Our rural rail network runs on the right lines

Epitome of a rural railway - Worstead station on the Bittern Line between Norwich and Sheringham.

Epitome of a rural railway - Worstead station on the Bittern Line between Norwich and Sheringham. - Credit: Archant © 2008

I’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks, and started off with what has become known as a “staycation,” going out on day-trips and exploring, or in most cases re-exploring, parts of the region that I enjoy.

And to start this off in a thorough, albeit somewhat eccentric, way I took a journey on East Anglia’s secondary rail lines.

It’s a great way of seeing the region – but it also gave me the chance to see how the rail companies, especially Greater Anglia, are doing once you’re off the main line.

I paid £17 for a one-day Anglia Plus ticket which gives unlimited travel on all lines north and east of Ipswich, Cambridge and Ely.

Overall, on my personal experience, I was very impressed. Every train I caught left on time and arrived on time at the other end . . . to the minute. In fact the first and last trains arrived a couple of minutes early.

As a teenager and student I often did this kind of thing during summer holidays in the 1970s, and frankly the trains and the reliability now is in a different league.

The trains are more frequent, comfortable, and there are more passengers than I remember – even during off-peak times.

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My journey took me from Ipswich to Lowestoft, across to Norwich, up to Cromer for lunch, back to Norwich, before returning to Ipswich via Ely.

All the lines have a unique scenic character – for anyone who does not use them regularly it is truly fascinating to just look out of the window.

The line from Ipswich to Lowestoft is the most important rail route in the world! I was born and brought up in East Suffolk and during my teenage years it was my route to the outside world . . . and back home again.

I’d never considered the scenery that special – it’s just the scenery of home, but looking again the mix of fields, meadows, heathland, and woodland that you see along the 46-mile route sums up East Suffolk perfectly.

For pure scenic beauty, the line between Lowestoft and Norwich cannot be beaten – especially the section from Oulton Broad to Reedham beside the New Cut river linking Lowestoft to the Broads.

I saw deer, a heron, and even a marsh harrier from the train as it rushed along. The 25-mile journey from Lowestoft to Norwich takes 35 minutes – it’s much faster than the still-sluggish East Suffolk line.

The Bittern Line from Norwich to Sheringham and Cromer is probably the route I use more than any other now. The North Norfolk Railway at the far end calls me twice a year for its steam galas – and there’s only one sane way to get there!

You get a glimpse of broadland on the line at Wroxham, and the extension between Cromer and Sheringham is not far from the sea – but this week I didn’t reach the end of the line as I wasn’t looking for some steamy action!

The line from Norwich to Ely – from where trains either go on to Cambridge or to Peterborough and beyond – is also very different, running through Breckland and Thetford Forest.

Again it’s good for watching wildlife – I saw hares and more deer – although as this is now effectively a “main line” the train travels so fast you have to pay careful attention.

The line from Ely back to Ipswich will be familiar to anyone from the town who uses it to travel to Peterborough and then on to the Midlands, Scotland, or the north of England.

However, familiarity does breed indifference. Maybe regular travellers forget how interesting the rides at Newmarket or the historic town of Bury St Edmunds are.

So overall I got a positive view of the region’s non-main line rail network.

There were issues – the gents’ at Ely station were all closed and Lowestoft station is a pretty bleak place these days (although its position in the town centre is very important).

While my trains all ran perfectly on time, once I got home I saw Tweets from Greater Anglia warning that a train between Ipswich and Peterborough was cancelled because of a failure, and the line between Ely and Norwich was closed for a time because of a train breakdown.

The robustness of the network is clearly still an issue (especially when there is only one train an hour).

But overall, the rural rail network seemed in pretty good shape. It’s worth exploring those secondary lines!

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