The fight for Felixstowe

It all goes back to one Colonel George Tomline, a Suffolk landowner who helped ensure the radical development of the seaside town. Tomline initiated and promoted the Felixstowe Railway and Pier Company in a parliamentary bill of July 1875. And, with the sort of speed that would be unthinkable today, the line was built with the first train running on May 1 1877.

In part, the circuitous route around Ipswich that the line took was due to the River Orwell, whose estuary forms a formidable channel between Felixstowe and Harwich.

Bridging of the mighty Orwell was not achieved for road traffic until 1982, when the trunk road from London to Lowestoft finally crossed the river. 

Rail traffic, since Tomline’s time, has always had to go the ‘long way round’. This means today’s route to Felixstowe leaves Ipswich station from the west, curving around the north-west of the town before diving through the northern and south-eastern suburbs, including an impressive single-track viaduct across Spring Road.

Freight has been the mainstay of the branch since 1967, when containerised Freightliner services were introduced to the port. Freight traffic to and from a variety of inland destinations has grown ever since, particularly in the past few years. In the week ending September 26 2010 the port handled 10,764 containers within its complex, a figure surpassed in May 2011 when 10,983 containers were carried by rail.

The port celebrated its 29th daily railfreight service on October 1, and carried yet another record of 11,019 containers in the first week of November 2011, and again on June 19, when it carried 11,474 containers. 

Railfreight is not slowing down at Felixstowe, and work on a third rail terminal, to be known as the North Terminal, formally began in April. When completed, it will mark out Felixstowe as the first in the country able to handle 30-wagon freight trains, capable of carrying 90 20ft containers. New rail-mounted gantry cranes at the terminal - three initially, but later rising to six - will be in operation to transfer containers from train to vessel.

To cater for this amount of traffic, a substantial upgrade of the Felixstowe line has been discussed for many years, yet no doubling of the line has taken place since a passing loop was installed at Derby Road station (in the south-east of Ipswich) in 1999 - also the year in which signalling was transferred to Colchester Power Signalbox.

A contentious debate is emerging, however, over the future of passenger services on the line - already much run-down since Felixstowe’s heyday as a seaside resort.

The Great Eastern-built Felixstowe Town station was converted into an unusually shaped supermarket and retail complex, retaining its heritage architectural features and distinctive railway platform awning. 

The terminus lost the ‘Town’ suffix and the station was relocated further back towards the end of the original platforms at the end of a single track, while the vast remainder of vacant railway land became the supermarket’s car park.

A single-track approach and one platform are all that exist today to serve the hourly Class 153 shuttle service to Ipswich, which occasionally struggles to cope with passenger numbers.

On the day of RAIL’s visit, the 1358 from Ipswich was half-full, while a return journey at 1628 was as least as busy with a mix of students, several people using wheelchairs, and parents with pushchairs. Indeed, some 400,000 people take this journey every year. 

The journey takes 26 minutes to Ipswich, where the main station is to the south-west of the town centre. It connects not only with main line trains to London, Norwich and other major East Anglian destinations, but also many bus services to outlying estates, towns and villages. The town centre itself is a short walk or a five-minute bus ride away. The bus service from Felixstowe, operated by the modern-day successor to the old Eastern Counties bus company, First, takes an hour. Usefully (for comparative purposes) it leaves from just outside the station, also at the end of the main shopping thoroughfare. The Felixstowe line is, therefore, objectively not just a useful rail link but one that is socially necessary.

With that in mind, it may have come as something of a surprise to locals, and those interested in the workings of this uncontroversial line, when the Port of Felixstowe announced in March that it would prefer daytime passenger services to Ipswich to be replaced with ‘an express bus service’ (RAIL 693).

The port points to the large amount of railfreight it handles. But freight trains leaving the port are rarely full - in some cases carrying containers at 4% of their total capacity into the port, and 7% out towards Peterborough. The line is not being used to its full potential, even though most of it is fully single-track.

However, with the short-term Greater Anglia franchise up for renewal in 2014 (to make way for a 14-year franchise), and the potential for recasting services across East Anglia, the powerful interests of the port (a member of the Local Enterprise Partnership Board), which wants to increase the number of freight services at the expense of passenger services, may be challenged. 

Paul Davey, the port’s head of corporate affairs, believes refranchising provides an opportunity to review the use of the Felixstowe branch line and the whole provision of public transport services along the Ipswich-Felixstowe corridor. Passenger services on the route are well used at peak times, but less so at other times.

“The debate will, we hope, consider the best way to meet passenger demand, especially during these off-peak times, taking into account other pressures on the route,” he says.

Davey considers rail a green travel option, but is clearly concentrating on freight, speaking for the port’s green credentials but at the same time questioning the environmental sustainability of the more lightly loaded single-car Class 153s that run during the daytime on the line.

“Although rail transport is often perceived as a low-carbon environmentally friendly option, that’s not true if a diesel train is used to transport just a small number of people a relatively short distance,” says Davey.

“This is especially so if that service is effectively keeping a freight train, that could remove 60 long-distance HGVs from the roads, off the network. Each of these HGVs is probably travelling an average of 200 miles - that’s 12,000 HGV miles saved per train - and that makes a huge difference to the environmental impact of the journey as well as congestion on the road network.”

The view that Davey represents from the port is that lightly used off-peak train services are hungry in terms of subsidy and that this needs to be considered, “especially at a time when there is such pressure on public spending”.

“What we are suggesting is that there may be other ways to meet the needs of passengers on this corridor that do not constrain the use of the branch line for these economically and environmentally very important freight trains. It is a full and rational consideration of these options that we are hoping to encourage. It is not about cutting the provision of passenger services, but to identify the most appropriate way of providing these services.

“That may be by bus or coach rather than train for some routes and at certain times of day.”

Those particular ‘times of day’ are brought into question by elected representatives, such as Felixstowe Coastal County Councillor Graham Newman. He speculates that the port  cites lunchtime and daytime loadings during the coldest ‘off-season’ months of February and March - an unrealistic baseline for the port to make any recommendations on the shape of a future passenger service - and then claims it is not used.

“During every holiday period the line receives considerably more passenger patronage, illustrating Felixstowe’s continuing attraction as a day trip of choice,” says Newman, who fears that if services were infrequent, they could be closed.

“They need to go back to the drawing board and find a solution that provides extra capacity without losing services we need. We must not let that happen in a fuel-starved, environmentally more aware 21st century.”

The predicament that Davey presents, however, must in essence be the ‘trade-offs’ posed by Network Rail Chief Executive Sir David Higgins when he gave evidence before the Transport Select Committee on March 13, outlining the conflicts between freight and passenger paths. 

Higgins isn’t advocating the widespread withdrawal of rural passenger services, but he is presenting those who use the railway, whether from a passenger or freight perspective, with choices over what they want from it.

And with limited public funds, as Davey acknowledges, upgrading the infrastructure of the Felixstowe line to help overcome the need for these ‘trade-offs’ can appear frustratingly slow.

Help is partially at hand, however, with the proposed Ipswich North Curve (colloquially known as the ‘Bacon Factory Chord’), a £41 million project that is in the final planning stages. Network Rail expects to complete the project, a dual-tracked freight link between the Great Eastern Main Line (which passes through Ipswich from London to Norwich) and the East Suffolk Line, in 2014.

However, the benefits of the chord are mainly to avoid the need for any freight train arriving from the Midlands (usually from the East Coast Main Line at Peterborough) having to reverse in Ipswich Upper Yard before continuing along the East Suffolk Line and then on to the Felixstowe branch. It may resolve the operational nuisance of having to reverse freight trains travelling to or from the west, and ease the flow of traffic on to the branch, but whether it will do much to resolve capacity problems remains to be seen.

Dualling is another project in the pipeline, with a plan to upgrade the line between Potters Hole, Levington and Trimley - roughly five miles. As far back as 1859, Colonel Tomline was farsighted enough to buy adequate land for double-tracking throughout the line, but traffic levels have never - until relatively recently - justified this.

In 2004, Hutchison Ports UK signed a contract at the Southern Extension of the Port Inquiry, to dual the track from Trimley to Potters Hole at the port’s own expense. It was originally due to be finished before further development began on the port, but eight years after supposed commitments were made to dual the line, there is little evidence of any work having been done to achieve this aim.

The cost of the project was given as £46.7m, with the benefits of taking traffic off the road estimated at £39m a year. A somewhat vague date of 2020 has been set as the target for dualling the line, but with freight traffic increasing month on month, year on year, the current single-track route may constrict growth. 

A key reason for this may be the architecturally imposing Spring Road viaduct, built to carry a single track but which would be complex (from an engineering point of view) to enlarge to carry a dual-track railway.

The bridge may be left single-track, but the need remains to dual the track as far as the bridge, to reduce the bottleneck on the line. Other bridges along the line are of a design that could be easily modified for dual-tracking, raising the question of why no work at all has been done on the project to date, apart from enhancements to allow containers of W10 loading gauge, enabling Hi-cube shipping containers to be carried between the port and the West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton.

Davey confirms the port has planning obligations to fund the partial dualling of the line as outlined “by the end of 2018”. However, the port secured a deferral of that obligation because the recession has produced a lull in container traffic. 

‘Market demand’, despite the general upward trend in rail traffic, dictated that no investment was necessary for the time being. This isn’t the case in 2012, however, with the obviously healthy volumes of container traffic.

The rail facilities at the port itself are impressive - less so is the primarily Victorian infrastructure that forms the branch line.

When questioned on the issue of increasing freight services on the line at the expense of passenger services, Davey is keen to emphasise that “the capacity for freight needs to be considered” as the branch is in some respects “the most important freight line in the country”. But it remains to be seen whether the port will, as is hoped by local politicians, user groups and other stakeholders, put its money where its mouth is.

The port is engaging in the consultation process that will inform the make-up of the next Greater Anglia franchise. Ruud Haket, managing director of the current Abellio-owned Greater Anglia franchise, considers it “a joke” that any future operator would be expected to forego operating services on the branch.

Looking further into the future, the frustrations around dual-tracking make long-term aspirations such as the “modern, electric 100mph two-track railway from Peterborough to Felixstowe” (as envisaged by East Anglian MPs, local authorities and business groups, RAIL 700) all the more uncertain.

Electrification and restoration of services to Felixstowe Beach have been considered for the branch ever since the 1970s - the long-withdrawn Class 312 EMU ‘slam-door’ units introduced to the Great Eastern Main Line in the 1970s even had ‘Felixstowe’ printed optimistically on their destination blinds.

Goals such as electrification require serious money, however. And with many other priorities for wiring schemes across the network, the Felixstowe branch is, despite its strategic importance, not immediately considered a ‘must-do’. 

In addition, a forecast 1,500 new homes in Felixstowe in the coming years - coupled with bus fare rises and motoring costs that are increasingly isolating economically disadvantaged young people - will play their part in deciding whether the Felixstowe line continues to meet a social need or becomes typecast as a quaint anomaly to a seaside resort.

In the meantime, the level (or lack) of large-scale corporate investment on the line will have an undoubted effect on its fortunes. With many promises of upgrade work made in the past, it needs investment in its infrastructure to be able to effectively serve the port, which after all is the primary customer in terms of trains on the line.

The question remains, however: should that customer’s needs be at the cost of the passenger service?

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