Transport campaigners still fighting for trains and buses after 50 years

Modern trains and more services have boosted numbers on the East Suffolk rail line.

Modern trains and more services have boosted numbers on the East Suffolk rail line. - Credit:

The Beeching Report published in 1963 heralded the death-knell for hundreds of rail lines across Britain, including many in East Anglia.

One of the routes proposed for closure in the original report was the East Suffolk Line from Ipswich to Lowestoft with its branch line to Aldeburgh from Saxmundham.

According to the report, the line should have been severed between Westerfield junction – with the potentially-lucrative branch to Felixstowe port – and Oulton Broad North junction on the line between Lowestoft and Norwich.

However, the line wasn’t one of the first on Beeching’s hit-list and it wasn’t until 1965 that a specific proposal to close the route was published.

There would be public meetings and an examination to look at the proposal – and that gave local people living along the route the chance to get organised.

On November 13, 1965 the East Suffolk Travellers’ Association was formed to fight the closure . . . and to campaign for better public transport in the area.

The association was not formed until after the hearings into the proposed closure had been held in Saxmundham Market Hall – and it got a major boost just a month after its formation when the official Transport Users’ Consultative Committee recommended that the line should be retained.

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It was six months later that the decision was confirmed by the then minister for transport Barbara Castle – although she did recommend the axing of the Aldeburgh branch which closed on September 10, 1966.

However, ESTA went from strength to strength promoting the branch – which remained a tough job because of cost-cutting measures introduced over the next 20 years.

In 1967 the stations on the line all became unstaffed halts with tickets bought from conductors on the pay trains which operated the services.

Anyone who used the one through train to London a day was issued with an excess fare ticket from the rural stations.

There were further threats to branch lines across the country during the mid-1970s – although in the end there were only two lines closed in Britain and there was never a specific proposal to close the East Suffolk Line at this stage.

The last serious closure threat was the Serpell Report of the early 1980s which again threatened widespread cuts – however on this occasion it did lead to the line being converted into a “low-cost” route with single track and radio-signalling.

This change did allow trains to run later in the evening and for more Sunday services – but it also resulted in problems 25 years later when it became impossible to increase service frequency until a new crossing was installed at Beccles.

Throughout all these years, ESTA helped British Rail to promote the line and to ensure that timetables and tickets were easy to pick up in the area.

While ESTA was set up to campaign for the retention and development of the rail line, it has also campaigned to improve bus services in the area – and to make public transport in general a viable alternative to private cars.

There have been battles over bus route changes – it is much easier for bus operators to cut services than it is for rail companies to cut back on them.

And the work of ESTA continues. Over the last few years the opening of the Beccles loop and the introduction of an hourly service on the whole East Suffolk Line for the first time ever has seen a huge increase in the number of passengers.

The area’s rail service really has seen its fortunes transformed over the last 50 years.

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