New franchise full of Eastern promise

“Rolling stock was one, two and three. The GEML Taskforce helped. They agitated. They influenced and helped us in making our voice heard in the corridors of power, particularly in the DfT.”

Burles pinpoints the former Chancellor’s arrival in Norwich, to launch the Taskforce, as a key turning point: “Osborne arriving in Norwich gave more political backing.”

Nevertheless, this was a three-way battle for the franchise that Abellio had to win. FirstGroup and National Express were also in the mix, and both had suffered in recent times through losing franchises. 

NX had been the previous incumbent until February 2012, and according to several RAIL sources there was staff uneasiness at the thought of NX returning. Meanwhile, First had operated the former First Great Eastern franchise until 2004 (when it was merged with the Anglia Railways franchise), as well as parts of West Anglia Great Northern to form the ‘one’ franchise that NX operated from April 2004 until February 2012. 

Abellio had initially gone into the bidding process in a joint venture with Stagecoach. However, the latter pulled out, and industry rumours suggested Abellio would not win the deal. But Burles remained undeterred: “I still maintain we knew we would probably push quality further than other bidders.”

Experience, it seemed, was the key: “There have been years of operating the oldest trains, and having a good relationship with stakeholders.”

He says that relationship with stakeholders was massively important for Abellio. “Stakeholders want to improve, and we had to go 100% ambitious. But there was a lot of teeth gnashing - had we gone too far? “We even went above the ITT specification.” 

He highlights the Ipswich to Peterborough route: “We thought that was vital for the region. But I didn’t think we could buy everything.” 

He was proved wrong, thankfully for those travelling in the region. But how did it happen? 

“There was a feeling that East Anglia had to be right. I believe Peter Wilkinson wanted greater quality, and it made sense. I think he believes in the customer service - that’s what I mean by quality on the very basic (and the ‘hygiene’) elements of the franchise. 

“There will be clean, reliable trains and stations. They will be operated by friendly employees. Peter has been working hard to try and influence in making the case for greater investment in rail. To rely on the private sector to pay back that faith.”

Even so, Abellio will pay for that privilege - and pay well. Over the nine years of the franchise, it must pay a £3.7 billion premium. As per other recent deals, this is back-loaded, meaning that the largest payments are towards the end of the franchise. 

“It used to be that we paid fairly eye-watering premiums but got next-to-no investment. We now have a mammoth investment and must pay back a significant premium,” says Burles. 

Acknowledging that the payment is huge, he counters: “At least we are getting payback. It is contracted, and there have been people validating it over and over and over again. The largest initiative is the new trains. Growth predictions are in line with expectations.”

How will that growth be met? The Taskforce certainly believes there is potential in the region, citing the development of cities such as Norwich, Cambridge, Colchester and Chelmsford as examples of business believing in the area. Capacity-wise, the new deal will deliver a 55% increase in the number of Standard Class seats into London in the morning peak, while an additional 1,144 trains will run every weekday.

“The substantial uplifts in quality - we have played by the book. We have looked at the imperial evidence - journey time, frequency changes and rolling stock. The premium is a hell of a lot, but the initiatives are also transformational. You transform the service.”

Burles believes that the “huge capacity improvements” will unlock the constrained demands through the region. He adds that the new trains and their increased capacity will match the anticipated large amounts of demand that will grow over the coming years, on the back of what he describes as “explosive population growth”. 

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