Anger mounts over rail breakdowns caused by “leaves on the line”

South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge is calling for more trains to be available on the Sudbury line.

South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge is calling for more trains to be available on the Sudbury line. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Rail passengers on two Suffolk branch lines are facing another day of bus rides after it emerged that nearly half the diesel railcars in East Anglia were sidelined at one point this week because of problems caused by falling leaves.

The news has prompted the county council and South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge to write to the Government and prospective rail operators to demand that any franchise holder will be able to cope in future autumns.

Abellio Greater Anglia has 26 diesel railcars to operate its rural and regional services that are not electrified. It needs to have 21 in operation at any one time to provide a full service.

On Wednesday, it only had 16 units available because 10 were out of action. Two were undergoing routine maintenance, but the other eight needed wheels to be repaired because they had skidded on slippery track – damaging the steel “tyre” that comes in contact with the rail line.

The one and two-car units that date from the 1980s are particularly susceptible to this problem – more recent units have mechanisms to blow leaf mulch off the track and reduce slippage.

When trains are withdrawn from service, the first lines to be affected are the routes from Ipswich to Felixstowe and from Marks Tey to Sudbury because they are operated by a single unit each – and are not integrated with any other routes.However these train cancellations have angered regular uses, including Mr Cartlidge, who uses the Sudbury line to travel back to his home in Bures.

On Tuesday he was unable to get the train for the last leg of the journey and Abellio Greater Anglia arranged taxis: “But we couldn’t use the taxis waiting at the station because they didn’t have an account with Abellio.

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“Then when the taxis did turn up we were told they were only going to Sudbury. I pointed out that I was supposed to be going to Bures and it was very difficult to find a taxi prepared to go via that station.”

Mr Cartlidge and Suffolk County Council’s transport spokesman James Finch are to write to the Department for Transport and the bidders for the new East Anglian rail franchise, due to start next October, asking for an assurance that there will be enough trains to cover any problems.

Jonathan Denby from Abellio Greater Anglia said the taxi drivers should have covered all the stations on Tuesday night, and the company would ensure that in any further contracts they understood that.

He said this year’s leaf-fall had been exceptional because leaves had stayed on trees longer than usual before falling – and leaf-cleaning trains had been unable to cope with the amount of mulch.

Trains with damaged wheels had to be sent to a specialist lathe at Ilford owned by Bombardier Rail, and while that company had been working very hard it was difficult to keep up with the demand.

Mr Denby said: “We can operate a normal service with five trains out, but this week we’ve had three or even five more out on top of that. We are very sorry, but we are trying to restore a normal service as quickly as possible.”

Buses are likely to replace trains on the Felixstowe and Sudbury lines today, but Abellio Greater Anglia hopes to have a full rail service back in operation next week.

Other parts of the country have been experiencing similar problems – which meant other companies had been unable to lend their units to make up the shortfall.

Mr Denby said the problem had been especially bad in the south of England where electric trains collect power from a third rail – the leaves have blocked the power collection.

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