From the offset, I have been clear that rural infrastructure is a significant factor to my constituents and, to the vitality of our region. There are many aspects in which driving forward rural infrastructure must seek to address, notwithstanding the need to join up local, regional and national government to deliver necessary improvements. Yet, as the region is a net contributor to the economy, I am committed to facilitating and delivering rural infrastructure that is fit for purpose.
Already, the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon is scheduled for between £1.2 and £1.8 billion of improvements, a welcome investment due to commence in March 2017. Yet, despite this investment, it is the campaign’s aim to ensure further improvements along the rest of the A14 remain in the spotlight.
The A14 is vital for businesses, particularly the Port of Felixstowe, the UK’s largest container port; handling 40% of all UK container trade and providing jobs to 10% of Suffolk’s workforce. Up to 70% of the cargo going through the port uses the A14. It is imperative it can sustain freight and commuter transport in order to grow not only Suffolk’s economy, but service other regional economies, such as the Northern Powerhouse and indeed the economy of the UK.
Referred to as the ‘lifeblood’ of the Eastern economy, running through the heart of the region, the vitality of the A14 is more than just about boosting freight business. For instance, my own Bury St Edmunds constituency has a twenty mile stretch between Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket servicing business, tourism and leisure. However, several of the A14 intersections in St Edmundsbury, are nearing capacity at peak times and there are regular tailbacks and traffic jams getting in and around the town.
I know from my own experience, delays on the A14 can make a 15 minute car ride from Bury St Edmunds to Stowmarket, a two hour journey. UK congestion costs the country £2 billion a year and, if left unchecked, will put greater strain on the national economy. That is why it is vital we relieve the pressure on the already congested A14 and consider innovative measures such as, perhaps, regular laybys or creating a hard shoulder, to help the flow of traffic.
In my former role as Chair of the No More A14 Delays in Suffolk campaign, I have brought together the campaigners, led by Suffolk Chamber of Commerce with senior business leaders, Suffolk County Council, Suffolk District and Borough Councils, Highways England, Greater Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough and New Anglia LEPs and local stakeholders. Whilst having stepped away from Chair, I and others will continue to drive forward improved travel along Suffolk’s A14.
In October, the East of England welcomed the new East Anglia Rail Franchise. Albeit launched at Liverpool Street Station London, the new franchise was celebrated by franchisee Abellio Greater Anglia, the Great Eastern Mainline Taskforce and Network Rail as well as Rail Minister, Paul Maynard MP. The start of this new nine year rail franchise marks a major first step in the transformation of Eastern rail to benefit both the local economy and passengers, and, as improvements I have lobbied on from the beginning, I am eager to see these delivered.
For this announcement represents £1.4 billion of new investment into our rail infrastructure; helping to boost economic growth in the region and beyond, through a reduction in journey times across the whole franchise, by about 10%. This will provide the East of England with rail services to support and grow the regional economy. As a net contributor to the national economy, already returning an estimated £2.2 billion surplus this year, this is an exciting and welcome opportunity for the East.
Passengers too, can expect improvements with the single biggest fleet overhaul in franchising history; all new 1,043 spacious, electric and Wi-Fi connected vehicles by 2020. But improvements on current stock will start immediately so passengers can benefit from the new franchise from day one. There will also be a 13% increase in service, with 1,114 more weekday trains as well as 32,000 more seats in and out of London during peak hours. Importantly, there will also be an hourly service for the Ipswich to Peterborough line as well as improved punctuality and performance delivered through a robust timetable and investment in both infrastructure and personnel. Overall, it is forecast there will be a 63% increase in journey numbers by the end of the tenure. These and further measures to rail ticketing, automatic repay and customer feedback, will deliver twenty first century rail travel our regions passengers need, and deserve.
However, there are still opportunities to be gained from the next decade of rail, to drive forward further improvements. Co-ordinating the new franchise with Network Rail, there is scope to deliver station improvements like step free wheelchair access and improved parking. I know the Bury St Edmunds station in my own constituency, requires substantial repair to the historic fabric of the listed station building. With an annual footfall of 600,000 passengers a year, it certainly needs expanded car parking provisions, an aspect of our rail journey experience often overlooked. Yet, it is only right that the needs of all stations, meet the standards we expect of our rail services.
With a whole new fleet of trains rolling out in Suffolk in 2019 as well as journey’s from Ipswich to London in 60 minutes due to commence, I am looking at what more can be delivered, including a 70 minute service from Stowmarket in my constituency, to London.
This new franchise signals the direction of Eastern rail for the next decade. It is up to MPs, businesses, government and providers to raise the barriers and drive forward, for further improvements.