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Tees Valley Rail Transport

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

Tees Valley is a distinct area of the country with a population of more than 750,000 people. It is well defined, with the sea to the east, 20 to 30 miles of open County Durham countryside to the north, the dales and Pennines to the west, and a vast area of sparsely populated north Yorkshire to the south. It has long been defined as a coherent economic area. It was no accident that the Tees Valley local enterprise partnership was quickly established, as a similar body already existed. Despite the substantial population, the area has a slight identity crisis. It is often referred to as a city region by policy makers, but it contains no cities or even one dominant town. Middlesbrough is currently applying for city status.

Steam-powered passenger rail transport actually started in Tees Valley between Stockton and Darlington in 1825, hauled by George Stephenson’s engine, “Locomotion”. Some 185 years later, we cannot even go directly from Stockton to Darlington on a train. There is a passenger rail system, but it is poorly co-ordinated, has insufficient trains and badly needs investment. New station stops are needed to reflect developments since the lines were built. This has been recognised for many years by the local and regional planning authorities. Finally, in 2009, a first tranche of investment in a Tees Valley metro system was approved. However, after less than £5 million was drawn down, the remaining £24 million was postponed by the present Government. The importance of the project to the area was shown by the fact that a first phase was resubmitted to round 1 of the regional growth fund. Unfortunately, the bid was unsuccessful.

My speech today will cover three main areas: the need to get a good passenger metro system in Tees Valley; the importance of freight investment; and the need for a long-term vision, including further use of existing lines and possible new lines. Settlements in Tees Valley are there mainly due to manufacturing industry. Decline of industry in the last few decades has left much of the area at the wrong end of all the socio-economic league tables. For example, a study by the BBC and Experian in 2010 looked at 324 areas of the UK in terms of economic strength. It placed Hartlepool borough 314th, Redcar and Cleveland 319th and Middlesbrough, arguably the largest town in England, in last place at 324th. Middlesbrough also has the third lowest number of businesses per thousand residents in the country. It is precisely because the area has been performing badly in recent years in respect of socio-economic indicators that there is a need for a modern, long-lasting rail network to aid regeneration.

There are many promising signals. Teesside university was UK university of the year for 2009-10, and that has helped fuel a rapid growth in digital and media industries. Teesside remains a key UK centre for process industries and is emerging as a major centre of green technology research and manufacturing. Teesport is a thriving, growing port. Darlington is a growing commercial centre, aided by the presence of the Student Loans Company and Teachers’ Pensions. If we are to restore the north-east to the economic hub it once was and can be again, improving rail infrastructure is vital.

Existing passenger rail in the core area is in the shape of a cross, with a north-south Hartlepool to Nunthorpe line intersecting the east-west Darlington to Saltburn line at both Thornaby and Middlesbrough. This area should be the first target of a metro system. There are 21 stations in the core area. Some are very poorly served, including the one near the airport at which only one train stops every week. Despite the patchy service, usage has grown over the past 10 years. More than 2 million people a year use Darlington station, which gives access to the east coast main line and other national services.

My fellow Teesside MP—I still do not like “Tees Valley”—has already touched on a key concern for our part of the north-east, which is the future viability of our airport. An effective rail transport system, making proper use of the station at the airport, would be an important piece of the puzzle in bringing Teesside airport—as I still insist on calling it—back into use and making it successful once again. The airport, which is on the boundary of my constituency, has a new owner, looking to do exciting things. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I hope that the Minister will consider that, as part of an integrated package, rail transport could also revive our air transport links.

My hon. Friend’s intervention is timely, because I am about to talk more about the airport. I fully support his comments. It is essential that the airport is better served, and a frequent light rail service operating in the core area would help to change the economic fortunes of Tees Valley.

The use of rail services has continued to grow, despite the patchy service: last year, footfall increased by just less than 50,000; and in the past 10 years, the average increase in footfall overall has been 58%. Refurbished stations have shown the biggest increases, some in excess of 100%. The increase in passengers, along with huge further potential demand, means that new lines, trains and infrastructure are needed to meet the needs of residents and businesses.

Investment in existing stations is vital. For example, establishing a proper link to the airport is vital: Durham Tees Valley airport, or Teesside as it is still shown on departure boards all over the world, must be the passenger airport in Britain worst served by public transport, but the train line passes just half a mile from the terminal. Eaglescliffe station now has a main line service to London, but no information displays and only two small bus shelters for passengers. Redcar station needs investment as a gateway to the town and the new college and civic developments, and Darlington station needs investment to improve access to new educational and economic developments. The Redcar and Darlington schemes were included in the regional growth fund round 1 bid. The last new station in the area was Longbeck near Marske-by-the-Sea in 1985.

There are clear possibilities for further new stops on the existing lines. Some examples include Teesside park, for access to the new shopping area and the Tees barrage leisure facilities; Middlehaven, for the major new commercial developments and the Riverside stadium, home of Middlesbrough football club; and the James Cook university hospital, which is the major acute hospital for the area. Traffic to and from the hospital is a big source of congestion on one of the main access roads to Middlesbrough, and there are chronic parking problems at the site. Providing a good rail service would help to reduce such problems. The existing lines run close by, and a new station for the hospital was also part of the initial regional growth fund bid.

A number of other residential and commercial developments are current or planned along those routes, opening further possibilities for new stations, such as at Morton Palms, Darlington, and The Ings, Redcar. A further key need is to ensure that the new enterprise zone recently announced by the Government is well served by public transport. It is almost certain to be close to those rail routes.

I will now move on to freight. Teesport has recently been ranked variously as between the second and fourth largest port in the country, depending on the amount of industrial activity in the area. As well as serving the bulk process industries and being an import terminal for cars, Teesport has a rapidly growing container business, with giant new warehouses serving Tesco and Asda. The excellent facilities at Teesport mean that process industries inland also use the import/export facilities, and such industrial materials normally require shipment by rail.

The port has been successfully driving economic and employment growth. For example, 1,100 jobs have been created since 2007 and further exciting developments are planned. However, the existing connecting rail facilities need upgrading—for example, to provide clearance for modern 9-foot 6-inch containers—which is strategically important for the country. A successful Teesport backed by good rail facilities will help to reduce lorry use by millions of miles, bringing economic and environmental benefits. As part of the regional growth fund round 1, a gauge clearance project was submitted, which is vital to continuing the rapid, port-based economic growth. I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of getting more bulk freight off the roads and on to the railways.

The longer term vision includes more use of lines joining the core area and possible new lines. To the west, Darlington connects to Bishop Auckland via four other stations, including the former rolling stock manufacturing town of Shildon and, following the Hitachi announcement, the new rolling stock manufacturing town of Newton Aycliffe. The line from Eaglescliffe to Northallerton passes through the large population centre of Yarm-on-Tees, which I believe is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). Beyond Nunthorpe, the line passes into the north Yorkshire moors and on to Whitby. Services on that line are always likely to be more of a leisure activity, but the first station is Great Ayton and most people in that area work in Tees Valley.

Finally, beyond Saltburn, part of the old Yorkshire coast line to Scarborough still exists as a freight-only line as far as the Boulby potash mine. The potash mine received money to expand in the regional growth fund round 1 and is a major local employer. I have recently been approached by an operator who is considering restoring a passenger service along the line to include the east Cleveland settlements it passes through, including North Skelton, Brotton, Skinningrove and Loftus. Use of all such existing lines to better connect people to the core Tees Valley services and opportunities should be part of our vision.

Serious discussion is also going on about reopening the old Nunthorpe to Guisborough branch line. Although the track has been lifted, the route is virtually intact as a walkway, and Guisborough has expanded to be a large centre of population, with most of the people working in Tees Valley. They are a large contributor to the heavy south-to-north road congestion at peak times. A rail service would reduce the current pressure to invest in new road solutions—some road-building proposals even involve taking land from the National Trust at Orenby hall.

More speculative would be the construction of other new lines and a Tees crossing nearer the river mouth. Redcar to Hartlepool is only seven miles as the crow flies, but the need to go a long way upriver to cross by road or rail means that their local economies are largely disconnected. A Tees crossing remains a dream for many in the long term. Where new lines are not economical, better co-ordinated bus services are needed to link centres of population to the rail network, for example from the Greater Eston area.

I appreciate that investment requires funds, but I urge the Minister to consider carefully the issue of fares. The UK already has some of the highest fares in the world. I live close to Redcar East station and, to travel one stop to the centre of town, the fare is only slightly less than a taxi fare—for just two people, a taxi would be the cheaper option for most short journeys locally. For long trips, we risk incentivising people to do the wrong thing. For my trip to Parliament each week, it is already cheaper to drive at 40p a mile than to buy a standard class open return train ticket. I hope that the Minister will recognise that fares must remain reasonable, as mentioned in the coalition agreement, and that continued public investment in the railways is in the country’s interest. That is the view taken by Governments in almost every developed country.

As I hope that I have illustrated, it is vital that Tees Valley receives the short-term investment it desperately needs to improve passenger and freight rail transport. Investment without a long-term vision, however, will not deliver the results that the people throughout the region want, so it is important that a long-term strategy is put in place to manage investment over time and to build the infrastructure needed. Tees Valley is an area with enormous potential to drive major growth in the UK economy. I hope that this debate has helped further the cause for improving Tees Valley rail transport, and I strongly urge the Minister to support the upgrades that are so badly needed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) for securing this important debate. Having a debate on the day before a recess is always dangerous, but he managed to encourage some of his colleagues to attend.

I was in Teesside only recently. I went there by train from London to visit Teesport, which comes within my portfolio. I have been asked to respond to the debate because my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), whose portfolio covers regional and local transport, is not here. He has asked me to apologise for his absence.

The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar raised cover myriad modal shifts in how to get passengers and freight off the roads, and how better to use available facilities. It was fantastic news for the region when the Tees furnace was reopened, and certainly the new owners, whom I had the privilege of meeting, were thrilled. What was obvious when coming in by train was the unbelievable number of sidings that have not been used for a considerable time. I am the Minister with responsibility for freight, on whatever mode, and it always hurts to see that investment sitting there unused. It may have been made many years ago, but the concept was right.

The port, which is under new ownership, has a huge footprint, and not all of it has been used as well as we would like. There are contamination issues, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware—the new owners of Teesport, however, have good and imaginative ideas, especially in some of the areas to which my hon. Friend alluded—such as problems relating to moving larger containers around. A particular issue in this country is that we cannot move many of them on our canals, which are a great asset, but difficult to use.

My officials have written a brilliant speech for me, but if I read it out, which I am sure is what they would like me to do, I would fail to pay tribute to the contributions that we have heard this afternoon. Investment for the area was planned before the new coalition Administration came to power, and before we realised how bad the economic situation is. I will not go through how bad it is, because everyone knows the situation. The £4.9 million that was drawn down has been well spent, and the stations at Hartlepool, Eaglescliffe and Thornaby have benefited.

I am pleased to hear that the new owners of the airport have sensible ideas for expansion, and how to increase their market share and put the airport on the map in the UK, but that will require investment. They will have to look at their business plans, and create a market that drives people to use it. I was fascinated to hear private companies saying that they would like to put passengers back on that line. They are obviously thinking of doing that because there is a need. The Government may help and, as my hon. Friend knows, two funds have been drawn down.

Sadly, Tees Valley Unlimited was not successful in the first tranche, because it needed to be much better at proving what the economic benefits in terms of jobs would be from drawing down from that fund. Tees Valley Unlimited has discussed the matter extensively with my officials. They have met eight or nine times recently, and I urge them to have further meetings, because the key to both funding plans is that the community comes together, and that a proper business plan is drawn up to create the right climate for further investment in the area. I will not go into the semantics of what it should be called. I have enough problems deciding when to call my football team Spurs or Tottenham Hotspur, and my town Hemel or Hemel Hempstead. It is for local politicians to discuss the matter over a pint on another occasion.

However, it is important—I am sure that this has been discussed—that the area is branded in the right way so that investment comes to the area, and there is no confusion about that brand. The first time I flew to what was Speke airport in Liverpool, I looked for Speke on the departure board, but it had been renamed John Lennon. I had no idea that I was going to Liverpool. When a brand name is used for a community, it must be what the community is looking for. I am sure that the new name was discussed in great depth before it was introduced, but whenever I spoke to people in that part of the world, and especially when I was at Teesport, there was confusion. When I quoted my brief, they did not understand what I was talking about until I talked about Teesport, the Tees area and so on.

There is real scope for local authorities to come together, and to consider joint bids. It is crucial as we go forward with the localism agenda, to which the Department for Transport is fully committed, that local authorities are not parochial and say, “This is our borough, and we won’t join together.” They must have confidence in their area and say, “We know what’s best for our community, and exactly how to generate jobs and go forward.” Four local authorities would probably need to join together to formulate a plan and to give them confidence to return to the Department for Transport, as well as to other Departments, because transport will not be the only issue.

I want to pick up the point about local authorities. Five are involved: Stockton, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar, Cleveland, and Darlington. The Minister can be confident that they are speaking with one voice on such issues, because Tees Valley issues and transport infrastructure cross all five. One reason why the local enterprise partnership got going so quickly was that it was heavily backed by those five local authorities.

I am new to this area, and I may not be back if I make a mess of it, but my brief refers to the four Tees Valley local authorities. If that is wrong, I will arrange for my Department to write and apologise. When talking about local areas, branding is important.

In the next six months, passenger transport executives, groups of local authorities, and local enterprise partnerships should come together to discuss whether they want to take greater responsibility for such services. That is crucial when discussing where they are going, and how. There will be some central Government funding, but not as much as we probably all want, but local communities, especially through local enterprise partnerships and so on, will have much more say in what is done, and there will be an early opportunity to shape the future and destiny of local rail services. We have been discussing bits and bobs, but the discussion should be formalised with a shopping list of what should be done first, what should be done second, and what should be done third.

If we read my hon. Friend’s speech tomorrow morning, and the points that he made—I apologise for this and I am not being critical—will we know what the priorities are, and what needs to be done in the short term, the mid term and the long term? Communities and LEPs must come together to decide that. I am not being critical, but that must be done.

On cost, the McNulty report, which was commissioned by the previous Administration, addresses fares, and the fact that, if we are not careful we may jeopardise the great success—this is not party politics—of the railways today. There are issues about capacity and cost, and whether we are driving people off the railways and into their cars. That is important: we must address it in the franchise agreements and remove bureaucracy. McNulty acknowledged that the way in which the railways operate involves a huge amount of bureaucracy and cost, and in international terms they are very expensive. He estimated that £1 billion of savings could be made without damaging infrastructure, while at the same time encouraging people to use the railways. That will be a difficult task, but anyone who has had anything to do with railways—I am involved purely in freight, which is more successful now than it was—must address the fact that the state can provide only a certain amount of money for new lines. There is only a certain amount of railway capacity for the freight industry, and we must look carefully at how we can encourage a better modal shift and not have so much long-haul freight on the railways.

On today’s network—without High Speed 2 and the lines to the north-east and north-west, which would release more rail capacity—even if we increased rail freight to full capacity we would still struggle to get freight off the road. One of the huge successes in the Teesport region has been made by Asda and other supermarkets that are building what I consider to be the beginning of a renaissance in coastal shipping facilities—I apologise for naming Asda, but it is the store I visited. Bigger and bigger box ships are coming into big, deep-water wharves, but our roads do not have the capacity to move those goods around.

The most efficient way of moving freight anywhere in the world is by sea. We are a maritime nation with over 90 ports in state and trust ownership, yet we do not properly utilise those ports and their capacity. At the Asda hub, all the products that arrive come in by sea. The distribution is then worked out, and followed by what Asda describes as a limited “road bridging” system. That system is beginning to be replicated around the country. I was in the north-west the other day at Stobart’s rail hub. Stobart has developed such a system, not because it wanted a rail hub, but because its clients—Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda; we could name all the supermarkets but I probably should not—have said that they want goods to travel shorter distances. That area is developing.

The rail industry is underused. We have spoken about lines that need to be better utilised, and the railways are a huge facility that we could use to create a modal shift in transport locally through the hubs. The Asda scheme has been a great success, and it is looking at expanding it. It is a badge of honour for the local community and local authorities in that part of the world to facilitate the scheme and understand the needs and demands of their communities. We should also use other lines, especially if we can deal with the problem of bridges, and I know that discussions on that are taking place.

At the same time, we must be honest about what is likely to come in and out of the ports. As my hon. Friend said, if a line is working, it is crucial that it is used. It is much cheaper to use that line in a better way than to rebuild a line or put track back down. A lot of residents—I know this from my constituency—will have moved to live close to a railway line after the track was removed, and there will be an interesting debate about whether those lines should be put back. Those people no longer live next to a railway and without doubt, having a railway at the end of the garden or in the community impacts on people’s lives. That debate would be interesting; it would not be wrong to reopen the line, but such matters take time and must be managed correctly in the communities.

The use of Westminster Hall for a debate such as this is important. Concerns and ideas can be bounced into the arena, and Ministers will respond. I am conscious that I have not answered all the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) in his intervention, but the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, will write to them and answer all their questions. If a further meeting with a Minister is needed, the door will be open.