The Chamber was fortunate and grateful to have Mark Lucas, Secretary of the West Anglia Taskforce, speak to our members at the latest in our long running and popular series of Quarterly Business Lunches. This was our seventh business lunch and the Committee hope members are enjoying them as a regular way of staying up to date with the pressing regional and national matters. Mark kindly stepped in after The Rt Hon Sir Alan Haselhurst MP; the Chairman of the Taskforce was called away on Parliamentary business.
Mark has a background in infrastructure and he joked that he had the difficult task of ‘making trains exciting’. But on a serious note felt, as everyone in the room must use the trains regularly, we should not take them for granted as we do. An informal poll in the room showed the majority did use the train regularly, be it for business or pleasure.
Mark informed us that over the last 20 years there had been a complete revolution with the introduction of the Railway Act 1993. Mark highlighted one phrase “23 passenger services subject to franchise”. The whole system went from a monopoly to a competitive open market. Companies now had the opportunity to formulate and submit proposals to run and operate the various franchises and the majority of these companies are large multi-national / multi-logistic companies. Brexit might mean we are ‘leaving Europe’ but they are not leaving us. European State Railways run the majority of our franchises, all be it some in partnership and via joint ventures and our very own Abellio Greater Anglia is ultimately owned by the Dutch State Railway (part having recently been sold to a Japanese Company).
As many of us would be aware of, Abellio was successful in winning the franchise and the new deal puts them in charge through to 2025. The franchise agreements are fairly long in duration to allow the operator’s time to recoup their investment. Abellio’s successful proposal made certain pledges; a few are detailed below to give you just a flavour of what has been promised from this ‘new operation’:
- To replace the entire rolling stock (locomotives and carriages) by 2020
- In the meantime to refurbish the existing rolling stock
- To maintain a rating of 92.9% in public performance measures
- To provide free WiFi
- To upgrade some of the train Stations, as we all know the ‘dwell times’ can be quite lengthy and they appreciate Stations are for some the gateways to town and cities. Some of the upgrades proposed include information screens, real time information, parking and ticket purchasing
- To construct new depots for train maintenance
Given this, some might ask why a Taskforce is even necessary. Mark was quick to point out that for a mainline and important transport corridor the journey times are slow and the Taskforce was a joint initiative set up by the Mayor of London and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is vitally important to campaign, lobby and pressure the people that matter as the line is unreliable, with frequent stoppages and slow response times. Stopping services are infrequent and the population of the region is only expanding. Mark felt that we should all want, and desperately need, a line that can grow its capacity and provide a good service. This will only increase jobs and prosperity for all.
The roll of the Taskforce was to create a Report and put a sound technical business case forward. When the Report was put to the House (Parliament), it was commented upon as being the best put case for railway infrastructure ever received and Mark would recommend everyone take some time to read through it. However the Taskforce is under no illusions of the difficulties faced, but they recognise you cannot just go to central government and ask for 100% of the funding, local government and interested organisations will have to assist.
Marks felt the one key objective of the Taskforce is to ensure we have a line that has resilience, capacity and faster trains. Everyone would expect a mainline to be something great, with 4 tracks, passing loops, laybys and the like but this is just not the case with our existing line. Mark likened it to playing a guitar, with half the strings missing.
Mark fully accepts that the cost of civil engineering in this country is vastly expensive and the best estimate for what they want to achieve is £3.5 billion, astonishing considering the route does not have to contend with tunnels. About £2 billion of the costs would be for road crossings and new bridges. The Taskforce believes the best way to ensure what we all want is achieved is to support and make a case for the second stage of Cross Rail, the North – South route. For this to be possible work will be required to at least part of our line and Cross Rail is a primary civil engineering project.
Mark does not underestimate the importance of the business and social case that can be made, acting as a catalyst for improvements i.e.
- Population growth and the demand for housing
- Economic growth and the redevelopment of brown field sites (often near to the line)
- The need to sustain and encourage the large Pharma and Life Sciences industries that are based in our region
Mark feels it is the job of local Chambers like ours, other organisations and agencies to be involved and make their opinions known. This is key, to keep the area attractive for investment and for our local airport (Stansted) to remain competitive.
With the support already garnered behind the Taskforce and with Sir Alan’s leadership Mark feels a real difference can be achieved with a long lasting impact.
After the informative presentation Mark kindly took some questions:
- How future technology could impact? Mark felt in the main it would be to in signalling rather than wholesale technological change.
- How to achieve more trains stopping at Bishop’s Stortford? Basically the 4 track proposal and making a business case.
- What was the decision making behind deciding where and when to open a new station? Network Rail has 6 step decision making process and the bar is set incredibly high, mainly so as to not disrupt the finely tuned timetables. It is extremely difficult as all operates on the line have to be consulted and at the end of the day Network Rail would look to the applicant to foot most of the bill i.e. a Developer.