Mayor James Palmer calls for Combined Authority oversight over new rail franchise contracts amid frustration at Fenland services improvement bid

Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough James Palmer is calling on Government to allow the Combined Authority to have sign-off rights in the awarding of any new rail franchises covering the area.

The Mayor’s call comes after being continually frustrated in attempts to bring forward a package of improvement to rail services at Fenland stations.

Mayor Palmer is writing to the Government’s Rail Minister Andrew Jones MP to set up a meeting including train operator CrossCountry and Network Rail, as part of continuing attempts to secure a breakthrough in delivering better services to Fenland stations at Manea, March and Whittlesey.

The Mayor has long been pushing for CrossCountry’s Stansted to Birmingham service, which runs trains between Peterborough, Fenland and Cambridge, and on to Stansted, to be expanded to give people in Fenland greater opportunity to access jobs in Cambridge and London via rail. 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 meet current ambitions.

But Mayor Palmer was left exasperated by a recent meeting with CrossCountry, who he said were unwilling to come to the table on any service improvement.

Despite the Mayor also feeding into the official consultation process for the new CrossCountry franchise last summer, which included a range of requests to improve the service, the competition process was dropped after the Government announced a root and branch review of rail in Britain. The Mayor has subsequently engaged with, and given his feedback to, the Williams Rail Review.

In the Mayor’s direct engagement with CrossCountry, the operator said it 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.

Frustrated after trying every avenue to secure a breakthrough, Mayor Palmer said the time has come for the Combined Authority to have greater oversight in the awarding of new franchises. Sign-off rights would give Cambridgeshire and Peterborough leverage to improve services which directly affect rail users in the area.

Mayor Palmer said the CrossCountry service would be the easiest and cheapest way to bring about better rail services in Fenland, where the journey time from Cambridge to March, and vice versa, is a little over 30 minutes direct. It would also support the wider ambition of increasing public transport use, reducing congestion on the roads and helping the environment.

To improve Fenland services via the CrossCountry Birmingham to Stansted line, the Mayor is trying to secure:

  • Stops at all Fenland stations, Whittlesea and Manea, not just March, with additional services particularly at peak commuting times in the early morning and evening
  • A doubling in frequency of services between Stansted, Cambridge, Peterborough (and vice versa) from hourly to half-hourly
  • An increase from two-carriage to four-carriage services to increase capacity and comfort
  • Later services from Monday to Saturday so people can have confidence in working in Cambridge an London and commuting via rail. Later trains will also open up the potential for people in Fenland to enjoy evenings out in Cambridge and Peterborough and catch late flights at Stansted, using public transport
  • Stops at Cambridge North station to access job opportunities in the area, including at Cambridge Science Park

To achieve a later running service Mayor Palmer is proposing a rail ‘shuttle’ to run in the evenings between Cambridge and Peterborough.

The outline proposal would be to run a train from Cambridge to Peterborough at around 9.30pm, arriving in Peterborough at 10.20pm. It would then travel back to Cambridge, arriving at around 11.10pm, and the service would then return to Peterborough around midnight. The service would cover its usual stops as well as all the Fenland stations. Currently the latest CrossCountry train back to March from Cambridge from Monday to Friday is 9.01pm.

Mayor James 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 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 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.”

Mayor Palmer met with the Rail Minister earlier this year, to urge his support for a bid to undertake work to allow eight-car trains on the line between Cambridge and King’s Lynn, which includes stops at Waterbeach, Ely and Littleport. The services were previously limited to four-car trains for reasons including platform lengths along the line. The Department for Transport approved the funding for works necessary to increase capacity in February, including platform lengthening. The eight-car services are scheduled to begin from December 2020.