New franchise full of Eastern promise

“Think of the growth on the West through Stansted, Silicon Fen - it’s fantastic for us,” he says.

When he talks of the “explosive growth”, Burles discusses the trend of people moving from London to locations such as Colchester. 

“That is a very healthy additional growth factor for the region,” he says, explaining that the only way to unlock the revenue is additional capacity with a quicker and reliable service.

And that is where the Accord with Network Rail comes into force. This was announced at the franchise launch on October 17 (RAIL 812), and involves NR and GA working together to get everything in place ready for the huge changes. Improvements to the overhead line equipment, platform lengthening, new sidings and new depots are all required, as is maintaining a creaking railway that was electrified to Norwich almost 30 years ago, and which is already having to cope with massive growth. There are concerns regarding the reliability of the infrastructure - indeed, on launch day there were delays due to signalling defects (a common occurrence for those travelling on the Great Eastern Main Line). 

“60% of delay is Network Rail,” says Burles. “There are also delays from fatalities and so on - we know that things are not always their direct responsibility.”

Burles says the reliability of GA’s trains will “go through the roof”, and says of NR that there has to be the same transformational approach. 

“It has to go hand in hand to drive that step change. Yes, the Accord will come in. And there are a number of elements to take forward: enabling the new trains, Manningtree depot, Romford sidings, Cambridge sidings, the connections to the depot and sidings, platform upgrades and lengthening power upgrades. There is a body of work in a short space of time. We are trying to go one step forward.” 

He explains that work is already under way: “We are bringing someone from Network Rail and creating a joint team. This needs to be a talented team. It must be accommodating and collaborative - let’s bring in the right people. These people have contacts in NR and get things done quickly. That’s the start of that delivery and a joint team. You will never see us - Richard Schofield and I - interested in blaming each other.” 

Burles admits that “there are a number of things that are very challenging”, adding: “There’s been very good joint working with Network Rail - the power upgrade modelling we did in the franchise bid, that was the level we went to. And now a joint team is locked in a dark room comparing plans.”

While campaigners want £476m of improvements - as well as the need for Ely North Junction to be remodelled to allow not only GA but also CrossCountry, East Midlands Trains, Govia Thameslink Railway and freight operators to improve their timetables and operations - these do not form part of the planned NR Anglian upgrades. This means that all the current planned improvements are based on existing infrastructure. Of course Burles would like more, but the bid was not (and could not) be built using ‘what ifs’. 

“All we can do is assume what’s available. You cannot assume investment that is not funded or hasn’t happened,” he says.  

“Improvements we will achieve through journey times and frequencies will be done using what’s available now .” He adds that the performance capability of the new trains and the recast timetable in 2019 will help to achieve that. 

As Schofield had also suggested previously, Burles doesn’t rule out external funding for projects. 

“Potentially getting the desired improvements could be third-party funded,” he says of the called-for infrastructure improvements. “Being optimistic, you’d hope in Autumn Statements that money could be found. In the absence of that, then there is the process of finding funding. And we want to be in the process.

“We have landed the right deal for the rail franchise. We need the same for the rail infrastructure. We want to do what we did with the franchise bid but for Network Rail, and do that working with NR. We want to drive this in the corridors of power.” 

He adds that there could be alternative financing vehicles to deliver this, explaining that these are the key enablers through driving stronger economies, or taxes.

But could there be unforeseen problems? 

“At any moment in time you’ve possible headwinds and tailwinds. Brexit, for example. The only consistency is we don’t know. A 600-page document can be summed up by ‘we don’t know’.

“Looking at plus of houses and prosperity, and looking at the centres of population, we have a degree of optimism of the short and medium-term. We’re not economic forecasters.

“This is part of a progressive approach. The bid proposals and the DfT was willing to take risks. While you cannot know what the future holds, you need to get the right government approach.”

The Government has invested in Anglia, and the railway will be transformed. 

The region asked for improvements - it now needs to deliver.



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