How Greater Anglia’s transformation has continued despite the pandemic

Published on: Thursday, 16 July 2020
Last updated: Thursday, 16 July 2020

  • Behind the Scenes

It’s a big job, transforming the entire railway in East Anglia – and that’s without a worldwide pandemic. Ian McConnell is Greater Anglia’s franchise and programmes director, and it’s his job to introduce £1.4 billion of new trains along with hundreds of millions of pounds of infrastructure improvements to stations and depots across the network. His job is difficult enough at the best of times, but doing it during lockdown threw up many more challenges….but also some opportunities.

Man wearing a face covering whilst standing in front of trains

When coronavirus struck, in March, Greater Anglia had already replaced every one of its old diesel trains with brand new bi-mode trains and had started introducing new trains onto the Norwich-London Liverpool Street intercity route. On Ian’s to do list for the coming months was to get more intercity trains in passenger service, get the first new Stansted Express train ready for passenger service, build up testing of the new Bombardier trains and crack on with a number of different infrastructure projects, including fitting a new train lift at Clacton depot and opening new sidings at Norwich. It could easily have all fallen apart – if it wasn’t for Ian’s leadership and the can-do attitude of his team. When the UK went into lockdown, some of the team started working from home – with all of the challenges that presents such as home-schooling children, being apart from loved ones or even loneliness. Ian has kept his team together with regular communication, making the most of what technology was on offer. “Having to address those personal issues, as well as working as a team has been one of our big challenges, but I think we’ve done a really good job. I’m really pleased with how that’s gone,” says Ian.

Ian’s key projects needed to keep going, to prevent the roll-out of new trains incurring huge delays.

One of the company’s new Bombardier electric trains went for its first test run just before lockdown. Test runs have continued since – with staff on board following Government guidance to keep safe from Covid-19 – and the team taking advantage of the reduced passenger train service to take the new trains out on “shake-down” runs – to identify any problems before fault-free running starts. The Bombardier programme faced a bit of hitch when the train manufacturer stopped production for a few weeks due to lockdown, but Ian worked with Bombardier to keep the Greater Anglia programme on track as much as possible. “It’s been a real joint effort, a real partnership between Greater Anglia and Bombardier, and they’ve made an incredible amount of progress in the last few months,” says Ian.

A train being raised in the air for engineers using lifting equipment

“It was a big, big effort and a big success,” Ian is reflecting on one of the toughest challenges the team has faced during lockdown. New train lifting equipment was planned for Clacton depot, with the apparatus coming from France. Then France went into lockdown, and the project looked like it was in jeopardy. Ian and his team entered negotiations with the manufacturer and French civil servants and managed to find a solution which saw the vital machinery fitted in the depot, where it is now in use (pictured above), helping engineers to maintain Greater Anglia’s new Stadler bi-mode trains.
Ian’s team opened new sidings – Norwich Victoria Sidings – in March, which became fully operational during lockdown, with four 120-metre tracks and overhead wires, for stabling Greater Anglia’s new longer trains.

During lockdown, Greater Anglia also took delivery of the final trains from Swiss train manufacturer Stadler, despite a few coronavirus-related hitches along the way. The reduced passenger service left extra gaps in the timetable available for testing out new Stansted Express trains, to make them as reliable as possible when they go into passenger service later this summer between London Liverpool Street and Stansted Airport.

“During lockdown another challenge we faced was that a lot of Stadler technicians are based in Switzerland and were impacted by the lockdown - by the Swiss quarantine - and unable to come over and support the project in the way they had done, and that was a problem for us. But we managed to work with them, use a different approach, use local resource, as well as the international resource. In fact, we’ve managed to keep on progressively introducing new Stadler trains in the last few weeks, despite the restrictions in place, so again another great team effort and a good partnership between Stadler and Greater Anglia,” says Ian. Ian’s team have achieved a great deal throughout lockdown, all of which will ultimately benefit rail travellers in East Anglia when they return to the railway, once the pandemic has subsided, as the roll-out of new trains and the accompanying new infrastructure has continued thanks to the hard work and dedication of his team. The final words go to Ian: “The team’s done really well, they’ve adapted to the situation brilliantly and they’ve done a great job.”