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Maggie Simpson Director General, Rail Freight Group

East Anglia’s missing links

Maggie Simpson, Director General of the Rail Freight Group examines the complex landscape of rail connectivity in East Anglia, exploring the challenges, opportunities and proposed solutions that promise to redefine the role of the Port of Felixstowe within the UK’s trade and transportation ecosystem.

East Anglia, one of the fastest growing regions in the UK and including the Port of Felixstowe, has only two rail connections to the rest of the UK, one via London, the other via Lincolnshire. Both routes are congested so there are many parties advocating for an improvement to this situation.

The Port of Felixstowe is Britain’s biggest and busiest container port, and one of the largest in Europe. Every year it handles more than four million TEUs and welcomes approximately 2,000 ships, including the largest container vessels sailing today. The 17 shipping lines operating from Felixstowe offer 33 services to and from more than 700 ports around the world.

Hutchison Ports, owner of the port, has committed to net zero in the UK by 2035. It is investing in electric tractors, electric semi-automated RTGs (rubber-tyred gantry) cranes and battery-powered autonomous trucks. The three rail freight operators at the port already runs 74-76 services a day, connecting 16 inland destinations. They carry about one million of the containers entering or departing the port. Rail volumes account for around 29% of the port’s total UK domestic throughput, rising to 50% of traffic to the North and West Midlands.

The port has doubled its rail terminal capacity in recent years and says that recent infrastructure works on the Felixstowe Branch Line (FBL) will significantly increase the number of intermodal freight train paths serving the port. It continues to invest in rail as a real and environmentally efficient alternative to road haulage.
But it is obvious that growth in rail traffic will be constrained by the lack of capacity on the rail network connecting the port to the rest of the UK. One answer to that lies in the much needed upgrade of Ely Junction, a scheme which has increasing support for both the freight and passenger benefits it delivers. RFG has supported a recent publication ‘Keeping Trade on Track’ from England’s Economic Heartland and Transport East, and will continue to campaign for this vital scheme.

Another proposed solution is the East West Railway. This has its origins in a campaign to reopen the Varsity Line, one taken up by a group of Local Authorities who formed the East West Rail Consortium, (now Mainline Partnership) in the 1990s. Slow to get going initially, the partnership now includes authorities representing almost everyone from Avonmouth to Gt. Yarmouth.

Its strategic vision was, and remains, a railway linking East Anglia to the South Midlands, Oxford and beyond to Swindon and Bristol linking up the Great Western, Chilton, West Coast, Midland, East Coast, West Anglia and Great Eastern main lines while avoiding London.

With sustainable growth in both the economy and housing high on the agenda, the vision included the need for freight from the region’s ports, principally Felixstowe, to access the ever-growing number of strategic rail freight interchanges in the Midlands and North.

The Partnership, which has kept this vision alive for over 30 years, scored a partial success with the establishment, by the then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, of the East West Railway Company in 2017, to design and deliver a passenger only railway between Cambridge and Oxford but with no provision for freight!

Times change however, and there is a growing feeling that the railway the company were asked to build is very different from the one they would like to build if given a broader remit. This year’s Bedford to Cambridge route announcement does contain some better news for freight. The decision to approach Cambridge from the south, avoiding reversal for freight serving Felixstowe, must be welcomed in the face of some local opposition. The East West Rail Company will also design passing loops to accommodate longer freight trains, hopefully with fast turnouts.

But there is much that needs to be added to make this railway a strategic national asset, a point supported by Network Rail’s recent Strategic Statement on East West. The single line from Cambridge to Newmarket where the line joins the Felixstowe to Midlands and North route will need its double track (singled in the late 1980s) restored. There are also other sections that need upgrading and, of course, it will need electrification throughout in order to deliver the optimum rail connections between the Port of Felixstowe and inland hubs throughout the UK.

For more information, please visit www.rfg.org.uk

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