By Chris Starkie, Chief Executive at New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership
Today marks a significant milestone in our campaign to improve the rail services between Norfolk, Suffolk and London.
The Norwich in 90 campaign was launched a decade ago, with the aim of improving the speed and reliability of services as well as upgrading the customer experience with new more comfortable trains.
And finally we will see the first daily 90-minute services become part of the timetable – with a fleet of new trains set to make their bow before too long.
Back in 2009 when Norwich in 90 was first launched, local councils, MPs and businesses, rail passengers and the local media all rallied to the campaign.
For too long we had to accept a poor service. Old trains running on creaking infrastructure which was proving a real barrier to business growth.
At the same time other lines in other parts of the country were securing investment. Our main challenge was get on the Government radar and then get them to take us seriously.
With the help of former Norwich South MP Charles Clarke, we met then Transport Secretary Lord Adonis for a summit in the Nelson Hotel. While Lord Adonis was sympathetic, his officials were less optimistic. The Department for Transport officials reminded us in that first meeting, that the East Anglian rail network was where old rolling stock was sent when other more important lines no longer needed it. And as for funding for major infrastructure improvements, the East Anglia routes were firmly at the back of the queue.
Changes of Government, of rail minister and to the franchising system compounded the challenge of getting things done.
But the dynamics changed when the former Chancellor George Osborne asked us to set up a Great Eastern Main Line taskforce to make the case for changes. The taskforce was initially chaired by Norwich North MP Chloe Smith and former LEP chairman Mark Pendlington. Its business case proved that investment in new trains and infrastructure on the Great Eastern Main Line would reap billions of pounds of economic growth in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The business case was instrumental in persuading the Government to invest £1.4bn in new trains as part of the new East Anglia franchise.
We had strongly argued that only new trains would provide the journey time improvements, additional comfort and facilities required by our passengers, as well as the extra seats needed to cope with customer demand. But there were plenty of officials who felt refurbished trains would meet Norfolk’s needs.
After all, with new trains and rolling stock being introduced on other more prestigious lines – where would their old carriages go if not to the fields of East Anglia. And even when the battle for new trains was won, there were furious arguments behind the scenes about the type of trains. We were adamant only intercity style trains would be acceptable and finally the argument was won. A huge bonus is that these trains will also be used to service our rural lines, which will be a truly transformational experience for long suffering passengers between places such as Great Yarmouth and Norwich.
It will mark the first time since the days of steam that new trains will be operating on our rail network, and the first franchise in which an entire train fleet has been replaced by new trains. But while today marks an important milestone, it is not the end of the journey. The Norwich in 90 services will still be few in number each day.
And whilst we have new trains, the infrastructure still requires significant investment. Granted Network Rail is spending hundreds of millions of pounds maintaining the existing infrastructure. Another important win has been the increase in funding Network Rail has secured for this.
But we are continuing to campaign for upgrades which will increase capacity and critically improve reliability. This will include improvements at Trowse, Haughley, north of Chelmsford and at Liverpool Street. Digital signalling will also improve capacity.
This is the work being undertaken by the Great Eastern Main Line taskforce, now chaired by Essex MP Priti Patel.
Work is being undertaken on a new economic case for infrastructure investment, and whilst the case will be strong it will be tough to secure investment. But we are resolute that the campaign will continue with its goal of delivering a rail service Norfolk businesses and rail passengers can be proud of.