Rail investment plans under fire

AN ambitious rail building programme which would link major UK cities has come under fire for bypassing most of East Anglia. Network Rail announced yesterday that it will be conducting a strategic review into the case for building new rail lines looking at five of its strategic routes north and west of London, taking in the Chiltern, East Coast, West Coast, Great Western and Midland main lines.

AN ambitious rail building programme which would link major UK cities has come under fire for bypassing most of East Anglia.

Network Rail announced yesterday that it will be conducting a strategic review into the case for building new rail lines looking at five of its strategic routes north and west of London, taking in the Chiltern, East Coast, West Coast, Great Western and Midland main lines.

Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher said that many lines would be full up by 2025, especially those running to and from the north and west of London, even after they have boosted the current capacity.

In the past decade, passenger numbers have soared by 40% to 1.13billion journeys a year, the greatest number since 1946 when the network was twice the size. The amount of freight carried on trains has also rocketed by 60% since privatisation.

“We have to see how we can meet the capacity challenge and see what solutions - including potentially, that of new lines - are deliverable and affordable,” said Mr Coucher.

David Bigg, chairman of Witham & Braintree Rail Users' Association, welcomed the idea of new routes across the spine of the country, but warned that East Anglia, as a fast-growing region, should not be neglected.

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“We are, I'm afraid, the Cinderella of the network,” he said.

He called for the mainline between London, Ipswich and Norwich to be upgraded as soon as possible so that it could take higher speed 125mph trains. His group is also calling for a new link between Stansted and Braintree.

“We need the lines they have put forward as far as it goes, but what about East Anglia?” he said. “I don't want our region to lose out and we are losing out.”

Spokesman for Network Rail Chris Mitchell said the region's needs were addressed in another Network Rail document, the Routes Utilisation Strategy, published on December 21 last year.

“Obviously there is growing demand for services in East Anglia and that strategy sets out how we are going to meet and address that,” he said.

This included extending platforms, running more additional peak services through Colchester, Chelmsford and Southend, introducing a new fleet of modern trains on the Norwich line, and extending carriages to 12 car trains, where they currently run up to about eight.

“We are looking at additional services up to Norwich as well, new trains on that route as well,” he added.

But Mr Bigg said that document did not go far enough. “They are not going to make the mega changes we need as a region,” he said. “We can't cope with demand now.”

Mr Mitchell said the new lines proposed under the strategic review would serve large populations centres and run up the “spine” of the UK.

“These are lines which will be filled by 2015 to2025 and there's nothing more we can do to increase capacity on those lines,” he said.

“The main difference with these new lines is they will be dedicated inter-city routes and obviously going out to East Anglia the only major cities you have in the area are Norwich and Ipswich.”

He pointed to the geography of East Anglia, and to the measures proposed in the Routes Utilisation Strategy.

“It's serving the whole country. It just so happens with East Anglia just the geography set up in East Anglia, we can't run services beyond Norwich,” he said.

“It's the same for the south east as well. We are not looking for new lines there because these intercity lines will have to service a number of cities.”

He pointed out that running the parallel lines on the East Coast line would lead to more frequent services via Cambridge, where a spur at Hatfield branches off.

“Obviously, there's a big improvement programme under way to improve services in the East Anglia area,” he said.

Network Rail hoped that some of these might be implemented in the period 2009 to 2014, he said.

“This is a very early stage of the study. What today's announcement is about is the fact we are looking to commission a feasibility study to meet capacity increases beyond 2015 so at the moment everything is still on the table and it's still subject of this full investigation of what's needed,” he said.

“No schemes in our strategy have been given funding yet but when funding becomes available those schemes will be put in place.