Rail chiefs warned: ‘Don’t derail growth dream’ ahead of Downham Market summit

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West Norfolk’s economic growth aspirations are likely to be derailed without improved rail services to and from the borough, council chiefs have warned.

Politicians, business leaders and industry officials are due to discuss potential ways of enhancing the network at a summit in Downham later today.

The meeting was called after plans to upgrade a key junction at Ely were delayed until at least 2019 last November.

And West Norfolk Council leader Nick Daubney yesterday described the delays to improvements as “unacceptable”.

He said: “If we are going to grow as I think we should grow, these are the basic tools of it.”

The area’s MPs have said they will be seeking answers amid claims that the costs of the project have not been fully assessed.

South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss said: “This is a critical rail junction serving a number of freight and passenger trains.

“It is vital the costs of the upgrade are identified and this is what I will be pressing Network Rail on.”

Great Northern, the company which operates most passenger trains between Lynn and London, is contractually required to start running twice-hourly trains in May next year under the terms of its franchise.

Although some rail campaigners have suggested it is possible, though unlikely, to run such a service on the existing network, it is broadly accepted that it depends on the appropriate infrastructure being in place.

And North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham said: “This is an absolutely crucial investment as it will unlock a series of key improvements.”

Mr Daubney added: “We’re being expected to deliver huge housing growth to West Norfolk and that means people need places to live, they need jobs and we certainly need proper infrastructure.

“We need a good, twice hourly rail service to Cambridge and London and we need it a lot quicker than four or five years down the line.

“This is a growth area, a productive area. We have all these ideas about delivering growth but we can’t do it without proper infrastructure.”

And Colin Sampson, chairman of the Fen Line Users Association (FLUA) said preparatory work must be done now to ensure the Ely project can start straightaway when the next spending period begins in 2019.

He said: “That would be a huge step forward.”

He also suggested that councils and the area’s Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) could come together to help fund studies of the project.

Network Rail, several of whose officials are expected to attend the meeting, had not responded to a request for comment at the time of going to press.

However, the company has previously announced its intention to carry out a feasibility study into whether eight carriage trains can serve all stations on the stretch of track between Lynn and Cambridge, instead of the current four coach units.

Although some longer trains already run on the line, they do not stop at smaller stations, such as Watlington.

And there have been growing calls for additional 
capacity to be created on the line to meet growing passenger demand, which was up almost seven per cent in West Norfolk in the year to the end of March, 2015, and ease overcrowding, particularly at peak times.

An update on the progress of that work is also expected to be delivered at the summit.

Mr Sampson said: “If we get that, it will go a fair way towards alleviating the crowding problem.”

Representatives of the Department for Transport are also expected to take part in the talks, along with council leaders from Norfolk and Cambridgeshire and officials from the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough and New Anglia LEPs.