On 29th June 2017, 3 weeks after being elected, I met with Jonathan Denby, Head of Corporate Affairs for Greater Anglia, to discuss what Abellio were intending to do to make our trains better, and what I could do as Ipswich’s MP to help get the very best from the government. This wasn’t the first time I had met Mr Denby, or other senior rail figures – as a Suffolk County Councillor I have argued for better rail services at local, regional and national meetings over the past 20 years.
On 4th July 2017 I attended my first meeting of the Great Eastern Mainline Taskforce, where MPs from Chelmsford to Norwich get together with officials from Greater Anglia, Network Rail and the Department of Transport to try to get the best possible deal for passengers. One item on the agenda for that meeting was to reduce the length of people’s journey delays before they received compensation to 15 minutes – so-called “Delay-Repay 15”. I was able to give my unequivocal support to that action, but it took a considerable amount of pressure from all the MPs on the Taskforce over the next 18 months before we were finally able to persuade the rail Minister to remove the hurdles and enable Greater Anglia to make that compensation offer. I didn’t just support the MPs’ campaign, I also made positive suggestions to Greater Anglia for how passengers could make that compensation claim more easily.
I will not allow party politics to get in the way of doing my best to improve our rail services. I am very glad to cooperate with Conservative MPs from Essex and Norfolk and Suffolk in order to improve our railways. Which is why I was a little disappointed that at the very moment the Taskforce was meeting this Monday morning, at which we discussed how to ensure that our line gets the investment it so desperately needs, the rail Minister chose to attend a photo opportunity at Ipswich station instead. MPs along the line hear from their constituents and know what is needed, we are elected to represent those needs, and the Minister needs to listen to us if he’s going to do his job properly.
There is a lot of good news. The new intercity trains will start arriving very soon with replacement completed this year. Most of the overhead cable work is now done and there are no more planned weekend closures between Ipswich and Liverpool Street until Christmas. At the end of next year, when all the new trains are in service, we will get a complete overhaul of the timetable with faster journeys and hopefully straight-through services from London to Lowestoft.
But there is a lot left to do. The government keeps promising improvements and then putting them on the back-burner. Haughley Junction should have been sorted out years ago, and likewise the bridge over the river in Norwich. With more, faster and longer trains Ipswich station is going to need another platform. And it’s time to get most of the freight trains onto the line to Peterborough where they want to be, instead of having to go into London and out again, disrupting passenger services.
This is not just about comfort or convenience, although it would be nice to have more of both. It’s not just about giving passengers value for money, although Ipswich passengers in particular are paying through the nose. It’s about the economy of Ipswich and of Suffolk as a whole. Businesses need to know that they can get to London quickly and easily. People need to be able to take the train rather than having to drive, and so free up more road space for those who do have to drive. And the Port of Felixstowe must have better access to the whole of our country so that it can continue to compete, not just with the Thames ports, but also with Hamburg and Rotterdam.
I will continue my campaign to have Ipswich included in the Network Card area so that people can travel to London on business when they need to without having to pay some of the highest walk-on fares in the country. I will be seeking meetings with managers from Hutchison Ports and the rail minister so that we can once more make the case for serious investment, not just in new trains but also in a better railway. I think that will be a more effective approach than simply turning up for a photo.