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Rossendale Rail Link

Volume 541: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2012

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the need for a commuter rail link between Rossendale and Manchester. The Government have made key announcements recently that High Speed 2 will reach not only Birmingham but Manchester, which is of great significance to the north-west of England. I also welcome announcements on the electrification of the Manchester-Preston and Manchester-Liverpool corridors. In addition, I am delighted that the Todmorden curve linking Burnley, Accrington and Manchester will be up and running next year. It is a superb achievement for the Conservative Lancashire county council, which, despite the doom-mongers and naysayers, has delivered a new rail service for east Lancashire.

The new rail development will be a huge driver of wealth and growth in our area and shows this coalition Government’s commitment to the north-west of England, an area in which I am privileged to have lived my entire life. Manchester, already a leading centre for commerce, is clearly set to grow rapidly and will remain the dominant commercial force in the north-west.

The biggest threat to the progress of the north-west’s economy, despite Government investment, remains transport capacity issues. I have praised the Government’s programme, but there is a significant gap in transport services to Rossendale. Our only north-south transport link remains the M66, named by TomTom in October last year as the most congested road in the UK. If the Government fail to deal with congestion to and from Rossendale, it is highly likely that the Rossendale economy will not track the region’s median growth rate.

Transport issues already have a significant negative impact on wages in the Rossendale valley, which are between 10% and 25% lower than in Manchester and the north-west as a whole. Wages are lower particularly for employees who both live and work in Rossendale, reflecting a lack of skilled opportunities that I believe is connected to our failure to provide a transport link. As a result, nearly 50% of the Rossendale working community commute out of the valley every day.

In this debate, I hope to press the Minister for guidance on how I can ensure that Rossendale’s economy grows and prospers in line with our region. The key is securing a north-south rail link connecting Rawtenstall, Ramsbottom, Heywood and Bury. A rail link is vital to local business. We in Rossendale do not want to send our brightest and best south down the motorway every day. A rail link will bring investment into Rossendale as well as supporting a mobile and skilled work force.

The rail link is not a new enterprise; I will detail some of the work already done to study it. In brief, the track exists, and a heritage rail line currently runs along it. Local partners support the link, including all local authorities and, I believe, all local MPs on a cross-party basis. If we succeed in providing the commuter rail link, we will have a virtually unique opportunity to run a commuter link along a heritage rail line. That not only makes sense commercially but is an opportunity for this Government to break new ground in supporting our heritage railways.

I echo the comments made by the hon. Gentleman and endorse that point. The rail link runs right alongside my constituency, so I fully support upgrading the line to a commuter line. I congratulate him on securing this debate.

The hon. Gentleman, like me, has a history of supporting the rail link. I pay tribute to him for supporting a hugely important project.

To set the scene briefly, today’s east Lancashire railway is a heritage railway operating on two contrasting sections of line. Both were originally built in the 19th century, and both routes passed through the then-important mill town of Bury. That was all fine until on 27 March 1963, the chairman of the British Transport Commission, the infamous Dr Beeching, published the Beeching report, or, to give it its correct and more interesting title, “The Reshaping of British Railways”. It contained details of all passenger services to be withdrawn or modified.

To the complete amazement of the local population, the report proposed that Bury lose all three of its direct passenger services to Manchester, entirely cutting off stations such as Rawtenstall and Bacup. Although the Manchester-Bury electric service was eventually reprieved in 1966, services from Manchester Victoria to Bacup, Bury and Accrington ended. On 20 November 1984, the East Lancashire Railway Trust was formed as a partnership between two local authorities and the East Lancashire Light Railway Company to take forward the opening and ongoing development of the railway.

The first success came in July 1987, when the first four miles of track were reopened for regular passenger services—as a heritage rail line, I hasten to add—between Bury and Ramsbottom. On 27 April 1991, the ELR was extended a further four miles from Ramsbottom to Rawtenstall after the completion of major works, including the re-decking of three river bridges and one road bridge, re-signalling in Ramsbottom and the re-grading of Rawtenstall station in my constituency, where the train now terminates.

As I am sure the Minister will agree, it was a superb achievement to bring that line back from the brink and turn it into a fully functioning heritage line open nearly every weekend of the year. It shows the passion and dedication of local volunteers and the determination of the people of Rossendale, despite limited or no Government support for the east Lancashire rail link. We have succeeded with our heritage railway line, but now is the time to turn it into a viable commuter link.

The hon. Gentleman is making a great case for the importance of the rail link. Does he agree that people in the area fully support that link? A survey in the Rossendale Free Press showed that the vast majority of people support it. The local district council, under both parties, has supported it as well. Does he agree that there is huge support for the upgrade?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It gives me the opportunity to say that I do recognise the survey in the Rossendale Free Press, one of the finest newspapers in this country, along with the Lancashire Telegraph, both of which I hope will cover this debate.

We have succeeded in running a heritage line; now we want a commuter rail link. That holds its own challenges, which we acknowledge. The idea is not new. I will briefly take the Minister through some key developments since 2008. In 2008, a Halcrow report on demand modelling showed a low rate of return, and local authorities questioned the assumptions used. Rossendale local authority questioned them because the report did not take account of our regeneration plans, considered Rossendale as having a small catchment area for stations and assumed a highly attractive alternative bus service. Since the date of that report, the M66 motorway has been named as the most congested in Britain. The bus service is not attractive and, in fact, the bus services using the motorway have recently been reduced.

I am sorry. I will not.

In June 2009, a report on the potential reopenings of rail lines nationally by the Association of Train Operating Companies investigated the Rawtenstall-Manchester rail link. The report said that it had a good business case, with a rate of return of 1 to 1.8. That was the fourth best in the 20 or so schemes that were looked at nationally. It assumed a high capital cost, I think as an acknowledgment of the challenges of running a heritage rail operation and commuter light rail side by side, but it had a much more positive approach on potential demand than the Halcrow report. It is my view, as well as the local authorities’, that the ATOC report best reflects relative demand and is a piece of work that we would seek to rely on in the future.

When the multi-area agreement was put in place for Pennine Lancashire, it was recognised that the east Lancashire rail link was a regional, east Lancashire priority, and that remains the case. Investment has gone into the Todmorden curve linking Burnley to Manchester. In addition, the Manchester-Blackburn railway corridor has recently seen investment. That may have followed a similar Adjournment debate that I had with the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and I hope that we will have such success following today’s debate. Looking at the investment in those two lines, it is clear that there is a gap in the middle, and an ELR proposal would complement the Government’s other programmes in the region.

As the Minister will be aware, in late 2009, Manchester’s bid to the transport innovation fund failed following a referendum. However, as part of the TIF bid, a provisional sum of £30 million was allocated to the Rochdale-Rossendale corridor for the ELR. The east Lancashire and west Rochdale area study commissioned by Atkins in early 2010 is involved with a range of partners and has become focused on the ELR as it has progressed. The key issues investigated by Atkins focused heavily on the technical considerations of running a heritage rail operation in parallel with a modern commuter service.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that a tourism potential could be realised if the rail link is opened? If so, how does he think the Government could encourage that to happen?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. The heritage rail line is already open and has a huge tourism potential. I am sure that it will continue to contribute to our local economy.

Returning to the ELWRAS report, the local authority’s view is that that developing piece of work has never properly addressed the demand potential, the socio-economic issues and the wider transport benefits. The report has not been finalised, and we hope that when it comes out, it will give regard to our desire for a rail link. As long as the report is not publicly available, the proposals are hitting the buffers, and we are hoping that the Minister will be able to leave the sidings and get the project back on track.

Reports aside, the most compelling case for a rail link in Rossendale is the business case. Knowing that we would have this debate today, I contacted the Rossendale business leaders forum to take some of its views. Lisa Thompson, who is a director of ISSL, an IT company based in Rossendale, and who also runs St Mary’s chambers, a conference centre, said:

“On behalf of St Mary’s Chambers in Rawtenstall we struggle getting people from out of the area to use our facilities as the public transport is so restricted. It means that you have to drive and with the price of fuel this can put people off. With a rail link that connects the wider area such as Ramsbottom and Bury and of course into Manchester would get more people visiting the area and attending events that are held here.”

Peter Boys of B and E Boys Ltd, a major construction contractor in the area, thinks that a rail link is “essential”—it would improve transport links into Rossendale and provide greater employment, making Rossendale more attractive as a place to operate his business. In his view, it would catalyse the development at New Hall Hey and have fantastic effects on jobs and the local economy, extending all the way up the Rossendale valley, through Stacksteads and Bacup. He also believes that it would bring people from Manchester to use Ski Rossendale, Golf Rossendale and the Adrenaline Gateway, which are well known local tourist attractions.

Julie Green Jones of Rossendale, the largest bailiff company in the UK, said that she worked as a nationwide company, and a rail link would give much easier access to clients, many of whom arrive in Manchester on national rail and have to be picked up. She also said that the provision of such a link would encourage people to live in the Rossendale area and provide her work force with opportunities.

Contributions were also received from Bob Killelea of Killelea Structural Steelwork and Amanda Grundy of Golf Rossendale. They all largely supported the idea. Such businesses are not small businesses but major service companies, manufacturers and builders. They are exactly the sort of businesses that we are looking at to pull us out of recession. I cannot speak for the entire Rossendale business community, but Mike Damms of the east Lancashire chamber of commerce probably can. In his view, the principle of connecting Lancashire is already established through the Todmorden curve, which has a far smaller proportion of its population—4%—currently commuting into Greater Manchester, compared with Rossendale’s 50%.

The young people in Rossendale, with small terraced houses, can feel that they are in a social trap. The culture of Manchester—the bright lights of the city—is actually very nearby, but for them it is socially and culturally inaccessible. That is an important point: we need to support our young people into highly paid jobs in Manchester.

The Minister can see that the demand for such a rail link does not just come from one MP; it comes from two, and I know that more would have been here today if they could have made it. The demand does not come from one political party, one business or one local authority. In fact, I have never been involved with a campaign that has had such overwhelming support from all parties.

I hope the Minister will enlighten me on how we can get past this battle of the studies, where we seem to have several studies contradicting one another on the relative achievability of the rail link. I also hope that he will give some clear guidance to me and the local authority about how we can take forward the funding proposal and, where relevant, make available officials in his Department to meet me, the local authority and other local MPs.

I think we as a Government have a commitment to make the whole country the best place in the world to grow and start a business. Rossendale has a skilled work force. We actually have affordable land and huge business expertise, but we are excluded and marooned in terms of transport. This country’s recovery will be driven by small business, not from London, but out of towns such as Rawtenstall, Haslingden and Bacup. If the Government are serious about backing business, I hope they will be serious about backing the Rossendale rail link.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing the debate, which is of considerable importance to his constituents who live in Rossendale. I know that he has been a strong advocate for his area on the issue for some time.

The coalition Government appreciate the economic benefits that investment in transport can bring to an area. Our priorities in the Department for Transport are economic growth and cutting carbon, so we welcome any proposals that address those issues. The need to encourage economic growth is particularly important in the north-west and, as my hon. Friend recognises, we have already taken steps to address that by announcing a series of rail investments.

My hon. Friend referred to High Speed 2 and the Todmorden curve. He might also have mentioned the electrification of the north-west triangle of lines between Manchester and Liverpool, Liverpool and Wigan, and Manchester and Blackpool; the go-ahead for the Ordsall curve, the first stage of the northern hub, which will help significantly to reduce journey times between Liverpool, Yorkshire and the north-east; the approval, subject to confirmation of the business case, of the electrification of the north trans-Pennine route between Manchester and York via Leeds; the approval of the Metrolink extensions in Manchester, which are being implemented by Transport for Greater Manchester; and our recent agreement with Northern Rail and First TransPennine Express for additional carriages to be provided in the north-west. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that in the short time we have been in government, we have already done a great deal to promote rail investment in the north-west, not least for the reasons he has cited.

We recognise that wage rates in Rossendale are estimated to be 10% lower than in Manchester, the north-west and the UK as a whole—an estimate to which my hon. Friend drew attention. Transport has a key role to play in improving the economic well-being of an area. We are therefore happy to support the efforts being made by local transport authorities to improve transport in their areas so as to improve access to jobs and attract new employment. In particular, I agree with my hon. Friend on his point about young people having access to major conurbations for jobs and employment, and for social reasons, too.

Rossendale was particularly unfortunate to have its railway line closed as a result of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s and 1970s. Dr Beeching was so keen on cuts that he even cut his own line in Sussex. Lines on either side of Rossendale—between Bolton and Blackburn, and between Rochdale and Todmorden—are thriving. They are being used by greater numbers of people travelling to work in Manchester, and that has led to longer trains being provided and requests for better off-peak frequencies.

The closure of the railway line was bad news for the area. However, had that not happened, we would not have witnessed the tremendous success of the heritage east Lancashire railway, to which my hon. Friend rightly paid tribute. It has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area, as well as creating new jobs. It has given a tremendous boost to the local economy and put the area on the tourism map. I pay tribute to the many people involved in this and other heritage lines, not least the Bluebell railway in my constituency. Such lines have succeeded in making heritage railways one of Britain’s great success stories in tourism towns.

Despite that success, I appreciate that the lack of a regular rail service can put an area at a disadvantage, particularly as regards providing access to a major employment centre such as Manchester. As a Transport Minister in the coalition Government, and also as a Liberal Democrat, I support fully the reopening of railway lines as a means of improving accessibility to places—subject, of course, to there being a satisfactory business case.

Does the Minister agree that there is an urgent need for public transport investment? I caught the bus to Manchester and it took me two hours to get into the city centre. As the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) pointed out, the M66 is choked up.

The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point. I was about to refer to access to the A56, the M66, the M60 and the M62. They are used by express bus services, but they suffer from peak-period congestion—there is no getting away from that, and that has to form part of considerations—which makes commuting into Manchester by bus relatively unattractive. I understand why the local authority believes that the area is not benefitting from the growth in jobs and average wage rates experienced by other areas, including local areas.

The Department understands that local authorities and Transport for Greater Manchester are working together to see how their transport problems can be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen referred to the 2008 Greater Manchester passenger transport executive study, which investigated the scope for using the east Lancashire railway to provide a commuter service from towns in the Rossendale valley to Manchester. The study looked at a number of options, including an extension of Metrolink and a new heavy rail service.

The estimated capital cost of adapting the heritage line to accommodate regular heavy rail services was estimated at between £22 million and £30 million. The study was very sensitive to the requirements of the heritage railway and came up with a series of proposals that enabled both types of service to operate at different times of the day, and days of the week. Personally, I think that the proposal for joint working could be a strength rather than a weakness. It also calculated the operating and maintenance costs of the various service options, suggesting that they would be approximately £1.5 million to £2 million per year.

At the time, the Department suggested that the PTE and local authorities follow up the study with some demand forecasting work, so that an estimate of passenger income could be made and a business case calculated for the scheme. The Department understands that this work was carried out, but we have not seen the results. However, we understand from the local authorities that they were unhappy with the assumptions used to forecast future demand, which has led to the conclusion that the business case for this scheme is not strong. Since that work was done, the Department has produced a guidance note on demand forecasting. It is available on our website; my hon. Friend might like to draw that to the attention of the local authorities.

We are aware that the line was one of many that the Association of Train Operating Companies looked at in its “Connecting Communities” report. Its very high level piece of work suggested it might have a business case of 1.8 at best. That in itself might encourage the local authorities to look again at the scheme in greater depth, with the help and support of train operators.

As for the next steps, it seems crucial for the local authorities to get together and look again at forecasts of demand, and to confirm whether there is a business case. If there is a good business case for a rail scheme and that still appears to be the best way of meeting local transport needs, further development work will be necessary, especially given the necessity of linking the scheme with the heritage railway. The promoters will need to weigh up the costs and benefits, and estimate the need for long-term subsidy. Transport for Greater Manchester and the local authorities will have to make the difficult decision of how high a priority to give the scheme, given the number of competing priorities that we are aware of, both in Lancashire and in Greater Manchester.

The Government can help. In addition to the advice that we are prepared to offer any promoter of a rail scheme, we provide capital funds toward transport schemes. We are currently consulting on the funding process for the major local transport schemes, which will come into effect from April 2015. We have made it clear that local authorities and local enterprise partnerships can use that to fund rail schemes, as well as other public transport schemes and highway schemes. That gives local bodies genuine choice over the best way to meet their local transport needs. We are moving away from the idea that local authorities simply deal with roads, and we are giving them the opportunity to consider road and rail—what is best for their areas. As the scheme will address primarily local needs, this would not be a project that the rail industry would be looking to fund in a future control period such as, say, 2019 to 2026.

We will shortly consult on rail decentralisation, with a view to giving greater responsibility for specification of rail services to local authorities and PTEs. Transport for Greater Manchester appears to be very enthusiastic about taking on such responsibilities as part of a larger consortium. The local enthusiasm for transport is probably more advanced in the Manchester area than elsewhere in England—a good development from my hon. Friend’s point of view. A new service to Rossendale is just the sort of service that could be included in a network of services that could be devolved.

In conclusion, I encourage the local authorities and Transport for Greater Manchester to complete the demand forecasting work to establish whether there is a business case, and to continue to consider alternative ways of addressing the issues raised in the debate. Both Lancashire county council and Transport for Greater Manchester are experienced in considering such projects, but the Department is happy to provide advice and guidance if that is needed. I am happy to arrange a meeting with officials, local representatives and my hon. Friend, if that would be helpful in taking the matter forward.