Ipswich and its rail service
One wonders how many hundreds of times over the years that this has been the reaction of intending 'customers' (they used to be called 'passengers') planning to travel from Ipswich to London and return by train on a Saturday and/or Sunday and/or Bank Holiday, only to discover that there are no through trains owing to 'Planned Engineering Works'. Instead, what should be a comfortable 75 minute or so train ride transmutes into an Ipswich to Witham or Ingatestone rail journey, followed by a bus along the A12, viewing the joys of Harold Hill, Gallows Corner and Eastern Avenue, en route to Newbury Park station on the Central Line for a claustrophobic tube train ride over the final leg to Liverpool Street (or vice versa). On a good day that adds an hour to the journey time for no reduction in fare to take account of either the lost time, the inconvenience or sheer discomfort and misery on a cold and damp winter evening. Carrying luggage over the Himalayan-like footbridge at Ingatestone is no joke either.
Not that it is any fun for our local train operator, Greater Anglia (GA). Their Train Planning Department is constantly having to produce revised timetables (after negotiating with Network Rail, as fitting in terminating trains at somewhere restricted like Ingatestone is somewhat different to Liverpool Street), buses have to be arranged, extra staff has to be drafted in to assist customers at strategic points while train and crew workings have to be amended to take into account the alterations while complying with regulatory breaks, etc. If, for example, an engineering blockade takes place between Norwich and Ipswich, then there is the added problem of rolling stock having to be located south thereof the day before to provide trains between Ipswich and London and train crew (mostly Norwich-based) having to be ferried by road to reach their trains. It is not so easy as it may seem.
Anyway, your worthy Editor approached the Editor of the ITS' 48page illustrated monthly Journal via our Facebook page to essentially enquire whether or not so much seemingly constant weekend work is really necessary. As an Ipswich Society member and the ITS' Rail Report Sub-Editor, I drew the short straw to formulate a reply. While not a professional railwayman, I write as an informed layman. It should perhaps be firstly pointed out that such closures are nothing new (going back within my memory to British Railways (BR), Anglia Railways and National Express before the present incumbent Greater Anglia) but they have become much more frequent. Although these closures annoy me as much as they do everybody else, regrettably I have to conclude that, yes, they are necessary for a number of reasons:-
• Renewal of the overhead wires. Overhead wires to power electric trains were first installed for the 1949 Liverpool Street to Shenfield scheme and the 1956 extensions to Chelmsford and Southend Victoria. In those days, the wires were not tensioned to the extent of more modern schemes, this resulting in expansion and sagging during very hot days with the propensity of the wires being caught up in a train's pantograph and the 'knitting' being brought down, hence severe temporary speed restrictions being introduced. BR did nothing about this and neither did the privatised Railtrack. It has only during the past few years that the renationalised infrastructure provider, Network Rail, has not only been renewing the wires over some 140 track miles but also replacing many supporting structures too, tasks that can only be undertaken with the line closed for engineering 'possessions', i.e. strictly only engineering trains allowed over the stretch of line in question.
• Crossrail. Most readers will be aware from the excellent BBC2 documentaries of the monumental work involved with this new east-to-west railway to run between Shenfield/Abbey Wood and Paddington/Heathrow/Reading from 2019. While the tunnels under central London are new, the extremities are modernised existing railways. So far as the Shenfield to the tunnel mouth, near Stratford, section is concerned, all the suburban stations are now under the control of Transport for London (not Greater Anglia) and are all subject to platform extensions for the new longer trains, together with new footbridges/lifts, etc. The work at Shenfield itself has been much more extensive with new overhead structures to accommodate the revised track layout, new sidings and a new bay platform somehow inserted between the station and the parade of shops on the western side of the line. Most work could not have been completed without full line closures.
• Routine maintenance/renewals. It may not be appreciated just how heavily used the Great Eastern Main Line is. Between Shenfield and Liverpool Street there are nine off-peak passenger trains per hour over the fast ('Main') lines in each direction and a further six in each direction over the slow ('Electric') lines, with even more during the peaks. Added to these are heavy freight trains mainly heading to/from Felixstowe. So the track takes something of a pounding, especially from locomotive-hauled trains, but the time available to carry out essential routine maintenance work is strictly limited. For example, GA's last train is the 00:46 Liverpool Street to Colchester and the first in the morning is the 04:45 from Colchester in the reverse direction, so there is less than a four-hour window. Many freight trains run at night too although most can be diverted to run cross-country, engineering work permitting. Accordingly, it follows that the more major jobs, such as track relaying, cannot possibly be carried out on weekday nights but only during weekend closures.
Harking back to the so-called 'good old days', while the railway had already long prided itself in its safety culture, nevertheless the more onerous requirements of more recent Health and Safety legislation spelt the end of many everyday time-saving practices. I recall seeing wiring for the Chelmsford to Colchester 'gap' being installed (in 1962) on one line while I was in a train passing on the other! Quite rightly, that would not be countenanced today but, by the same token, arguably at times perhaps we have gone too far the other way.
There are, after all, two pairs of tracks beyond Shenfield but frustratingly often both are shut while the work may relate to just one pair. Increased safety documentation and briefings result in extended timescales for managing engineering possessions, with the need to avoid any over-run for fear of incurring penalties meaning that timeframes are not always maximised. It should also perhaps be pointed out that while closing the A12 for 'engineering' reasons (e.g. the Kelvedon by-pass for two Sundays earlier this year) might have been highly inconvenient, at least road vehicles could relatively easily be diverted. This is obviously not the case with rail services.
I apologise for the 'ramble' but hope this article has given some insight as to what happens behind the scenes and also helps GA's disgruntled 'customers' appreciate that weekend closures are not the fault of your local train operator.
Graham Hardinge (Vice-President, Ipswich Transport Society)