Let the train take the strain

WITH Community Rail Week trying to persuade us to leave our cars at home and discover the delights of the countryside by train, PAUL GEATER looks at how one Suffolk line has been brought back from the brink to become a major success story.

By Paul Geater

WITH Community Rail Week trying to persuade us to leave our cars at home and discover the delights of the countryside by train, PAUL GEATER looks at how one Suffolk line has been brought back from the brink to become a major success story.

IT'S a rail line on the up!

With faster rail services from the Suffolk countryside to the nation's capital, more comfortable trains and a keen marketing campaign extolling the virtues of the nearby countryside, the East Suffolk Line is one of the big transport success stories of recent years.

This is Community Rail Week, and over the last year a partnership between train operators 'one' and district and county councils has helped to boost passenger numbers on the line significantly.

The community rail partnership encourages people who live near the line to promote the service, help take care of their nearest station, and act as ambassadors for the service.

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And this local involvement with the line has had a significant effect on passenger numbers.

Peter Meades from rail company 'one' said: “Over the last year the number of passengers on the East Suffolk Line has gone up by 18 per cent. That is a significant rise.

“That is due to the better trains, through services to London and better promotion of the services - more people are aware of the trains and when they run than may have been the case in the past. Of course many of the passengers are from the towns and villages on the line heading to Ipswich and increasingly going right through to London, but we are also keen to encourage people to use the train to explore the Suffolk countryside.”

John Brodribb is chairman of the national community rail partnership. He lives at Beccles and has been a rail campaigner for many years - and has produced several books about East Anglia's railways.

He said: “The community rail partnership brings in people to support the line and promote it both in the communities it serves and over a wider area.

“We want to encourage more people to use the line for a variety of reasons - it is a real alternative to the car. If you want to visit Lowestoft it is the best way of getting there. Have you tried to drive into the town recently? It is a complete nightmare.

“But there are other things to do in the area and we have produced a booklet of railway walks which have been very popular.”

Mr Meades said this book had attracted a significant number of extra travellers - especially at the weekend: “Our computer which records unusual bookings flashed up a block booking for 37 single tickets between Woodbridge and Westerfield. We were puzzled until we realised it was a ramblers' group trying one of our walks,” he said.

To mark Community Rail Week, The Evening Star has teamed up with 'one' to offer five family Anglia Plus Tickets which allow unlimited travel for one day on the company's rail network in Norfolk and Suffolk.

They can be used at any time before the end of June.

To win these tickets just answer this simple question: Which resort, which is also Britain's most easterly town, is at the end of the East Suffolk Line. Is it:

a) Cromer.

b) Great Yarmouth.

c) Lowestoft.

Closing date for entries is May 29. Please include your name, address, and daytime phone number and send your answer to:

'one' railway competition,

PO Box 137,

30 Lower Brook Street,

Ipswich,

IP4 1EH.

PASSENGERS on the train from Lowestoft to London were generally content with the service - although they felt there could be improvements.

Paddy Heazell who lives at Snape, was heading to Gatwick Airport after catching the train at Saxmundham - one of the busiest stations on the line because it serves several other towns and villages as well.

He said: “I don't use the line every day, but it is a real lifeline for the area. There is no way I would want to drive to London.

“It is frustrating when there are problems, but they are usually beyond the control of the rail company - they are usually Network Rail's signals going wrong. That means I have to travel an hour or two earlier than I really have to, just in case, but the trains are comfortable enough.”

Louis Bonnet from Saxmundham has been travelling daily to London recently, and felt the service was good “most of the time - but you remember the times when things haven't gone so well.”

There was one improvement he would like to see: “It would be good to have a buffet or at least a trolley selling coffee, when you're heading to London it is quite a long journey and I think there would be the demand,” he said.

Anne Lewis travels from Saxmundham to London about every six weeks. She was not too impressed by the service: “I have turned up to find the train has been replaced by a coach and that's not very good.

“Also there aren't enough trains. They should go every hour rather once every two hours,” she said.

1859: Opened as a direct route from Ipswich to Great Yarmouth with a spur leading from Beccles to Lowestoft. It was built as a double-track main line and was used by express trains from the coast to the capital - most notably The Easterling which carried thousands of holidaymakers to east coast resorts.

After the war the amount of traffic on the line fell and the line from Beccles to Yarmouth closed at the end of 1959 because engineers felt it was not worth making expensive repairs to the bridge at Haddiscoe.

Early 1960s: Dr Beeching recommended the closure of the East Suffolk Line in his infamous report, but a strong community campaign led to its retention - albeit as an under-financed branch line.

1980s: It was chosen as a testbed for a new type of local railway with signals replaced by radio contact between the trains and controllers at Saxmundham - and much of the line was reduced to single track.

This decision has been regretted ever since - the long section of single track at the north of the route means it is not possible to run trains more frequently than one every two hours.

Today: Train operator 'one' is hoping Network Rail and Suffolk councils can be persuaded to invest in a new passing loop at Beccles or Oulton Broad which would allow trains to run to an hourly timetable.

Peter Meades from 'one' said: “The mood is changing on that and although it might take some time, we do hope eventually to get that to happen.”

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