A key member of the Taskforce is Jonathan Denby, who has worked on the railways in the region since the 1990s. Now head of corporate affairs for AGA, he has taken a step back from the campaign during the franchise bidding process, but nevertheless he has played a key role in talking to stakeholders, business and passengers, using his expertise and knowledge of the industry to help those championing the cause.
“The early genesis began in 2009/2010,” he recalls. “There was initial interest from Norfolk County Council to start trying to speed up the Great Eastern Main Line, and it was then that the ‘Norwich in 90’ idea was launched.”
For a number of reasons, this didn’t get the traction it needed - not least because of the impending General Election at the time, but also because the economy was in a perilous state. There was some buy-in from stakeholders, but not the critical mass that was required.
Then in early 2012, there was a new franchise and renewed enthusiasm for the plan. Abellio had won a Direct Award to replace National Express, and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) had replaced the Regional Development Agencies.
Denby explains: “What happened was that post-February 2012, we had like-minded people asking how do you move it forward?”
Denby worked with Smith and Gummer, as well as with Chris Starkie from the LEP, to create a prospectus detailing what was needed and looking at the region as a whole.
“We needed to move things forward. Passengers and users deserve better. The region deserves better, too.
“We knew people wanted different things across the region. We drew them into backing it. MPs, local authorities, commerce, LEPs and rail users backed us. That was the key milestone - it put it on the agenda for the DfT.
“The prospectus brought out a co-ordinated approach and a clear demand for positive change. Recognition at a high level was what was needed - a coherent agenda that focused on a clearly defined region.
“We picked east of the East Coast Main Line, and then prioritised the three key strategic routes that needed improvements: the Great Eastern Main Line, the West Anglia Main Line and Felixstowe-Nuneaton. They were chosen as they had the greatest impact on connectivity across the region, on passengers, communities and the regional economy. It was important to gain widespread stakeholder backing and to be clear about the main priorities. That was the key. It started to give some momentum and focus.”
Abellio as a group has a real sense of rail in the community and can see how it can benefit regions and people, according to Denby.
“One thing that clicked was that Ruud was influenced by his time at Northern Rail. The alliancing between regional stakeholders and the Northern Hub project had influenced thinking. That premise of bringing together key stakeholders was already resonating.”
Denby spells out the need for investment: “East Anglia is clearly a very important region. However, the size of the conurbations, the populations of the towns and cities, is not on the same scale as some other regions. We needed to band together. Previously everyone was batting for their own needs. If we were to succeed, it was especially important for all of us in East Anglia to work together to achieve our aims.
“Over the last decade, we haven’t seen enhancements other than schemes for the Olympics, the Class 379s and High Level Output Specification (HLOS) capacity improvements, which were more about running to stand still than delivering major enhancements.
“But there is growth, so there is a strong case to make sure we secure investment and move forward. On the one hand we may not have the scale of some regions, but on the other the economic case is definitely as strong as anywhere else.”
MPs working together have been very effective, he says, but especially so because they stuck to the key priorities identified in the prospectus (in particular relating to the GEML).
“The MPs are very proactive and supportive with their time and effort. They are constantly continuing to put the political case forward.”
It was that effort that led to Osborne creating the Taskforce in 2013. The Taskforce was given a clear agenda, and Denby believes the fact that it was the Chancellor who set it up gave it extra momentum.
The Taskforce is now focusing on key areas, the first of which is the business case, which has to be made. Denby recognises that there is always competition for money, and so justifications need to be made.
However, the statistics speak for themselves. Forecasts show demand on the GEML into London from Suffolk and Norfolk is expected to grow by 32%, and from Essex by 52%. Then there is the issue of subsidies - Anglia’s network operates with some of the lowest in the country, and AGA is the second least subsidised passenger operator in the UK (receiving 1.5p per passenger mile, against the national average of 12.5p). Finally, the report states the benefit:cost ratio is between 8.6 and 9.5.
Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex generate £60bn in GVA (gross value added) for the UK economy each year, and this is expected to rise to £75bn in the next 12 years. It is one of only two net contributor regions to the Treasury.
Three million people already live in the three counties, and over the next decade the region will gain 205,000 new jobs and 184,000 new homes. The Business Case: Release the Potential report warns that this will lead to some of the fastest rates of passenger growth in the country, with decisions having to be made as to where these new houses will go.
Could NR’s status as a publically owned body affect this campaign? Denby doesn’t think so.
“I don’t see it as an issue. We have to make the case. It is £476m, which in rail speak is not a great expensive project, and it has significant payback. It is a logical investment.”