Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough James Palmer is calling on the Government to allow the county’s mayoral authority to have sign-off rights in the awarding of any new rail franchises covering the area.
Mayor Palmer said he had been ‘continually frustrated’ in attempts to bring forward a package of improvements to rail services at Fenland stations.
He is now writing to the Rail Minister Andrew Jones to set up a meeting including train operator CrossCountry and Network Rail to discuss delivering better services to Fenland stations at Manea, March and Whittlesey.
Mayor Palmer is pushing for CrossCountry’s Stansted to Birmingham service, which runs trains between Peterborough, Fenland and Cambridge, to be expanded. Currently, almost all the services do not stop at Whittlesea and Manea stations, and do not run with enough frequency or late enough in the evenings to allow people to commute for work.
Mayor Palmer said he had been ‘left exasperated’ by a recent meeting with CrossCountry, who he said would only commit to a review of the situation in December 2021 and added that a national shortage of available rolling stock meant it was also unable to consider increasing capacity and frequency on their two-car services.
Now, the metro mayor wants Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to have greater oversight in the awarding of new rail franchises with sign-off rights.
He said he is pushing for later and more frequent services on the route, as well as a rail shuttle to run in the evenings between Cambridge and Peterborough until midnight, which would take in Fenland stations.
Mayor Palmer said: “I have tried all the conventional channels for trying to improve CrossCountry rail services to Fenland stations, including through consultations and meeting with the operator directly. But this has resulted in no positive change or momentum whatsoever. It tells me that if I want to have a meaningful say in our rail future then the combined authority must have rights over the sign-off of new franchises relating to this area.
“I will now be calling on the rail minister to support this proposal to give more power over our rail services back to the communities which rely on them.
“The combined authority is bringing forward new stations at Soham and Cambridge South and putting a new rail link in to Wisbech. We are also delivering a series of improvements to upgrade facilities at our Fenland stations. We are investing in our local rail network and we are planning for a transport future in which better rail services are essential. For that reason the combined authority needs to have a greater say when franchises come up for renewal.
“My experience so far has been extremely frustrating. It is nowhere near good enough for CrossCountry to sit on their hands on improving services until December 2021 - and even then only to review the situation. And it is also nowhere near good enough that a quoted national shortage of available rolling stock is the reason why we can’t have increased capacity on this service.
“Along with North East Cambridgeshire MP Steve Barclay I have been pressing for a commitment from the rail operator to work with us to meet our ambitions for better services. This is has been a long-held desire for people and their elected representatives in Fenland and it is high time we move things along because enough is enough.
“I am setting up a meeting with the rail minister, Network Rail and CrossCountry to secure a way forward. We have a growing economy, but we need that growth to be more inclusive. We know that public transport is a real driver for sharing prosperity among more people and better Fenland rail services will help us achieve this.
“A commute time of just over 30 minutes between March and Cambridge shows the potential for the CrossCountry services. If people can have the confidence that they can secure work in Cambridge and even London, while still returning by rail, it opens the door to a huge range of new job possibilities for people. The spin off benefits are that people can stay in the communities in which they grew up or have connections, and in areas where housing is more affordable. We also increase public transport use, reducing congestion on our roads.
“I’m convinced that something can be done here, and I won’t let this issue go until we have in place a workable way forward that gives people in Fenland the sort of rail service that they need and deserve.”