Government announces inquiry into East Anglian rail chaos

James Cartlidge at Sudbury station.

James Cartlidge at Sudbury station. - Credit: Gregg Brown

A rail expert is to carry out an inquiry into “leafgate” – the disastrous failure of diesel trains in East Anglia last month which effectively closed two branch lines for almost a fortnight.

Passenger services on the Sudbury and Felixstowe branches were suspended for 13 days with travellers having to use substitute buses after Abellio Greater Anglia (AGA) ran out of diesel units because so many had to have their wheels repaired.

Now AGA and Network Rail have commissioned rail resilience expert John Curley to write a report about what caused the problem – and how this could be prevented in future.

If wheels slip on wet leaf-covered rails, this can damage the flange that comes into contact with the steel rail and the train has to be sent to a workshop with a specialist lathe to solve the problem.

The nearest lathes to East Anglia are at Ilford in east London and at Derby in the Midlands.

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Taking the trains out of service meant it was impossible for the company to cover all its routes – it has 26 diesel units and needs 21 to be operational. At one stage 10 of its 26 units were under repair.

It took the decision to suspend rail services on the relatively short Sudbury to Marks Tey and Felixstowe to Ipswich branches – but that provoked anger from local users.

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James Cartlidge MP, whose South Suffolk constituency includes Sudbury, put down a written question to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin asking for a statement about the poor service on the rural branch lines.

In reply rail minister Claire Perry said: “Together with Abellio Greater Anglia and Network Rail, the Department is very disappointed with the train service that has been provided to passengers on a number of rural routes in Anglia this autumn.

“In particular, the level of cancellations on branch lines operated by diesel trains has been unacceptable.

“Network Rail and AGA have secured the services of John Curley, a respected railway industry professional, to hold an independent review of the factors and circumstances that conspired to affect services so badly.

“We expect this review to identify the root cause of failures and highlight lessons that need to be learned for the future. We expect corrective action to be taken wherever practicable to avoid recurrence in the future.

“I can confirm that the results of the review will be made available to the winning bidder of the current East Anglia franchise competition”

Mr Curley helped prepare the report into the impact of the devastating floods of 2013/14 into the transport system of the south west, and is an expert on rail resilience plans.

Mr Cartlidge welcomed the news that a report was to look into what happened: “This is very good news. What happened was totally unacceptable and passengers felt very let down.

“Some people felt that no one was interested in the problems on small branch lines – this shows that they are seen as being important and I know passengers will welcome that.”

A spokesman for Abellio Greater Anglia said: “Network Rail and Abellio Greater Anglia recognises the need to fully understand the reasons why the issues that affected train services on some routes this autumn were worse than previously experienced.

“Undertaking an independent review is an important part of that process in seeking to learn the appropriate lessons and to assist in avoiding any future recurrence.”

Tonight Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill is sponsoring an adjournment debate on the region’s rail service at the end of parliamentary business.

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