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Ashington, Blyth and Tyne Railway

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

I thank the House for allowing me the debate.

I first raised the issue on an Adjournment debate in the House in April 1999, at a time when Wansbeck was still suffering from the after-effects of the premature closure of the mining industry. Unemployment in some wards was running at more than 30 per cent. According to the university of Warwick, Wansbeck was in the top 6 per cent. of local authorities in Britain for concentrated poverty, and in the top 5 per cent. for concentrated unemployment. Although some jobs were created in Wansbeck, it was necessary for the majority of people to travel outside the constituency to obtain work. It was therefore vital to strengthen the transport network and to restore passenger rail services on a fully functioning railway line.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Freight was always the dominant feature on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, delivering coal to the staithes at Blyth and the Tyne for export. Passenger services were introduced between Blyth and Newcastle in 1847 and extended to Ashington and Newbiggin in 1872. Passenger services between Bedlington and Morpeth ended in 1950 and the remaining service ended shortly after the 1963 Beeching report. The final train ran in November 1964. I remember that date very well because I travelled on the very last train from Blyth to Ashington.

The Government recognise the level of deprivation and since 1997 have invested in the regeneration of Wansbeck. Wansbeck general hospital, situated close to the line, was extended to provide a much wider range of quality services such as accident and emergency, oncology, orthopaedics and maternity. Investment in a new bypass for the village of Pegswood will enable a faster link to the A1 north of Morpeth to be established. Investment in neighbourhood renewal is upgrading many districts in Wansbeck. A lot of time, effort and finance has been invested in the village of Newbiggin by the sea, which used to be the last station on the line. The public and private sectors have worked in partnership to regenerate the village.

Newbiggin Life was set up to obtain the views of residents and businesses to ensure that local people’s ideas were the driving force behind change. The first investment was the restoration of the war memorial garden to its original glory and it was opened recently by the Duke of Kent. A number of the older, run-down houses were demolished and the first phase of new private housing built alongside well designed social housing. The good work continues. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just agreed a £10 million coast protection scheme for Newbiggin, which will include an offshore breakwater and a new beach. Newbiggin has the oldest working lifeboat station in the world, which will be of much interest to tourists.

The railway line also runs adjacent to Woodhorn colliery museum, which was reopened recently by Princess Anne after a £16 million facelift. The line runs through the centre of Ashington, which has benefited from major investment in leisure, sporting facilities and business parks, and is about to undergo a major town centre redevelopment. Proposals for a new learning park are well advanced. It would be situated five-minutes’ walk from the proposed Ashington station and will involve the relocation of Northumberland college, bringing many more people into Ashington.

A new station at Choppington with a park and ride and bus interchange will help to improve access to and from that former mining village. Bedlington still has its station platform and has seen a huge increase in the development of private sector housing. Access to a train service would make Bedlington an even more desirable place to live. The marketplace area and Front street are undergoing major refurbishment in an attempt to restore Bedlington as one of the premiere market towns in Northumberland. The provision of a train service would assist that process enormously.

The market town of Morpeth is also undergoing major redevelopment. A £15 million project that is about to commence will transform the riverside, improve visitor facilities and provide an excellent range of shops in what is already an excellent shopping centre. A major part of that redevelopment will provide hotel and conference facilities to attract people from all over the country. Improved rail services through Morpeth will of course assist that development.

Since my last debate on the railway line, Morpeth has changed a lot. A lot has also changed in the national rail structure. In 1999, the biggest stumbling block to the return of passenger services was the involvement of Railtrack, which at the time was operating at the height of its incompetence and reluctant to become involved in the scheme. In fact, it did its best to ensure that it never went ahead. There was a further problem with the investment required to upgrade the west coast main line, which in effect ensured that many smaller schemes were starved of the funding that they required to progress.

I congratulate all those involved in the South East Northumberland Rail User Group, which has worked to encourage certain train operators—Great North Eastern Railway, Virgin and Northern Rail—to increase services into and through Morpeth. Those participating have achieved a notable success in their discussions with Virgin, with a further two trains servicing Morpeth. They have also come forward with a proposal from Northern Rail to extend the current service from Newcastle through Cramlington into Morpeth, as the first stage of the full reopening of the line. As a result of those discussions, a feasibility study is about to commence, to be led by the North East assembly and funded by Nexus, Northumberland county council and Wansbeck district council. In addition, Northern Rail, the train operating company, and Network Rail, the rail infrastructure provider, will be participating in the study and will sit on the steering group, along with a member of SENRUG.

The Blyth and Tyne network comprises two connected routes, one running from Bedlington station to Washington, via South Newsham. The line continues further, running past Woodhorn museum and ending at the Alcan aluminium smelter at Lynemouth. The second route runs from Bedlington station to Morpeth, via Choppington. An opportunity has been identified to provide a limited rail service to the Wansbeck district, through the use of existing rolling stock, by the extension of the hourly Northern Rail service from MetroCentre in Newcastle, which currently terminates at Morpeth. At present, in order to clear the east coast main line upon arrival at Morpeth, trains run on to the Blyth and Tyne route, and lay over at Coopies lane, near the Hepscott junction, before commencing their southbound journey.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He has fought for the reopening of the line since he was elected. On the point about capacity, he mentioned the east coast main line and there was a report two weeks ago about the west coast line hitting capacity in 2015. Does he agree that now is the time for the investment in the railways, because of concerns about climate change, economic growth and the 30 per cent. increase in use over the past decade, with 2.3 billion journeys now being made? Now is the time to consider such lines, not least the one in his constituency and Leamside line in my constituency.

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is of course vital. Indeed, the timing of this debate, for both schemes, is probably the best that we could have picked. I will touch on some of the issues that he raised later in my contribution, but I certainly agree with his intervention.

As I was explaining, the train lays over at Hepscott before commencing its journey. It should be possible to extend the service to Bedlington station and to use the existing disused platform, taking advantage of the excellent bus and rail interchange at Bedlington. A new station platform would be required where the A1068 crosses the line at the Swan public house, which was the site of former Choppington station. There is space at the site to develop park-and-ride and bus interchange facilities. Preliminary discussions with Northern Rail suggest that an extension as far as Bedlington station would be feasible within the current timetable. I also point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that that would cost a fraction of Railtrack’s original costings, and provide a much needed rail link from Wansbeck to Tyneside.

Although not covered by the current study, SENRUG has planned further phases that could be introduced with an adjustment to Northern’s regional timetable, without the need for extra rolling stock at this stage. Phase 2 would be to extend trains from Bedlington into Ashington. It has been calculated that the journey time from Ashington to Newcastle on that route would be only 36 minutes. Phase 2a would be to extend beyond Ashington on the existing track to a new station at Woodhorn museum.

As I mentioned, the museum has been given a £16 million facelift, and charts the growth of coal mining in south-east Northumberland, along with the unique culture and heritage that developed from mining. The museum houses, in an extensive new gallery, the internationally renowned collection of paintings by the Ashington miners group, with images depicting everyday life, work underground and scenes in and around the Ashington area. The museum now also houses the Northumberland records office, with access to all the facilities online. The museum is adjacent to hundreds of acres of woodland, with walks, wildlife and a lake with a narrow gauge railway running through it. Entry to the museum is free of charge. The journey from Woodhorn to Newcastle would take approximately 40 minutes. If a long platform were built at Woodhorn, the station would be likely to attract incoming weekend charter trains from the rest of the country, bringing people into Northumberland.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a platform at Woodhorn could also benefit my constituents in Lynemouth, Ellington, Widdrington and Ulgham, where there is a growing commuter population?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. A platform would also provide an opportunity for an extensive park-and-ride interchange for Wansbeck general hospital.

Phase 3 would be the full reopening of the line from Benton junction to Bedlington, via Newsham. That would permit the potential for two full connecting services, the first being from Newcastle to Ashington, via Morpeth and Bedlington, and the second being from Newcastle to Ashington and Woodhorn, via Benton, running through Blyth valley and offering full metro interchange. There are also further possibilities to extend beyond Woodhorn to a reopened station at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. It would be possible also to run trains north of Ashington, to Widdrington and Alnmouth.

More than 200,000 people in south-east Northumberland live close enough to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line to use it regularly. Since my debate in 1999, more than 1,500 new houses have been built. Well over half the population commute to jobs outside Wansbeck, with 65 per cent. of them travelling south to Cramlington and Tyne and Wear. The proportion travelling by car is growing, increasing from 60 per cent. in 1999 to 74 per cent. today. At the same time, the number of bus users has decreased from 20 to 9 per cent. That does not surprise me, however, for the Wansbeck and Blyth valley fleet must be the worst in the country. Arriva, the bus operating company, invests the bare minimum in its buses to ensure that the company complies with the law. The buses are certainly not attractive and are generally noisy and dirty. The only saving grace is that the drivers are usually pleasant and helpful.

Anyone travelling into Ashington, Bedlington or Blyth early in the morning will generally have a clear run, with few traffic hold-ups, as all the traffic is travelling out of those towns and heading to work in Tyneside. Every one of those several thousand cars crosses the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line at some point in its journey, either heading for the Tyne tunnel south or for the western bypass. The Newcastle A1 western bypass is one of the most congested roads in the country. It desperately needs widening, and a second crossing over the Tyne is urgently required near the current tunnel.

The majority of cars that currently block the western bypass from the north come from south-east Northumberland. Congestion would therefore be significantly reduced with a new passenger rail service. The new rail service would have the effect of delivering Government policy on the ground. Environmentally, it could substantially reduce our carbon footprint, while economically it would further enhance the significant investment already made by the Government, by giving access to a wider jobs market for those who are unable to find work locally. A new rail service would enable people to travel into Wansbeck and Blyth valley to enjoy many of the facilities that I have listed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this debate forward, because the line runs straight through my constituency as well. It has been said that charging will be introduced on the roads, but as he has pointed out, the only thing that we have in south-east Northumberland is bad bus routes. We do not have a rail link. Therefore, we in south-east Northumberland are going to be penalised twice, as a lot of people use their cars because the public transport is not there. Would my hon. Friend not agree with me on that one?

I agree with my hon. Friend and neighbour 100 per cent. That is the major problem: we have no access to rail services. Indeed, less than 0.5 per cent. of people who travel to work outside Wansbeck use the current rail service.

The project has the support of all major organisations in the north-east. It does not make sense—for the economy, the environment or local people—for a working railway line, maintained at taxpayers’ expense through Network Rail, to run through the county without passenger trains.

The Government’s main responsibility is to make the best use of existing resources. The line is a classic case of an underused resource that could be developed cost effectively for both freight and passenger needs. It could also play a major role in contributing to the diversionary route capability of the east coast main line. The synergy of those key issues will ensure that there is a sound business case for the line. When reopened, it will contribute towards many Government objectives, including reduced carbon emissions, through a modal shift from road transport. It will promote social inclusion, assist in continued regional regeneration and improve regional prosperity.

In conclusion, I thank all the dedicated people in SENRUG, whose efforts are to be rewarded by a feasibility study to examine phase 1. If successful, that will result in passenger rail services being introduced to Bedlington as early as 2008. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will support the principle of the reintroduction of passenger rail services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, and I ask him to meet a small delegation from the region to discuss that exciting project further.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing this debate on passenger services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. I am well aware of his long-standing interest in the issue, which, I appreciate, remains a strategic priority for the region. As he said, it is seen as key to the regeneration of that part of the north-east. I hope that we can advance the debate today and that I can satisfy him, at least to some extent.

The Government, and the Department for Transport in particular, recognise the importance of good transport links for economic and social regeneration and for improving access to jobs and key services. Better access—whether by bus, rail or car—is crucial to achieving that. We have been working to address a legacy of underinvestment in transport that goes back decades. The growth in our economy, although clearly beneficial, has put further pressures on all transport modes. That is why the Government are committed to sustained long-term investment in transport.

Investment in transport in the north-east is at record levels. Over the lifetime of the first local transport plan, more than £450 million has been invested, delivering real improvements on the ground. More than £200 million has been spent on major capital projects in Tyne and Wear alone, with an emphasis on public transport improvements, delivering the extension of the metro to Sunderland and key interchange upgrades at Metrocentre, Gateshead and Four Lane Ends.

We have made significant investments and seen significant improvements in rail in the past few years. Performance has exceeded targets and passenger numbers have increased. We have also seen the number of passenger journeys increase by more than a third since 1996-97; they exceeded 1 billion in 2003-04 and have continued to increase in subsequent years. The amount of freight transported by rail has also increased by almost 50 per cent. in that time. The Government are also seeking to encourage greater use of local and rural railways through the community rail development strategy.

Our strategy for transport is focused on reducing social exclusion, tackling congestion and pollution and enhancing quality of life by improving all types of transport—rail and road, public and private—in ways that increase choice and as an investment in the future. However, there is a need for realism. We cannot satisfy every demand for transport infrastructure enhancements on any mode.

Major infrastructure improvements are expensive and take time to deliver. We have to prioritise and be realistic. We must be confident that each scheme that we take forward offers value for money in terms of social, economic or environmental benefits. Regional and local bodies now have a much clearer picture of the resources likely to be available to their regions in the next 10 years. Through the regional funding allocation process, we have given them the opportunity to advise the Government on how they think those resources should be allocated to best serve their regions’ needs and objectives.

Although it was not possible to include rail funding in the previous round of regional funding allocations, regions were able to prioritise rail projects that they felt were important to them. The Government and the rail industry also engage with the region via consultation exercises, information gathering and so on—for example, in creating the north-east regional planning assessment.

Each transport mode has its own strengths and weaknesses. A particular mode may not be the best solution in some cases. For example, rail is generally best suited to longer-distance journeys between centres of population, while a bus service’s flexibility can make it more suitable for dispersed populations and shorter distances. The most appropriate transport solution may also change over time.

It is important to maintain an open mind when considering options and to make an informed judgment about the most effective solution; otherwise, there is a danger that the solution will be determined before pen is put to paper on any investigation and that thereafter all work will become an exercise in proving the case for the favoured solution. If, early in the process, it becomes clear that the solution will not stand up to scrutiny, time and money is wasted and nothing is done to address the issue.

The Eddington transport study, published last month, recommended that the transport decision-making process should incorporate four key principles: first, the starting point should be a clear articulation of the objectives and outcomes required, using a whole journey approach; secondly, the full range of options should be considered, including different modes and more efficient use of capacity; thirdly, the most cost-effective policies that deliver the objectives should be prioritised; and finally, the process should be underpinned by a strong evidence base.

Given the publication of the Eddington and Stern reports and recent changes in how the rail industry is structured and undertakes strategic planning, a great many changes can impact on rail scheme proposals, so it is important to take an objective view of proposals and assess whether they are the best solution now and for the future.

The Government have not closed their minds to the expansion of rail. Indeed, the railways are growing faster than ever before. However, our priorities for investment must be driven by an objective assessment of where the greatest benefit—economic, social and environmental—is to be delivered. Generally, that follows strong patterns of established demand.

Before I address the issue of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, it is worth mentioning a forthcoming study, to which my hon. Friend alluded, that the north-east assembly is initiating.

In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), there are good examples of joined-up thinking in which the Association of North East Councils, Network Rail and the transport authorities have got together to consider feasibility and business cases for the reopening of lines in Wansbeck and Leamside, which is in my constituency. Will the Minister give a commitment that the Department for Transport will co-operate with the studies without taking any pre-determined view, and offer any assistance and guidance that it can?

My hon. Friend has already raised that matter with me, and I am more than happy to reiterate the commitment that I have already given: the Department will do everything that it can to help progress such initiatives, particularly when local partnerships are working positively together.

The assembly will shortly invite tenders for a study to establish the feasibility of introducing passenger rail services between Morpeth and Bedlington stations. The service may provide an alternative to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line and improve accessibility in south-east Northumberland. The study is expected to be completed by the end of March 2007.

I turn to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. I shall, of course, be more than happy to meet a delegation led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck to discuss the project and how it can be progressed. I appreciate that there is considerable support in the region for the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line as a means of regenerating deprived areas of Northumberland and providing greater accessibility. Although there has been a great deal of background work and examination, as far as I am aware, no business case has been created recently. The creation of a business case, with Network Rail and the rail industry, is the essential first step in taking forward any rail proposal.

My hon. Friend the Minister is, of course, right that no business case has been put forward. That is because of the reasons that I gave during my speech. Between 1999 and 2001, it was the No. 1 priority for every organisation in the region, but it was deliberately scuppered by Railtrack, which put forward a breathtaking, eye-watering figure—in excess of £45 million—for bringing the line up to scratch. Every expert in the rail industry has said that that figure was wildly over the top and was put forward deliberately to scupper the scheme.

I accept my hon. Friend’s point, and I hope that, if I agree to join him in criticism of Railtrack, he will agree that a business case is essential for progressing the project. In developing a business case, several potential obstacles would need to be addressed.

The cost of the scheme appears to have risen significantly. My hon. Friend addressed that issue, but we must get to the true figure. I understand that recent detailed estimates indicate that costs may now be more than £45 million, but I accept that that figure might not be as up to date as perhaps it should be. He suggested that it originally came from the 1999 Railtrack review. Nevertheless, it has the potential to weaken any future value-for-money assessment and would require proportionally larger benefits.

The proposed service would operate on the east coast main line for five miles north of Newcastle Central station. There is a question about whether there is sufficient capacity on that section of line and at Newcastle Central station. A new service using the line would clearly reduce capacity and flexibility and, potentially, the reliability of operation of the existing services on the line. Therefore, Network Rail would need to consider whether capacity could be found for the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne service, and of course it would be necessary to show that sufficient passengers would use the services to make it a viable, value-for-money option.

A formal business case would consider each of those issues as a matter of course. It would also provide an objective means of comparison with other schemes across the country. So while the various issues in reopening the line to passengers are by no means insurmountable, they do suggest that the option could be for the longer term, rather than the medium term. The 2004 regional rail study that informed the regional spatial strategy reached that conclusion.

The output from the study prioritised regeneration links as third, behind inter-regional and intra-regional links. Although the report said that the scheme would be worth while in assisting regeneration, it said that it is

“an expensive scheme with a relatively marginal value for money performance and making a case for national funding appears problematic”.

I am glad that that is a quote. My hon. Friend is looking at me in a not particularly complementary way, but I am quoting someone else.

On that basis, the report recommended a phased approach. A Newcastle to Ashington and Blyth express bus could be implemented in phase 1, followed by the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line to passenger services in phase 2. The north-east regional planning assessment also suggested that bus-based solutions might be more appropriate. It said that reopening lines such as the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne as passenger routes would become viable only if development were targeted at the proposed stations. Again, that suggests a longer-term option, dependent on regional and local planning policy. As such, the reopening of the line was not considered a priority in the regional planning assessment.

I recognise that the proposals have been, and continue to be, a long-term strategic priority for the region. Reopening the line has been a constant in Northumberland county council’s local transport plans. I note that the most recent local transport plan acknowledged that the scheme is a medium-term proposition. Nevertheless, it remains the case that formal analysis of the scheme by the relevant local authorities may lead to the development of a scheme that has good value for money and could therefore be taken forward by them.

It is always open to local transport authorities to bring forward proposals on the basis of their own committed funding, but such proposals must also be subject to rigorous scrutiny, starting with a consideration of whether they would be the most effective transport option. The production of a business case represents a considerable investment in time and resources, and any authority would want to consider carefully its priorities in the context of local, regional and national plans, just as central Government would.

In closing the debate, I confirm that we are working to improve transport connectivity in the north-east as a whole to ensure that people are better able to access jobs and essential services. I recognise the value of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne scheme, and I suggest that Northumberland county council considers how a viable business case might be constructed.