I promised last Friday to talk this week about what precisely the new rail franchise means for us in Ipswich. Please don’t groan if you’re not interested in trains: this one is not boring, I can assure you – and I will explain why later.
Let me start with the bare facts. We will have new Intercity trains, manufactured in Switzerland, running between Norwich and London. Because they can accelerate far more quickly than the current rolling stock, it will reduce the average journey time between Ipswich and London from 73 minutes to 64 minutes – a remarkable saving. They will have full, free and high-powered Wi-Fi throughout, decent loos, plug sockets and more doors so you can get on and off more quickly. That’s the Intercity.
For the rest of the services into London from Ipswich and further south, there will be new trains also, made in Derby, similar to the model that will soon be introduced onto the Elizabeth Line (formerly CrossRail) in London. Better, brighter, faster and smoother than the current commuter stock, these new trains will produce a radically improved experience for travellers, eliminating much of the difference in quality between today’s commuter trains and the Intercity coaches that also travel on the route.
The really, really interesting bit is actually not on the main line at all – it is for the regional routes that connect Ipswich with Cambridge and Peterborough, and of course for the East Suffolk Line and for services to Felixstowe via Derby Road. These will also be Swiss-built trains and will be hybrids, so that they can run both on track where there is no electric overhead wire but also can run via electric motors when overheads are present. That makes them incredibly versatile, meaning that there will now be new services between Ipswich and Peterborough, through services from Lowestoft to London and a new service from Sudbury to Colchester Town. Inside, these trains will be as far away from the current stock that travels on these lines as a modern Mondeo is from an Austin Maxi.
So far so good – but none of this actually matters in and of itself. It is nice to have new carpets and a shiny new train – but it is what it does that matters, and this is how.
I want you to imagine a businessman coming from Japan to explore opportunities to invest in Ipswich. Landing at Heathrow, they will come into a smart new terminal, get on the Heathrow Express and then take a new Circle Line train from Paddington to Liverpool Street. So far so good: this feels like a reasonable capital city experience. But then things go downhill. Onto a knackered old train, through a slam door, past a stinking loo, settling into a seat where the seat slips onto the floor beneath your bum. The train leaves, then stops. Late – thirty minutes late – it arrives at Ipswich, where you are disgorged into a tired station, to be met by your very apologetic hosts. Do you invest? You bet not.
And the thing you should know about this scenario is that it actually happened – and was related to me by a business keen to see growth and new jobs in our town.
You see, whether it is the businessman coming to Ipswich to invest, or the Ipswich person travelling to do business out of the town, trains are really much more than rolling stock and track: they are about growth, about jobs, about a better life for Ipswich and everyone who lives there. That is why these new trains are so important and why I have fought so hard to get them.