Rail company hit by regulator

ANGLIA Railways has found itself stitched up by the government – but with luck its misfortune could be of long-term benefit to passengers in the region.

ANGLIA Railways has found itself stitched up by the government – but with luck its misfortune could be of long-term benefit to passengers in the region.

When the government's Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) decided to pull the plug on the Crosslink service between Ipswich and Basingstoke after two years it was no great surprise.

But it was a slap in the face to Anglia who had launched it two years ago when the SRA's watchword was to find new travel opportunities by rail.

The then SRA chairman Sir Alastair Morton encouraged companies to think differently. No one thought differently more than Anglia and its parent company GB Railways.

They saw the opportunity to run a service by-passing central London – and were ultimately looking to expand it in other directions.

There was talk of a service from Essex to Watford to connect with express trains to the north west and Glasgow.

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And Anglia saw Crosslink as the first stage of an ambitious service to run regular trains from Norwich to Southampton.

Two things changed all that – Hatfield and the departure of Sir Alastair.

Hatfield was the catalyst which ultimately led to Crosslink's demise.

After Hatfield few people were interested in "new" rail opportunities. They just wanted the existing rail routes to work properly.

People stopped worrying about long term investment and just wanted to make sure that the existing lines were safe.

Sir Alastair's successor, Richard Bowker, is nowhere near as keen on new services – he's made no secret of the fact that his priority is to make sure the trains run properly.

Crosslink never attracted enough passengers to be a commercial success – and its marketing was at times woeful.

At one time I thought about taking the family on a day out to Windsor using Crosslink and changing at Feltham – much easier than trudging across central London.

When I asked for details, I was told it would be much cheaper to go into Liverpool Street and catch the tube to Waterloo or Paddington.

Anglia chiefs later told me this wasn't true – but an "ordinary" passenger wouldn't have the option of getting a second opinion.

There are many reasons why Crosslink failed – lack of passengers, lack of support from the SRA, and a marketing failure.

But it doesn't need to be all bad news for Anglia. The company has a chance to make a real difference to real passengers as a result of its failure.

The comfortable Turbostar trains used on the service could be transferred to its Ipswich-Peterborough services, where there are already passengers and they often have to suffer long journeys in frankly unsatisfactory Sprinter trains.

That would allow more of the Sprinters to be transferred to more regular services on local lines like Ipswich to Cambridge and Ipswich to Lowestoft – if they can persuade the SRA to fund the construction of a new passing loop at Beccles.

Of course all this is happening as Anglia is bidding to get the franchise to run trains throughout East Anglia.

The company has gained high marks for passenger satisfaction – but its financial problems have caused concern at the SRA.

But recently there have been signs that the finances are improving slightly – and its bosses have renewed hope that they will be able to retain the franchise, possibly in partnership with another company.

But whatever happens in the future, let's hope that out of the wreckage of Crosslink genuine improvements to train services will come about.

I DON'T share Prince Charles' views on architecture, but his comments on agriculture and especially our habit of carting food all over the world to the nearest supermarket the other day did strike a chord.

When I was growing up strawberries were a real treat: they tasted great, they showed summer was here, and they meant that the long school holidays were just around the corner.

Now you can buy "fresh" strawberries all year round, flown here from Israel, Spain, or wherever.

And then there are other foods that are imported from the other side of the world. How much oil is used carting "Cheddar" cheese all the way from New Zealand and Australia?

Surely as Cheddar is a town in Somerset, the interlopers should be "Cheddar-style" cheese anyway.

No one objects to the importation of foods that can't be grown here, like oranges, lemons, bananas, and things like that.

And soft cheese like Brie and Camembert can only be made in France. Remember Lymeswold?

But do we really have to cart stuff tens of thousands of miles when the same thing can be made just down the road?

This part of the country is Britain's larder. Isn't it about time the big supermarkets started selling local produce that hasn't been transported vast distances?

That way local farmers would benefit, the environment would benefit, and consumers might even rediscover their connection with the industry.

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