I am not an uncritical user of our railway system. As someone who actually likes travelling by train - I am known to travel a long way in order to travel a long way by train - I have a pretty good idea as to what I expect, and am quick to tell the various train operating companies if I'm not happy.
So, now that we know the fate of the East Anglian rail franchise until 2025, what do we have to look forward to in mid-Suffolk, courtesy of Abellio Greater Anglia? The list of goodies includes;
- an hourly service to Peterborough for connections to the North, Midlands and Scotland (currently every two hours)
- an extra morning service to Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge
- wi-fi on all trains
- new rolling stock, rather than the hand-me-downs that we usually get
We may also get;
- an extra train per hour to London and Norwich from Stowmarket - there will be three trains an hour between London and Norwich, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll stop at Stowmarket
- more services at Elmswell, Needham Market and Thurston - if the new trains are sufficiently quick to allow the Peterborough trains to stop at local stations more often
So, all in all, not bad. Longer, faster trains, more trains, nothing much to complain about there, especially with Suffolk growing faster than the country as a whole.
There are some regrets though. There will be four trains a day linking Lowestoft with Liverpool Street, but none linking Bury St Edmunds to London (which at least keeps it out of easy commuting range). There are no proposed new stations - Claydon is getting close to the point where a new station might be viable, especially with all the new housing springing up in what I would describe as the "Gipping Corridor" between Ipswich and Stowmarket.
It would also have been nice if there had been some Ipswich - Stansted Airport services, instead of just the proposed Norwich - Stansted Airport ones. Why not alternate trains from Stansted?
There is also the question of catering. I have almost reconciled myself to never again having the joy of a cooked full English breakfast as my train crosses the Stour Estuary at Manningtree but will the new rolling stock have a buffet car? That isn't entirely clear yet.
In terms of technology, Abellio have been pretty good. I rely upon their app, which works well and reliably, offering mTickets on key routes, and one hopes that they will expand that to all routes, meaning that we aren't tied to stations with ticket machines or open ticket offices - Needham Market, for example, has neither, and you obviously can't buy advance tickets from the train guard.
There is already talk of automatic refunds under the Delay Repay scheme, and given my regular failure to make claims when I could, that would be worth something to me.
The fly in the ointment, if you like, is Network Rail. Abellio struggled with ageing rolling stock and that, combined with equally ancient infrastructure, tended to mean that, when things went wrong, they went horribly wrong. The new trains will improve reliability no end, but unless Network Rail can deliver their end of the bargain, we will still have nagging doubts over the ability of Abellio to get us there when it really matters.
So, interesting times ahead on our local railways. I've been modestly impressed with Abellio whilst they've operated the chart franchise and its extension, and if they can make the new franchise work, they'll make our lives just a little easier, given how much both Ros and I use them. Fingers crossed...