New rail minister attends Suffolk Rail Conference

The new rail minister, Claire Perry MP, spoke to a rail conference being hosted by Suffolk County Council today about her love of trains. Apparently she has a model of the Mallard on her desk – she said she was expecting something large (1/3rd size she actually said, but I don’t think she realises how much space that would have taken up, unless of course she has a stupendously large office!) but her civil servants used their initiative and she ended up with a Hornby HO scale model. I did suggest to her that it might be a bit more appropriate for a minister who kept speaking about the future to have a model of an HS2 train rather than a nostalgia trip.

What she did say, in response to a question from me, was that the Government would not let investment in HS2 substitute for any investment in regional rail needs. This is welcome – but has a slight hollow ring, as the most important rail investment in the UK at present (IMHO) is the Felixstowe-Nuneaton (F2N) freight rail link, and far from being complete the whole project is now stalling.

We heard from Maggie Simpson, Executive Director of Rail Freight Group, about the important work on F2N which has been put onto the back burner – or “moved to CP6” which is the rail-industry term meaning much the same thing. This includes sorting out the track and junctions at Ely, Peterborough and Leicester, without which the passage of freight trains through those towns will be painfully slow and will compromise the capacity for passenger traffic. It also includes electrification of the entire line – absolutely essential if we are to seriously work towards getting our freight onto rail.

The problem with funding in CP6 – quite apart from the delay – is that it is not guaranteed – in financial terms it is a bit like saying “when I get around to it”. To be fair, there are real problems at Ely, Peterborough and Leicester, but the fact is that F2N only has £80 million dedicated to it at present. That is more than a 1/3rd of the entire UK freight capital programme, but it pales into insignificance in comparison with the £1.5 BILLION the government is going to spend on rebuilding the A14 around Cambridge. Given that the A14 and F2N are alternative modes for transporting freight from Felixstowe, it is clear which mode the present government thinks is more important.

What we desperately need – as Ms Simpson suggested and as Paul Harwood, regional Planning & Strategy Director for Network Rail, tacitly concurred (by admitting that he doesn’t have any idea what happens to F2N once it leaves his region) – is a single clearly identified project team driving through the entire project – including electrification – and the commitment NOW by the government to fully funding every aspect of the project as and when it becomes feasible to construct – ie NOT waiting for years until the next funding decision has been taken.

For instance, the best solution to the current level-crossing problem at Ely Station might be to construct a new all-traffic-standard underpass. But there is little point Network Rail investigating that option at present because they do not have the identified funding to build it.

The conference split neatly into 2 halves – the second half being the more interesting. The first half was dedicated to the Minister and 2 local Conservative MPs, and consisted mainly in telling everyone how wonderful the government’s programme was, and how important it was that we should have new carpets and toilets in our inter-city trains. The overall mood of consensus was rather spoilt by Ben Gummer (MP for Ipswich) who took the opportunity to make a party-political broadcast about falling unemployment, and then finished off by suggesting – without any justification whatever – that Labour would jeopardise the present rail investment programme. However, that is a useful prompt to us to develop a Labour plan for rail in the Eastern Region – I’m sure it would be a valuable campaigning tool and would stand us in good stead for the incoming Labour Government in May.

Above all, there was agreement across the board that investment in rail in our region can contribute far more to economic growth than almost anywhere else. East Anglia is one of the 3 regions (London, South East, and Eastern) which make a positive financial contribution to the economy, and improvements to the main line, a new East-West rail link to Oxford, new trains etc will help to boost the continuous rise in passengers.

But I do still think – and unsurprisingly Paul Davey of the Port of Felixstowe made this point – that having a high-class direct rail link from our biggest port to our biggest manufacturing area ought to be any sane government’s number one rail priority.

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