diamond geezer

 Tuesday, May 21, 2019

For years East Anglians have been trying to make their trains run faster. A typical rail journey between London and Norwich takes about one hour fifty minutes, best case one hour forty-two, which does the region's economy no favours. So a decade ago the political imperative became "Norwich in 90", not because it was doable but because it sounded good, and the most recent franchise was awarded on the basis that it must happen. Since then track and signalling have been upgraded, new trains have been purchased... and yesterday Greater Anglia finally delivered. I took the 11am train to Norwich, and it took one and a half hours precisely.

The initial timetable looks unadventurous. Only two trains from Norwich to London take ninety minutes, and only two trains from London to Norwich. They start quite late. They tend to avoid peak hours. They only require a single train shuttling back and forth. They don't run on Sundays. And they only stop once along the way.

0900 Norwich
0933 Ipswich
1030 London Liv St
1700 Norwich
1733 Ipswich
1830 London Liv St
1100 London Liv St
1153 Ipswich
1230 Norwich
1900 London Liv St
1955 Ipswich
2030 Norwich

This timetable's brilliant if you happen to want to go all the way at the time the trains actually run, or if you're a politician wanting to claim a massive personal success. Several politicians, businesspeople and railway top brass were on board the very first train which left Norwich at 09:00 yesterday morning. They must have been delighted, and somewhat relieved, when it pulled into Liverpool Street two minutes early. Several grey-haired men looked very pleased when they hopped off for a lengthy photocall at the head of the train. London in 88, very impressive.

Most of the VIPs went straight back again in first class. I headed for second class and found an impressively underpopulated carriage. There shouldn't have been any classes because yesterday was also supposed to see the introduction of a brand new train set, the all-standard-class Class 755. But these four-car units aren't ready to go into service yet - a sadly familiar story - and were themselves an unplanned stopgap for longer, also-delayed, Class 745s. So Greater Anglia wheeled out their most reliable ageing workhorse Class 90 and prayed it wouldn't fail. It didn't.

We crossed the M25 in under 15 minutes. This is normal. We skated through Shenfield in 17 minutes. Slowcoach Crossrail's going to take 43. We skipped Chelmsford in 24 minutes and Colchester in 38. This train doesn't bother stopping in Essex because the sacrifice allows it to reach Suffolk and Norfolk quicker. The view was often gorgeous, with rippling fields of yellow rape, dense herds of cattle and a glistening tidal estuary. The gentleman sat in the seat in front of me read his railway magazine, filled in his notebook and unwrapped a buffet brunch.

We reached Ipswich in a highly impressive 52 minutes. Technically the doors were open and passengers were stepping onto the platform at 51 minutes 55 seconds, so I'm going to call that Ipswich in 51. I'm baffled why the chosen slogan is Ipswich in 60 when the outbound timetable shows the intended target is 55, but I guess marketing folk and politicians have a thing for round numbers because they reckon people remember them better.

The train departed Ipswich on time, accompanied by a previously unheard-of announcement stating we'd be "calling at Norwich only". Normally every northbound train stops at Diss, and maybe Stowmarket too, because economically it's a poor idea to run straight past 40 miles of intermediate population. In this case it's OK because the Norwich in 90 services are all extras, shoehorned into the existing half-hourly timetable as a bonus rather than a replacement. But this cunning fix has created additional pressures elsewhere... as we'll see later.

Just before Diss the train slowed, unnervingly, raising the possibility that we might not hit our target. A member of Greater Anglia's Engineering Team wandered down the aisle, because politically important trains require extra staff on board lest they be seen to fail. He wasn't needed. We returned to full whack and approached Norwich with the clock inexorably ticking. Four minutes to go, just crossing the outskirts. Two minutes to go, passing all the shiny new trains in the depot that were supposed to be operational by now but aren't. And absolutely bang on time (OK, maybe 20 seconds late but that's irrelevant) we pulled in beside the platform. Norwich in 90 achieved. A dozen careers saved.

And at 17:00 I was back on platform 2 to ride the second fast train of the day back to London. I should have been on platform 4 to ride the slower 17:03 to London instead, because that was scheduled to stop at Stratford and I'd actually have got home faster. Staff were really careful to announce that the next station was Ipswich and the only other station after that was London, but some passengers still overshot their intended destination so had to get out at Ipswich and grab another train back the other way.

Beyond Ipswich we were running bang on time, or fractionally early, strategically sandwiched between the train from Clacton and the train from Braintree. We zoomed through Stratford at 18:22, i.e. still eight minutes before our deadline, so all looked good. But towards Bethnal Green we slowed, and dammit stopped, then sat there at a red signal for six minutes and threw everything away. BBC Look East were livestreaming our arrival on local news, and the timing couldn't have been worse. I think the train in front of the train in front of us got delayed pulling into Liverpool Street, but that was enough to unravel everything and we only managed London in 97.

The last fast train of the day also failed, having started to lose time after Chelmsford and arriving into Ipswich four minutes late. On it went, inexorably catching up with the slower 18:30 departure which was running even later. The signallers then did something heinous, switching the slower northbound train onto the 'wrong' platform at Diss to allow the fast train to overtake, and simultaneously delaying the next southbound departure from Norwich. The overtaken train ended up being 15 minutes late, the overtaking train a less newsworthy five. Unsurprisingly you can't squeeze magic trains into a timetable without damaging the others.

So yesterday's final tally was London in 88, Norwich in 90, London in 97 and Norwich in 95. Two successes, two fails. Technically even London in 97 is brilliant, but when you play the simplistic targets game it's all too easy to brand wins as losses. Expect dozens more wins and losses as the service inexorably improves, and maybe by the mid-2020s Norwich in 90 will be the status quo rather than an unreliable ideal.

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