I don't, as a rule, attend a lot of public meetings - it's a pain to get home from them as a non-driving village dweller, so a taxi is inevitably involved. And, to be frank, if they are full of people who have already made their minds up, they don't tend to enlighten me much - I can surf the web and find out what I need to know.
|And this is only the people in the hall...|
However, having seen the signs in Stowmarket, apparently announcing the closure of the two major level crossings in the town, and being aware that there didn't seem to be a lot of hard information out there, I was keen to turn up at the Stowmarket Community Hub yesterday to find out what, if anything, was actually happening. I wasn't alone...
The meeting had drawn an audience from every community with a level crossing - Mellis and Needham Market, Old Newton and Haughley, plus plenty of people in Stowmarket itself, all keen to express how important their crossings were. They filled the hall, spilled out into the corridors and out of the building altogether. I was glad that I had come relatively early... It was very impressive, and a credit to the organisers.
There was only one problem, in that there appeared to be no firm evidence that any such closures were in the offing.
The meeting chair, Rosie Carter (I think that that's correct but apologise if it isn't), a local resident and someone who had, apparently, campaigned against closure proposals in 2000 (I didn't live anywhere near here then, so can only take her at her word), opened the meeting by explaining what the Suffolk Crossings campaign was about, a response to proposals to close level crossings across Suffolk but, in particular, on the main line between Ipswich and Norwich. There was, according to her, a secret list of crossings that would be closed, a list that Network Rail would not comment on.
There were, somewhat surprisingly, two representatives of Network Rail present, who had been invited to explain the position of their organisation. So, starting off by explaining that there was no such list and that they hadn't even started doing the preparative work required to draw up proposals for consultation on any possible closures rather challenged the whole raison d'etre of the campaign.
The problem, it seemed, was that the 'Norwich in Ninety' campaign requires a whole lot of infrastructure changes in order to achieve its goal, and as it is now endorsed by the Government, by both Norwich City Council (Labour led) and Ipswich Borough Council (also Labour led), the Liberal Democrat MPs for Colchester and Norwich South, local media, Chambers of Commerce and others, there is pressure to deliver.
It seems that the existence of a list is based on a piece on David Ruffley's website where he lists where level crossings might have to close. Unfortunately, he had listed all of them, without any basis of fact, and was assumed to know something. If only...
But people were angry, understandably. They had been told that their level crossing was to be closed, by people they trusted, and they weren't going to have two strangers from an organisation they don't trust telling them otherwise. So, the fact that there would have to be consultation, and that diversity impact assessments would be required and that public safety, the environment and community impact would all have to be taken into account made little impact on people who had already accepted that something bad was going to happen to them.
So, where are we?
Upgrading the main line between Ipswich and Norwich will require level crossings to be reviewed, as the proposed line speeds will be increased, impacting on the type of level crossing required and, in the case of level crossings that are public footpaths, potentially requiring footbridges - you need much better sight lines for trains travelling at 110 mph than you do for trains travelling at 90 or 100 mph. So, yes, level crossings will be reviewed on both safety grounds (as is already the case) and whether or not an alternative engineering solution would be better.
There are no specific proposals. At the moment, Network Rail is consulting on its Route Study, looking at what might be needed to allow more traffic on lines throughout the Region in order to meet increased demand - double-tracking at Haughley Junction, a passing loop at Witham, extra platforms at Ipswich. Once that is done, and the plan is finalised, then work will start on the infrastructure requirements. Part of that will be a review of level crossings which may, but only may, lead to proposals that may lead to the closure of crossings, and alternative arrangements will be put in place.
So, we'll see. There is no doubt that local people will have to pay close attention to what is happening, but there is no need to panic yet in the absence of any proposals. And, frankly, it will take some time before anything happens anyway.
What I found rather sad was that there was a willingness to believe the worst of an organisation whose staff had come to a meeting of their own volition, to try and explain to a somewhat hostile audience that they had been mislead. Having read the relevant documents, especially those highlighted by Suffolk Crossings, I conclude that, if you assume that authority is lying to you, you could get very angry. But if you aren't willing to entertain the possibility that the people making the claims aren't actually correct either, you might be lead to fear an imaginary spectre. And anyone making decisions on that basis may have cause to regret them later on...