Skip to main content

Colne to Skipton Railway

Volume 624: debated on Wednesday 26 April 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Colne to Skipton railway.

When I put in for this debate, I did not realise that a general election would be coming up. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister may be unable to make any commitments today, but I know he is a long-standing supporter of reinstating the Colne-Skipton railway line. He reiterated that as recently as the last Transport questions, on 30 March, in reply to my question. However, this debate is timely for a number of other reasons, which I hope to set out in my speech, and the case for reinstating the Colne-Skipton line will continue to be made, regardless of what happens on 8 June. I hope the debate will help to shape the Government’s transport policy over the next five years, not just the next 43 days.

Let me give some background. The rail line between Skipton and Colne—the town in my constituency where I live—was opened in 1848. This 11.5-mile stretch of track formed part of a line that went all the way from Leeds to Liverpool. It survived the Beeching report only to be closed in February 1970. Thankfully, we have moved on from the 1970s and now have a Conservative Government who are investing in our rail infrastructure. An example is the millions of pounds spent in the last Parliament on reopening the Todmorden curve and providing a direct rail link between Burnley and Manchester.

Closing the line obviously affected the area between Colne and Skipton the most, as it took away its rail link entirely. However, it has also had a much wider impact, because a trans-Pennine route was lost. Reinstating the line would be great news for Pendle, but would also boost the entire northern economy, improving connections from Preston through to Leeds and everywhere in between, and to the Settle-Carlisle line, and restoring a missing link between Liverpool in the west and Hull in the east.

The campaign to reinstate the line has never gone away, but it has also never been stronger. I pay tribute to the Skipton East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership, a campaign group that has constantly made the case for reinstating the line since 2001. I am a patron of the group and meet with it regularly. Without SELRAP, today’s debate would simply not be possible.

My predecessor, Gordon Prentice, who served as Member of Parliament for Pendle for 18 years, led a debate on the subject back in 2005. Many of the points he made in support of the line apply today. His debate was called on the back of a 2003 report commissioned by the North Yorkshire and Lancashire County Councils on reopening the line. It was broadly supportive but raised some concerns, which the then Transport Minister cited, on passenger flows and whether the funding environment at the time was

“conducive to investment in rail capital projects”.

As the Minister will be well aware, since 2005, the number of passenger journeys on our rail network has risen dramatically, from about 1 billion then to some 1.7 billion today. I hope the Minister agrees that the current Government are much more “conducive” when it comes to investing in our railways.

Earlier this year, the same councils, along with the Lancashire local enterprise partnership, and the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local enterprise partnership, commissioned a further report. Entitled “Central Trans-Pennine Corridor East-West Connectivity: An Economic Study”, it was prepared by Cushman & Wakefield and SYSTRA. I know the Minister has read it—he told me he had done so when I asked him about it in Transport questions on 30 March—and I hope he remains familiar with it and enthusiastic about its conclusions.

The comprehensive, 92-page report clearly sets out the opportunities from improving trans-Pennine connectivity, and some of the dangers if action is not taken. Reopening the Colne-Skipton line is not the only way to improve trans-Pennine connections, but the report makes it clear that there needs to be investment. It makes several points that, to my mind, suggest that as the solution. The report makes it clear that, across Lancashire and Yorkshire, huge economic growth potential remains untapped, largely because of the constraints in east-west connectivity. It concludes that there is a

“robust and compelling quantitative and qualitative economic case for enhanced East-West Connectivity across the Central Corridor”,

an area that includes the Colne-Skipton line.

The report considers a mix of road and rail improvements and finds benefits to both. There are certainly strong arguments for improving road connections, for example at the end of the M65. However, the report also finds that there are “diminishing returns” from highways improvements, showing that there is likely to be a limit to what improving trans-Pennine roads would achieve. The report finds that there would be

“‘more bang’ in terms of wider economic impacts”

from even limited improvements to rail travel, due to the

“very poor quality of rail services in East Lancashire at present”.

Simply put, past failures to invest in east Lancashire’s railways mean that massive improvements are possible now, and are just waiting to be tapped into. The report describes the potential benefits from rail investment in general, and from reopening the Colne-Skipton line specifically, as “transformational”.

There are a number of reasons why improvements to road infrastructure, although welcome, will not be enough without complementary investments in rail. Despite lower than average rail usage, east Lancashire also contains areas of low car ownership—a problem that we need to bear in mind if we are serious about tackling pockets of deprivation. The road network also lacks resilience, with unreliable journey times on roads such as the A59. People without cars need predictable transport options, and we need other means of transport to take pressure off the roads at peak times or if there has been an incident. The geography of the area limits road improvements, but the Colne-Skipton track bed is already there. In recognition of the poor state of our railways, Rail North sees potential for a 25% reduction in generalised costs across the northern rail network. I fail to see how that can be achieved if east-west connections such as Colne to Skipton are not restored.

Like the national economy, the local economy of my constituency of Pendle has recovered well under the Conservative Government. Unemployment has fallen substantially, and the businesses I visit report growth, and that they are taking on more staff and investing in apprenticeships. Indeed, Rolls-Royce has just begun a major £50-million investment in its site at Barnoldswick in my constituency.

However, the Lancashire economy could be doing so much better. It is being held back by a failure to make progress on improving local infrastructure. According to Lancashire’s strategic economic plan, it lags behind national average economic performance by about 20%, in terms of gross value added per person, and growth has lagged behind national and regional performance for at least a decade. The LEP must act to rectify that long-term underperformance.

Lancashire is aiming for 50,000 new jobs, 40,000 new homes and £3 billion in additional economic activity by 2025. There is ambition, but there has been a failure to push effectively and secure the resources that the region needs to improve its infrastructure. East Lancashire is expected to deliver 10,000 of the new jobs. I believe we will be able to deliver them, but we cannot reach our full economic potential if the M65 growth corridor remains a transport cul-de-sac. In rail terms, we are literally at the end of the line.

The report identifies mismatches between the supply of and demand for skills, all the more so in those sectors with the most growth potential, and low levels of agglomeration, which undermine productivity and force northern employers to draw workers from a smaller area than the area drawn on in the south of England. That prevents east Lancashire from securing high-wage, high-value employment opportunities and, if it is not addressed, the whole region will miss out on inward investment, which is already comparatively low. In effect, Yorkshire and Lancashire operate as two unconnected labour markets, which restricts opportunities for workers and businesses in both great counties.

I hope the Minister will discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport how to open up the north of England for tourism. That is a key issue for the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding LEP. The area has Scarborough, Whitby and two national parks, which Pendle residents cannot at the moment easily reach by train. We in Lancashire also have so much to offer. Just in Pendle itself, we have the Forest of Bowland area of outstanding natural beauty and, of course, the iconic Pendle hill.

The Minister may be pleased to see that the importance of Blackpool’s visitor economy is recognised in the report. Reopening this line could shave an hour off the journey time to Blackpool from Skipton. I am sure he would welcome that.

Let us remember that it is not just Pendle or even east Lancashire that stands to benefit. The area covered by the report has a combined annual GVA of £70 billion, which is 5% of the national total and more than a fifth of the northern powerhouse economy, covering at least 32 parliamentary constituencies. As the report makes clear, improving east-west connectivity can enhance the wider economic prosperity of the north as a whole.

It is not just regional train hubs such as Preston, Leeds or York that will be better connected. Leeds Bradford international airport aims to double its passengers to 7 million per year by 2030, but it needs better connections to realise that aim. The Skipton-Colne line cannot fix the problem on its own, but it can help to open up the airport to more people from the west. Manchester airport would benefit, too. Both airports are vital to the future of the northern economy. We should also note the rapid growth of the Leeds city region—it is the fastest growing city region in the UK. Bradford and Calderdale are so close to east Lancashire, but they are unconnected by rail. Better connections to those areas are seen as key in the west Yorkshire transport strategy.

Even our ports stand to benefit, especially if new rail freight lines can be opened or freed up by passenger journeys moving to new lines. Ports from Heysham to Hull could see a boost from better trans-Pennine transport links. The report cites the example of Drax power station, which imports biomass through Liverpool. Currently, the trains take seven hours to get there when the journey time should be nearer to three hours. There is a huge need to improve connections to northern ports, and the Colne-Skipton line could be part of the answer.

I stress that reopening the Colne-Skipton line would be consistent with and complement much current Government policy, aims and recent achievements. The northern powerhouse is delivering massive investment across the north, closing the economic gap with the south and doing much to enhance connectivity across the region. The north is receiving excellent backing through the local growth fund. In Pendle, the £32 million transformation of Brierfield Mills is going ahead thanks to funding from central Government via the growth deal. In January, I secured a further £4 million for the extension of the Lomeshaye industrial estate in Nelson, creating an additional 1,100 full time jobs. However, the Government’s northern transport strategy identified how the lack of east-west transport capacity constrains the northern economy. The northern powerhouse strategy published in November states, rightly, that

“the government will…continue to consider other routes across the Pennines”.

The electrification of lines between Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and—of course—Blackpool, with better rolling stock, is bringing long-term improvements to the northern rail system. However, those benefits are yet to reach east Lancashire. Our rolling stock remains poor-quality, services are slow and few, and connections are poor. This is undermining the economic productivity of Lancashire as a whole, but especially east Lancashire. Sectors such as advanced manufacturing—especially aerospace—health innovation, digital and the low carbon energy sector are all distinctive prime capabilities of the northern economy. According to the latest research, they all stand to benefit from improved connectivity, as do logistics, food and drink, and other sectors. In particular, advanced manufacturing is a priority growth sector on both sides of the Pennines. Lancashire has the largest concentration of aerospace production in the UK, employing more than 20,000 people, including 1,000 at Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick in my constituency, but the area will have no train link unless the Colne-Skipton line is restored.

Page 91 of the “Central Trans-Pennine Corridor East-West Connectivity” report models the outcome of reopening the line as generating £43.47 million in GDP each year. Every study so far has shown that the economics of the scheme make sense—I would even go so far as to say that it is a no-brainer. Over recent months, I have written to Transport for the North, North Yorkshire County Council, Lancashire County Council and the Lancashire local enterprise partnership urging them to take a lead.

In my maiden speech back in 2010, I backed reopening the line and paid tribute to the work of SELRAP. Seven years on, I repeat what I said, and if I am re-elected on 8 June, I will keep on saying it. All parties, including the local authorities behind the study, now recognise the benefits of reopening the line. However, they all seem reluctant to prioritise it. I hope the Minister will continue to do all he can to help me to move this vital scheme forward.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) on securing the opportunity to speak on this issue. He is quite right to have done so. Like him, I was first elected in 2010. One of the first emails I received was from SELRAP—I am sure that he received one too—asking me to put down my name in support of the project, and I was happy to do so. I know full well that he has been an immense supporter of SELRAP’s work from day one. Even if no election were in the offing, I would still say that his commitment to and passion for the project have been noticeable. I have followed rail policy as a member of the Transport Committee, as a rail Minister and in between the two roles, and I cannot remember a time when he has not been raising the Skipton-Colne line in the Chamber, in Westminster Hall and with Ministers. He deserves credit for that.

My hon. Friend is right to identify so many of the benefits that will come from the line. As a Blackpool MP, the health of the visitor economy is always at the forefront of my mind. Train links from the Pennine towns to the resorts are always important for ensuring that people can access the coast. I welcome anything that improves those links. Just the other week, I passed through Skipton on the Flying Scotsman, which was reopening the Settle-Carlisle stretch of the railway after Network Rail’s tremendous efforts to revive and restore the line since the landslide that disrupted it. I thank the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway for hosting us. We started at Keighley and went through Skipton to Settle. As I passed through Skipton I thought, “Yes, maybe one day, with all the focus on reopening lines around the country, Skipton-Colne will be a reality and we will be able to get there from Lancashire.” What could be a better round trip than going from Blackpool to Preston, Colne, Skipton, Settle, Carlisle and back to Preston? That is a day trip that we can all dream of doing one day. My hon. Friend is quite right to push for the reopening of the line.

It is worth putting things in a wider context. The era of Dr Beeching’s reductions and the days in the ’70s when we were looking at scaling back the rail network are long gone. The focus is now on looking for lines to reopen to expand the capacity of our network. We need only look at the Borders Railway in Scotland, which shows the opportunities that come from reopening railway lines. Reopening lines has brought much bigger benefits than anyone ever predicted, particularly in terms of passenger numbers. Now, if ever, is the time to ensure that, if lines can be reopened, we properly ensure the practicality, feasibility and cost of doing so.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of the northern powerhouse and of investing in the north of England. I have always shared his view that, when we discuss trans-Pennine connectivity, eyes always drift northward to the links between Cumbria and Newcastle, or southward to the Woodhead pass and the links from Manchester to Sheffield. We almost forget that the M65 ends on the wrong side of the Pennines—or in my case the right side, which is Lancashire, of course. There are far more opportunities for enhancing connectivity in the middle of the county. As he says, getting from Lancashire to North Yorkshire is not always the easiest or most obvious journey to take. Commuting levels are quite low, despite the sizable employment opportunities on either side of the Pennines—opportunities that, because of the work he has been engaged in, will only grow.

It is important that we understand the opportunities for trans-Pennine connectivity. The reopening of the line has to be properly considered by all partners in the region. I am sure my hon. Friend shares my frustration that that is not always the case with all regional stakeholders. LCC, and by extension the local enterprise partnership, seem not to have fully embraced the project to the extent they might have done down the years. It was not as prominent in Lancashire County Council’s transport strategy as I expected it to be, given the interest that so many in the county show. It is not just my hon. Friend’s constituents who want the line reopened. In my constituency, I have had people down the years writing to me, asking me to prioritise the reopening.

One might think, “Why does it matter that local stakeholders are not being as enthusiastic in wanting the Government to get on with it?” It matters because a clear policy of the Government is that we want local organisations and agencies to identify the priorities in their areas that we can support through the growth deal. We want to see the local enterprise partnership identifying projects that will bring the most benefit to the region, as my hon. Friend so eloquently explained. We look to the regional bodies to take the lead. If we are to properly build the northern powerhouse, we have to make the investments in transport connectivity that he talked about, which are east-west as much as north-south.

A lot of attention goes on north-south connectivity. It is not just a matter of HS2, but inter-city services, too. East-west matters just as much in the north of England. That is why we are supporting the idea of northern powerhouse rail and look forward to the recommendations that Transport for the North will come up with. There is also the TransPennine operator for services between Manchester and Leeds. As well as the investment that we would hope to see one day in Skipton and Colne, should we reach a point where we feel it can be reopened, all the railway lines need improvement.

Before turning to that line specifically, it is worth reflecting on many of the investments we have been making in the region. They will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituents in Pendle in particular. He has already mentioned some of them, such as investment in the Burnley-Pendle growth corridor. There are the benefits provided by the M65, where I understand work on junction 12 is complete.

I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend wishes some projects had planted a “Finished” flag in the ground a few weeks earlier. Junction 13 will be finished shortly, perhaps. We have announced the third growth deal with Lancashire LEP, which will provide further funding on the M65 corridor for junctions 4 to 6, and the north-west Burnley growth corridor. Both of those will bring further benefit to east Lancashire.

We have funded improvements to the Blackburn to Bolton rail corridor, which will enable a more frequent service between Blackburn and Manchester Victoria. Work is now complete and additional services should begin at the next timetable change next spring. That, of course, is not the only improvement we have delivered on the east Lancashire rail network. Thanks to our regional growth fund and my hon. Friend’s lobbying at the time, we reinstated the Todmorden curve after years of waiting. We have had faster connections to Manchester Victoria via Rose Grove since May 2015. I am sure it was on my hon. Friend’s election leaflets at the time, and he can now say he has achieved that.

We are delivering improvements across the region and undoubtedly there are more to come. Over the next few years, we will see major improvements to the Northern rail network, creating better journeys for passengers, supporting trade, supporting investment and creating a stronger economy. Through the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises, we are investing in modern trains, delivering more comfortable, more frequent, faster and more direct journeys. All the Pacers will be gone, replaced by a mix of brand new trains and refurbished trains upgraded to an as-new standard. Passengers will notice that transformative investment. We have already seen the impact the new trains have had on services between Manchester and Liverpool through electrification. It is a transformative new deal for the franchise.

Investment in the network will include improvements to the Calder Valley line and to the central trans-Pennine corridor, including line speed improvements, improved signalling, improved resilience, more capacity and better journey times. Once the full complement of infrastructure and new trains is delivered, Bradford will have an increased train frequency to Manchester and new direct connections to Manchester airport, via the Ordsall chord and Liverpool. The Ordsall chord matters not just for Manchester, but because of what it enables across the north-west. Many of those new service patterns and the new innovations we want across Lancashire’s rail network are enabled by improving the through-flow in Manchester city centre. Anyone who is passing through the city needs to go and look at what is occurring at Ordsall, with the new bridges and the engineering work. It is one of the most complex pieces of civil engineering we have undertaken in over 100 years, but it will transform rail services in the north, and it cannot come soon enough in my view.

My hon. Friend focused on Skipton to Colne rather than everything else. The line was closed, as he rightly points out, in 1970. It took until 2001, surprisingly, for SELRAP to establish itself, but it has been diligent ever since in putting its name at the forefront of local campaigning. It has been an excellent example to many other campaigns around the country. SELRAP wants to protect the former railway track bed from development so that it can feasibly be reinstated as a main railway line. I join my hon. Friend in paying to tribute to its work over the last 16 years to raise the profile of reinstating this 12-mile link between east Lancashire and Yorkshire.

As we have consistently explained to both the partnership and local representatives, local bodies have to determine whether a rail reopening is the best way of addressing local and regional economic development needs, and to secure appropriate funding, including that which we make available through the growth fund and devolution deals. I understand the frustration and the bemusement that this project has not come to the forefront of all the growth deals we have been negotiating with Lancashire. I urge my hon. Friend to consider whether the next round is the chance to do just that.

My hon. Friend made valid points about the role that cars can and cannot play in local economic development. I notice that the level of car ownership is not high in parts of my constituency, rather like in his seat. People need public transport alternatives that are accessible to them. In Blackpool, that could be the tram. In his patch, the Skipton to Colne railway might be part of that. That is why we are funding far more local community rail partnerships, to try to reconnect people with their railways. Too many people do not realise the opportunities that rail can bring for accessing employment. I know what good work they are doing in east Lancashire with the community rail partnership, and the support that Northern, in particular, is giving to community rail partnerships is to be praised.

We have also been looking carefully at the reports that have been produced, not least the economic study that my hon. Friend cited into the trans-Pennine links. Once again, it is full of important, helpful and sensible information and assessments of the potential benefits. We have been negotiating with Lancashire County Council to undertake a study of key improvements in passenger connectivity between towns and cities and strategic freight capability. Much of that work is also being carried out by Rail North and Transport for the North, looking at the strategic overlay.

Part of northern powerhouse rail is trying to assess what benefits we want to achieve for passengers. If we understand what changes we want to make, it is far easier to identify which inputs, in terms of infrastructure investment, will bring us to what passengers want, which is faster and more reliable journeys and a greater range of destinations that they can access from their local stations. I am confident that we will get some good news on that front when we hear the final views of Transport for the North in the near future. We also need to keep working with all the regional bodies and actors identified to improve east-west connectivity across the Pennines. I do not want to prejudge what the outcome of that might be—whether it is road, rail or whatever—but my hon. Friend made a powerful case as to why rail has to be part of that mix.

The report that my hon. Friend identified does not necessarily seek to make the case for particular investment in either road or rail, nor does it assess the potential costs of any of these interventions. The key point is that we need to be much more certain about what the costs of reopening Skipton to Colne would be. I recognise that it is almost a Catch-22, because to get a robust cost estimate costs money in itself. That is the next big hurdle that SELRAP will have to overcome.

No one could say that my hon. Friend has not made a powerful case today, just as he did in his maiden speech. I very much hope that, in his next speech in the Chamber after 8 June as the newly re-elected MP for Pendle, he will make a powerful case for the opening of Skipton to Colne. Perhaps I will still be the Minister and be able to deliver that. Who is to say? We have many weeks of uncertainty ahead, but one thing is certain: that track bed is not going away. It will still be there, ready to be reopened, whatever the public decide on 8 June. I hope we can one day travel on it together.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.