Rail investment could speed Hunts journeys

QUITE how Huntingdonshire travellers will benefit from �240million investment in the East Coast main line, announced on Monday as part of the Government’s �9.4billion rail investment package, remains shrouded in mystery.

Everyone seems agreed that the investment is ‘a good thing’ – and the measures proposed seem on the face of it to offer significant potential for improving services. But are they what they seem.

The East Coast proposals directly affecting Huntingdonshire are two-fold: four-tracking between Huntingdon and the former brickworks at Fletton, south of Peterborough, and the introduction of what is called the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) on the undefined “south end” of the route between London’s Kings Cross station and Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Currently, the line has three tracks between Huntingdon and Conington (two for northbound trains and one for southbound services) and just two tracks across Holme Fen northwards. The electrification masts are in the middle of what used to be fourth track, the ‘up slow’ line that was lifted in the early 1980s before the line was electrified between Hitchin and Peterborough in 1987.

If the Department for Transport is actually proposing to make the whole stretch four-track, not only will that involve Network Rail in major engineering works south of Conington – including completely closing the line to re-string the 25,000-volt overhead wires – but it will also involve adding two additional tracks across the notoriously boggy Holme Fen, and possible installing lineside equipment in part of the car park of the Admiral Wells pub at Holme.

If that were to happen, journey times on commuter trains would be much more reliable between Huntingdon and Peterborough because trains would not have to wait for 125mph East Coast services to overtake.

But it is the ERTMS announcement, hidden away in paragraph 49, towards the end of the DfT document, that is potentially more significant – though no one seems to have noticed yet, largely because the Government seems not to know what it has announced.

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Network Rail says it wants to install quite sophisticated cab signalling and train control on the line south of Doncaster.

ERTMS started life as a safety system that now exists at four levels. The lowest is already installed on main lines in Britain and stops trains after they pass red lineside signals. The other three, at various levels of sophistication, involve in-cab signalling and systems that control speeds and prevent trains passing ‘stop’ signals – are already in use on high-speed lines including HS1 in Kent, France’s TGV network and Germany’s ICE.

That capability means trains can follow each other more closely, so the capacity of existing lines is increased.

Infrastructure operator Network Rail said: “Network Rail is drawing up plans for the upgrade of signalling on the East Coast main line, which subject to government approval could start in 2018/19. The new in-cab signalling system we propose could allow faster, more frequent and a greater number of services on this vital rail route.”

That could mean the express trains on the route would be able to operate at the 140mph speeds for which they were designed in the late 1980s.

In spite of the uncertainty, the Government’s announcement was generally welcomes in Huntingdonshire. Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly said there would be tangible benefits to commuters in his constituency, though he would continue to press for a new footbridge and lifts at St Neots station and a new station at Alconbury when the airfield is developed to create 8,000 new jobs and 5,000 new homes.

North West Cambridgeshire MP Shailesh Vara, whose constituency includes Holme, said the investment would provide a major boost to the area and bring additional jobs.

Meanwhile, Nick Dibben, secretary of the East Anglian public transport pressure group Railfuture and a St Ives councillor, said he was “gobsmacked by the good news”, including a plan to install a new flyover north of Peterborough station to remove freight trains from passenger main lines.

In separate moves, he is also pressing Whippet to extend its Huntingdon-St Ives service into the early evening, and Stagecoach to provide an additional bus stop in Houghton Road, St Ives, for its new Huntingdon services.