New tracks. New platforms at Ipswich station. And faster trains. Will East Anglia's rail bosses be able to deliver?
PUBLISHED: 15:53 01 February 2019 | UPDATED: 09:37 04 February 2019
Rail bosses have outlined a bold new vision for the East Anglian network over the next 25 years at a major transport conference in Ipswich.
New track in Essex and Suffolk, new station platforms at Ipswich, and major improvements to improve speed and efficiency of passenger and freight trains was at the forefront of the East Anglian Rail Conference in Ipswich.
But there was a warning that some long-awaited service improvements promised in Greater Anglia’s new franchise deal in 2016 could still be some years off – and are dependent on major track upgrades if they are to be brought into effect.
The conference, held at IP-City in Ipswich, brought together senior figures from Greater Anglia and Network Rail, MPs from Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex, and business leaders. It was organised by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership.
The chair of the Great Eastern Main Line Task Force, Witham MP Priti Patel, hosted the meeting which focussed on the work being done to speed up and improve reliability of services on the main line from London to Norwich through Chelmsford, Colchester and Ipswich.
And the conference was told of a number of possible projects aimed at improving services until 2043.
New tracks for the main line:
Network Rail’s lead strategic planner James Bradley outlined some of the projects the nationalised company was looking at to cope with an expected growth in demand for rail services over the next 25 years.
The number of passengers using trains across the country has more than doubled during the last 25 years, going up from 750m to 1.7bn. Although there was a slight dip last year, experts expect passenger numbers to pick up again in the long term.
Mr Bradley said if some of ambitious growth figures were realised – and over the last two decades growth figures have out-performed many predictions – there would be a need to build new tracks alongside existing lines to increase capacity.
There are already investigations into building a third track between Witham and Chelmsford in Essex. Mr Bradley said it might be necessary to build two new tracks between Shenfield and Chelmsford, and further new tracks south of Colchester, and new tracks between Ipswich and Haughley junction north of Stowmarket to separate freight services from passenger trains.
Improving pinch-points on the main line:
Mr Bradley said improving Haughley junction, making it a full double-track junction, would mainly benefit cross-country services but it would reduce a potential main-line bottleneck.
The Trowse swing-bridge near Norwich station is another project that is being considered for an upgrade. Mr Bradley said it was adequate for the pressures of the main line, but if there was a push to put more trains on cross country line from Norwich to Ely, Cambridge and Peterborough it would have to be replaced by a two-track bridge.
Expanding Ipswich Station.
New longer trains could force Greater Anglia and Network Rail to lengthen platforms at Ipswich Station – and Greater Anglia is looking at the possibility of building new platforms on what is currently the freight depot next to Platform Four.
That is operated by Freightliner, which is planning to build a new depot on the other side of the tracks over disused sidings near the Penta Hotel.
Jonathan Denby from Greater Anglia said that once Freightliner had its new depot, there would be space for them to stable their trains at Ipswich – and if demand grew they could build new platforms there for regional trains heading north from the station towards Lowestoft, Cambridge and Peterborough.
Boosting smaller stations:
The growth in passenger numbers at the largest stations on the GEML in Essex – Chelmsford and Colchester – has slowed while more passengers are using smaller stations with improved parking facilities. Marks Tey, Manningtree, Kelvedon, Ingatestone, and Hatfield Peveral have become more popular with commuters driving to stations because they don’t have to drive into the heart of large towns or cities to find an expensive parking space.
Ms Patel urged the rail companies and county council to take more note of these findings and improve facilities at smaller stations.
Speeding up trains:
From May’s timetable there will be two trains a day in each direction that travel from London to Norwich in 90 minutes and Ipswich in 60.
However Greater Anglia managing director Jamie Burles said that before these timings could become the norm for InterCity services on the route, there would have to be improvements to the rail infrastructure which was still the subject of negotiations with Network Rail.
Improving regional services:
In Greater Anglia’s franchise deal signed in 2016, there was a commitment for through trains from Lowestoft to London via the East Suffolk line and for an hourly service between Ipswich and Peterborough.
Mr Burles said the through trains from the East Suffolk Line would be introduced from the May 2020 timetable using the new bimode diesel/electric trains which were coming into service later this year.
However the hourly service to Peterborough from Ipswich was dependent on improvements being made to junctions at Haughley and north of Ely – and there was no firm date set for that yet.
Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill said she would be keeping up the pressure to improve cross-country services and to improve services to communities in her constituency like Elmswell and Thurston, which were becoming popular for people to move to because of their rail links.