Railway Investment in the East
By James Palmer, Chair, Eastern Powerhouse
People in Britain want to use the train. Between 1997 and 2014 passenger usage went up by 88% and the UK is the 5th most used rail network in the world, despite having the 23rd largest population.
Despite this, it is the accepted norm that train travel in the East of England is slow and expensive. Little has changed East of Peterborough in the past 40 years, small amounts of electrification here and there and a couple of new stations, yet barely a nod to the increase in train usage and certainly nothing as exciting as a long term plan to upgrade and encourage use. The Department for Transport may suggest that the lack of population density doesn’t require added capacity but considering the growth of the economy here in the same time period, it feels like a huge opportunity missed.
It is difficult not to look with envy at the money currently being lavished on the rail network in the midlands and the north. Whilst the new link between Cambridge and Bedford is welcome, it hardly amounts to an upgrade of the current system, nor does it address the challenges that face a growing economy in the East of England. In fact, to suggest that the wrongly titled East West rail link is anything more than an absolute bargain basement solution would be to stretch the truth considerably. In the East though, we have grown weary of banging our heads against the wall and so blindy accept that any investment is welcome, when frankly, what is offered are the crumbs left behind under the altar of national rail policy.
The economy in the East is considerably hampered by the quality of the network. It takes 30 minutes less to travel to London from Leicester than from Norwich, a 45 min journey to central London from Tunbridge Wells is almost half the price of the same length journey from Cambridge. Why? It certainly doesn’t feel like a level playing field. Our trains should be used to hop from town to city in the region but lack of regularity and a slow network mean that our rail is under utilised and that is felt most keenly in the housing hotspots across the region.
Yet the East offers government a huge opportunity for change. East of the mainline to Edinburgh, we have a self-contained network that is independent of the rest of UK rail. It is well known that international investors are keen to get into the UK market – and no wonder, given the statistics mentioned above. Surely there is a franchise opportunity for the East that must be explored? The government has recognised the need for an East West link but it falls short, stopping at Cambridge rather than Felixstowe, surely they also recognise that investment into rail in the East will show them significant return at the treasury, particularly if that investment comes from the international private sector?
Since the rail network in the East was developed by the Victorians, little has changed. It was once thought that the peak of rail usage was the early 50’s, yet the railway is used more now than ever. The easiest way to move people and freight remains the rail and there is a way to bring that rail network kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
I suggest to government, if you open the door to franchising here in the East, it will set a template for the future policy of Network Rail.