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Demands for Norwich rail service improvements

PUBLISHED: 08:00 28 July 2009 | UPDATED: 11:06 06 July 2010

Improvements on the main Norwich to London railway line must be high on the list of criteria should the region's rail franchise be put out to tender in the near future.

Improvements on the main Norwich to London railway line must be high on the list of criteria should the region's rail franchise be put out to tender in the near future.

That is the message from MPs and business leaders, who are keen that the Department for Transport considers more than simply the size of any bid, if and when the government starts a search for a new operator.

The likelihood of National Express retaining a role within the East Anglian rail network has lessened significantly over the past few weeks. First, the government announced it was considering stripping the company of its rail operations after National Express warned it was likely to walk away from its East Coast franchise. That was followed by news that the company - which has huge debts - is the subject of takeover interest, and is likely to be sold and possibly broken up.

Should the east of England franchise subsequently be put out for tender, the government is free to attach any conditions to the bidding process that it sees fit.

Charles Clarke, MP for Norwich South, said a faster Norwich to London service was important, with the journey time needing to be cut to nearer an hour and 35 minutes, as well as wifi access for commuters who wanted to work during their journeys.

He added: “The Norwich to Cambridge line is also exceptionally important from a regional point of view, and we need a frequent service on that route.”

Mr Clarke said it was important for the improvements that National Express had itself proposed to be included as part of any franchise agreement, including better services between Norwich and Yarmouth and Norwich and Stratford.

South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, whose wish list for any future franchise includes a commitment for a better service for his constituency, with more trains stopping at Diss, said: “The difference between looking just at the money and looking at quality issues is a very important distinction to make.

“If it's just a case of the highest bidder winning, in effect that can mean money being taken out of Norfolk's pockets and being transferred to other parts of the country.”

Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said: “The trains need to be cleaner. That might sound like a small deal, but it's really a big deal for people who use trains a lot.

“We also need more modern rolling stock, and a journey time from Norwich to London of about an hour and 30 minutes.”

Her views were echoed by Mike Burrows, deputy chairman of Shaping Norfolk's Future.

“We need to see the rolling stock upgraded - it's a bit of a joke compared with other franchises,” he said.

“Cleanliness and decent toilets as well as wifi access are also important, and it would be great if this could be built into a franchise agreement.”

Rival operator Stagecoach confirmed yesterday that it was in exclusive talks with Spain's Cosmen family - the potential buyers of National Express - over a possible break-up of the firm.

Stagecoach has expressed interest in buying “certain assets and businesses” should the Cosmen bid succeed. But Stagecoach will also consider “all other options” for National Express, and those options could include making its own individual bid.

The latest twist in the National Express saga comes a month after the firm said it would walk away from its loss-making East Coat rail franchise, which is now set to fall under government control by the end of the year.

The government has threatened to strip National Express of its other rail franchises - including its east of England operations - if it walks away from the East Coast franchise.

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