East Anglia's rail industry faced massive changes in 2020

Greater Anglia trains and Freightliner locomotives in Ipswich station.

2020 was always going to be a year of transition on East Anglia's railways - but it turned out to be more dramatic than anyone expected! - Credit: Paul Geater

This year was always going to be a significant one for local rail operator Greater Anglia - but on January 1 no one knew just how transformative it would be.

The start of the year was very difficult for the rail company and its passengers. It was rolling out its new electric/diesel bimode trains on rural and cross-country services and they were facing serious problems.

At the end of 2019 an incident with leaves on the line in Norfolk had prompted questions about their safety - ultimately it was proved that there was no fault with the trains - but there were software issues which delayed many trains' introduction into service and forced major disruption on the region's non-electric lines.

The first new Intercity trains were launched in January and seemed to win the approval of most passenger despite one major breakdown.

New Intercity train at Colchester

The new Intercity trains entered service in January. - Credit: Nick Strugnell

It has to be said that the introduction new trains anywhere on the rail network is almost always accompanied by teething troubles. They seemed very major at the time - but now have mostly been ironed out.


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But the problems with the new trains were but a pinprick compared with the disaster that hit Greater Anglia and the entire transport industry at the end of March with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and the first lockdown.

Passenger numbers fell off a cliff as the government told people they could only travel if their journey was vital. Passenger numbers in the first quarter of the financial year (April-June) were just 7% of what they had been during the same period in 2019.

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The government bailed out the rail companies - but the pandemic also accelerated a phenomenon that had been happening quietly for some time. Fewer people were commuting by train to their jobs.


Empty Greater Anglia train

Empty trains became a feature of the first lockdown - and most services are still far from full. - Credit: Nathan Long

During the first lockdown millions of people started working from home for the first time - and many have found this a satisfying and less-stressful way of working than the hour-long journey every day to and from the office in the heart of a city.

As the first lockdown eased, the number of passengers rose - but trains are still carrying less than 30% of pre-pandemic passengers and there are serious doubts about how long it will take for passenger levels to reach pre-Covid levels.

Before Covid hit, the government had commissioned a report on the future operation of the privatised railway - how franchises should operate in the future.

In light of the pandemic, the billions of pounds the government has poured in to keep largely empty trains running for workers, and the likely loss of commuter income in the future, this is being rewritten.

The franchise model is effectively being wound-up and rail services in  the future are likely to be directly organised by the government with private operators contracted to provide specific services for fixed costs - in the same way that London's bus services operate.

Details of this are likely to emerge during the first half of the new year - but already key decisions are being made by the government, including the 2.6% fare rise that is coming into effect at the beginning of March.

The lack of passengers and reduced number of services did, at least, give Greater Anglia the chance to bed-in its new trains and from the middle of the year its reliability figures were looking very impressive - prompting some cynics to remark that rail companies were very good if they didn't have to face the inconvenience of carrying passengers!

The arrival of the new Swiss-built Stadler trains saw the departure of the last diesel multiple units in the region by February - and the end of the traditional Intercity trains by the end of March.


Traditional Greater Anglia train at Norwich

One of the last of the old Intercity trains prepares for its final journey from Norwich to London. - Credit: Greater Anglia

A big send-off for the traditional trains was being planned before the pandemic hit, so the old locomotive-hauled trains disappeared with little fanfare.

But while they may have left East Anglia, most have found a new life. The locomotives were transferred to Freightliner or to railtour operator Locomotive Services Limited while most of the carriages have gone to new users including heritage railways and railtour operators.

One innovative use for some of the former Greater Anglia First Class carriages is on the Staycation Express, a luxury train hauled by heritage diesel locomotives over part of the Settle to Carlisle Railway between Skipton and Appleby.


Former Greater Anglia carriages on the Staycation Express.

Some former Greater Anglia carriages have found a new lease of life on the Staycation Express tourist train that operates between Skipton and Appleby during the summer. - Credit: Rail Charter Services

But overall, East Anglia's railways have been on a real journey in 2020 - and it won't be until the middle of 2021 that we will know which direction the industry is heading in!


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