Rail tunnel to close for two months

A £5 MILLION project that will close a vital Suffolk rail link for two months will prevent an extra 1,500 lorries a day hitting the county's roads, it has emerged.

A £5 MILLION project that will close a vital Suffolk rail link for two months will prevent an extra 1,500 lorries a day hitting the county's roads, it has emerged.

Ipswich Rail Tunnel is set to close for eight weeks next summer, between July 11 2004 and September 5, while the track inside it is lowered.

The scheme will allow larger freight containers to travel through the tunnel, and ensure the region's container ports continue to be competitive.

At the moment, the tunnel can only accommodate 8ft 6ins high containers but, with a growing international trend towards 9ft 6ins carriers, Felixstowe would lose out.

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Currently one in four containers which land at Felixstowe are of the bigger size, and that figure is expected to double by 2010.

As the only other way of transporting containers is by road, the tunnel scheme is seen as vital to avoid environmental impact and traffic gridlock.

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Chris Harvey, project sponsor for the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), which is funding the scheme, told a press conference yesterday: "This project is of vital importance to East Anglia's rail freight industry.

"Without it, rail freight use will decline and could result in an extra 1,500 lorries a day on the roads."

During the closure rail users can expect to add half-an-hour to their journey times, as alternative bus services are laid on for those heading to and from Ipswich.

Passengers will be bused between Ipswich and Manningtree station, while there will also be a peak hour service running between Stowmarket and Manningtree.

Back on the track regular rail services will still run from Manningtree to London, along with a half-hourly shuttle between Ipswich and Norwich, calling at Stowmarket and Diss.

Meanwhile, freight traffic will be diverted through Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge and Ely. Detailed timetables for the closure period should be available in early 2004.

Mr Harvey said: "There will be environmental benefits because of this project – it is designed to stop a huge number of extra lorries a day getting on to the roads.

"We have every confidence that the work will be completed in eight weeks, and we have planned the closure to be during the quietest period of the year for commuter traffic, to minimise the impact on regular travellers."

Network Rail will also take advantage of the closure to carry out maintenance and renewals work on the track, including bridge repairs and level crossing improvements.

Garry England, project manager for Network Rail, said: "We realise there will be some disruption and we are working closely with industry partners and local authorities to ensure that inconvenience to rail passengers, freight customers and local residents is minimised."

Mr England said that creating a temporary platform before the Ipswich Tunnel, on the site of the town's old station, had been considered, but rejected.

He added: "Firstly, we would not have been able to carry out the additional maintenance work on the track that we plan to.

"Secondly, it would have been fairly costly, and finally, the temporary station would have been of limited capacity and not able to run a significant service."

Fears have been expressed that the tunnel closure could affect Ipswich businesses.

But Bob Feltwell, chief executive of the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said: "We obviously hope that the effect will be minimal because we are talking about it 12 months ahead of it happening. Most businesses can plan around problems like this. It will stop spontaneous meetings in London but, for example, the chamber itself will plan its London meetings around it.

"At the end of the day, this has to be done – you have to change the infrastructure in this case to enable more freight containers to go by rail.

"We hope that the experts have found the most convenient and effective way of doing it. In the long run it has got to happen and it will be inconvenient, but giving a year's notice and having good alternative arrangements is the way to go about it."

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