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East Suffolk Railway Line

Volume 619: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2017

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered future investment in the East Suffolk railway line.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.

I am pleased to have secured this debate, which provides a timely opportunity to highlight the important role that the East Suffolk railway plays in the local transport network. It is the line that runs north to south and links Lowestoft in my constituency to Ipswich via 10 intervening stations. The line has a fascinating and in many ways illustrious history, including many great moments, some sad times and a fight for survival. At present, things are going well. With the right investment we can do even better and provide local people with a high-quality railway service to play a key role in bringing jobs and growth to the area.

The East Suffolk opened on 1 June 1859. At the time it ran from Ipswich to Yarmouth South Town, in Great Yarmouth, with branches to Framlingham, Snape, Leiston and Lowestoft. Further branches were subsequently built to Southwold and Felixstowe; the former has long since closed, but is remembered with affection, while the latter remains and is a key national freight route from the port of Felixstowe to the east and west coast main lines. Today, the East Suffolk runs for 44 miles from Ipswich to Lowestoft through four parliamentary constituencies: Ipswich, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Suffolk Coastal and my own, Waveney. Much of what I say will highlight the importance of the railway to my constituency, but it would be remiss of me not to think strategically and to consider the whole line and the opportunities that it brings to the wider east Suffolk area.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), are not able to be here because of their ministerial duties and commitments, but I am pleased to be joined in the Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). He will no doubt highlight those issues to which I do not give sufficient weight and will pick me up if I get anything wrong or wander too far off track.

The East Suffolk faced its darkest hour in the 1960s when Dr Beeching earmarked it for closure. A strong local rearguard action was mounted and, ultimately, the East Suffolk dodged the Beeching bullet, with Barbara Castle reprieving the line in autumn 1966. Much of the credit for that victory must go to ESTA, the East Suffolk Travellers Association, which formed in 1965 and continues to campaign today for improvements to the line and the bus services that link to it. I am a member, and I commend it for its work. ESTA campaigns are properly researched and evidence-based.

It is appropriate to consider the role that the East Suffolk line plays in linking the county’s two largest towns, with stations along its route in market towns and villages. John Brodribb commented in his 2003 book, “An Illustrated History of the East Suffolk Railway”:

“The East Suffolk had never been promoted simply for private advantage or pecuniary profit: it was a public utility serving a rich cultivated district.”

The East Suffolk is still very much a public utility, and although I do not wish to be downbeat and say that the area is no longer rich and cultivated, things were very different in the mid-19th century. Agriculture dominated the local economy, and Lowestoft, owing to the entrepreneurial flair of Sir Samuel Morton Peto, was a flourishing resort and port with a new harbour. Today things are different. Agriculture is still important but not as significant, and Lowestoft has, like many coastal communities, been hit hard by the decline of the fishing industry and the challenges faced by much of British manufacturing at the end of the 20th century.

Good communications are one of the keys to secure an economic renaissance and to bring prosperity back to an area. Along with improved roads and superfast broadband, the railways have an important role to play. Improving the East Suffolk line would benefit the industries and economic centres so important to the area’s future: ports and logistics, with sidings into Felixstowe and Lowestoft ports; the energy sector, with freight access to Sizewell via the former Leiston branch, where planning is stepping up for the construction of the Sizewell C nuclear power station, and to Lowestoft which is a fast-emerging hub for the offshore renewables sector; and tourism, with stations providing gateways to Suffolk’s historic towns or the potential of bus connections to a wide variety of attractions such as the broads, Framlingham Castle or the Latitude festival.

The past few years have been good for the East Suffolk line. That renaissance is under way, but we need to nurture, sustain and encourage it. As a result of the reintroduction of an hourly service following the construction of the £4 million Beccles loop, in 2011-12 to 2015-16 passenger movements at East Suffolk line stations averaged growth of 29%, compared with average growth of 13% across the rest of Suffolk. The growth figure varies from station to station: at Beccles it is 38%; Brampton 43%; Wickham Market 34%; and, way out on its own, Oulton Broad South 134%. The one blot on the landscape is Westerfield, where passenger numbers have declined by 42%, although that can almost certainly be attributed to the previous half-hour service for the station, at the junction with the Felixstowe branch line, being reduced to an hourly one. That highlights the need for specific work at Westerfield, to which I shall return.

It is also appropriate to mention improvements carried out by local community groups. For many years the Halesworth and District Museum has been located in the station. Last year an inspiring and highly imaginative redevelopment of Beccles station was completed. Previously the station was an eyesore; now it is an inviting and attractive gateway to the town. The East Suffolk also has the advantage of a proactive and visionary Community Rail Partnership, which has worked up a wide variety of schemes to increase and broaden the line’s appeal to passengers.

Last October a new franchise was granted to Abellio Greater Anglia. Many of the new arrangements rightly focus on improving the main line, the Great Eastern from Liverpool Street to Norwich, but many elements of the package will have direct benefits for the East Suffolk, such as brand new trains on the line from 2019-20. The new trains will have air-conditioning, wi-fi and plug points, and they are particularly welcome because for too long East Anglia has been the elephants’ graveyard for old trains. Also from 2019, there will be four trains a day between Lowestoft and London, which is important and highly symbolic. One of the disadvantages that Lowestoft faces is its perceived remote location. For me, personally, with a heavy suitcase in tow, to stagger up the steps from the underground to the main concourse at Liverpool Street and to look up at the display board to see there in lights through trains to Lowestoft is so very important.

Those improvements are welcome but must be the beginning and not the end of investment in the East Suffolk line. We must not rest on our laurels. The work that has been carried out so far and the positive outcomes that have resulted show the great potential for further investment to promote economic growth. The Great Eastern line is the spine of the East Anglia rail network. The need now is to focus on the feeder lines, of which the East Suffolk is one of the most important. There are pressing reasons and a strong case for pressing ahead for further improvements to the East Suffolk line.

The first reason is Sizewell C. EDF is consulting on its plans for a new nuclear power station at Sizewell near Leiston, with a view to submitting a planning application next year. The railway could play an important role in delivering aggregates for an enormous construction project to the site in a way that causes minimal disruption to local communities. EDF is working with Network Rail to carry out a governance for railway investment projects, or GRIP 2, study of the alternatives. Additional line capacity would need to be provided between Saxmundham and Woodbridge, and the various options must be carefully analysed. Those options include a passing loop at Campsea Ashe, a longer section of double track to the south, or complete redoubling of the track between Woodbridge and Saxmundham. Any improvements must take place well in advance of construction starting at Sizewell, which is scheduled for three years’ time, and the case to get on with the work as quickly as possible is very compelling. Welcome funding was provided in the autumn statement for a business case to be worked up for upgrading the A12, with specific reference to the four-villages bypass, and a similar appraisal for the railway should be twin-tracked at the same time.

The second reason for further upgrading the East Suffolk line is the port of Felixstowe. The branch line from Westerfield to Felixstowe plays an important role in enabling people to commute to work and get to and from what is a popular seaside resort, as well as facilitating the working of the port by getting more freight on to the railways, thereby relieving pressure on the A14 to the midlands. As I have mentioned, there is a capacity bottleneck at the junction at Westerfield that constrains such plans, and we must address now how best to resolve that problem, which would bring significant benefits to the area and allow Felixstowe to maintain its position as a leading global container port. That is so important as the country seeks to build new trading arrangements around the world. Additional capacity should be provided on the Felixstowe branch, which should be part of an electrified bespoke freight line between Felixstowe and Peterborough.

The third reason for further investment is Lowestoft station. In 1961, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner commented:

“The railway reached Lowestoft in 1847 and the station was built close to the harbour. It is Italianate, of yellow brick, asymmetrical and picturesque”.

I am afraid that I have to report that Lowestoft Central station is at present not picturesque. The building and its surrounds are in a sorry, dilapidated state. The good news is that the Lowestoft station partners, with whom I am working closely, have come together with a visionary set of proposals to refurbish the station and revitalise the surrounding area. They presented those plans to the Minister at a meeting in his office in November, and he has kindly given his support to them and agreed to visit the station to view the situation for himself.

Lowestoft Central is Britain’s most easterly railway station, occupying a unique location in the town centre within walking distance of the blue flag south beach. It was built by Lucas Brothers, which also built the Royal Albert Hall, Alexandra Palace and York station. Its refurbishment can act as a catalyst for the regeneration of the surrounding station square. That will be facilitated by the third crossing of Lake Lothing, which will divert through traffic away from the town centre.

The fourth factor behind my request for further investment is the need to promote growth and, linked to that, improve journey times. An improved service on the East Suffolk line can play an important role in helping to attract more business, new jobs and more visitors along the entire length of the line and its surrounds. That is recognised and is being promoted by the Suffolk chamber of commerce, the Lowestoft and Waveney chamber of commerce, Suffolk County Council in its rail prospectus, Waveney District Council and Suffolk Coastal District Council.

At present, the journey time from Lowestoft to Ipswich—a 44-mile journey—is more than 90 minutes. For a lot of people, that is a major disincentive to let the train take the strain. When the through service to Liverpool Street is reintroduced, it is likely to have a journey time of more than 160 minutes. That is longer than it took in 1904 to make the same journey on one of the seaside specials that ran on Saturdays in the summer. Speeding up that journey will also help to get traffic off the A12, and it will be achieved in four ways: through the faster trains that are on their way, more dual tracking, track replacement and a review of which of the numerous crossings of the line, many of which are private and pedestrian, are absolutely necessary. That work, particularly on the last issue, will require thorough consideration and wide-ranging consultation, but we need to get on with it straightaway.

My fifth point is that there is a need for better bus connections at stations. The new interchange facilities at Lowestoft station are welcome, and good arrangements are in place at Halesworth, where buses to Southwold meet the trains, but these need to be extended to other stations. We need a network of virtual railways along the entire line, whereby trains and buses seamlessly serve the market towns and coastal resorts that do not have stations. I have in mind such places as Bungay, Aldeburgh and Orford.

In conclusion, I see a great future for the East Suffolk line, which can help to bring a better quality of life, jobs and prosperity to the whole east Suffolk region. However, that will not happen on its own; we need to kick-start it. We need to plan for it and have a business plan in place. Time is of the essence, particularly with Sizewell C and the need for better freight facilities serving the port of Felixstowe. We must start that work now. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined how best we can secure the funds for a study. Once the plan has been completed, we can set about delivering the improvements that I have outlined. That said, we should start work straightaway on the refurbishment of Lowestoft station and improving bus connections, and I would be most grateful for the Minister’s support for those schemes.

If it is acceptable, Mr Bailey, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) would like to say a few words.

I had not actually received any indication that Dr Daniel Poulter wanted to contribute to the debate. However, if you are in agreement, Mr Aldous, as I gather you are, and if the Minister is also in agreement—

I will permit that, but we need to give the Minister at least 10 minutes to respond, so please bear that in mind, Dr Poulter.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing the debate. He rightly highlighted the importance of the East Suffolk line in bringing jobs and growth to the east of England, but particularly the east Suffolk coast, which is the energy coast and has a growing tourism industry of which we are very proud.

I will not speak for long, but I want to reiterate and emphasise a couple of points that my hon. Friend made. He rightly talked about the importance of the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight rail link and Westerfield junction, which is in my constituency, and the improvements that are needed there to support that freight rail link. I am sure that the Minister is aware that 46% of the UK’s container traffic goes through Felixstowe port. It is important that we support that port, particularly as we look to our position in the world post Brexit.

My hon. Friend eloquently covered those points, so I intend to talk briefly about the importance of improving capacity and service frequency on the East Suffolk line. We are struggling to some extent with what is a single-track railway for the majority of its length. The ongoing discussions with EDF are a welcome opportunity. We must ensure that we get the best possible deal from those negotiations for improvements in infrastructure—both the building of the power station and, more broadly, improvements to support the energy coast and the tourism industry in Suffolk.

There are few passing points on the track. As my hon. Friend outlined, the ideal solution would be to improve the track through greater dualling—I would welcome additional investment to dual the stretch between Woodbridge and Saxmundham—but we need at the very least improved capacity on the line, and in order to have that, we need more passing points. A passing point at Wickham Market or Campsea Ashe must be a minimum requirement for what comes out of those negotiations. As the Minister is a Transport Minister, that is not to say that those measures should be pursued to the detriment of some of the road improvements that we need from our engagement with EDF, but it is vital that we see improvements to the East Suffolk line as a result of those negotiations. I hope that the Minister can be relied upon to help to hold EDF’s feet to the fire and ensure that it provides the money that is required to build that infrastructure on the East Suffolk line.

The final point I will make in the time available to me is about the importance of having a proper through service from Lowestoft to London—

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I have deleted five minutes’ worth of material, so I think I can just about fit my speech in. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) not just on securing the debate but on eloquently putting forward the case for his constituency, as he always does. I join with him in congratulating the East Suffolk Travellers Association and the local community rail partnership on all the work they do to sustain this important line. I well recall his visit to my office to show me the delights of Lowestoft Central station, not least because that was only last November—my memory is not that bad. I recall a more favourable impression of Lowestoft station than the one he portrayed in the debate. If the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), were here, he would cite it as an example of the beauty he wishes to see in all our stations for the work he does on the physical appearance of the network. I think my hon. Friend was a little harsh about his station.

My hon. Friend will not need me to tell him that the East Anglia region is a major economic engine. That is reflected in the amount of investment we have put into infrastructure across the whole of East Anglia, not least the £151 million for river crossings at Ipswich and Lowestoft, which I know he has been a champion of for a long while, and £1.1 billion going into road improvements, including to the A47 and A12. It is however right and proper that we focus on the East Suffolk rail line to which he referred. I understand how important it is to balance the needs of all passengers in the region with the opportunities that he rightly mentioned are coming up in the future.

There are many lessons from the past about how to balance affordability and deliverability when prioritising what we do across the region as a whole. My hon. Friend will know that a useful and important document has been produced in recent months in terms of the Anglia route utilisation strategy that has come from Network Rail. That was put together with the help of many stakeholders including Suffolk County Council and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership. While it found no immediate case on demand alone for the improvements he seeks on the line, it pointed out—as he rightly did—that the immense amount of work that will be ongoing at Sizewell C changes the parameters of the debate. He was right to raise that issue.

We must also remember that the East Suffolk line is part of the much wider Abellio Greater Anglia franchise, on which we are seeing almost a revolution. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it used to be the graveyard for old carriages, but that is certainly not the case any longer, given the amount of investment that will go in. He rightly listed many of those improvements.

I for one entirely understand the importance of arriving at a terminus station and seeing one’s constituency or town in lights on the destination board. I get that thrill on the one occasion a day that Blackpool North appears at Euston station—it is only once a day; he will have far more services than me. I recognise why that matters to a town’s sense of place and purpose and where it sits in the wider world. In addition, we will see increased services from Cambridge and Norwich to Stansted as well as to Ipswich, so there are all positive things going on there.

That does not mean that there are not small, local improvements that we can make on the line that will help to improve journey times and line speeds, as well as the many other points my hon. Friend raised. Take what we have done at the level crossing at Halesworth: that is an example of a relatively small-scale investment that can make a meaningful contribution by speeding up the line, removing temporary speed restrictions and enhancing the service for local residents. That is a good thing.

We also have to take the longer term view. There have been many calls by local stakeholders, not least both of my hon. Friends in the debate, for improved transport links in east Suffolk ahead of the proposed development at Sizewell C. In particular, such improvements could help to accommodate the considerable increase in heavy goods vehicle movements expected once construction of that major infrastructure project commences. The focus of such movements to date has been on the road network, and I certainly acknowledge that local partners see the A12 as a key local route within Suffolk and vital for the planned growth within that corridor.

The A12 will see a substantial increase in traffic if the proposed power station gets the go-ahead. That is why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney rightly pointed out, we recently awarded £1 million of funding for further development work on the business case for the project. Improving rail links has to be part of that project. It is entirely in line with Government policy on freight to encourage use of more environmentally friendly means of transport wherever feasible, not least—as both my hon. Friends pointed out—because of the proximity of the major port of Felixstowe on which so much of our wider maritime strategy is crucially dependent. Any steps to move heavy vehicles off the roads of Suffolk are likely to improve road safety radically as well, which is also important as we consider how to move forward. I am personally keen to ensure that future development at Sizewell also supports rail development.

I must be clear that my Department would not be involved in any rail proposals being put forward in advance of construction at Sizewell C. Planning consent has not yet been granted, and we would expect that rail costs directly linked to construction would be included as part of those construction costs. I urge the promoter, EDF, to enter into dialogue with the rail industry on future plans for rail freight movements: for example, to discuss expected loads and frequency, and how the network can manage any increase in freight during the construction of Sizewell C, if it goes ahead. I would be more than happy for my Department to help to facilitate such discussions if my hon. Friend would like us to play a role in that.

The existing spur off the East Suffolk line to Sizewell B is currently used for freight, but opportunities may also arise for new passenger services. In addition, any wider upgrades associated with Sizewell C may deliver benefits that could also be used by passenger services. Once the promoter’s plans are clear in that regard, I will be happy to commit that my Department will work with it and the rail industry to consider what enhancements to passenger services can be delivered in parallel with the freight plans.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the issue of bus services and their interaction with the local rail network. The ultimate goal is the integrated transport network that transport planners always talk of and we always wish to see. He will be aware that the Bus Services Bill will shortly come before the House. It will give local authorities new partnership powers that could enhance services at stations. In many areas, local authorities and operators have created such partnerships, which have led to improved bus services. The Bill will build on the success of those partnerships by allowing local authorities and operators to develop specific sets of measures to improve bus services in their areas. That should include better connections to rail stations.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of improvements to Lowestoft station as well as improving journey times along the line. As we discussed at our meeting last year, no funding is currently identified for the level of improvement he seeks. Indeed, given that the line serves a local, regional market, it is unlikely at this stage that we would be able to agree any funding from the national rail enhancements budget. However, local authorities and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership are funded and well placed to assist with that work and facilitate funding on the basis of potential wider economic impacts. I urge my hon. Friend to engage with them, as I know he has done, and the wider rail industry to develop a case for those improvements.

My hon. Friend is right that we have to both nurture and sustain the existing line, to use his words. I hope he agrees that the many improvements already committed to in the new franchise will deliver significant benefits across his constituency. I look forward to hearing from him in the near future on how plans at Sizewell C can act as a further catalyst for new developments on this important railway line.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered future investment in the East Suffolk railway line.