannot deal with a pedestrian crossing at Marks Tey.
Things may be improving on our rail network - but not as quickly or as comprehensively as we all hoped two and a half years ago!
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