Devolution ‘can secure rail work’ in Norfolk and Suffolk

Train leaving King's Lynn Railway Station ANL-160316-152639009

Train leaving King's Lynn Railway Station ANL-160316-152639009

Devolution proposals for Norfolk and Suffolk offer the best chance of securing the cash needed to fund a vital rail upgrade, according to West Norfolk Council’s leader.

The claim was made as plans for a substantial expansion of services and rolling stock as part of the newly-awarded Greater Anglia franchise were outlined this week.

But opponents of the measures claim the work should be done through existing political structures.

For several years, politicians and rail campaigners from across the region have been lobbying for the Ely north junction, seen as a critical bottleneck on the route between Lynn and London to be upgraded.

Last autumn, Network Rail, the body responsible for carrying out track maintenance and improvement, said work would not start on the project until at least 2019.

And it was claimed in the spring that the overall cost of the project, including improving or bypassing several nearby level crossings, could eventually reach £100 million.

However, the project has been included in the plans for a new combined authority for Norfolk and Suffolk, for which public consultation ends on August 23.

If established, it would be expected to work with a similar body for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough on areas such as transport.

And West Norfolk Council leader Brian Long said that, by including it in the deal, it was clear that devolution was a way of accelerating the work.

He said: “If devolution doesn’t go ahead, that will not be brought forward and we won’t see them done until about 2020.

“It won’t stop us pushing, but the most likely way is through the commitment to devolution.”

But Hunstanton councillor Richard Bird argued there was no need to establish new strutures in order to make progress on the project.

“I don’t see that, by adding levels of local government, we’d be getting these extra sums of money.

“We’re quite capable of dealing with these sums at Norfolk County Council? Why do we have to combine with Suffolk?”

Mr Bird also questioned whether his area would enjoy any benefits from the project because of ongoing problems timing bus journeys to fit in with the rail timetable.

Expanded services, hundreds of new carriages and free Wi-fi on all trains were among the plans outlined in the new Greater Anglia franchise, which was awarded to Abellio this week.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “By awarding this franchise, we will improve journeys for people in East Anglia.”

But Labour’s Jo Rust, who will be joining Action for Rail’s protest against further fare increases next week, said his confidence was not borne out by passengers’ experiences.