Skip to main content

Furness Line

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2014

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As I give the Minister time to settle, I advise her that I will be sitting down sooner than I would otherwise in order to let the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), my friend and constituency neighbour, contribute to this debate, which is at least as important to his constituency as to mine.

The Furness line is a vital rail route through my constituency. It is an arterial route used by residents in the Kent estuary and across the wider Cartmel peninsula. I am therefore grateful for this opportunity to highlight the large challenges facing the line and, as a result, the communities and the economy to which it is so vital. I will talk about the future of the line, its immense significance to the local and national economy, the need for new investment and the need for the Department for Transport to take seriously the responses to its recent stakeholder consultation on the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises.

The Furness line takes passengers and freight from the main line at Lancaster through to Barrow, with the largest section of the line running through my constituency and the South Lakeland district. There are stations at Arnside, Grange-over-Sands, Kents Bank and Cark, which are well used and take tourists, commuters and schoolchildren, among others, to and from destinations along this economically vital and uniquely picturesque line.

I am hugely indebted to the work of those who put together the exhaustive 90-page Furness line study created by the Railway Consultancy Ltd, which the Minister displays. The study was supported by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness. The Minister has already seen the report, but as she has demonstrated, I made a point of forwarding an additional copy to her ahead of this debate.

The Minister will see that the report is dedicated to the memory of Peter Robinson, whose sudden death on 6 August devastated all of us who knew him. Peter was chair of the Furness Line Community Rail Partnership and the source of all knowledge and wisdom on Furness line matters. I was with him at a meeting on the future of the Furness line just a day or three before he passed away. It was an honour to know Peter, and he is hugely missed.

The report that Peter helped to author is an extremely important piece of work. I am a regular user of the line, but I was nevertheless shocked by the full extent of the failings of the current transport infrastructure and its wider impacts. The report concludes that the Furness line is not fit to meet present demand, much less to cope with the expected population and employment booms in Barrow and Ulverston in the coming years, which I am sure the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness will talk about in due course. We are committed to working together across parties to build a future-proof Furness line.

As well as thanking those who created the report, I thank its funders—local councils, businesses and rail operators—and the hon. Gentleman, whose work has been instrumental in bringing the report to fruition, and whose commitment to defending the line is second to none. The report highlights the line’s short-term and long-term needs. In the short term, the report calls for the urgent return of the two-hourly Manchester airport service and additional trains during the tourist season. Given that this is the line that serves the western Lake district, I hope the Minister will publicly indicate her support and give a clear signal to the rail operators that residents, commuters, the vastly important tourism sector and the wider business community all need the service.

The report also suggests a rationalised timetable and highlights the inadequate number of trains between Barrow and Lancaster on weekday mornings, which prevents residents from commuting by train. The undermining of the line in recent times is apparent in the fact that the Barrow to Manchester airport service has reduced from eight to five trains a day; the Manchester airport to Barrow service has been reduced from 10 to five trains a day since 2007.

Manchester is the business capital of the north-west. Barrow-in-Furness is at risk of being left as one of the few major towns in the north of England without high-quality direct access to that regional capital and its international airport. Many of my constituents, particularly in Grange, Flookburgh, Cark, Cartmel, Allithwaite and Arnside, commute by train and have been hit by that downgrading. Children who would have had safer, quicker journeys to school are now forced to take longer, more costly and more dangerous trips instead. The hugely significant local tourism economy, which is worth £3 billion a year, has been damaged unnecessarily. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us much more encouraging news. I would be grateful if she confirmed that she sees improving the Furness line as being in the long-term economic interests of the region and the nation, and that its success will be prioritised.

The reduction in through trains to and from Manchester means that many passengers now have to use the Manchester to Scotland services between Lancaster and Manchester. The new four-coach electric trains have shorter carriages than the previous three-coach class 185 diesels, and the limited increase in capacity is proving to be dramatically insufficient to meet the needs of both Scottish and Furness passengers—standing is a regular, if not daily, occurrence. Additionally, the downgrading of those services has exacerbated problems with bus links, which the Furness line study identifies as a major issue. Joining up the connections between public transport is vital, and I hope that the Minister will give her support to significant improvements.

The study calls for train operators to co-operate with the area’s biggest businesses to ensure that arrivals and departures coincide with shift patterns. The report states:

“Timetable analysis shows some very significant failings in the level of service provided… the current service is not fit for purpose, through failing frequency, capacity… We have been appalled to discover that significant existing markets are not being addressed, leading to major losses of traffic. The shortfall in service provision is so great here that there is an overwhelming case for immediate action.”

Looking to the future, the report has a vision for the line right through to 2030. It takes into account the expansion of BAE Systems in Barrow, GlaxoSmithKline in Ulverston and the proposed nuclear power station at Moorside. It accurately envisages significant increases in local population and employment, due in part to the far-sighted and successful land allocation strategy of South Lakeland district council. The report is also correct in foreseeing that industrial developments for major employers at Ulverston will lead to a 16% increase in jobs over the next few years, and that all those people will need to get to work.

There can be no doubt that demand will continue to rise. In the longer term, a regular hourly local service calling at all stations needs to be supplemented by faster regional services to and from Manchester airport. The lakes line between Oxenholme and Windermere is scheduled to be electrified in 2016; the study suggests that an increase in the number of trains on the Furness line would justify its eventual electrification by 2030. Virgin Trains should be asked to investigate the operation of through-to-London services from Barrow, with their introduction possibly on an initial two-to-three-year “use it or lose it” basis. Will the Minister use her good offices to help us make that case to Virgin Trains?

Industrial growth, an expansion in resident populations and a huge increase in the tourism economy suggest that the Furness line’s future should be very bright indeed; the purpose of this debate is to seek the Minister’s help in ensuring that it is. However, as we seek support to protect and enhance the line’s long-term future, we are horrified that short-term decisions in the immediate future may fatally undermine that work.

The Minister will know that the Department’s suggested remapping of the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises has undergone a recent stakeholder consultation. She will also know that, along with many others, I responded to that consultation. On behalf of my constituents, I once again urge her not to proceed with the proposed transfer of the Furness and Windermere lines to the new Northern franchise. She should be clear that making that decision would significantly downgrade the Furness line and would constitute a huge blow to our local economy.

The majority of services on the Furness line are operated by TransPennine Express. Since the announcement last March that TransPennine Express is to lose its fleet of nine class 170 units, there has been intense speculation about the effect on train services in the north. Despite efforts to find a solution, there are apparently no spare diesel units available. Unless there is political intervention at a high level, we could see TransPennine Express move out of the Furness line at the timetable change in May 2015, when the class 170 units are due to transfer to the south of England. We can only assume that the Furness line will be relegated to being a branch service between Barrow and Lancaster, operated by Northern from next May using lower-quality trains.

The Minister will know that Northern has accumulated a reputation on the Furness line for its high number of cancellations. That has been going on for some years now. I am sure that both the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness and I would be happy to furnish her with details of those cancellations. Northern is aware of the debate, but still cancels trains. She will understand why residents and business leaders of south Cumbria are staggered by the Department for Transport proposal that all Furness line trains be transferred to Northern at the commencement of the new franchise in 2016.

The Minister will know that I have written to the Secretary of State on the matter. I am hopeful that the Department will understand the hugely damaging effect that such a transfer would have. Will she agree to rethink the suggestion and consider retaining TransPennine Express services on the Furness line? I am sure that the Minister will agree that at a time when we need the Furness line to be geared to the forthcoming high level of investment and job expansion in the area, the initial proposals make depressing news indeed. [Interruption.]

Order. I am afraid that the signal has turned to red and we must all get off the train, but we will get back on when the Division is over, and we will add the lost time to the debate.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

It continues to be a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Given the strategic importance of the Furness line and the clear and impressive expansion of demand into the future, surely now is the time to plan to upgrade services, not downgrade them. Nothing would strengthen confidence in the line more than a commitment to electrification. Will the Minister help to provide that confidence by setting out a timetable for electrification of the Furness line, and will she give us an undertaking that at the very least a feasibility study will be done of that electrification project?

I want us to be positive and optimistic about rail services in Cumbria, in north Lancashire and across the whole region. This week’s talk of High Speed 3 is music to my ears, although the suggestion that it might only be an enhanced line from Manchester to Leeds is somewhat underwhelming. An HS3 to boost northern England would run from Hull to Liverpool, creating a coast-to-coast corridor of growth. Electrification of the lakes line shows that our ambition in the south lakes has paid off, but that optimism is challenged when it comes to the Furness line. I want that to change. The line serves a uniquely booming industry, Britain’s most important tourist destination—the Lake district—and a growing and vibrant residential and commercial community in South Lakeland. There is no logical reason for the Furness line to be anything other than equally booming. My plea to the Minister is to use her influence to prevent the mistakes that would undermine that success, and to instead back a winner.

We lost seven minutes to the Division, so the debate will now finish at 4.37 pm, which means that the halfway point will be at 4.22 pm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate, on making such an excellent case, on being generous in his words and on giving me the chance to contribute. Before I move on to the substantive part of my speech, I echo his words about Peter Robinson, whose death was a sad loss to his family and the community.

There has been much talk about investment in the northern rail network over the past few days, but once again, the so-called HS3 proposal concentrates on linking the major cities of the north, ignoring smaller towns and communities. It comes down to the kind of country we want to be. If we are not prepared to see smaller communities decline and fade, it is not good enough just to say it. Our rail links in the south Lakeland and Furness area are just as vital as those anywhere else, and yet in the case of the Furness line they are under threat of being downgraded.

Amazing things are happening in south and west Cumbria in addition to the great potential of the visitor economy. We have the most advanced manufacturing in the country at Barrow shipyard, which will be taking on an extra 1,000 people in the years to come; civil nuclear expansion up the west coast; cutting-edge biopharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline in Ulverston; offshore wind; and increased estimates of gas reserves in the Irish sea. This is an economy powered by entrepreneurial talent and an incredibly skilled work force, but we need the Government to play a role in tackling our biggest challenge, which is geographic isolation.

We know that the Government can act. Just yesterday, Ministers confirmed £2.8 million to rescue the air link between Newquay and Gatwick. In many ways, the south-west peninsula’s transport situation resembles that of south and west Cumbria, and yet the potential economic, energy, defence, and research and development contribution to the nation that would be unlocked by the Furness line is significantly greater than that of links in the south-west peninsula.

I am proud to have launched the Cumbria Better Connected campaign, and to have seen the way that people have rallied around it. When I questioned the Secretary of State for Transport last week, he promised to read our report carefully; in truth, he may have meant that he wanted the Minister who is here today to read it carefully. The report makes it clear that not only is the current service on the Furness route already below the required standard but that the threat to direct services to Manchester and its critically important international airport has the potential to damage our economy severely, putting in jeopardy all our amazing potential.

My constituents have already seen our rail service deteriorate in recent years. In addition to the cuts to services that my hon. Friend outlined, we have of course seen the reintroduction on the line of the depressing Pacer units, which are 30-year-old buses on rail bogies and which are completely unsuited to journeys of more than an hour along the Furness line. Now the axe hovers over the direct service to Manchester again. The recently closed consultation about the new specifications for the Northern and TransPennine franchises raises the possibility of removing Barrow and Ulverston’s direct trains to Manchester entirely, downgrading them to stopping services or diverting them away from the airport. Electrification of the rest of the TransPennine network leaves Furness as a diesel outlier that is under threat of returning to a branch line, which is hardly fitting or suitable for an area that is about to receive industrial investment on the scale of the investment in the London Olympics.

I would be grateful if the Minister could answer the following questions. When will the Government publish their response to the consultation on the Northern and TransPennine franchises? Will she listen to the clearly expressed voices of the passengers and businesses in the area saying that a fast, regular and high-quality direct service from Barrow to Manchester airport is essential for the area? Will the next franchise holder be provided with modern and fast diesel units, enabling them to operate on the busy west coast main line, regardless of whether those services are part of the TransPennine or Northern franchises? Given the ongoing need for such units in the north on routes such as the Furness line, will the Minister prevent any further transfer of express diesel trains to other areas, which—as my hon. Friend has said—happened with nine TransPennine units that moved to the Chilterns? Will she commit to the removal of Pacer units from the Furness line at the very earliest opportunity, please? And finally, so that representatives of Cumbria do not have to restage this battle every few years, will she ensure that, as my hon. Friend suggested, a serious study of the economics and practicalities of electrifying the Furness line features in future Network Rail work programmes?

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; the phrase “the Thin Controller” is running through my mind.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on his stirring contribution. It is quite clear that everyone who is in Westminster Hall loves their trains and is passionate about the railway. I also pay my own tribute to Mr Robinson for all he did in working with the group that secured, saved and promoted what is a vital railway line. The Furness Line Community Rail Partnership has done sterling work over the years, as indeed has the Furness Line Action Group, whose reports and submissions my team and I have gratefully received and read.

Community rail is a vital and innovative part of the rail industry. It gives responsibility for services to local people who care so much about them. On this line in particular, community rail provides a wonderful—indeed unique—travel experience for passengers. I myself use a wonderful line—it runs down to Pewsey, Bedwyn and beyond—but although Wiltshire offers beautiful scenery of white horses, we cannot offer passengers anything on the scale of the Furness line. Of course, it is for that reason that the Furness line particularly boosts tourism, as it helps us to show off some of Britain’s most beautiful areas.

We do not want community rail simply to survive. We want it to thrive, and that most certainly goes for the Furness line. However, as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness so eloquently put it, the line is about not only taking people to see wonderful scenery, tourist opportunities and wildlife, but providing a vital economic artery for south Cumbria.

I was struck by page five of the report to which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred, which says that the Furness line has a “twofold” purpose:

“To carry local traffic, and to provide a…link to the regional centre of Manchester and its airport.”

That is absolutely right, and I recognise all the work that the community rail partnership has done to promote the service locally and to improve the station facilities. We already see that work starting to come through. However, I also recognise the disappointment that was caused when the through services between Barrow and Manchester were reduced in May.

One thing I have learned in this job is that our rail network is terribly complicated. We end up with all sorts of dependencies against a backdrop of unprecedented passenger growth. There has been a doubling of passenger growth in the past 20 years, and in this particular area, the fare-box revenue—the value of growth—went up by 6.4% just last year. Indeed, some of the most crowded services in the country are now outside London. Against that backdrop, may I say that we have had decades of under-investment? Investment has failed to keep up with the growth, so we end up with operators struggling to deal with some of that growth and sometimes having to make decisions about reorganising train services.

In this case, as we know, the reduction in the through service was prompted by the launch of the new timetable for TransPennine Express, which takes advantage of the widely acclaimed electrification between Manchester and Scotland. That allowed for an increase in services, including a fifth TransPennine Express train each hour between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York. However, that had the consequence that some other services were lost, although the Furness line’s services to Manchester airport are still over and above the minimum set out by the 2014 passenger requirement.

I guess that the Minister’s previous comment is, in very strict terms, true, but the services are above the minimum requirement only because her Government changed that requirement by radically taking it downwards.

Part of the direction of travel is to allow operators to change services, especially when there is unmet demand, and I shall say a little about the overall structure of the TransPennine franchise. However, in a way it is a testament to the busyness and value of the line that the operator decided to deliver over and above the service requirement. Of course, there is still a vital weekday peak-time morning service from Manchester, which is timed to arrive before 11 am.

I reassure the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale and for Barrow and Furness that the reduction of services in no way reflects the importance that the Government place on the line. Let me put things in context. As I said, the national network suffered from decades of under-investment, and we have been dealing with huge growth in passenger numbers on an ageing and intensively used network throughout the country. That is why we need High Speed 2, of which I am a strong supporter, not only because it will reduce journey times, but because it will deliver vital increases in capacity to these north-south links. I also take the point about HS3 being a vital east-west link. The view of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that it should go from Hull to Liverpool will be of interest not only to passengers, but to the freight industry, as we have important freight paths across the country, running north, south, east and west. That is why the delivery of this £40 billion rail modernisation programme—the biggest investment since Victorian times—will transform services right across the country, especially across the north of England, where there has not been investment for decades. There will be more capacity, better connectivity, shorter journeys, cleaner trains and greater reliability.

Hon. Members will have seen the improvements in the stations to which our constituents travel. The new Manchester Victoria station is nearly complete, and other schemes will follow. I say gently to the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness that the last time the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises were let in 2003 and 2004 by the then Labour Government, that was done on a zero-growth and zero-investment basis, which was an incredibly short-sighted decision. If we believe in growth throughout the country, we have to invest in the vital rolling stock that moves people and goods around. I am passionate about the need to change that mindset, which is why these enormous capital investment programmes are coming to fruition. We have signed the agreement to provide the first electric trains on the Northern Rail network at the end of 2014.

To refresh hon. Members on the timetable for the letting of the franchises, earlier this year we launched the competition for the TransPennine and Northern franchises. The process is due to start in February 2016. Planning for passenger growth and better services will be at the heart of those franchises. Crucially, we are taking the franchises forward in concert with local authorities. I do not underestimate the importance of the involvement of Rail North and Cumbria in specifying what these communities need and what the service should look like. We do not want to leave that to officials sitting in Whitehall. We want local communities to say what is important to them, what services work and what sort of trains are required to run those services.

The hon. Gentlemen raised a vital point about the importance of rail to the overall economic vibrancy of a region. We cannot think about rail just in a silo. It is a vital part of stimulating economic growth and also of responding to economic growth. As we heard, this is an area that is attracting huge investment from a business point of view.

The consultation posed tricky questions about the future operation of the Furness line, and it is important to ask tough questions so that we get answers. We asked about the appropriate number of through services and shuttle services to Lancaster, and the more than 20,000 responses to the consultation that we received enable us to see how we can design the specifications for the two franchises. I assure hon. Members that we are giving careful consideration to views that are expressed. They will understand why I cannot go into details, but the invitation to tender will answer a lot of the questions, and that will be issued in December.

The question of the class 170s has been raised several times. Hon. Members have my personal commitment, along with that of the Department, that the cascade problem will be solved by the end of the year. The situation is unfortunate, but there is a huge desire to resolve it and to ensure that there is no interruption in rolling stock.

Work is already being led by Network Rail to consider the strategic priorities for further investment for the next control period, starting from 2019. Again, as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness rightly pointed out, rail investment cannot be thought of in a narrow cost-benefit silo within the Department. We have to think about gross value added and the vital importance of connectivity to economic growth, and such thinking will inform future investment strategies for the railways.

Of particular interest to the future of the Furness line will be a refresh of the industry’s electrification strategy, on which consultation is due next year, and the northern route study, on which work is due to start in 2016. I understand the importance that the hon. Gentlemen place on the future electrification of the Furness line. I hope that they are both aware that the Secretary of State announced last December the creation of the northern taskforce, which is made up of three north of England MPs and two council leaders nominated by Rail North, with representation from Network Rail, to advise on priorities for the next generation of electrification projects in the north of England. The task force is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and its members include my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) and the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). It is considering all remaining non-electrified rail lines in the north of England, including the Furness line. Its interim report is due in early 2015 so that the recommendations can be put against Network Rail’s draft electrification strategy.

We will continue to hear how the Government are progressing HS2, which will provide the capacity and connectivity that the country needs in the long term. As I said, the Prime Minister and Chancellor have given their backing to the development of HS3 to create a northern economic powerhouse.

I shall try to answer the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness. If the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale would like to write to me about some of the specific things he asked today, just to make sure I get the full detail, I would be delighted to respond.

We are expecting a response to the 20,000 consultation responses at the same time as the invitation to tender is published in December. We will of course listen to all views before taking decisions, and I will be happy to meet any or all hon. Members affected. New diesel rolling stock is absolutely vital, and I want to flag up that although electrification is a hugely important part of the rail strategy, passengers want to be able to get on a train, have a reliable journey and pay a reasonable amount for their tickets, and that may well sometimes involve a diesel train. Even if there is an electrification ask further down the line, it should not prohibit us from putting in place new investment right now.

The point about the Pacers—the buses on bogies—which I saw lined up at Doncaster station only last week, was very well made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, and he is not the first to make it. He will know that the ITT will ask for a fully priced option to replace the Pacers. However, I am told, following reading through responses to the consultation, that there may be times when the use of a Pacer might be appropriate. Indeed, local communities have said they would rather have a Pacer than nothing at all. I do not want to make blanket statements about Pacers, but I do take the point about using them on commuter lines, as many people have explained their shortcomings.

I hope I have answered the majority of the questions that I have been asked. I hope also that I have been able to provide some reassurance to the hon. Gentlemen that the Government are addressing the problems that have held the railways back in this country, which invented the railways, for so long. For me and for the Government, investment in railways is investment in growth, and that is just as relevant to the Furness line and to south Cumbria—