Ipswich in 60 should be safe after cynical announcement

Patrick McLoughlin at Ipswich station.

Patrick McLoughlin at Ipswich station. - Credit: Archant

Last week’s House of Commons statement on the future of Network Rail has set alarm bells ringing for many people on the future of the “Norwich in 90, Ipswich in 60” campaign to speed up services on the Great Eastern Main Line.

This is perfectly understandable – and there must be a serious concern that the decision to shelve electrification plans for the Midland Main Line could have a knock-on effect in this region.

But my suspicion is that after a considerable amount of humming and harring over the next few years, the track upgrades will eventually get the go-ahead – albeit by 2024 rather than 2021.

The cost of the track upgrades has been estimated at about £450m. That’s a huge sum. But a considerable amount of that will have to be spent anyway, to replace worn-out infrastructure.

And while the figure looks very large, it is small in comparison to the cost of electrifying routes like the Great Western Line or the Midland Main Line.

Also, during his speech to the House of Commons, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin made it clear that the new franchise holder for this region would have to order new trains for the main line.

What would be the point of ordering high-performance new trains if the track wasn’t good enough for them to achieve their potential?

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I suspect the government will allow our main line to be upgraded so ministers at the next election can claim they have improved lines to the east and west of the capital.

What is rather cynical about Mr McLoughlin’s statement, however, is the fact that it came six weeks after the general election rather than six weeks before it.

Mr McLoughlin was transport secretary for two years before the election and is still in place – so as he made the statement he could hardly claim it was something that had been sprung on him.

Yet during the election campaign all we heard about were the great plans to invest in the rail network – there was no hint that this day of reckoning would come.

Given all this, I suspect that while the main line between London and the region will get the go-ahead, I rather doubt whether we will hear much more about the proposal to electrify the cross-country route from Felixstowe to the west Midlands.

And I fear that any prospect of seeing a new east-west route from Cambridge to Bedford, completing the Varsity line closed by Dr Beeching, will not happen in my lifetime (and I hope to have another 30 years in me!).

On one level the government can be seen to be waking up to reality when it comes to the future of the rail network.

But on another, it is not difficult to feel that its handling of the Network Rail reorganisation has been governed by cynicism and a desperation not to upset voters before the election.