Later trains needed for Yarmouth

Ministers must insist on a host of improvements to rail services in East Anglia if they are to win back the faith of passengers - according to an influential rail watchdog.

Ministers must insist on a host of improvements to rail services in East Anglia if they are to win back the faith of passengers - according to an influential rail watchdog.

A survey of more than 3,000 passengers by Passenger Focus said any new operator due to take over the current National Express East Anglia Rail service next year needed to improve punctuality and provide newer and faster trains if they wanted to improve public satisfaction.

The watchdog's 138-page report, which will be submitted to new transport secretary Philip Hammond, said train travellers in this region were among the least satisfied in the country and priorities for any new company taking over the services should include providing value for money, greater punctuality, reliability and frequency, faster services, and more seats.

When National Express took over the franchise in 2004, it introduced a series of controversial changes, including the use of second hand trains and increased journey times between Norwich and London.

But the firm is introducing new trains on services from London to Cambridge and Stansted Airport, and points to punctuality levels which have risen from 85pc to 91pc, and its support for faster trains to Norwich, as a sign that the service is already improving.

However, the watchdog said that the government must ensure that any new operator renews the London to Norwich fleet “with trains that deliver the ambiance and comfort level appropriate to an intercity journey”, which should also include a buffet service and hot meals at passengers' seats.

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Ticket purchases should be made easier, with a fairer and flexible pricing structure, particularly for journeys at short notice.

Other changes should include later trains from Norwich to Cambridge, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

Guy Dangerfield, from Passenger Focus, who oversaw the writing of the report, said: “Many of the trains used on the Liverpool Street routes and in East Anglia are more than 30 years' old. We have seen on other parts of the rail network that investment pays off, with real improvements in passenger satisfaction. Passengers in East Anglia have waited long enough for some overdue investment. Even greater focus on running trains on time is also needed under the new franchise.

“Our recommendations are geared upon what passengers have told us they want improved and are what we feel would improve the service,” he added.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of Shaping Norfolk's Future (SNF), welcomed the findings and said they vindicated its own Norwich-in-90 campaign for faster services to London.

“It's really important that Passenger Focus agreed with what we wanted and recognised what the Norwich-in-90 campaign has been arguing for,” he said. “They have found out what passengers want and put a very comprehensive case to the government about what changes we would like to see.

“What's important about this is that Passenger Focus has an official status in the franchise process which needs to be taken very seriously by the Department for Transport,” Mr Starkie added.

Much now could depend on how sympathetic Mr Hammond is to improving the lot of the travelling public in this region, particularly at a time of pressure on the public purse.

But Richard Bacon, South Norfolk MP, said ministers are likely to prove more flexible than the previous government in securing a deal which could benefit passengers in the longer term.

“The rail franchise is something which is high on everybody's radar and something that's got to be a major priority for sorting out,” Mr Bacon said. “Some of that has got to come through government and some of it has got to come through rewarding the right franchises with the right terms and that means allowing an operator to keep enough revenue in the system rather than making hand over premium payments.

“If we want to get the economy moving, then passengers and businesses need to be able to move,” Mr Bacon added. “We have to make sure when the franchise is awarded it's done on sensible terms, which will give the new operator a chance to invest and do a good job.”