New trains, yes, but investment in tracks could go off the rails

A busy Monday morning at Norwich Station. Picture: Peter Dent

A busy Monday morning at Norwich Station. Picture: Peter Dent - Credit: Peter Dent

2019 is less than 17 months away and will be a watershed year for rail passengers using services from Norwich.

The good news is that the new rolling stock that is being leased as part of the Abellio franchise should start to be delivered. Exactly when and how quickly is yet to be disclosed though they should all be in service by 2021 and add an extra 32,000 seats to trains arriving at Liverpool Street in the morning peak.

Now the not-so-good news.

In January 2018 and 2019 passengers face yet another price rise. We find out today but more than two pc average increase is likely. Abellio fund their investment in trains from the revenue they get from running services.

The nine-year franchise to Abellio East Anglia runs from October 2016 to 2025, with £1.4 billion of investment promised.

Abellio will pay a premium of £3.7bn over the nine years to run the franchise.

In other words, it will be passengers that foot the bill. Government decides the average change to regulated rail fares, including season tickets, each year based on July inflation figures.

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Even with the unexpected drop in inflation in June, inflation is likely to be above the government 2pc target. So average ticket price increases will be more than 2pc – and an average means there will be some increases higher and some lower.

Passengers already know only too well rolling stock delays are frequently due to problems with the system not the trains.

Lack of resilience, lack of capacity in some places so when one train is delayed a queue forms behind it, lines that buckle in the heat, overhead power lines that fail… We've heard staff on stations and trains making announcement after announcement and getting more and more embarrassed and frustrated. So now for what might be the very bad news.

The infrastructure services run on is the responsibility of Network Rail – not the train service operators like Abellio. Network Rail is government owned and investment in infrastructure comes from the public purse.

Stay with me here as it gets complicated – investment is planned on five-year cycles

called Control Periods. Control Period 5 (CP5) runs to March 2019. Control Period 6 (CP6) runs for five years from April 2019. In CP5 there was virtually no investment in the Norwich to London line other than that associated with Crossrail.

Unless CP6 includes a huge chunk of investment to improve infrastructure the new rolling stock will suffer many of the delays that plague services now. Even if investment is announced, the work required will in itself create disruption.

Yes, we'll be looking at shiny new trains as the bus replacement services wind their way past the engineering works for some years to come. For example, to improve train times significantly Network Rail needs to upgrade sections of track in Essex, improve Haughley Junction, and close a number of level crossings on the main line.

I haven't forgotten cross country links. Crucial but left out here because of space not lack of concern.

The Secretary of State made

an announcement on the high level intentions behind the CP6 investment on July 20. A number of things were mentioned. There was some controversy about plans in various parts of the country being included and some that had been dumped. There was no mention whatsoever about Greater Anglia and I saw not a single comment from any politician along the route between Norwich and London.

The Secretary of State delayed announcing the actual figures until October. We have about two months to make sure the investment we need is in the investment plans for the five years from 2019 or nothing will happen until 2024.

2019 could be the start of the rail service the economy and long suffering passengers need and deserve. All studies show a huge boost to our economy from improved rail links. The 'Norwich in 90' ambition is fine for what it is.

Most passengers really want

a service that leaves when it says it will and arrives when it is scheduled to, even if it takes a little longer than they would prefer. Reliability and predictability rather than the worry of missed meetings,

missed connections, missed opportunities and yet another delay repay claim.

Meanwhile prices continue to rise. Abellio are in it for profit

and already paying the government for the franchise to run trains so they can profit from passenger journeys.

None of the ticket price increase goes directly to improving infrastructure.

The franchise premium goes into the government coffers but we have to beg and borrow for our share from the taxes we pay.

East Anglia is one of the few areas in the UK that makes a net contribution to the government – we get back less than we pay in.

If we got a bit more back to invest in rail services the boost to our economy would repay the investment and add to the help

we give to our country's prosperity.

Today is the day the inflation figures are announced, so the day the ticket price increases are known for next year. It should also be the day we demand of our government the rail service and investment we need, not an inadequate halfway house of new buttons on a threadbare coat.

The clock is ticking down to 2019.

If we miss this train the next one isn't due until 2024.