Anger as West Norfolk rail improvements face further delays

Launch of new trains at King's Lynn Railway Station and opening of new Cambridge North Station'View from the Drivers Cab
Launch of new trains at King's Lynn Railway Station and opening of new Cambridge North Station'View from the Drivers Cab
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Rail bosses have admitted they don’t know when longer trains will start running in West Norfolk, despite previously claiming it was likely to be later this year.

The revelation follows the publication of Network Rail’s strategic business plan for the Anglia region’s rail links over the next five years.

Rail replacement buses at King's Lynn Railway Station.

Rail replacement buses at King's Lynn Railway Station.

The document sets out plans to spend more than £2 billion maintaining and improving lines during the period from next year to 2024.

But it also reveals that a final investment decision has still to be made on proposals to allow eight-coach trains to run on the line between Lynn and Cambridge, instead of the current four coach units.

A Network Rail spokesman said this week: “We’re currently working on a detailed and robust programme to deliver the project. However, we have not yet committed to a completion date.”

But that contradicts comments from Network Rail officials at a rail summit in Downham last January who said they expected to deliver the improvements by the end of the current spending round next spring.

Business leaders and politicians have now accused them of going back on their pledge to deliver urgently needed line improvements.

King’s Lynn BID chairman Darren Taylor said yesterday: “I cannot help but think Network Rail appear to be deliberately dragging their heels.

“My understanding of the work needed to allow eight-car trains to run to King’s Lynn is that while it involves some engineering at Waterbeach station, there is absolutely no reason why this cannot be done by the spring of 2019.

“I call on them now to give a firm commitment to stick to that timetable.

“These improvements are vital and Network Rail need to get on with what they are supposed to be doing as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham said: “If they renege on this, it will send the most appalling signal of downgrading this route.”

But West Norfolk Council chiefs say they are confident the project will be completed.

A spokesman said: “We believe there is no question that this will go ahead as it now with the implementation team to deliver.

“The timing will be about getting the various necessary closures agreed so the work to lengthen platforms can be undertaken.”

However, North West Norfolk Labour secretary Jo Rust said the revelation reinforced her lack of confidence in any meaningful improvements being delivered, particularly to tackle overcrowding.

She said the current lack of capacity meant passengers were “treated like cattle” and the lack of improvements were having a negative impact on the local economy.

She added: “For a number of years, I’ve felt we have been fobbed off. It’s disappointing we don’t have a strong and assertive representative taking up these serious issues.”

The report also outlined the work that is still needed to deliver an expansion of the network around the Ely north junction, which is seen as a key bottleneck preventing more frequent trains from running.

Although funding has been secured for a feasibility study looking at issues affecting both road and rail users around the area, Network Rail says the work is in its “very early stages”, despite apparent commitments to completing the project by 2024.

The spokesman added: “The scheme is not fully funded and any solution would have to demonstrate value for money for the tax payer, and the statutory process for a scheme of this scale would require public consultation so no decisions will be taken lightly or quickly.”

Fen Line Users Association chairman Colin Sampson said he was hopeful alternative funding could be found, but conceded passengers may have to “get used to what we’ve got” for the foreseeable future.

The concerns emerged in the week West Norfolk’s rail service came to a standstill for bridge maintenance works.

Trains are due to start running again tomorrow, following five days of rail replacement bus services ferrying passengers from Lynn to Ely.

Although the work has more than doubled some journey times, there were mixed views among passengers who contacted us on Facebook.

Greg Claridge said: “As a daily commuter to London, the service got off to a shaky start but is now firing on all cylinders. It’s well organised and the staff and drivers are both courteous and friendly.

“I was dreading this week, and though my already long day is a bit longer, it’s not been anywhere near as disruptive as I thought.”

But Lottie Collier said it had been “horrible.”