Wendy Morton – 2022 Speech on the East Suffolk and Wherry Railway Lines

The speech made by Wendy Morton, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, in the House of Commons on 19 May 2022.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and congratulate him on securing this debate on the East Suffolk and Wherry railway lines. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) for his contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney made a number of points. I will endeavour to cover as many of them as I can in the time I have. However, he should rest assured that I was listening carefully to his contribution.

Recently, my hon. Friend unveiled a mural at Lowestoft railway station installed by the Wherry Lines Community Rail Partnership and the Lowestoft Central Project to commemorate 175 years since the arrival of the railway in Lowestoft with the Norwich-Lowestoft-Wherry lines railway. The arrival of the railway brought enormous growth and prosperity to the town, as we heard, attracting major industry, facilitating trading links through the port and creating a seaside resort. The railway still plays a crucial role for the local community and economy, providing connectivity for residents and visitors.

I understand the importance of the routes to Lowestoft and the connectivity that they provide across the wider area, which is vital to facilitating the region’s development and further economic growth. With the growth of various industries in Lowestoft, including green energy and tourism, I appreciate the importance of convenient transport to the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

During the debate, I have heard the request for direct services from Lowestoft to Liverpool Street. I recognise the importance and helpfulness of direct rail services into London, but I will explain that a number of other factors are under consideration to facilitate that on the route between London Liverpool Street and Lowestoft The introduction of new direct services requires that there is sufficient capacity on the route to allow the service to operate in a manner that will not adversely impact the performance and operation of other services along the route. I understand that Greater Anglia has considered the introduction of a direct service to Lowestoft, but has regrettably concluded in the past that it was not feasible to implement that at the time due to operational, infrastructure and timetable factors.

Members will know that the Great Eastern main line is very congested, with a lack of space for extra services. Additionally, the East Suffolk line is constrained by single-line sections and, as we heard, many level crossings. The introduction of new services needs to be done in a way that does not adversely affect performance and create delays. That said, I have asked officials at the Department to request that Greater Anglia continues to look for opportunities to introduce a direct service in the future.

On a more positive note, I am pleased that Greater Anglia is part way through its full fleet replacement programme, with all its new Stadler trains in services on the rural routes from Norwich and Ipswich, and to Lowestoft. Those new trains have delivered significant improvement for customers. They are more comfortable, provide more seats and have much improved accessibility, with low floors and retractable steps. The Lowestoft regional trains connect into the new Stadler inter-city trains. Additionally, Greater Anglia is part way through its roll-out of new Alstom trains, with 63 out of the 133 five-carriage trains now in service across the region, again providing customers with a much improved journey experience, with many more seats, air conditioning, wi-fi and power points.

On another positive note, operational performance on the East Suffolk and Wherry lines has been very strong, with public performance measure levels of 95% for the Ipswich-Lowestoft services and 97% for the Norwich-Lowestoft services in the most recent rail period. In fact, the Anglia route had among the best on-time performance across the country in the last financial year.

Looking back at improvements on the route, I recognise the importance of the completion of the Beccles loop 10 years ago, which allowed the hourly service to commence from Ipswich to Lowestoft. That important investment, part-funded by Suffolk County Council, made a significant improvement to the timetable and provided a real alternative to road journeys.

Building on that, in 2020, more than 130 years of signalling history on the Wherry line entered a new era when—

Peter Aldous indicated assent.

Wendy Morton

My hon. Friend is nodding. A new signalling system was commissioned, following completion of work to introduce a new computerised signalling system, improving reliability of train services. Victorian mechanical signals, which had been in place for over 130 years, were replaced with a modern computer-based system, and as part of the project, a number of level crossings were also upgraded to improve crossing safety.

Despite the strong performance, the railway cannot be complacent, and we must continue to improve and invest. Network Rail continues to maintain and improve the rail infrastructure, and I understand that this autumn Network Rail will upgrade a number of important bridges in the region on the Wherry line. The work on the swing bridges at Oulton Broad, Somerleyton and Reedham will improve reliability for rail passengers and reduce disruption for boat users. Beginning this autumn, Network Rail engineers will upgrade the internal components of the three bridges. It is thought that the internal components of the three swing bridges have not been replaced in more than 100 years. Dating back to 1905, they require more frequent and costly maintenance. The upgrades will reduce the need for maintenance, ensuring the bridges will be able to operate more reliably throughout the year for rail passengers. This will also benefit river traffic by providing more reliable access to the local waterways, helping to support the local economy, especially through the busy summer tourist season.

I would like just quickly to take the opportunity to mention the recent Great British rail sale. To help passengers facing the rising costs of living, this was a scheme that we launched. The Great British rail sale offered up to 50% off more than 1 million tickets on journeys across Britain. It was targeted at leisure travellers, and the reason I mention this is that, as part of the sale, tickets from Lowestoft to London were just £6, which is incredibly good value for money.

Delivering for customers is of course essential. It is always good to see innovative projects to improve passenger experience when using our railway, so I was pleased to learn about the Katch on-demand electric bus scheme, which I understand has been extended to the end of 2022. This taxi-bus route launched in the spring of 2021 as a 12-month pilot, connecting Wickham Market rail station, Wickham Market village and Framlingham on the East Suffolk line. It is great to see how this really important innovation for local transport can really improve the passenger experience. It provides bookable transport through a mobile app or by telephone, but with fares that are in line with a bus service. This is exactly the sort of initiative that is a really meaningful way to connect our local communities with people and places, and it shows the important role our railway has moving forward.

I am conscious of time, but I want to remind hon. Friends and colleagues that next week is Community Rail Week. I pay tribute to the team of volunteers who work with the community rail partnerships on this route. The East Suffolk lines and Wherry lines groups provide great links between local communities, stations and partners from the rail industry. As an example of the work they do, the mural I mentioned earlier, which my hon. Friend unveiled, was installed by the Wherry Lines Community Rail Partnership and the Lowestoft Central Project, which both the Wherry lines and East Suffolk lines groups were involved in. I know these partnerships are always looking for ways to improve their stations, the environment and train services, and they are always trying to raise the profile of our railways. In fact, I am hoping to visit—in a different part of the country—a community rail project next week.

I absolutely recognise the importance of the East Suffolk and Wherry railway lines. The new trains that have been rolled out on these lines really have delivered improvements and benefits for customers, but we should not stop there. We should continue to look for opportunities to deliver further improvements to the infrastructure and our railways in the region.