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Shadow minister warns of Norfolk rail franchising "shambles"

 

Train users in East Anglia are set for chaos and confusion because of the government’s handling of the refranchising of the region’s rail services, a shadow minister has warned.

And Norfolk’s hopes of cashing in on the Olympic Games in London could also be affected because of the timing of the award of a contract to a new operator, according to Maria Eagle, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for transport.

Three firms – Abellio Greater Anglia, Eastern Railway and Stagecoach Anglia Trains – have been shortlisted for the Greater Anglia franchise, which is currently run by National Express, but is due to be taken over by a new operator in February 2012 for a 17-month period.

Ministers last week set out how they expect the company which wins the franchise to improve services between Norwich to London and to invest in new trains to carry people to and from the 2012 Olympics.

But Ms Eagle, who was visiting Norwich yesterday to speak at a conference held by transport workers’ union TSSA (Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association) and to meet students at City Academy Norwich and Easton College, warned East Anglian travellers could be in for disruption and rising fares.

She attacked the government’s decision to only award a short-term East Anglian franchise ahead of awarding a longer-term 10-year award after 2013.

She said: “The government’s rail franchising policy is a total shambles. Refranchising the East Anglia train contract twice in the next two years means passengers could see three different owners in three years, just because the transport secretary needs another year to get his rail policy sorted.

“Customers in East Anglia deserve better than the chaos and confusion this will bring and the taxpayer deserves better than the huge waste of money caused by chopping and changing operators.

“Changing the franchise operators so frequently is likely to lead to cost increases and the usual teething problems and yes, that will hit the Olympics.”

She added the report into railways by Sir Roy McNulty, due later this week, was likely to give rail companies more power to set their own fares.

And she warned: “The government has already loosened its grip on fare regulation and said that fares can go up by 3pc above the retail price index, which is a broken promise.”

She also said Norfolk train users could suffer from the reinstatement of the “flex” system, which allows companies to make rarely-used routes cheaper to balance out bigger increases to commuter journeys while still meeting the government caps for fare increases.

But a Department for Transport spokesman said: “There are no changes to fares in the short extension to the Greater Anglia franchise.

“We are letting the Greater Anglia franchise under a 17-month franchise to allow time for reforms in Sir Roy McNulty’s Value for Money review which will benefit passengers to be built into the subsequent longer-term franchise.”

dan.grimmer@archant.co.uk

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