How We Won Better Rail

Well, what a way to return from ten days’ holiday! The announcement of the new franchise a few weeks ago felt like a very, very early Christmas present. It is hard to overstate the importance of this decision: quite simply, it will change Ipswich and our region for the better. Here’s how it happened.

Back in what now feels like the dim and distant past, when I was a candidate contesting this seat, I recognized albeit in an unfocused way that the trains were no good, that the franchise was part of the problem, and that bringing prosperity to Ipswich was connected to how good the train service was. So I promised, very vaguely, to do something about it; what that ‘something’ was, I have to admit I was not yet clear about.

Within the first few days of arriving at Westminster in 2010, I found out that Chloë Smith, the energetic new MP for Norwich North, was having precisely the same thoughts. She too knew something had to be done but was not yet clear about what that needed to be. So came about our first discussion with a very important man whom few of you will have ever heard about: Jonathan Denby. For many years, Jonathan has been the man who has kept we politicians in the loop – but he is not just a PR guy: he knows a lot about trains and has been around the political circus long enough to judge how to get things done. It was Jonathan who helped Chloë and me, together with Priti Patel representing Essex, to craft the demands that you will soon see delivered as beautiful new rolling stock.

Knowing what to do was the easy bit; making it happen has been the real work of the last five years. Once we had established that we needed new trains and lots of them, it was the grunt-work of making the Department for Transport understand why East Anglia was a priority, then doing the same with the Treasury, then with the Prime Minister, and then making sure that once we had commitments and promises, that they were translated into the right tender process and the right incentives to train operators. At every stage, Chloë and I have had to make friends with key civil servants in Whitehall, with special advisers, and with a series of ministers. It is not all a battle: 80% of the time it is selling the vision again and again – and once you have done that the advantages of what we proposed were so self-evident that people were willing to help.

But now and again we did have to go into battle. It is remarkable how much damage and delay one wrong person in the right place can do. There are a few people who actively tried to de-rail our rail dream and we had – quite simply – to take them out.

And so, after all this work – celebrating each victory as it came – the policy announcements, the invitation to tender, the launch of the tender bidding process, and the eventual award a few weeks ago – we now have the confirmed prospect of new trains. It has been painstaking and laborious but my Lord it will be worth it when it all comes.

As you would expect me to say – we are not finished yet. We must now secure the track upgrades we need from Network Rail and get going on East West Rail – a scheme that will ultimately bring even greater benefits than the thousands of jobs and billions in investment that the improvements to the Great Eastern Main Line will achieve. But all that is for next week, when I shall outline what is actually going to happen and what more we want to win.