Through you, Mr. Atkinson, I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me this debate.
The proposals set out by Network Rail in its route utilisation strategy consultation document to close Reddish South and Denton railway stations are of great concern to my constituents. The sad irony is that, at the moment, few if any of my constituents use those stations, although that is more to do with the current services. Nevertheless, my constituents recognise, as do I, the potential benefit of both stations in providing northern Stockport and south-west Tameside with a valuable commuter rail service—one that I contend could have a fruitful commercial future.
First, let me set out some of the historical background. Denton and Reddish South stations are situated on the Stockport to Stalybridge line, which runs across the south-east of the Greater Manchester conurbation. In years gone by, it was a busy line and for most of its length it had four tracks. The beauty of the line was that it enabled passenger services from south Manchester and beyond to link to other national and local services to the north. Historically, services into central Manchester were more fragmented than they are now. Services to the south left from Piccadilly, formerly known as London Road station; and services to the north, including inter-city and many trans-Pennine services, left from Manchester Victoria station.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He speaks of services to the south, which have great relevance to many cities in the south. For instance, the mainline route from Brighton to Manchester is currently under threat of closure due to rail line utilisation. Does he see that as relevant to cities in the south, such as mine?
I do. One problem that I shall deal with later is the capacity problem of trains going to Manchester Piccadilly. I contend that if we transferred some of the local services from Piccadilly to Manchester Victoria, using the line through Denton and Reddish South, capacity to Manchester Piccadilly would be increased and there would be more scope for services from the south of England.
In years gone by, passengers arriving at Manchester Piccadilly often had to get other mainline services from Victoria. Today, Piccadilly is the main inter-city station and Victoria serves mainly the local catchment area. However, in those days, people could use the Stockport to Stalybridge line and its branches to access services from the north or south without going into the city centre and then having to traipse to the other station. As patterns of travel have altered, and given that most services were linked into Piccadilly, so the number of people using the Stockport to Stalybridge line has dwindled. Even so, until 1991 the line served as a convenient link from Stockport in gaining access to trans-Pennine services at Stalybridge.
Another factor led to the decline of Denton station—its location. Ironically, it is this station’s location that today makes it attractive, but that was not the case until fairly recently, and I will explain why. Denton station is not located at the heart of the community. It is about a mile from Crown Point, Denton’s town centre, and is bounded by industrial units, reservoir land and the M67 motorway, which was built in 1981 and which cuts right through the centre of the town.
Immediately adjacent to the site is Denton roundabout, where the M67, the M60 Manchester orbital motorway and the A57, the main road into Manchester city centre, all meet. Denton station has no obvious catchment area or hinterland from which it can sustain a viable commuter service. However, all is not what it seems, and I shall explain why later. The other station, Reddish South, is completely the opposite. Despite its misleading name, it is located in the heart of Reddish district centre and is surrounded by shops and houses. It has a good catchment area, and given a decent service, it could easily have a viable future. There is also scope for a local park-and-ride facility at the station.
In 1991 everything changed. Because of the dwindling number of passengers travelling from Stockport to Stalybridge, British Rail effectively closed the line and stations by declaring it to be a parliamentary line. For the past 16 years, therefore, we have been blessed with just one train a week travelling in just one direction, with Reddish South and Denton stations being request-only stops. So pathetic is the service that one cannot get a return ticket from Stalybridge to Stockport. Indeed, only train enthusiasts ride on the now infamous “ghost train” service.
The Minster must be asking why there has been such a fuss to save our stations. The answer, as I will show, is because a viable option is screaming at us that would cost very little to implement. One of the early decisions of this Labour Government, on coming to power in 1997, was to initiate extensive transport studies in parts of the country that were experiencing significant congestion problems. The aim of those studies was to consider the problem in the round and to develop an approach that was an argument not merely for more road building, but for developing public transport alongside other infrastructure projects in order to give people a viable alternative to the motor car.
One of the studies commissioned by the Government was the south-east Manchester multi-modal study, or SEMMMS. Reddish and Denton are both covered by SEMMMS. When it comes to judging Network Rail’s proposals for the closure of the two railway stations, I would argue that that should be done alongside the aims and objectives of SEMMMS, which in its 2001 report calls for the restoration of passenger services on that line to be considered.
I return to Denton station. I might have given the Minister the idea that it has a poor location. Nothing could be further from the truth. I said that Denton station lies adjacent to the junction of the M60, M67 and A57. SEMMMS identified that roundabout as being at junction capacity, with no scope to improve it without spending massive capital sums, and said that it was a major contributor to traffic congestion through Tameside. Today, we hear that Greater Manchester may introduce a congestion charge on the main routes into the city centre as part of its transport innovation fund submission. Undoubtedly, that would have to include the A57. If so, investment in the railway line and a park-and-ride option are crucial. Councillor Roger Jones, chairman of Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, is quoted in the local papers as saying:
“We know people will use buses, trains and trams if they are reliable and affordable and I’m confident, given the right levels of investment, we can achieve this.”
I echo his view.
Given that much traffic is heading into or away from Manchester at peak times, scope surely exists for a major strategic park-and-ride facility to be developed alongside that junction. There are two possible sites: the spare land next to the reservoirs, or spare capacity at the Sainsbury’s superstore immediately to the south of the motorway junction with the A57. Indeed, use of private land for park-and-ride has already been pioneered by the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive at the Siemens site in south Manchester.
Again, some brief background information might help. When retail planning permission was applied for in 1988, it was for a Sainsbury’s store and a Children’s World store, but the latter was never built. However, the car park was constructed as originally planned—for both stores—so even on the busiest trading days of the year it is at least one third empty. The car park could be linked to the station by creating a well-lit footpath, utilising a redundant rail bridge under the M67. I have not formally approached Sainsbury, but I believe it would be a real advantage to the company; not only it would utilise the spare capacity in the car park, but some of those who use the parking will go on to shop in the store or use the on-site petrol station.
The real issue when arguing against the closures is that preserving the status quo or even increasing the number of trains to Stalybridge and providing a return option will not solve the problem. With the best will in the world, a large number of people from Stockport, Reddish and Denton do not wish or do not need to go to Stalybridge. The vast majority of traffic goes into Manchester and, to a lesser extent, into Stockport. That is where many of my constituents work or shop, and they frequently go there.
What is the scope for a commuter service into Manchester using those routes? I would argue that it is very good, and that is what I have been calling for. It would be easy to have a local service running from Stockport along the Stalybridge line through Reddish South and Denton, where we could have a strategic park-and-ride for south-east Manchester. Just past Denton station is an existing rail link connecting the Stalybridge line with the existing Ashton to Manchester Victoria line. I think that it is known as the Crowthorne curve. Indeed, when engineering works take place on the line between Piccadilly and Stockport, that route is used to redirect passenger services into Victoria.
Furthermore, as there is a major rail capacity problem at Piccadilly, which is not easy to resolve, and Virgin wishes to increase the number of trains on the west coast main line, it may be desirable for more local services to link into Victoria instead. One further benefit to that suggestion is that it would provide a sizeable section of south-east Manchester with an alternative to road travel. Reddish and Denton have poor public transport links, and given the considerable congestion identified by SEMMMS, a rail link into Manchester is more than just a convenience; it is a necessity. That is even more the case because it would serve a considerable catchment area, on which the proposed Metrolink big bang will not have the slightest impact. Those are the plans that I have put formally to Network Rail in private meetings and as part of the consultation exercise.
I give my best wishes to my hon. Friend in his plans. He has mentioned park-and-ride on several occasions. Would he also consider introducing proposals for bike-and-ride? During my visit to his constituency last September, I noticed that many of his constituents were on bicycles. May I request that if he is successful in his plans, trains will be provided with space for bicycles so that people can cycle to the station and are not forced to leave their bike at home because there is no space on the train during peak times—as many of my constituents have to do?
My hon. Friend makes a genuine point. One of the issues identified by Greater Manchester passenger transport authority as part of its transport innovation fund submission is that cycle usage in Greater Manchester is in decline because of congestion on the roads. I know that cycle users raise the issue of cycle access on the rails locally with MPs, particularly regarding the Metrolink.
I place on the official record my thanks and appreciation to the people of Reddish and Denton who have shown their support for the campaign, and to the local Labour councillors who are fighting hard in their areas—particularly Councillors Walter Brett and Brenda Warrington. We have also won the support of the Labour-controlled Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. On Monday I received a letter from Councillor Roger Jones, the chair, in which he states that the GMPTA is
“unable to support the specific proposals within the draft RUS to close…Denton and Reddish South stations without more detailed study of potential land use developments within the catchment areas and the potential increases in patronage if the rail services were enhanced.”
I also thank Tameside Councillors Alan Whitehead and Mike Smith, and Stockport Councillor Maureen Rowles, who are also members of the GMPTA, for their support for keeping Reddish South and Denton stations open—I am very grateful.
I should also place on record my grudging thanks to the belated support of Liberal Democrat Stockport council, which spent 17 days desperately looking for a different plan before realising that there was none. It then signed up to a letter with an identical proposal to mine and that of Stockport Labour group. That was a brief but unfortunate episode in the campaign. However, it was not surprising given that the executive member for transport, Councillor David Goddard, was once a South Reddish Labour councillor who lost his principles in order to pick up an extra allowance. It is in his character not to agree with his former party on anything, which is a pity, but at least the borough is now singing from the same hymn sheet.
Before I finish, I will touch on some of the wider issues of economic growth and governance in the area. The concept of city regions seems to have gained great prominence during the past year. That is a concept that I fully support and subscribe to. Major cities, such as Manchester, have an economic footprint way beyond their city boundaries. Allowing greater and more efficient movement of people, goods and ideas across Greater Manchester will allow more communities to benefit from proximity to the city centre. However, although the economic footprint of the city is large, it is uneven, and there is much that could be done on transport, and local decision making on transport, to resolve that.
As I said, the boroughs affected by the proposed closure of the stations are now fully supporting the concept of a direct rail service to the city centre. In fact, the 10 metropolitan borough councils of Greater Manchester have a good track record of co-operation across the city region, including on transport.
Through the GMPTA we have brought improvements to local transport in Greater Manchester through better use of buses and the Metrolink. For example, since the beginning of the free bus passes for pensioners scheme, the GMPTA has allowed pass holders in Greater Manchester to use buses, trains and the Metrolink to travel across the conurbation. Greater local control over transport is vital. That is recognised by the Northwest Development Agency and by the Government in the local government White Paper.
I support what my hon. Friend has said about more power for local authorities over transport issues. That is an important issue in the campaign to save Reddish South and Denton stations. City transport, however, is not simply about trams and buses; it is also about rail commuter lines. The scheme that I have proposed will allow much greater use of a currently underused line and improve commuter rail links for huge swathes of south-east Greater Manchester.
Like many major cities, Greater Manchester has higher rates of worklessness, deprivation and poverty than the national average. Better transport links from those pockets of deprivation, in which parts of both Reddish and Denton can be included, would provide my constituents with access to the world class industries and employment opportunities on offer in the city centre and beyond.
The 2003 Department for Transport document “Evaluation of the Wider Benefits of Transport Improvements” considered the employment consequences of improved transport in London and the south-east. The study found that
“employment falls by around 2.5%-3% per 100 metres as distance to stations increases.”
While that study focused upon London and the south-east, I believe that it also supports my proposition, which is that the residents of Denton and Reddish would have enhanced employment prospects if their railway stations gave them convenient access to the opportunities prevalent in the city centre. In fact, the Government and the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive are rightly spending almost £1 billion on new tracks and stations so that other residents in Greater Manchester have Metrolink access to the city centre. With no prospect of Metrolink, my constituents in Reddish and Denton have the tracks and the stations, but they do not, as yet, have the local services.
I hope that I have demonstrated that the line and stations have a future that fits in perfectly with the SEMMMS study and the transport needs of this part of Greater Manchester. My proposals have all-party support, cross-borough support and passenger transport authority support, and they make sense. I have already written to the Minister and discussed these matters privately with him, but I also wanted to put this issue on the public record. I have requested that the Minister considers meeting a small delegation from Stockport and Tameside to discuss my proposals and our predicament further.
I was delighted when my hon. Friend was appointed to his post. He has a local public transport background, and he cares for these issues. I fully support the work of his Department to enhance local control over local public transport, and I hope that the widespread support that this proposal enjoys is taken seriously. We are seeking an assurance from him that the Network Rail route utilisation strategy exercise is not a foregone conclusion, and that our counter-proposal, and any other ideas, will be given proper and detailed consideration. I hope that that is the case and that we have a real chance of creating a vital rail link, and saving Denton and Reddish South stations in the process.
It is good to see you again after such a short time, Mr. Atkinson. I had imagined that I was the most regular attendee in this Chamber until I saw that you were here again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing the debate and on the extremely powerful and thoughtful case he has made on behalf of his constituents. He has clearly given a great deal of thought to the subject and I commend him. I hope to be able in the short time available to me to respond to the points that have been raised.
From the outset I should make it clear that no formal application for the closure of Reddish South and Denton stations has been made and that closure is only one of several options being considered for the future of the route. I can confirm, in response to one of his later points, that closure is not a foregone conclusion. As I will explain later, any application would have to meet strict criteria, and a view on whether these procedures should be brought into effect would initially be sought from the Secretary of State for Transport.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned, Reddish South and Denton stations are currently served by one train a week, which runs on Saturday mornings from Stockport to Stalybridge. Until the early 1990s, the service was frequent, as it was used as the link to allow connections between the west coast main line inter-city services on to the services between Manchester Victoria and destinations across the Pennines in Yorkshire and to the east coast. The diversion of the services now known as TransPennine into Manchester Piccadilly provided a direct connection and therefore removed the prime need for the frequent service via Reddish South and Denton stations, as my hon. Friend is aware. Low passenger use from those intermediate stations at the time did not warrant the retention of a frequent service. I am informed, and my hon. Friend has confirmed this afternoon, that the current service is mainly patronised by railway enthusiasts—I do not mean that term in any pejorative sense. The minimal or parliamentary service was retained, as it was not considered appropriate to close the line at that time. We now need to consider the future of rail services as a whole in the north-west, and studies such as SEMMMS will be taken into account.
Regional planning assessments for the north-east, north-west and west midlands have already been published, and assessments for the east midlands, Thames valley and south-west will follow soon. The whole country will be covered by the end of this year. Each assessment asks a simple but far-reaching question: over the next 20 years, what regional and economic development can we expect and how can the railway best respond and contribute to that? Using the RPAs, the Department is leading that process of forecasting and consulting to try to deliver a consensus not about whether to grow our railways, but about how best to do so.
As part of its future planning process, Network Rail has been producing route utilisation strategies, or RUSs. Those set out Network Rail’s strategies for the future of the railways in Britain area by area. The strategies are produced in a highly consultative and inclusive way, involving train and freight operators, passenger representatives, local authorities and others. As such, they should be considered a product not just of Network Rail, but of the whole railway industry.
In general, the railway in the north-west is successful and many routes are busy. Punctuality improvements have led to passenger numbers increasing in recent years. The strategy therefore considers areas where growth in passenger demand may require increased capacity, with longer trains, more trains or an additional platform, at Manchester airport station, for example. Opportunities for improved interchange with the Manchester Metrolink system are also being considered.
The consultation document for the north-west RUS was published in November 2006, with the consultation period running until 5 January this year. The consultation document included several options for the route and recommended that Reddish South and Denton stations be closed. It also included options for diverting additional services along the route, but those would not call at intermediate stations. Stakeholders and other groups in the Denton and Reddish South area will have had an opportunity to comment on the Network Rail options during the consultation period. The responses to the north-west RUS consultation document will now be considered by Network Rail, and it is planned to introduce the RUS in April or May of this year. That is why the publication this year of our high-level output specification—that trips off the tongue very neatly—or HLOS and associated budgets and framework will be so important.
Let me set that in context. Since the mid-1990s, passenger demand has risen at about 3 per cent. every year and freight demand has grown at a similar pace. Significant investment in rail has taken place, but that has not always been well managed or prioritised. The cost of the railway infrastructure escalated unacceptably under Railtrack, and we took action to stabilise that with the creation of Network Rail. The Government have taken charge of setting the strategy for the railway, while Network Rail has been given clear responsibility for operating the network and for performance. Track and train companies are being brought closer together.
The rail strategy that we publish this summer will establish our long-term plan for the industry, but a plan is, of course, no good without the means to deliver it. That is why our strategy will be underpinned by the HLOS, which will set out the improvements in safety, reliability and, crucially, capacity that we wish to buy over the five years from 2009 to 2014. That will be accompanied by a five-year budget—the statement of funds available—and it will be consulted on. The Office of Rail Regulation will scrutinise the output specification to ensure that it can be fairly expected of Network Rail to deliver that within the funds made available.
The Department for Transport will work with Network Rail and the train operators to ensure that changes to train services are procured at an affordable price at the right time. It will be the Government who decide what they wish to buy from the railways and the level of public sector funding that is available. Within that framework, the ORR will determine and price the outputs that Network Rail will be obliged to deliver, and we will make clear to everyone what railway expansion we seek to buy.
Should any formal proposal be made for the withdrawal of services from Reddish South and Denton stations, the railway closure process as specified in the Railways Act 2005 will come into play. I shall explain how the process would work. Under the Act, closures can be proposed by a rail funding authority or a train or network operating company. The RFAs specified in the 2005 Act are the Secretary of State for Transport, Scottish Ministers, the National Assembly for Wales, the English passenger transport authorities and the Mayor of London.
When a train or network operating company proposes a closure, a view on whether it should be brought into effect must be taken by the relevant national authority—either the Secretary of State or Scottish Ministers. Proposals by operators and RFAs require ratification by the ORR. In their considerations RFAs and operators will take into account a wide range of matters, some of which can be expressed in quantifiable value-for-money assessments. The closure guidance sets out an objective test that must be satisfied if closure is to be permitted. In brief, the test ensures that a closure cannot be pursued in England, Scotland or Wales if the benefit to cost ratio of retaining the service, station or network is 1.5 or more. Where the closure proposal comes from a train or network operating company in relation to a station or network, the operator must carry out an appraisal in accordance with the guidance before submitting it to the national authority, which will then evaluate the appraisal as part of its consideration of the proposal.
Schedule 7 to the 2005 Act sets out the requirements on how a consultation about a closure proposal must be initiated, which I hope will give some comfort to my hon. Friend with regard to what may be planned for the stations in his constituency. The schedule also states that the consultation should be carried out in line with the closures guidance. When initiating a consultation, the 2005 Act requires: that a notice be published with details of the proposal for two successive weeks in a local newspaper circulating in the area affected by the closure and two national newspapers; that the notice sets out the date when it is proposed that the services in question are withdrawn or the network or station closed, as well as other details of the proposal and an address where the initial assessment following the closures guidance and a summary of the results of the assessment can be obtained, and the fees payable, if any, for a copy of the assessment and summary. There will be questions on this afterwards.
The 2005 Act also requires that views on the proposal should be sent to the organisation carrying out the consultation by a date at least 12 weeks after the date of the second notice published in local and national newspapers, and that copies of the notice must also be published at stations affected by the proposal. The following organisations must be sent a copy of the notice and a summary of the results of the initial assessment: the relevant operator; the relevant national authority; the National Assembly for Wales, if the proposal affects Wales—which, of course, this one does not; the Mayor of London, if the proposal affects Greater London; every passenger transport executive whose area is affected; every local authority in whose area people might be affected; the Rail Passengers Council, more popularly known as Passenger Focus; all RFAs party to financial arrangements that may be affected by the proposal; all bodies providing railway services that are affected; all bodies providing station services affected by the proposal; and any organisation designated by the Secretary of State as representing the interests of passengers. It is clear that the closure process is very long. It intended to be that way so that consultation is maximised.
To conclude, Network Rail has produced the route utilisation strategy for the north-west to set out its views on the future of rail services in the area. My hon. Friend should be assured that that does not constitute any formal proposal for the closure of Denton or Reddish South stations and, should a formal proposal be put forward, ample opportunity for consultation will be provided. Studies such as the south-east Manchester multi-modal study will be taken into account. Neither is the strategy an opening of the floodgates for network-wide closures. As a result of this debate, I am sure that Network Rail will appreciate the degree of concern about the matter, and consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said when assessing the results of its route utilisation strategy.