Take the chance to improve railway

COULD we be at the dawn of an exciting new era for the region's rail services?This week it looks as if the often-discussed but never developed east-west rail route linking East Anglia with the south Midlands could finally get the go-ahead.

COULD we be at the dawn of an exciting new era for the region's rail services?

This week it looks as if the often-discussed but never developed east-west rail route linking East Anglia with the south Midlands could finally get the go-ahead.

The dream is to develop rail services running from Ipswich or Norwich through Cambridge to Bedford, Milton Keynes, Oxford, and Swindon on the Great Western main line.

It would allow passengers from Ipswich to reach Oxford in two and a half hours.

Such a proposal would cost a huge amount of money - estimated at between �250m and �300m - but the engineering needed is not that great.

All the lines exist apart from a “missing link” between Sandy and Bedford - a total of less than ten miles - although some are now little-used freight lines which would need considerable upgrading.

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And while �300 million is a lot of money, it is not that great in comparison with the cost of building a new road - and the strategic benefits would be great.

Not only would it enable passengers to travel between this region and the west of England and Wales without going through London, it would also enable freight from Felixstowe to avoid congested lines around the capital.

That would free much more capacity for passenger trains heading from here to Liverpool Street - making the service much more reliable and increasing the number of people that could be carried every day.

But what worries me more than a little is that there isn't going to be enough time to develop the proposal in time for it to ever be built.

A major �300 million infrastructure scheme is just the kind of thing the government is looking for at the moment to stimulate the economy and leaving a lasting legacy - but I fear if the scheme doesn't get going in time it will just miss the train!

Perversely once the economy does start to pick up, the government is likely to put the brakes on its spending. Firstly it will be keen to avoid building up inflation and secondly it will start thinking about paying back all the money it has borrowed for large schemes like this.

I suspect once confidence has returned to the private sector, government schemes will very rapidly be put on the back-burner and the Treasury will try to rein in its spending.

If the diggers haven't actually moved in by that time, then the scheme will be shelved . . . forever!

So what is actually needed now is some very fast footwork by those who want to see the east-west rail link. It needs to be approved and have work start very quickly.

That way we could be left with a great rail legacy when the recession does come to an end - any prevarication and delay in making a decision is likely to ultimately result in yet another lost opportunity.

While on the subject of rail improvements, I sincerely hope the European Union quickly agrees to a grant of �69 million to upgrade the other cross-country route from Felixstowe to Nuneaton, enabling freight to travel direct from this region to the midlands and north west of England.

Such a move would be good for the country's infrastructure and should enable many more lorries to be taken off the congested A14.

But again the problem could be the speed - or lack of it - with which the European bureaucrats approach the issue.

I'M not the favourite person among managers and the press office at Stansted airport after my article earlier this year praising the protesters who invaded the airport in opposition to cheap flights.

So they will probably be surprised to hear my welcome for the new Air Asia flights that have been launched providing a direct link from the Essex airport to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

But that really is just the kind of flight Stansted needs . . . and just the kind of flight we were promised when the terminal was being built 20 years ago.

No one can really object to flying to the other side of the world - and travelling to places like Kuala Lumpur helps to broaden the horizons.

What many people, myself included, object to is the way that Stansted has become the hub for short-haul flights that are unnecessary (because the journeys could be better made by other methods like train) or simply pointless because they have been created by airlines simply to feed their own profit.

As I've said before, who really wants or needs to fly from Stansted to Bergerac in the south of France or Tampere in Finland?

What is needed is more flights that people do want - to New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, or Cape Town.

And if these long-haul flights replaced the unnecessary short-hop services everyone would be happy - except possibly the bosses at Ryanair!

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