Decision due on West Norfolk rail upgrade cash 'as long as government continues'
A decision on funding infrastructure for longer trains to run to and from West Norfolk is expected in the new year, if the government continues, councillors have heard.
The update came after new figures suggested there had been a slight fall in the number of passengers using Lynn's station.
The long-promised eight coach trains, replacing the existing four carriage units that run between Lynn and Cambridge, had been expected to come into service around now.
But members of West Norfolk Council's regeneration and development panel were last night told that the project now depends on a funding decision from the Department for Transport to pay for infrastructure at stations including Watlington, new sidings at Lynn and suitable power supplies.
Chief executive Ray Harding said a detailed design contract was let out last month and they could be "reasonably confident" that a decision would be made by transport secretary Chris Grayling in February "providing the government continues."
Mr Harding suggested longer trains were unlikely to run before 2020 and said rail industry bosses were now more wary of the commitments they make.
But he added: "I think he is quite committed to this and he has been lobbied by MPs all along the route."
The case for upgrading the line has been underpinned in recent years by consistent growth in passenger numbers.
But data from the Office for Rail and Road, released yesterday, estimated there had been a slight fall in the numbers using Lynn's station.
Its survey said there had been 988,498 entries and exits from the station during the 2017-18 financial year, around one per cent lower than the previous year.
However, the year included one week in February when no trains ran at all because of planned engineering works at Littleport.
And numbers at the borough's other two stations both rose, with Downham's total up by 1.8 per cent, or around 9.500, to 533,426. The figure for Watlington rose by 1.3 per cent to 146.014.
Concerns were raised that other larger projects may get funding instead.
But Mr Harding told the meeting it was vital to keep up the pressure for investment in both short-term improvements and longer-term projects, such as upgrades to the Ely north junction and the ambition for the current single track section of the line to be redualled in the future.
He said he felt work on the Ely project was up to 18 months ahead of other proposed schemes but warned: "We have to keep on pressing the case. Otherwise there is a danger they will overtake us."
Principal planner Peter Jermany added officials would also be fighting to ensure that the commitment for half-hourly trains between Lynn and London, which is seen to depend on the completion of the Ely scheme, would be maintained under the terms of the new franchise to run the line. The current contract is due to run out in 2021.
Councillors also raised the possibility of expanding West Norfolk's rail connections in the light of the ongoing campaigns to restore the lines from Lynn to Hunstanton and from Wisbech to March.
Council leader Brian Long said he had held recent discussions with campaigners working on the Lynn to Hunstanton route and the campaigns opened up the possibilities of direct rail links to places like Peterborough.
He added: "If you don't put these things in there, they'll never be delivered."
Committee member Thomas Smith pointed out the lack of direct rail links from Lynn to the rest of Norfolk and suggested radical change was needed.
He said: "We would be better off if the railways were actually privatised. Our real enemy is not the railway operator but the Department for Transport."