On Saturday 23 July 2016 Railfuture director Jerry Alderson used an Anglia Plus Day Ranger ticket (costing £18.20, which can be reduced by a third to railcard holders) to evaluate the quality of the rail services and rail network in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk to give praise where it is due and identify areas of improvement to improve the passenger experience. The day out tied up with the campaigning work being done by Railfuture’s East Anglia branch on station facilities. Each of the stations visited are assessed in order followed by the journey experience.
The day began at Ely station. Rangers and Rovers are often not available to buy from ticket vending machines (TVMs). Both ticket windows were open and the queue was short. The Anglia Plus was well known by staff and issued in less than 30 seconds paying by card.
Platform 1 has been decluttered with the removal of cycle racks to a large secure area at the front of the station. There is a lack of seating though. There are three outlets selling coffee and other refreshments, two on platform 1 (one in the newsagent) and the other in the recently rebuilt waiting room and refreshment kiosk on the island platform. Railfuture is critical that the new waiting room is no larger than the original despite passenger numbers at Ely station having grown dramatically and there being plenty of room for a sizeable facility. The toilets are now accessible. The waiting room is lovely and like several Abellio Greater Anglia ones has leather sofas. Combined 13A and USB power points are provided, although some are hidden behind the seating. The refreshment kiosk had a variety of hots drinks and food along with newspapers.
Alighting from the train at Norwich station there were no customer information screens until you get to the buffer stops to find out which platform is needed for the connection. On this occasion it meant walking past the train that was required. Of course, it was possible to find this out using a smart phone before arriving at Norwich. Hopefully the trains purchased during the new franchise will include high-quality information screens that show connections.
There were signs to the toilets but these directed people to the ones that are currently closed for rebuilding. There were no signs to any replacement ones. Station staff explained that there were temporary toilets outside the front of the station. Why notices could not be provided is inexplicable.
Norwich station has lots of retail outlets selling refreshments and there is a sizeable WH Smith as well. It was the online station with barriers that was visited on the day out.
Two wheelchair users boarded the Great Yarmouth train at Norwich using a ramp and there were staff waiting for them at Great Yarmouth to help them alight using a ramp. It was very efficiently done.
Great Yarmouth Station
Great Yarmouth station gets almost everything right for passengers and is a great improvement on what it was a few years ago. The ticket office has a lower counter for wheelchair users but it still needs to be the right height for the person behind the counter so they added a small ramp to get it just right. The refreshments kiosk (see below) had hot snacks and the toilets were very clean.
On busy days passengers are not allowed onto the platforms until the train has arrived in order to let people alight first. There is plenty of space inside for people to queue undercover. There is a lack of canopies on the platform but people would only get wet for a minute.
A really nice feature of Great Yarmouth station is that upon existing there is a canopy that goes to the kerb where the first taxi will be waiting. No-one should get wet when getting in and out of the taxi. It is a pity that few other stations outside the major cities achieve this.
Brundall station is the interchange when travelling between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft to avoid going back to Norwich. It has a traditional footbridge that is in need of some work. Notices on it said that Abellio Greater Anglia and Network Rail would be ‘assessing’ it, i.e. no promise that anything would be done. Platform 1 (towards the coast) is accessible but platform 2 requires stepping onto the footbridge in order to leave the station. In theory a wheelchair user might just, with assistance, be able to use the steep platform-end slope, straight onto the level crossing, thought it isn’t an official route. The weather was so hot and the sun so bridge that it was necessary to take shade from the sun in the shelter on platform 2 and then cross over to platform 1 (where there was no protection form the afternoon sun) in time to catch the train. Although the information screen had a sun cover around it, it was impossible to read in the very bright sunlight. The station still has manually opened and closed level crossing gates and these will, presumably, be removed when the line is re-signalled in 2019. The station housing has been taken over by a marine equipment business. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for the crossing keepers building to be put to passenger use in the future. At least there’s an attractive pub, The Yare, over the road.
Lowestoft station had Bike&Go racks but none of the cycles were being used, despite it being a summer Saturday. Few people seem to have joined the scheme, which requires a £10 up-front payment and £3.80 per day (at the time of writing), as evidenced by full racks at most Abellio stations.
The ticket office was open but the only opportunity to buy refreshments was a vending machine offering cold drinks and bars of chocolate. However, the station is very close to the town centre where there are lots of opportunities to buy food and drink. There is one toilet at the station, which is also accessible.
Felixstowe station platform has been dramatically shortened and now has just one platform and is not suitable for excursion trains, even if there was track capacity to support them. The canopy covers almost two carriages and sensibly the bicycle racks are under the canopy. There is also an enclosed waiting room under the canopy to protect a few passengers form the wind and cold in winter.
At least the stop for the rail replacement bus service is clearly signed next to the “Welcome to Lowestoft” notice boards. It needs to be as buses often replace trains because of insufficient capacity on the single-track line for both passenger and freight container services. One of the notice boards includes an advert for the Anglia Plus day ranger that has been produced by the local rail user group, Felixstowe TravelWatch, which is affiliated to Railfuture. Why Abellio Greater Anglia didn’t have a notice is unclear.
The former Felixstowe Town station building is now a mini-shopping mall and is called Great Eastern Square. There is precious little signage to inform people that there is a railway station behind it. Perhaps many Felixstowe residents are unaware that there is even a station in the town as direction most of the tourist signs do not mention it.
At Ipswich station announcements are fed through the entire station. This makes sense for train service announcements but do people in the toilets in platform 2 really need to be told to stand behind the yellow line on the island platform because the passing train is not stopping? Of course, localised announcements may need technical changes but let’s hope that new stations such as Cambridge North will support them.
Passing through Bury St Edmunds station it was good to see that the canopies have recently been painted and that there is now a high-quality waiting room on the Ipswich-bound platform with leather sofas like Ely station.
Changing at Cambridge station for a train back to Ely a very out-of-date map of the area around the station was spotted. The BBC studios relocated to the Business Park, near the new Cambridge North station, in 2009 but was still shown on the map. Given the huge amount of redevelopment work around the station area much has changed. It is important that passengers can trust the information that they are given – if one item is wrong it calls into question everything else.
The Ely to Norwich train was operated by East Midlands Trains and called only at Thetford, which is roughly the half-way point. The guard never appeared until the train arrived at Thetford 22 minutes later. As Ely station has a ticket office and two TVMs it's likely that few passengers avoided paying. However, the conductor/guard is also there to provide information to passengers, which is one of the reasons Railfuture supports having a customer-facing member of staff on board the train. After leaving Thetford he did ticket checks for people boarding at Ely and Thetford. Even if he felt it more productive to do checks in a single pass of the train he ought to have walked through the train before Thetford in case any passenger had a question.
All of the Abellio Greater Anglia trains had thorough ticket checks, often at every station, with one exception. There were no checks on the Felixstowe line in either direction. Railfuture often hears complaints about the single-carriage Class 153 train being so busy that checks are not possible. On this occasion it was a two-car Class 156 train, so there was no-one standing in the aisles. The train went like a rocket (outpacing an ambulance with its siren blazing) and arrived early, taking about 23 minutes, having stopped at three intermediate stations. There’s no doubt that the train is far superior to the bus that often substitutes for it when freight trains are running late (and also during a horrendous period in 2015 – see Felixstowe cut-off article).
It has to be said that the conductor/guard would have struggled to check the tickets of all 90-plus passengers on board the early evening trains even if none needed to be sold. There is little time after leaving Felixstowe before the train reaches Trimley and many passengers alighted at Derby Road. On a simple service like this many will wonder why the driver cannot open and close the doors allowing the conductor/guard to focus solely on passengers. It’s not something that Abellio does on its rural services (only those going to/from London) although that may change in the future, no doubt being controversial (see Train Staff Duties article). In the short-term if the driver made the announcements to passengers about the imminent arrival at as station the conductor/guard wouldn’t have to do so, or keep an eye out for where the train was and could spend a little more time with passengers.
The Felixstowe Town line is a minor service and therefore ticketless travel is damaging to the service because the patronage figures undercount usage and railway management see the service as being less important than other ones.
The Abellio conductor on the service to Lowestoft was very helpful. Checking the tickets of four young women he pointed out that they could all have saved a third of the fare if they had bought ‘Group Save’ tickets. Railfuture is always pleased when rail staff offer passengers advice on how to save money – it is in the railway’s long-term interest to be seen to offer value for money.
Cleanliness and Train Facilities
Abellio Greater Anglia’s trains had a quick turnaround time at each terminus but each train was cleaned after the end-to-end journey. Either there was a person at the station who quickly went through the train clearing rubbish, emptying litter bins and wiping tables or they did it whilst the train was in the move. It was excellent – a very noticeable difference to the main streets in Felixstowe where every litter bin was overflowing onto the pavement.
All of the trains used were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s. Overhead passenger information screens had been fitted (or retrofitted) in all of the carriages. However, some were switched off for the entire journey and others just gave the destination of the train service. Only half of them should the next and all remaining station stops. Wi-Fi and power-points had not been retrofitted to any trains.
The trains had accessible toilets but the Class 156 one on the Felixstowe town service was out of use and had probably been for most if not all of the day. At Ipswich a loudspeaker announcement said that the Felixstowe train did not have any toilets, which was good. However, this was announced just three minutes before departure. If only it had been announced ten minutes earlier. At Felixstowe the information screens included a message that the trains on the relevant services had no toilet. Well done!
Seatback tables were removed from trains during a refurbishment of the 1980s-built trains some time ago (see below) perhaps because they were easily damaged. Sadly, the passengers’ needs were less important to the train operator. Railfuture hopes that pull-down tables will be provided on the new trains expected following the start of the new Greater Anglia franchise.
None of the trains had any catering facilities. In fact, apart from the London-Norwich inter-city services, very few do. Could vending machines be installed on some trains? There are no precedents for this on Britain’s railway but on a hot summer day a cold drink would have been welcome.
The train to Great Yarmouth left Norwich about six minutes late. The reason was announced to passengers on the train. It was being held for connecting passengers on a late running train from London. This was justified as there would have been a long wait. The service is hourly although on summer Saturdays there is also a non-stop train but it is timed to depart just before permanent train.
The Ipswich-Lowestoft East Suffolk Line was singled in 1984, which prevented a frequent service from operating. Railfuture and the local rail user group, ESTA, campaigned for a passing loop to be constructed at the time and continually afterwards. In December 2012 a short loop at Beccles station opened. The problem with short loops is that if one train is late then the train in the opposite direction is also delayed. This happened on the day out. The Ipswich-bound train was stationary at Beccles for about three minutes before the conductor/guard announced that there would be a delay of “a few minutes” until the other train arrived. Ideally this should have been announced when the train arrived and a more precise delay time given. That would have allowed passengers to alight from the train, cross the footbridge and buy something from the recently opened café. The train eventually left ten minutes late.
Train Journey Experience
Many people choose to travel by train instead of driving. For this they expect comfort and speed, as well as not having to worry about congestion and parking.
The rural routes had several temporary speed restrictions (TSRs). Some of these were exceedingly slow with the train seeming to crawl. This does nothing for the image of the railway. Network Rail needs to address track issues to ensure that they are addressed before severe TSRs need to be implemented and where they are the track needs replacing quickly.
There are still patches of old jointed track on the rural routes lasting a mile or so – thankfully they’ve almost all been replaced on mainlines. Travelling over joined track is not a good experience for passengers. It is noisy and the train vibrates. It may also prevent trains travelling faster. It also negatively affects the railway itself: track damage is increased, train wheels and suspension have a shorter life, and the vibration may shorten the life of on-board components. Replacing the remaining stretches with continuously welded rail is not expensive compared to most rail enhancements.
Many branches scraped against the trains and rattled the windows – again, not pleasant for passengers. It betrays a lack of care of the railway. Nothing can be done during the bird nesting season but Network Rail should never let vegetation get as bad. Failing to remove vegetation close to the rails also unnecessarily risks adhesion problems during the leaf fall season.
Network Rail’s failures also included removing weeds around the track especially around stations. On a positive note, graffiti was almost non-existent (unlike railways on the European mainland) with the only noticeable on one the abutments of the new bridge over the River Gipping that supports the Ipswich Chord used by freight trains.
The Cromer/Sheringham branch was not visited. It is possible to do all of the lines covered by the Anglia Plus ticket in one day although the starting point may be important as not all lines have late services. Time can be lost because most of the rural trains have only one train an hour, although Railfuture is campaigning for two trains an hour where practicable.
Whilst there are opportunities for improvement almost everywhere there was nothing that was dreadful. The lack of any toilets on a train was confined to a journey time of just 25 minutes, which was a sensible ‘diagramming’ decision by Abellio Greater Anglia.
Railfuture campaigns to improve the passenger experience on Britain’s railway and is particularly interested in accessibility. Feedback can be e-mailed to feedback at railfuture.org.uk.
Read some of the previous articles by this writer: Railfuture Gives Evidence, Prague Compared, Hopping to Catch a Train, 20 Years Going in Circles, Mountain of Ideas, Sent to Coventry, Fare Rises - RPI vs CPI, New Year, Better Railway, Tube Usage Hits Record, Passenger Growth Future?, Passenger Priorities , Accessible Travel, Eurostar Snapshot Survey, Stansted Experience, Widening the NET, Cheapest fares by law?, Bring Back BR?, Public Sector Franchises, Fare Increase Viewpoint and Tube Staffing.