Along with the cold, and the slippery pavements, and clearing the ice from windscreens, many people in Ipswich and Suffolk have been hit by the disruption to train services over the past week. On Wednesday I challenged Greater Anglia about the closures of branch lines and cancellation of some mainline services. I should get a written response sometime soon, but I understand that Network Rail, which controls the track, has not given them access at certain times because they were not able to guarantee safe running. I believe there may have been frozen points in places.
We all want the railways to be safe – and they are, of course, by far the safest form of transport. But I can’t help feeling that with a little more investment in equipment and a more robust emergency weather plan we might have been able to keep all our lines open.
I haven’t heard from Network Rail, so I am not sure what their view is. There is a natural tendency for Greater Anglia to point out Network Rail’s faults, and for Network Rail to point out things they can’t do anything about because they are the responsibility of Greater Anglia. In addition to having a single consistent railway, one great advantage I can see of bringing the railways back into public ownership is that we might see an end to some of the competitive buck-passing that goes on.
But of course, the ultimate responsibility must lie with the Government, and they are the ones who hold the purse-strings. Most of the disruption to our rail journeys over the past years, introducing regular travellers to such delightful places as Newbury Park and Ingatestone and Witham, has been caused by track renewal, overhead cable renewal, and all the works for the Crossrail route from Shenfield into London. This work is vital if we are going to have a useable railway, and the line will be faster as a result. The new trains will start to be introduced from April next year, and that will improve reliability and increase the number of seats at peak times. And once Crossrail starts running right through London it will be much easier for us to get to places along the route including to Heathrow Airport. All of these are good things, and along with the Borough Council, the Chamber of Commerce, Ipswich Central and anyone else who will join us I intend to use this improved access to Ipswich to promote our town as a fantastic place to visit and to set up business.
But actually the impact of the new trains would be much greater if we could get the improvements to the track that we have been campaigning about for years. We need the junction at Haughley to be relayed, and the Trowse bridge over the river in Norwich to be replaced, which will improve reliability along the whole line. We need a passing loop south of Colchester so that slow trains don’t hold up fast ones. And above all, we need the rail line from Felixstowe to the Midlands to be upgraded, so that freight trains don’t have to go down to London just so they can turn round and come back north again. We want the containers to go by train, we don’t want so many lorries trundling round Ipswich on the A14 – or worse still, trundling through Ipswich when the Orwell Bridge is closed. And Hutchison ports, which runs Felixstowe, want to increase the amount of containers they send by train by 50%. But they can’t do that unless the line from Felixstowe to the Midlands is made fit for purpose. And if it were made fit for purpose, we could get some of those freight trains off the main line to London and stop delaying the passenger trains.
I believe Greater Anglia want to do the right thing with our trains. I believe Hutchison want to do the right thing with freight, and I am sure Network Rail would dearly love to do the right things with the track. But it takes money, and the government is just not putting enough money in to make things happen. Our region is a net contributor to the wealth of the nation, alongside the South East and London. The UK needs to invest in its success, and East Anglia could be so much more successful if we had more investment in our railways. And nowhere is that more true than in Ipswich.