Fury at train franchise deal

By Graham Dines and Rebecca SheppardPASSENGERS and MPs have criticised the decision to award the contract to run rail services in East Anglia without insisting on old rolling stock being replaced.

By Graham Dines and Rebecca Sheppard

PASSENGERS and MPs have criticised the decision to award the contract to run rail services in East Anglia without insisting on old rolling stock being replaced.

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) handed yesterday the new seven-year Greater Anglia franchise - covering all routes from London Liverpool Street currently operated by Anglia Railways, First Great Eastern and West Anglia Great Northern - to National Express.

It beat off fierce competition from the current operator of the Anglia Railways franchise, GB Railways, and bus and rail firm Arriva to win the franchise.

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But hopes the new franchise would bring the East Anglia main line up to the modern standard found on all other inter-city routes have been dashed.

Anglia Railways' London to Norwich route through Stowmarket, Ipswich, Manningtree and Colchester currently relies on refurbished British Railway carriages hauled by electric locomotives that are almost 40 years old.

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Although MPs and commuter groups have demanded top-class inter-city trains, the best that route can expect is the replacement of some of the slam-door stock with newer, refurbished carriages that, according to the SRA, initially will be probably handed over by Virgin from its West Coast Main Line or cross-country franchises.

Nicola Marsden, head of communications for National Express, said it planned to refurbish carriages on the London to Norwich service “at a minimum”.

She added: “New trains cost a lot of money. However, slam door rolling stock is being taken out of service as more rolling stock becomes available.

“As we are a large company, we can cascade rolling stock from other parts of our business.”

While she could not confirm if there would be redundancies in the three companies operating in the area at the moment, she said a lot more people would work in “front-line roles”, such as customer services.

“We are looking to give the customer a better service and a better overall product,” she added.

Phil White, chief executive of National Express, said: “We are delighted at this decision, which will bring benefits for both passengers and investors.

“We believe that there will be timetable efficiencies that can translate into real benefits for passengers from a single operator out of Liverpool Street station, meeting the SRA's objective of one operator, one terminus.

“Our top priority will be to deliver punctuality and reliability improvements, as well as raise the general standards of services across the east of England.”

Nicola Shaw, SRA managing director of operations, said: “The contract will deliver certainty for passengers, clarity for operators and stability for investors. Benefits for passengers will include better information, security and cleanliness.”

But a spokesman confirmed the deal would not include new trains to replace old carriages and locomotives on the London to Norwich inter-city route.

Derek Monnery, chairman of the Manningtree Rail Users' Association, branded the decision of the SRA not to insist on a complete modernisation of East Anglia's inter-city route as “a backward step”.

He added: “I am worried that there has been no promise of upgrading. We suffer with broken-down trains and I can't see the situation improving.”

Guy McGregor, vice-chairman of the Suffolk Rail Policy Group, claimed passengers had been “short-changed” and added: “The SRA has let the region down. Promises are not going to be met.”

David Bigg, chairman of the Witham and Braintree Rail Users' Association, said his members had anticipated National Express's success and bought shares in the company.

“We have been having discussions in private with the management of National Express and put our priorities for service improvement firmly before them,” he added.

“These include platform extensions on the Braintree branch, a passing loop at Cressing in the next three years to allow more services on the line, and a new rail line from Witham to Stansted Airport, which will benefit travellers from Ipswich and Colchester.”

Mr Bigg called for a more flexible approach to services, with inter-city trains calling at Chelmsford and Witham.

“The travelling public wants modern, clean, reliable trains and for newcomers National Express, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating,” he added.

David Ruffley, the Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, said there was no point in changing the franchise unless it brought an improvement in the service.

“Anglia Railways could have done a better job, but they were certainly nowhere near the bottom of the pile of regional rail operators,” he added

“As someone who uses the inter-city line to and from Stowmarket, I always knew there was room for improvement, especially on Friday services from Liverpool Street, which have a major overcrowding problem.

“I shall be looking at the performance of National Express when it takes over the franchise - my constituents will expect to see a big improvement in punctuality.”

Alan Hurst, the Labour MP for Braintree, said he wanted the unified franchise to deliver more frequent services that ran on time and more late-night services to and from London.

“I think First Great Eastern did a good job on the Essex routes and I was surprised it was ruled out of the original bidding process,” he added.

“The company has invested in the past few months in new trains on the services to Witham and Braintree and I hope National Express continues to upgrade all the rolling stock.

“I would be deeply disappointed if the number of services is reduced. We need to encourage more people to travel by train and the only way to do is to offer a network which is safe, reliable and frequent.”

From April 1, National Express will operate Greater Anglia, amalgamating the existing services operated by Anglia Railways, First Great Eastern and West Anglia Great Northern in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, north-east London and eastern Hertfordshire.

As well as the inter-city route, the franchise covers commuter trains to Southend, Southminster, Chelmsford, Braintree, Sudbury, Colchester Town, Clacton-on-Sea, Harwich, Enfield, Audley End, Cambridge and King's Lynn.

It also includes cross-country services from Ipswich and Norwich to Felixstowe, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Peterborough and Sheringham.

National Express will completely dominate the rail network in East Anglia - it also runs the Stansted Express from Liverpool Street, c2c from Fenchurch Street to Southend, and Central Trains routes from Norwich and Ely to Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool.

The new franchise will start in April and run for seven years with an automatic extension of three years, subject to the achievement of performance and service quality targets set by the SRA.

First Group lost out despite buying GB Railways - owner of Anglia Railways - in an effort to re-enter the race after failing to make it on to the shortlist.

A deeply-disappointed Max Steinkopf, GB's executive director, said: “We're extremely sorry that we've not been awarded the new franchise, especially as we've established an excellent record for customer service, service development and performance during the time we've run Anglia Railways.

“We congratulate National Express on securing the new franchise and give our commitment to passengers that we will continue to run the best-possible service for the remainder of the existing franchise.

“I would like to thank the Anglia Railways team for the achievements we've delivered together over the last seven years.”

An Anglia Railways spokesman added: “Nothing will change for passengers from April 1. We do not know at this stage what Anglia Railways will be branded as in the future.

“Anglia Railways, First Great Eastern and West Anglia will be merged together into a single train operator and the branding details for the company will emerge in the next few weeks.

“The staff that run the train services at the moment will continue to in the future. The Anglia Railways contracts of employment will transfer on April 1. The vast majority of services will continue.”

A spokeswoman for First Great Eastern Railways said she could not comment further on the announcement.

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