Millions set to fund studies of East Anglia rail upgrade plans

Train leaving King's Lynn Railway Station
Train leaving King's Lynn Railway Station

A multi-million pound package has been drawn up to pay for detailed analysis of the work needed to upgrade a key bottleneck on East Anglia’s rail network.

Officials estimate that improving the Ely north junction could generate more than half a billion pounds worth of economic benefits for the region.

And MPs have called for the pressure towards an improved network to be maintained during a summit meeting with council chiefs, business leaders and rail industry officials.

Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill said: “It’s very important we keep the pressure up and that we can find the solutions we need.

“Sixty per cent of delays are down to infrastructure and this is a key bottleneck. Infrastructure is the key to unlocking growth and moving goods around.”

Justice secretary, and South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss, added: “It’s a tortuous process, but it will be worth it to get this bottleneck fixed which is holding back growth and opportunity for the area.”

A long-awaited upgrade of the junction was put on hold in late 2015, following a review of Network Rail’s improvement programme.

Since then, political and business leaders from across the region have been working together to try to speed up the project.

And details of an £8.8 million funding package to carry out a detailed study of the improvements needed were outlined at Friday’s meeting in Downham Market.

Three-quarters of the cash is set to be provided by the New Anglia and Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), subject to board approval.

The LEPs are currently waiting for details of their latest growth deal funding from the government, but expect to consider the issue in early March.

The remaining cash is being provided by the rail freight industry, which would be one of the main beneficiaries of the upgrade.

A further £2.5 million is also set to be provided to look at future work on the line between Ely and Soham.

West Norfolk Council chief executive Ray Harding, who chairs a task force set up to look into the issues, said significant progress had been made over the past year and urged all parties to maintain the momentum.

He said: “It’s vital to keep this partnership together, moving forward as we have over the last 12 months, with political support.”

Officials from Network Rail, the organisation responsible for maintaining and improving the rail network, said the partnership’s efforts meant the project was now “on the front foot” to see work beginning early in the next spending round, which starts in 2019.

Chris Rowley, from the group, said: “I can assure you that’s not the case everywhere.

“We feel a lot of progress has been made.”

It has been estimated that upgrading the junction could cost at least £100 million.

And David Cumming, Norfolk County Council’s principal infrastructure and economic growth planner, said the upgrade could generate £500 million of economic benefits to the region.

He said: “Ely is a blockage right across the rail network. It’s holding back the economy of East Anglia. The scale of the benefits is high.”

Mr Rowley said issues that would need to be resolved included a doubling of the tracks, the strengthening of a bridge to the north of the junction that freight trains currently have to pass over at as little as 20 miles per hour and level crossing improvements.

The scheme, which was described as a good “medium term” proposal, would increase capacity allowing extra passenger and freight services to run across the region.

And representatives of Govia Thameslink and Greater Anglia called for priority to be given to their plans to expand services from King’s Lynn to Cambridge and Ipswich to Peterborough, through Bury St Edmunds, respectively, as they have been committed to in current franchise agreements.