New rail provider needed

Ministers were last night urged to create a 21st century rail service for passengers in East Anglia after stripping National Express of the right to run the region's trains from 2011.

Ministers were last night urged to create a 21st century rail service for passengers in East Anglia after stripping National Express of the right to run the region's trains from 2011.

MPs, business leaders and passenger groups demanded investment in "clean, modern and efficient" railway after the government announced that it will look for another company to run the Norwich to London line and rural rail routes in less than two years' time.

Before ministers appoint a new rail operator, they will throw open the question to passengers and the public of what quality and frequency of train services East Anglia should have.

And the lobbying for investment began straight away as a campaign group of public bodies and business groups published its "wish-list" of improvements, including:

Faster journey times - with a journey time from Norwich to London of 1hr 30mins instead of 1hr 50mins;

More and better equipped carriages - including wi-fi enabled trains;

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Investment in track infrastructure to improve speed and reliability;

Investment in stations;

Longer rail franchises to encourage train operators to invest for the future.

Lord Adonis said his decision not to extend the existing deal with National Express beyond 2011 to 2014 would cost the firm three years' extra profit.

He added that his "overriding concern has been to minimise disruption to passengers and staff, and cost to the tax-payer, while ensuring that train companies stand by their commitments".

But the minister said it was not in the public interest to scrap the deal immediately and take East Anglian services into public ownership.

National Express said it had "expected" the government's decision after ministers decided to put its East Coast Mainline franchise - which runs from London to Scotland - into public ownership earlier this year.

But the firm added it was "disappointed given the excellent improvement in performance delivered by the group over the past five and a half years of operating the [East Anglian] franchise."

Ironically, just a week ago, managing director Andrew Chivers had talked of his hope of investing in East Anglian services from 2014 to 2019.

Former home secretary Charles Clarke, MP for Norwich South, welcomed Lord Adonis's move - and urged the transport secretary to ensure that passengers did not suffer a poorer service over the next 16 months.

"The franchise should never have been awarded to National Express, particularly on the basis of unrealistic financial expectations," Mr Clarke said.

"Despite some improvements in weekday punctuality, their franchise has been characterized by declining overall standards of performance. Their failures include low standard and outdated rolling stock without modern facilities, poor and over-complicated ticketing systems, very poor weekend services from London, poor customer information and the removal of some important catering services. The closure of their Norwich call centre was an explicit breach of the commitments they gave in order to secure the franchise.

"Andrew Adonis has powers, which I understand that he is fully ready to use if necessary, to penalize any reduction in service quality between now and the end of the franchise in March 2011. I hope that such penalties will be unnecessary but it is essential to maintain the level of service quality. I, together with others I'm sure, will be scrutinizing the quality of the service intensely."

Richard Bacon, MP for South Norfolk, added: "The government must now ensure that whoever takes up the East Anglia rail franchise can afford to invest significantly in the route and is not saddled with multi-million pound payments to the Treasury.

"My constituents deserve to have a first-class rail service on clean, modern and efficient trains."

Mark Hodges, chairman of Shaping Norfolk's Future and executive director of Aviva, said the Norwich to London line had been "consistently overlooked" for investment by both Whitehall and Network Rail, which is responsible for operating tracks and signalling.

"The decision to terminate National Express East Anglia's franchise in 2011 makes it even more important that we persuade the Department for Transport and Network Rail of the need for improvements and investment in the line," Mr Hodges said.

Caroline Williams, chief executive of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said that the business community was "united in its desire to see improvements to the Norwich to London service", while Ann Steward, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for economic development, said investment in the line was "vitally important for the county and all who live, work and do business here."

Ashwin Kumar, director of the rail watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Passengers will want assurances from government that their views and opinions will be centre stage as preparations start to award a new contract to operate East Anglia rail services. In the meantime, passengers will want reassurance that trains will run on time and the level and quality of services will not slip in coming months."