Suffolk: Franchise delay fears but more electric trains could be on the way

THE cross-country rail line to the midlands could be electrified within the next 20 years according to Network Rail.

But more immediate hopes of improvements to the main line to London could be delayed in the wake of the West Coast rail debacle.

They were the main messages to come out of the Suffolk Rail conference hosted by the county council in Ipswich yesterday.

Richard Schofield from Network Rail said electrifying the line from Felixstowe through Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds to Ely and Peterborough could be included in the next round of major projects once the current schemes in the west of England and Midlands had been completed.

It was still very early days – the current list of electrification schemes was only published in the summer – but the increasing amount of freight coming through the ports and being carried cross-country made the proposal viable.

In the shorter term proposals for extra lines east of Chelmsford were not unreasonable, said rail industry expert Christian Wolmar.

The scheme is a cornerstone of the regional rail manifesto drawn up by a consortium of local authorities, the Local Enterprise Partnership, and a cross-party group of MPs

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But Mr Wolmar doubted whether the next franchise for the region could start on schedule in July 2014 after the debacle surrounding the West Coast franchise.

The rail expert, who has written a number of books on the industry and contributes regularly to national newspapers and broadcasters, said he understood Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlin’s assurance that the franchise programme would not be delayed – but could not see how civil servants could deliver all the proposed decisions on time.

He was speaking after the conference had been told by Ipswich MP Ben Gummer that improvements proposed in the manifesto were achievable: “We are not asking for the earth, we are not looking for billions of pounds, but incremental improvements to speed up the service on the existing lines.”

Mr Wolmar commended the manifesto: “This is the right time to be proposing such changes, and they are certainly very reasonable.

“There’s no point in proposing a new high speed line between London and Norwich because that is not going to happen, but the ideas in this manifesto are a good basis for the new franchise.”

But he warned that could be some way away: “I know the transport secretary told Ben that the problems with the West Coast franchise should not delay other bids, but I have to say I don’t see how they can carry on with the existing timetable because all the franchise bids are inter-linked.”