I’ve moved away from Suffolk because rail service is so poor
PUBLISHED: 11:00 08 January 2020
Frustrated commuter Kate says ‘It just became completely untenable to take the train’
It's drastic and has demanded many sacrifices, but it's necessary. Kate Hughes has called time on 15 years in Suffolk, sold her "sweet little house" and moved more than 50 miles away. It's down to the fitful and often-congested train service on the Ipswich to Cambridge line sapping energy and patience. No longer.
Among the casualties of her departure from Bury St Edmunds are social interests. Fifteen years with Bury Bach Choir: over. A decade of voluntary work with the East Anglian Sailing Trust: at an end. "I am giving all of this up as I love my new job in Cambridge but the commute is unsustainable."
Now, living with her partner in Hertfordshire, she travels to work from the other direction. There are more trains per hour, more carriages, and it's a shorter trip.
The six months or so of travelling between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire ended, ironically, with Kate making a claim for compensation. (The mechanics are stored on her phone. "I can do the whole thing in about 90 seconds…")
A tweet on December 17: "Celebrating my last ever train commute from Cambridge back to Bury with a #delayrepay claim from @greateranglia! 20mins late but at least I had a seat. The rest of the week the work car park is open and then I move house next week."
What a shame it's come to this - particularly because "when it works, it's definitely the easiest, cheapest and most environmentally friendly way for me to get from Bury to Cambridge".
'There's little slack'
Kate says the first three weeks of commuting were generally fine, "and then it went to hell in a handbasket. I did a work trip to India at the beginning of September, and since I got back from that I did not have a day where both trains were normal-sized" - the number of carriages - "and on time.
"Then it went completely to pot two or three weeks before Christmas. That was awful."
At one point Kate missed a number of meetings because of train issues and had to work from home. "It was materially affecting my role, really."
She adds: "It just became completely untenable to take the train. Thankfully, I have a flexible boss and a flexible workplace, and I love my job, so I wasn't going to quit because of that."
Kate says her partner - whose work takes him overseas for much of the time - had moved to Letchworth Garden City "and we were looking to consolidate. We weren't actually going to do it quite so soon but it just became ridiculous".
Recent problems with new rolling stock and the signalling didn't help, but Kate reckons the line wasn't terribly reliable six or eight years ago, anyway. And the long stretch of single track "means there's little slack in the system".
Would she still have left Suffolk had it not been for her partner moving to Hertfordshire?
"I think I would. If I were single, I would have either moved to Cambridge or probably Ely, because I have friends there and that is quite a good line. It's 20 minutes. It's the commute that Bury should have. But it was just getting ridiculous."
A one-way journey of about 90 minutes (45 or so on the train and 20-minute walks at each end) was "an extraordinary amount of time for going 23 miles".
What did it do to one's mental state?
"It was so frustrating. I would get to work and be starting my day with fundamental irritation.
"One day, when they said the train was running and on time, in the rain I walked to the station. It then was cancelled. I was so upset and angry that I was in furious tears the whole way home, to get the car and set off to Cambridge.
"There was this low-grade fear all the time that I was going to get stuck in Cambridge, and of missing meetings and having to get up earlier and missing out on sleep. It was really draining.
"It meant I didn't have my full capacity to sing in the choir when I got there. I was 20 minutes late, because I was held up, and I arrived in this ball of fury. Nobody needs this. And it's not fair on my team if I come to work angry."
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'Not enough flexibility'
One of Kate's major frustrations is a feeling that no-one is really getting to grips with the issues.
If a peak-time train from Letchworth is cancelled, she knows another is due soon.
"In peak rush-hour from Bury to Cambridge (there's) the 6.54 and then the 7.33… then there's nothing else for nearly 90 minutes. That doesn't feel like the company (Greater Anglia) wants people to work in Cambridge and live in Suffolk."
The city is a magnet in terms of offering employment, but for those contemplating a rail commute "there's not enough flexibility".
"There was a woman I stood with on the platform some days and she took a new job in Cambridge that she was really excited about. She ended up handing in her notice after a month, to take a less-well-paid job in Bury because 'I literally can't get to work'."
Kate fears towns such as Bury St Edmunds will fail to thrive if rail infrastructure isn't up to scratch.
"There's good commuter rail into Cambridge from Ely; there's good commuter rail from the south; there's reasonable service from the west; but there's really nothing in from the east. And that's the struggle. It's preventing the town from growing."
Kate's solution is peak-time express trains running every 20 minutes and calling at Ipswich, Bury and Cambridge. The whole journey would take about 40 minutes. These would be complemented by "local" services, stopping at more places and feeding into the main stations.
- Make the system more flexible. Two tracks, virtually all the way, would reduce delays and allow for more-frequent services.
"It seems like a major investment, but it's the kind of investment Suffolk needs if it's going to advance."
- "Just doing what they say they're going to do, when they say they're going to do it."
- Keep people in touch. "The staff themselves have been excellent but the communications from the despatch office and via the website are terrible."
"None whatsoever. Lots of sadness about leaving Bury. I'm really going to miss Suffolk. It's been my home and it isn't anymore."
Kate's joined another choir and a running club. "It's me having to rebuild my life from scratch, having built it over 15 years in Suffolk. Where's the Delay Repay on that?!"
Better days ahead?
A Greater Anglia spokesperson said: "In order to increase the frequency of trains from hourly to half-hourly on this line [Ipswich to Cambridge], major infrastructure improvements would be needed, including a passing loop between Dullingham and Cambridge and an increase in the line speed from 55mph to 75mph on the route.
"At the moment there is no government funding available for this project. However, Greater Anglia is proactively working with stakeholders, including local authorities and MPs, to make a business case for the loop to be built and line speed improvements to be made.
"In the meantime, we are replacing every single train on the line with brand new longer trains, which will all be in passenger service from next month, which will mean only three- or four-carriage trains, with at least 20% more seats, will run − compared to the old one-, two- or three-carriage trains.
"We are also examining what steps would be needed to increase frequency at peak times, to see if that could be done in advance of more substantial upgrades."
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