How might our Charter look in reality? We have been working on a comprehenive, realistic and visionary plan, developed by frontline rail workers to overhaul the way railways are used and run in East Anglia.
Currently rail services from Norfolk's capital city, Norwich, consist of half hourly services to London Liverpool Street, with hourly services to Sheringham & Cromer, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Cambridge. The first stage of our plan focuses on passenger services in Norfolk. We are currently developing a freight strategy to be published at a later date.
Passenger services in Norfolk and East Anglia have remained relatively unchanged in the past decade or more. Timetables today mirror those of twenty years ago. Some improvements have taken place, most notably the introduction of an hourly service on the East Suffolk line between Lowestoft and Ipswich, which has seen passenger numbers grow 15% since line capacity and signalling was upgraded in 2013. Clearly there is an appetite for regional rail travel.
Building an Inter-Regional Railway
Currently inter-regional services offer very poor connectivity. For anyone travelling from any intermediate station on any of the routes out of Norwich to another station on another route, such as a journey from Beccles to Norwich or Wymondham to North Walsham, they are likely to face no guarantee of making a connecting service if their first train is late or a long wait for a connecting service. Such is the case of Beccles to Norwich, where there is no guarunteed interconnectivity between services at Lowestoft, or for Wymondham to North Walsham, there is a 23 minute wait for services at Norwich. Clearly things can be improved. Clockface departures from Norwich could be one solution.
Our initial vision for East Anglian Rail is simple: run more trains and run them quicker.
Develping inter-regional rail transport is essential if the UK is to meet its carbon reduction targets. Long term investment in electrification and renewable energy can mean clean, electric trains which don't poison the air we breath with cancerous particulates. Our local rail network is not being exploited enough to reduce cross-county car journeys. In rural Norfolk, the car has little competition. Railways face the most competition from buses, which traditionally offer a cheaper and more reliable service. That's why part of our Charter proposes the creation of a National Transport Service to unify public transport development so rural bus routes can feed into rail services with guarunteed connections.
Priority for road transport can no longer meet the transport needs of the area. Clearly the need is to take cars and lorries off the road and to do this a viable alternative is needed. That's why we advocate widespread regional investment in rail, to improve infrastructure to increase line speeds and reduce journey times and if necessary, examine diverting local Vehicle Excise Duty income to subsidise cheaper rail travel. Our initial vision for East Anglian Rail is simple: run more trains and run them quicker.
A Train Every Thirty MinutesThe first phase of our vision involves the running of a thirty minute train service across East Anglia. To do this, investment is needed at Norwich, to build new platforms, at North Walsham, to rebuild a terminal platform and capacity improvements would be required on the East Suffolk line, and that is it. These works would be a drop in the ocean compared to the engineering work undertaken in London. The capacity already exists between Norwich and Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft to run a thirty minute service, but operator Greater Anglia doesn't have the trains to run such a service, even if it wanted to. They already lease too fewer trains than they need to run the current hourly services. Services are regularly cancelled due to a shortage of trains.
With Norfolk being relatively flat, many routes are geographically straight as an arrow, lending themselves naturally to high speed running. Historically linespeeds on the branch lines from Norwich to the coast have reduced bit by bit over the years as maintenance has been wound back. Currently large parts of the Sheringham and Cromer lines are restricted to lightweight trains only. Speed restrictions for heavy trains are necessary for a number of bridges along the route from Norwich to Lowestoft and on the East Suffolk line.
Maintenance cutbacks within Network Rail mean that staff are employed fixing a growing list of track faults, rather than being tasked to improve the network. So average end to end speeds of the Norwich to Sheringham, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and East Suffolk lines average no more than 30mph. The screaming absence of strategic oversight in the rail industry means that the profiteers of the private system spend energy on working out who is to blame for delays as opposed to working co-operatively, without competition towards the common goal of upgrading our rail network to serve future generations.
Faster Trains for the Future
90mph is the magic number for Norfolk's Rail network. 75mph is the second magic number. 90mph might not be the 'ton', but those bullet straight sections of line, such as the flat races of the Norwich to Lowestoft line along the marshes of the Yare Valley, the Acle Straight to Yarmouth and to Salhouse and Wroxham and North Walsham lend themselves to 90mph running, running relatively straight with few engineering obstacles to overcome for upgrading linespeed. Currently the maximum speed on these lines is 60mph. Much of the track is still of the old 'bullhead' type, with rails bolted together every sixty feet. The route from Norwich to Ely was built as a mainline and was at one time the principle route to London before the line to Ipswich and Colchester was completed. Between Thetford and Brandon trains already run at 90mph, the rest of the line is 75mph.
Our plan for linespeed is simple. Where trains currently run at 60mph, invest in the infrastructure to run them at 75mph. Where it is ever possible, run them at 90mph. Linespeed upgrades are essential to reducing journey times, making rail highly competitive against road transport.
Our Yarmouth:Lowestoft:20:25 campaign - to reduce journey times to Great Yarmouth by 20 minutes and to Lowestoft by 25 minutes by 2025 is a counter-campaign to the 'Norwich in 90' campaign, which pushes to expand the London bubble by encouraging Norwich to be more attractive to London commuters by making trains a bit quicker to the capital. Whilst upgrades to the London service are welcome, we argue that regional development should come first, as a focus for making our regional economies more prosperous and resilient. We see 'Norwich in 90' for the gimmick it really is - one or two trains carefully diagrammed in the timetable to miss out key stations to reach London in 90 minutes, a tidy scoop for career politicians. We want to see every train, serving intermediate stations, making the 20:25 target. It is realistic, it is achievable and with rail worker and passenger focused regionally devolved and democratic public ownership, it can happen.
An Electric Future
Making trains run more often and making them quicker shouldn't be the end of the line for East Anglian rail investent, or national rail investent at that. The UK has more diesel-ony non-electrified lines than most European operators. Historically, diesel was only meant to be a stopgap in a transition to a fully electrified network. Privatisation has delivered very little in the way of electrification, ending the momentum British Rail achieved in bringing mainlines 'under the wires'. The Great Eastern Mainline was one of the last British Rail electrification schemes to be completed, with Norwich 'coming under the wires' in 1986. Less than a decade later, British Rail was privatised and no more long distance routes have been electrified since.
Widespread electrification offers huge cost savings and goes hand in hand with reducing journey times. Lightweight electric units with no filthy diesel engines accellerate quicker. A partially electrified system creates the need for two sets of rolling stock, or the alternative can be expensive: such as the 'bi-mode' trains ordered by Greater Anglia. But Greater Anglia nor Network Rail are making any noises about future electrification projects. The mantra of the Treasury is still that of Austerity. Austerity isn't working. Austerity isn't going to give us the railway we need.
A line such as the Norwich to Ely route is the perfect platform for the extension of East Anglian electrification. Currently the line is used for an hourly Cambridge service and an hourly through service to Liverpool Lime St. A small tonnage of freight, namely aggregates also uses the line. Electrification of this route provides many benefits. It would help to expand the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor concept, provide cleaner trains through the heart of Breckland and allow for an alternative all-electric route to London, either for exploitation as an alternative timetabled route or for keeping trains running during times of disruption.
A Real Voice for Passengers and Rail Employees
Currently both rail workers and passengers have little way of holding our railways to account. There are no mechanisms to ensure that the services in Norwich, Norfolk or anywhere else in the country are operated in a democratic way which ensure people and public service come before private shareholder profit.
British Rail did a good job of running the railways but we don't advocate a return to such a monolithic state operation. If British Rail was still in existence we might have a few more electrified lines, but we would still be pushing our plan for a new approach to public ownership, where top down management systems are replaced by more dynamic, democratic and accountable structures. We've outlined a few of our big ideas in our NOR4NOR Charter for regional and national levels. The time has come to stop dancing around the edges of our bumbling branch lines and kick start a discussion about what real investment can look like and then make it happen.