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Road and Rail Links: Sheffield and Manchester

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 12 April 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Barclay.)

The debate has been slightly delayed. At least three colleagues who share my concern about trans-Pennine links would have joined me in the Chamber tonight, but the late start has prevented them from doing so. I wanted to put that on the record.

The economic case for new transport infrastructure between Sheffield and Manchester is very strong. The National Infrastructure Commission has reported that the north in general

“needs immediate and very significant investment for action now and a plan for longer-term transformation to reduce journey times, increase capacity and improve reliability.”

It admits that

“Sheffield’s economy…is small compared to that of Leeds and Manchester, with lower productivity and skills levels”,

and that—this is the important point—

“the city is less well linked to the surrounding region, in particular with the Pennines limiting connectivity to the west.”

It also points out that

“the lack of a good transport link between the two means that their economies are largely separate from each other.”

That is a big problem for the northern powerhouse project, and a real obstacle to the delivery of progress.

Only 10,000 vehicles a day travel between Greater Manchester and south Yorkshire, whereas 55,000 a day travel between west Yorkshire and Greater Manchester. There may be slight differences in population, but the only real explanation for the disparity must be the poor transport links between the former two regions. The implication is that the vast majority of potential travel between them simply does not take place, because the infrastructure needed to accommodate it does not exist.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on initiating a debate on a matter that she will know is close to my heart, because my constituency is just on the other side of the Pennines. Does she agree that the problems on the two principal roads between her constituency and Greater Manchester, which go through my constituency—the A628 and the A57—are preventing people from travelling, and preventing them from creating a link between two big economies that need to dovetail as part of the northern powerhouse?

I entirely agree with my constituency neighbour. As I shall go on to explain in detail, the key problem is that those two roads are effectively mountain passes—or what pass for mountain routes in England—and they run through a national park. The fact that two of our major northern cities are divided by the huge obstacle presented by those two very difficult roads lies at the heart of the problem.

I want to illustrate the economic impact with a concrete example before I move on to describe the two roads that the hon. Gentleman referred to. Tata Speciality Steels has a dedicated service centre in Bolton, which is obviously on the other side of the Pennines from the factory, and the company experiences real logistical difficulties precisely because of the poor links between the two areas. There are three road routes across the Pennines. We have the A57, part of which is known as the Snake pass. Incidentally, it was not given that name because of its winding nature; it was named after a feature on the Duke of Devonshire’s coat of arms. It is nevertheless incredibly difficult to use. Heavy goods vehicles find it impossible; indeed, they are advised not to use it. Even cars can find it difficult in bad conditions. It is, after all, a mountain pass.

The A628 is therefore the major road across the Pennines between Sheffield and Manchester, but the height and exposure of the road often create problems during poor weather in winter, and it is sometimes closed due to snowfall or high winds. However, road closures on the Woodhead pass are more often the result of road traffic accidents than of bad weather. In 2011, four of the eight closures on the Woodhead pass were due to road traffic accidents, and four were due to bad weather. In 2012 there were 14 closures, eight of which were the result of road traffic accidents. The other six were due to bad weather. There were 12 closures in 2013; eight were due to road traffic accidents and four to bad weather. So, in the latest year for which we have statistics, the major road crossing between two of our biggest cities was closed on average once a month. That is a huge obstacle for people and, in particular, for businesses trying to make logistical transport plans in order to do their work.

We also have the M62, but using it to go from Sheffield to Manchester involves making a massive detour. I used the AA route planner this evening and worked out that if you use the M62 to go up from Sheffield, across the Pennines and down to Manchester, the distance is 72.5 miles and the journey takes one hour and 42 minutes. If you use the A628, the distance is only 37.8 miles, but the journey is only 20 minutes shorter. Using the motorway involves travelling twice the distance but takes only 20 minutes longer. That is if you are lucky—we all know that the M62 can be hugely congested. It is therefore not a realistic option, and we need to do something about the trans-Pennine link.

As for rail, the average speed of rail travel across the Pennines between the major cities is below 50 mph. This has led to the contained nature of travel in the northern regions. An analysis of travel patterns between northern cities by Transport for the North suggests that levels of commuting are below what might be expected given the size and relative proximity of the cities in question, bearing in mind that Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester are equidistant from each other. Commuting between Sheffield and Manchester, for example, is 38% lower than could be expected. As an example of the slow speeds that we experience, the trains from Manchester to Sheffield travel at less than half the average speed of those travelling between London and Milton Keynes.

Trains are also running at capacity on the Hope Valley line. The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) will know that line, as will the Minister. The trains run at capacity during the rush hour, with an average of 7,224 passengers coming into Sheffield from Manchester each morning during peak hours, which is 2.3% in excess of capacity. This results in 7.8% of passengers having to stand during those morning journeys.

As the Minister knows, I would be the first to acknowledge that progress is being made. Proposals are on the table for a new road tunnel and a new rail tunnel involving a high-speed route across the Pennines. I welcome those proposals; I am not playing politics. I know that work is being undertaken to establish the feasibility of at least three of the original five potential corridors for a road link across the Pennines. The feasibility work needs to include the impacts on nearby land use and economic growth, and there are the environmental concerns relating to a long road tunnel. I am hopeful that if the proposed new road tunnel is feasible and if the economic case can be made, the Government will press ahead with this important project.

I cannot, as I have only a few minutes left.

As for the new rail project, the National Infrastructure Commission has made it clear that it recommends kick-starting High Speed 3, and that its integration with HS2 would be the best way of planning the new rail development in the area. Important route decisions for HS2 need to be made over forthcoming months, and I put it on the parliamentary record—I have already done so locally—that Meadowhall is the best option for an HS2 station in South Yorkshire on the way to Leeds at end of the eastern branch of HS2.

We have heard that the Government plan an HS3 route from Manchester to Leeds, and I need to make it clear and put it on the record that any such project cannot be allowed to miss out South Yorkshire. It is absolutely critical to the economic resilience and redevelopment of the north of England that the new rail route serves South Yorkshire and potentially the south bank of the Humber as much as it serves Leeds and the north bank of the Humber. A new tunnelled rail link could come out in the Penistone area, probably in my constituency, and spur not only up to Leeds and over to Hull, but down into South Yorkshire, Sheffield, Rotherham and potentially beyond. The developments on the table are exciting, but we are absolutely adamant in South Yorkshire that we want to be included in the Government’s options for both rail and road.

Some of us have been campaigning for years for a new rail route across the Pennines. We initially focused on reopening the old Woodhead route, but we lost that campaign and electric cables have now been established in the old 1953 tunnel by National Grid. It is clear that we did not lose the argument about the need for new rail infrastructure; however, the connections suggested so far are not to Sheffield, which is what the campaign for a new Woodhead route was always about, or to South Yorkshire, but to Leeds, so we need to deal with that. We need a commitment to a route that crosses the Pennines and then serves all the major urban communities of the north. Why do we need to do all that? All the Government’s arguments about the northern powerhouse and the rebalancing of the economy are brought into focus by the need to do something about the trans-Pennine transport links, which is what the NIC has driven home in the conclusion of its report. The NIC’s argument that poor connectivity is holding back economic development in South Yorkshire underpins the case.

I want to finish by mentioning the achievements of our Victorian forebears. I mentioned the Woodhead line earlier, so let us look at the facts. It was built by the Victorians, and when the first railway tunnel was completed in 1845, it was one of the longest in the world. The second tunnel was completed in 1853. Both those tunnels would potentially be usable even now, but for their being no longer in maintenance. That is a great testament to the foresight and engineering skills of our Victorian ancestors. As far as I am concerned, they managed it, and so can we. They saw the economic potential of linking two rapidly growing northern cities—a steel city and Manchester—and so should we. They also invested for the long term, and so should we.

A 30-year appraisal in the cost-benefit analysis of the need for these links—the road link and the rail link—is not adequate; we need an analysis and an economic case that understands that we are building for the long term. We need to look at a 100-year case for building this new infrastructure. We would never have built the Woodhead line or many of our railway lines across the country if we had not taken a long-term view of the interests of the economy in areas such as Sheffield, Manchester and London. Would we have even built the tube in London had we not taken such an approach? That is what we need to understand.

On that basis, there is a great deal of support among Opposition Members for what the Government are trying to achieve. As I said, more of my colleagues would have been here to support this debate had it not been postponed for so long because of other very urgent business. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks. I hope that he will concede the case for the Sheffield link to HS3, and that he will give us some optimistic updates on the progress on both the road link and the rail link that we are all looking forward to seeing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate on road and rail links connecting Sheffield and Manchester. She has been making some valuable points about the need for improved transport links, and I agree with her comments about the debt we owe to our Victorian forefathers and the long-term approach they took to their planning. There are indeed lessons we can take from that. One thing I did learn during her speech was how Snake pass got its name—I did not know that until a few moments ago.

On 7 March, the Department for Transport and Transport for the North jointly published the first annual update report on the northern transport strategy. The report is the culmination of 12 months of collaborative work with Transport for the North and other transport agencies, and it sets out the significant progress that has been made in laying the foundation for transformative infrastructure projects across the north of England, connecting key cities and areas across the region, enabling the north to become more than the sum of its parts. The report sets out the next steps, including major improvements to the north’s road networks, connecting the north’s regions better by rail, and enhancing the passenger experience of travelling across the north by using smart and integrated ticketing technologies.

Improving east-west connectivity is at the heart of the northern transport strategy report. Our work to date has shown that the north of England has a number of cities that perform well individually but lack the transport connectivity needed to drive improved output and employment. Boosting that connectivity is essential to creating that single and well-connected economy of the north, which is our objective in the northern powerhouse.

The hon. Lady’s debate specifically focuses on the city regions of Sheffield and Greater Manchester, both of which are key economic centres for the north; they are certainly at the forefront of all of our thinking on northern transport strategies. The cities and their wider regions are key to the success of the northern powerhouse, and there is significant potential for enhanced growth if we can link the two cities much more closely together. The economic case that she made was important, highlighting the lack of economic integration between two large cities that are only 40 miles apart compared with other neighbours, where the read-across is absolutely correct.

Both city regions have strengths in advanced manufacturing, nuclear energy, health technologies and IT. We need to make it quicker and easier for companies in those sectors and all others—we are talking about very diverse economies—to do business with each other. We also need to make it easier and quicker for skilled and experienced employees to work and develop careers across both city regions.

On road connectivity, we are committed to ensuring that strategic road travel is both free flowing and reliable. In announcing the road investment strategy in 2014, we delivered a step change in how road investment in this country is delivered.

Before 2020, we will commence improvements to a number of roads, greatly improving transport links and connectivity across the country. The north of England is obviously an important part of our road investment strategy. However, any conversation about links between Sheffield and Manchester must give due regard to ensuring that the spectacular natural beauty of the Pennines is preserved. That is why we are considering the case for a new high performance road tunnel between these two great cities.

A Government-commissioned study into that endeavour has already determined that there is a clear strategic case for a road tunnel. In addition to bringing potentially significant economic benefits to the region, this tunnel could also deliver environmental benefits to the Peak District national park. It does no service to the national park, with all of its beauty, that it should have back-to-back HGVs ploughing through difficult road conditions, causing all of the problems that come with that in terms of congestion and air quality.

I cannot at this stage provide concrete details about the project, such as the exact scale of the economic benefits, the cost or indeed the most important matter of a preferred route for a potential tunnel, but I will certainly be back to give the House a thorough update on those issues and on the study findings as soon as we have them. It is an important long-term project. It has been talked about in the north for very many years. We are taking it forward and are determined to make it a reality should all the criteria work for us.

This study, alongside studies considering the case for the significant improvements to the M60 and the north Pennines connectivity, the A66 and the A69, will publish its final report by the end of the year. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already allocated £75 million from the £300 million transport development fund to ensure that, if these studies indicate that there is a strong case for developing these schemes, we can get shovels in the ground on these transformational projects as soon as possible.

The improvements to the A628 and the A57, the Mottram relief road and the Glossop Spur, are very welcome. The Minister will know from his visit to High Peak not long ago that we need to extend that work. I really must stress that, although this is welcome, speed is the key. I do not mean the speed of the traffic as it trundles through Glossop at 5 mph, but the speed of delivering these projects, because we are experiencing huge problems in my constituency.

I very much enjoyed the visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency, and the point he makes was brought home by that visit and by talking to residents and to neighbouring colleagues from this House who also joined us on that visit. I will come on to talk a bit more about that very shortly, but his point is fair, and I agree with the urgency of the case.

The tunnel and these long-term studies are examples of the kind of forward-thinking, long-term planning that has been a characteristic in transport planning in our country and is something that we are trying very hard to recover. We have made a good start on that, and it is a key part of our approach to transport. We are also committed to putting in place improvements to transport corridors between Sheffield and Manchester in the more imminent future. That builds on the points mentioned by my hon. Friend.

We have already announced a number of measures that will seek to alleviate pressure on the transport network in the short to medium term. This includes improvements to the A628 in the Peak District national park, with the introduction of two overtaking lanes. There are also additional upgrades on both sides of the national park, with schemes due to improve both the Mottram Moor link road and the A61, improving journeys between Manchester and all of south Yorkshire. There are also other smaller measures in place to address accident blackspots.

On timing, it is expected that construction of the schemes set out in the first roads investment strategy will commence by March 2020. I know that my hon. Friend and other colleagues across the House are impatient for progress, so I will do all that I can to look at ways in which we can advance that date through the design and delivery process. Nevertheless, I must also stress that we will work closely with the National Park Authority to ensure that these improvements are in keeping with the Peak District national park’s protected landscape.

The Minister will be aware of the controversial history of any attempt to deal with congestion, particularly around Mottram and Tintwistle. May I ask him to work effectively with groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Friends of the Peak District to ensure that we keep not just the national park onside but the environmentalists, who have a passionate concern about our wonderful national park?

I happily give that commitment to make sure that we work as widely as possible. Our objective is not just to solve a transport issue and improve quality of life for residents as a result of the economic benefits that come from transport investment, but to improve the protection of a wonderful national park and people’s experience of that park. We will happily consult widely with communities and stakeholders on all these measures.

Turning to rail services, upgrading our rail network will make journeys faster, easier and less crowded. Businesses will be able to recruit from a wider labour pool, and people will be able to travel to a wider range of jobs without having their horizons limited by the distance from their home and the challenges of travelling time. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the new Northern and TransPennine franchises began on the first of this month, and she has welcomed the benefits, which are significant for rail passengers across the north. The new franchises will deliver more than 500 brand new carriages, space for 40,000 extra passengers at the busiest times and thousands of extra services, plus investment to improve stations. The line between the key northern cities will have more trains, with new trains and services, which is a significant change. Alongside that, the north of England rail infrastructure upgrade programme includes a substantial electrification programme and other track, station, depot and signalling improvements to enhance the capability of the northern rail network.

As part of the proposed northern hub programme of capacity enhancements—the northern hub is something for which the hon. Lady campaigned for a considerable time, and I was happy to join that campaign—Network Rail proposes to carry out works at the eastern end of the Hope Valley line, which has been a key connection between Sheffield and Manchester since it was completed at the end of the 19th century. A passing loop is to be provided east of Bamford station, and the line is to be redoubled at Dore and Totley station. The purpose of the scheme is to enable an increase in passenger services between Manchester and Sheffield and to improve access, with a sustainable means of transport, to the Peak District national park.

A public inquiry on Network Rail’s application for legal powers and planning permission for the scheme will open in Dore on 10 May. The independent inquiry inspector will submit a report and recommendation to the Department for Transport. In view of the Department’s role in deciding the application, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of the scheme at the moment.

We are working to establish better rail connections across the whole of the north of England. In March 2015, the Government and Transport for the North set out the vision for the northern powerhouse rail network—HS3, as it is sometimes called. South Yorkshire is certainly part of those plans; there is no question about that. It is an ambition for radically faster, more frequent links between the six city regions of the north: Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, and Hull, along with Manchester airport. That ambition includes, for example, six trains an hour with 30-minute journey times between Sheffield city centre and Manchester, and better connectivity for passengers from south Yorkshire to Manchester airport. Initial findings, published in the spring 2016 report on the northern transport strategy, indicate that that is likely to include a mixture of upgrades to existing lines, the construction of new lines, and the use of northern sections of HS2.

At the same time, the National Infrastructure Commission agreed that the north needs a high speed, high frequency network between its six city regions. Working with TfN, we are continuing to develop options, and by the end of this year we will have a more detailed view of the physical work required to deliver each option within a corridor. This includes analysis of the indicative costs and benefits, in order to move towards proposing a preferred option on each corridor.

It is clear that we are working hard to establish much better links between the cities of the north, particularly Sheffield and Manchester. They are great cities and an important part of the northern powerhouse. Connectivity is at the heart of progress. We are taking action now and planning for the long term to ensure better futures for both cities. I look forward to reporting to colleagues in the House the progress that we are making as the reports and development work take place.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.