I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Restoring Your Railway Fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. First, I thank my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to schedule this timely debate.
The name Dr Beeching evokes strong passions even 60 years after the publication of his first report, and the very fact that I do not have to mention the subject or the title of the report, simply his name, speaks to the special place our railways hold in the nation’s heart and the impact of the proposals that followed. No other mode of transport can evoke such passion or interest, and while more people use buses than trains, it is rare that anyone becomes as engaged in a discussion about a new No. 3 or No. 12 as they do in talking—at length—about the prospects of restoring a piece of track that last saw a train long before many of us were born.
We refer to the Beeching era, but Britain’s railways were contracting before Beeching arrived. For example, in Devon alone, the line to Princetown closed in 1958 and the line to Yealmpton closed to passengers as far back as 1947, but Beeching’s first report on reshaping Britain’s railways is, for many, the key moment. The report has seared his name into our national memory, and it defined an era for our railways. Of 18,000 miles of railway, Beeching recommended that 6,000 miles be closed and 2,363 station closures, both on lines set to close and on lines he proposed remain open.
There are lots of debates about whether different approaches could have been tried, not least reducing costs on lines rather than closing them, but those debates are for the rail historians. We know that today, across Britain, there are viable schemes ready to reconnect communities to our rail network. When people talk about what had been the signs of decline in a once-prosperous town, many local residents include in the list the words, “Then the station closed.” A rail service is often seen as a sign of literally being on track to better prospects. Hence the excitement when a long-lost service returns.
Ferryhill station in my constituency was removed in 1964 when I lived there, although there is still a freight line. The station is symptomatic of the area’s need to regenerate and redevelop. Does my hon. Friend agree that any consideration of whether a bid should succeed must be cognisant of the impact on the people of the area, not just the mathematics that go with it?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who is a strong champion for his constituents on the matter. Where once there was a station and now there is a space or an empty building, or just freight trains trundling past, people sense that they might have been left behind, so reopening stations, particularly in locations such as the one he mentioned, is one of the best signs that levelling up could offer to show that the agenda across Government is about giving communities back what they had in the past. We are not going to reintroduce steam trains, but we do want to give people a modern, functional service that points towards an aspiration for a better future.
With respect to such opportunities, the pledge in our 2019 manifesto, which forms the basis of the Government’s mandate, was explicit:
“To help communities across the country, we will restore many of the Beeching lines, reconnecting smaller towns such as Fleetwood and Willenhall that have suffered permanent disadvantage since they were removed from the rail network in the 1960s.”
In January 2020, colleagues across the House will have welcomed the Government translating that pledge into £500 million for the restoring your railway programme to deliver the manifesto commitment, which I know was firm when my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) was Prime Minister. I know the Minister will be keen to repeat it today.
I want to ensure that the commitment remains firm not because I am sentimental about the days when steam trains raced from London Waterloo to Tavistock, but because of what we see when lines reopen and communities reconnect. For example, the revitalisation of the line to Okehampton has brought full passenger services to the town for the first time in five decades. It was the first former line to reopen under the restoring your railway programme. In the same week that it celebrated its one-year anniversary in November, the Dartmoor line also saw its 250,00th journey—more than double the demand originally forecast.
Then there is the Scottish Borders railway, for which an original target was set of 650,000 passengers in the first year, but demand for the service exceeded expectations with almost 700,000 trips made in just the first six months of the line reopening. In short, new lines bring new trade to the railways and provide an attractive alternative to travel by car or coach. The Minister saw for himself the achievements at Okehampton and the excitement of the local community at having its train service back. We would simply not get that with a new road junction or a bus service.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on leading this important debate. In Cumbria we have been pushing for the reopening of the Penrith to Keswick line and of Gilsland station. My hon. Friend mentioned the Borders railway, which we want extended through Longtown in my constituency and down into Carlisle. Does he agree that opening up those projects not only connects people to physical places, but increases economic opportunities and access to education and empowers rural communities?
I could not put it better. Transport systems are not just about an academic exercise of connecting point A to point B, but about linking communities, providing opportunities and levelling up communities. Instead of looking back to a service that existed until the late 1960s, we should look forward to the opportunities. My hon. Friend is a very strong advocate for his constituents and I know he will push the Government on that scheme.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. It is a real pleasure to intervene on him, whom I see as a very dear friend. My constituency used to have a railway line, but now has no railway whatever. Does the hon. Member not agree that it makes no sense for any constituency to have less public transport at a time when we are encouraging people to ditch their cars and make changes to help the environment? It takes investment. If the Government are serious, the funding must also be serious.
The hon. Gentleman puts it well and reminds us that in the Beeching era many communities went from having train services to numerous destinations to literally having none. We have mentioned the example of the Scottish Borders railway. After the closure of the Waverley route, certain communities became some of the furthest away from the mainline network. Train services provide people with different choices and opportunities. It is safe to say that the people of Strangford can be reassured that if there is any prospect of getting a train service back to Strangford, the hon. Gentleman will regularly pursue it in this place until it happens.
I am conscious that there are many requests for new lines and stations across the country. In June, the Government published a restoring your railway fund programme update with details of all successful and unsuccessful bids. In total, the programme update listed 44 successful schemes, which are at different stages, and 23 schemes are being funded to develop a strategic outline business case—one of the earlier stages in considering a transport intervention. Thirteen schemes that had already developed a SOBC are being supported to develop further, and eight schemes are being delivered. Of those, the Dartmoor line between Okehampton and Exeter has already reopened.
The schemes stretch across the country, ranging from the Northumberland line reopening to the new Thanet Parkway station in Kent, plus St Clears station in Wales and the White Rose station in Yorkshire. As evidenced today, many other communities want to join them. Many communities who were not successful at first now hope to join them in future rounds.
In some areas the dreams of restoring a railway service will come up against the harsh realities of previous track beds having been lost or development having taken over where a line once cut through. What might in the early 1970s have been a relatively easy job of re-laying track will now mean cutting a new track bed through previously untouched countryside. I know from my brief time in the Department for Transport about the issues with restoring the key section of the Varsity line between Cambridge and Bedford, given the short-sighted decisions of past generations to build over the old track bed. The modern realities of development since the line closed mean a different realignment is needed. It is interesting to note that this is one railway that Dr Beeching proposed to keep open in his infamous report, with the mistake of closure being clear almost from the time it was implemented.
In many locations where enthusiasts or a local council have sought to preserve the dream that trains would one day come back down the track to them, reopening former lines can offer excellent value for money. We can also benefit from the quality of railway engineering in the Victorian era. The report on the former line from Bere Alston to Tavistock, more than 40 years after its closure, found that many of the key structures were in fairly good condition, despite not having been maintained for decades. Think of how each pound spent on the restoring your railway programme delivers popularity and inspiration for the local community. Then think how HS2 developers must dream of getting anywhere near that with the tens of billions being spent on that.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear me talk of the opportunity to do just that in my own constituency. The former Goodrington Sands station lies only a few hundred metres from the railhead that marks the end of the Network Rail track, and has done since the line from nearby Paignton station to Kingswear closed. It is not the derelict building that some hon. Members might now be picturing in their minds. Since 1972, it has operated successfully as part of the Dartmouth Steam Railway, with its platforms still in very good condition.
Goodrington station provides a great example, not just of preserving the past, but of an opportunity for the future. Given the Network Rail track nearby, it is possible to create a track route, entirely separate from the operations of the steam railway, to Goodrington from Paignton. That would allow a new platform to be created alongside the heritage station, with accessibility provided by stairs and a lift to the road bridge that passes over the site. Whereas parking is limited at Paignton, there are large car parks near Goodrington station, which are often only used in the summer peak season.
Those ingredients, alongside the presence of a large beach and leisure facilities around the former station, provide a tempting chance directly to reconnect communities nearby and facilitate a parkway-style access to the rail network. Despite the obvious attractions of that plan, plus support from the local community, the spirit of the Beeching era lived on in the coalition of Lib Dem and independent councillors currently running Torbay Council, who objected to the bid for restoring your railway funds. It was disappointing to note their opposition, and the way they assumed they could get an officer to write to MPs, simply demanding we withdraw a bid, as they had said no. As some will know, such ill-judged actions merely provoked not compliance but scorn from me, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and many local residents.
The restoring your railway programme is not just about reopening lines closed during the Beeching era. It is also providing entirely new stations, such as the one being built at Marsh Barton, which I passed on the train when I travelled up yesterday, and the very welcome Edginswell station in Torquay, where preparatory works are under way ahead of the main construction work starting later this year. Having asked many questions about that project of previous Rail Ministers, I welcome the new stations fund and the Torquay town deal supporting it: the first new station in Torbay since the war, delivered by a Conservative team.
I could be here a long time, listing individual schemes and opportunities for reopening, and I suspect we will hear quite a few more as the debate progresses. Yet the purpose of this debate is not just to put in a pitch for a local scheme, although this is a good opportunity for colleagues to ensure that the Minister has heard the exact benefits a scheme will bring for their local area. There are a few points it would be good for the Minister to respond to.
The first is the easiest: to confirm that the Government remain committed to the vision of reversing Beeching-era cuts, giving communities new train services, as set out in our 2019 manifesto, and the £500 million previously agreed. Secondly, what work will the Government do to support groups and MPs looking to bid where a local council retains the spirit of the Beeching era and decides to object, but the community is positive? Thirdly, what assessment of the value delivered with these projects will be used to capture the full impact for the community of being reconnected to the rail network?
As I said at the start, the fact that we can mention one man’s name 60 years after his report was published shows how the railway closures affected so many communities. For the first time in decades, many communities can now talk about railways as part of their future, not just something they reminisce about from the past. That is what the restoring your railway scheme is about. It is the ultimate prize from levelling up, and it is vital that the commitment shown to it by the Government’s 2019 manifesto continues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating the debate.
As an Opposition politician, I might not often be heard saying positive things about the Government or the governing party, but I want to say some warm words about the restoring your railway scheme, particularly as it has awarded £5 million towards the reopening of Cullompton railway station. The developments we have seen in Devon, including the reopening of the station at Okehampton, are excellent; I hope Cullompton will see the same railway renaissance as Okehampton has in the past couple of years.
I will set out why I think it will be beneficial to Devon to have a railway station at Cullompton and how that might also return some benefits to the Department for Work and Pensions. Cullompton railway station is one of 10 projects that received funding from the restoring your railway fund in 2020. The funding was delivered to Network Rail, which is developing a full business case for stations at Cullompton and Wellington. I know the Minister is aware of the initiative, not least because he kindly agreed at Transport questions last week to visit the site when he is next in the area. The Minister advised that I should work with people of all political colours in the local community on the programme, and he will be pleased to know that I am doing just that.
Cullompton had a railway station until 5 October 1964. The Beeching cuts, which we heard about from the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and which mothballed Cullompton and many other railway stations that day, are looked back on with great regret from a 2023 vantage point. I suggest that they were also regretted by the then Government, because just 10 days after the closure of Cullompton railway station and other stations in Devon, the Conservative party, which had been in power for 13 years, was defeated and nearby seats fell to the Liberal party. There is still time to reinforce the current Government’s success in rail at Cullompton.
Recently, the right hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) was fortunate that the Dartmoor line was the first line to be reopened under the restoring your railway scheme. The restoration, which was announced in January 2018 when the right hon. Gentleman was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, has some parallels with Cullompton. Okehampton and Cullompton are both within commuting distance of Exeter and both have slightly more than 10,000 people currently living in and around each town.
Cullompton has characteristics that will be attractive to some of the Rail Minister’s colleagues in Government. It is a town with a tight labour market and currently has vacancies across a range of sectors, including retail, manufacturing and social care. In Cullompton, fewer than two in 100 people are unemployed, in contrast to the neighbouring city of Exeter, where unemployment is greater than 3%. There are thousands of people in Exeter who are registered unemployed and looking for work who would be able to find jobs in Cullompton were they able to commute there. That could reduce the cost of benefit payments to the Department for Work and Pensions, and represent excellent value for the taxpayer.
While Cullompton is already regarded as a key town for commuters, plans are afoot for Culm Garden Village, which will expand Cullompton by more than 5,000 houses and perhaps an additional 12,000 residents. The Minister will be aware that the population of the west country has grown faster than the population of England, but that is not a patch on the growth rate we will see in Cullompton, which is having a deleterious effect on people’s health. We already have an air quality management area designation in the town of Cullompton; having a station in the heart of the town should serve to reduce traffic on the congested B3181.
The Minister is a real champion for railway restoration. As a Back-Bench MP, he battled successfully for Battle, specifically the refurbishment of its railway station. As the Minister, last year he came to Devon to celebrate the new Dartmoor line having its 250,000th user, as referred to by the hon. Member for Torbay, and said in his speech at the time that the restoration
“has undone 50 years of damage”.
He is very welcome to visit us at Cullompton station to see how little work would be required to restore the station to its former glory and to transform a very friendly part of Devon into an environmentally friendly one.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing the debate.
I want to talk about my Stourbridge Dasher. I invite the Minister to Stourbridge to see for himself how important it will be to the community. The Dasher will be transformative. It will run along an old passenger line and extend the branch line, and restore an important economic link. It is railway restoration at its very best. The Dasher would reinstate passenger services on a four-mile, freight-only branch line between Stourbridge Junction, and Round Oak and Brierley Hill, and the terminus at Brierley Hill would link it to the West Midlands Metro tramline extension, which is expected to open in 2025. This has never been more important, given that under the 2024 boundary changes Brierley Hill will come into the Stourbridge constituency. Of 1,500 people surveyed in my constituency, 87% were in favour of the Dasher and would make use of it.
The Dasher would bring huge benefits. It would link Stourbridge to the wider Black Country, opening passenger travel between some of the region’s most deprived areas. It would be good for areas such as Amblecote and Brierley Hill, with stations planned at Vicarage Road and Brettell Lane, and good for jobs by increasing the ease of travel, taking the burden off roads such as the A461, and sparing residents from frequent traffic jams. If delivered, this line and its stations would make a real contribution to reinvigorating the area.
Stourbridge already has the Stourbridge Shuttle, which is pretty impressive in itself. It connects the main line train station to the centre of Stourbridge town and runs every 10 minutes, seven days a week. It has an on-time train service reliability of 99.8% most of the time, which I am sure most present would agree is pretty impressive. Its operating costs are 50% cheaper than those of conventional railways, and it is eco-friendly, running on liquid petroleum fuel that is kinder to the air, which is a UK first. It is Europe’s smallest branch line—the journey time over the 0.8 miles is only three minutes—but while it might be small, its track record of delivery could be extended to the Dasher.
I thank Pre Metro Operations, which brought the potential of the Dasher to my attention. Pre Metro Operations has done a brilliant job of putting together a business case, through work done out of dedication and love of the branch line, and with innovative thinking. On Friday, I am going with the Pre Metro team to a site near Stourbridge for a demonstration of the potential Dasher. We all have those days and visits that we just cannot wait for, and this is one of them. I love trains anyway, but I cannot contain my excitement over being able to see the potential of my Dasher. I am serious—my constituents know that as well. I am genuinely excited about the future possibilities of making the Stourbridge Shuttle into a Dasher.
The project needs only £50,000 for an initial feasibility study to kick it off. I do not think that is too much to ask for.
My hon. Friend is doing such a good job of talking about her railways, she makes me want to travel on them immediately. For 20 years, MPs, councils and community champions have been campaigning similarly to reopen Stroudwater station on Bristol Road, Stonehouse. I was proud to be the MP who secured £50,000 to do the feasibility study, so I completely understand her passion and pitch. We are asking for the environmental, economic, business and tourism benefits not just for now, but for the future. From speaking to Great Western Railway, I understand that there is a lot of waiting before getting from Government an understanding of what the funding pot for railway investment will look like, given that the country’s finances are stretched at the moment. Does my hon. Friend agree that hearing about that investment early and having the Department for Transport work closely with individual bids on feasibility are incredibly valuable to all our communities?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I have been waiting some time for that £50,000. These are quick-win projects that do so much for communities. Getting that closer link with the Government, in particular on feasibility work, would save so much time further down the line, even if it were to prove that the project was not feasible. I thank her for that.
I finish as I started, by asking the Minister to come and visit our brilliant shuttle, to see for himself that it would be even better if we had the Stourbridge Dasher. I am sure the rewards to all will be hugely demonstratable, but none more so than the rewards to the community of opening up the superb branch line once again and seeing the Stourbridge Dasher, in all its magnificence, take to it. What is not to love?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this very important debate.
We have been very lucky in Stoke-on-Trent. We have managed to secure up to £40 million from the transforming cities fund, which will do remarkable work, and £31.7 million to improve local bus services, create new routes to better serve the community, and most importantly reduce the flat day fare by a third to £3.50. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) has been successful in getting the old railway restored at Meir station. But of course, Stoke-on-Trent always wants and deserves more. I am sure the Minister is aware of that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and I were delighted to secure £50,000 for the feasibility study for the Stoke to Leek line service, which we want to come back to life. I have had the pleasure of walking the line near Milton and Baddeley Green with Councillor Dave Evans and Councillor James Smith. There is an opportunity in our great city to better serve an area of deprivation that has sadly high obesity levels. There has been a jobs boom, but that area has poor connectivity to the Ceramic Valley enterprise zone sites. We can improve employability and create better opportunities to sell the employment sites in our great city.
We have in our city the fantastic City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College and Stoke-on-Trent College, which serve students from north Staffordshire, as well as Staffordshire University and Keele University. The line would serve as a huge hub, improving access to education, which is particularly important given that we need more people to take levels 3 and 4 qualifications. Sadly, we lag 8% behind the national average when it comes to the take-up of level 3.
Since 2015, 9,000 jobs have been created under the leadership of Councillor Abi Brown and her fantastic team at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. The railway line could also help to decongest our roads and improve our air quality. Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council—I also represent that area—have been tasked with solving that issue.
If we bring that train line back to life, it will save people getting around our city an average of 25 minutes at peak times. That is a huge benefit. More than a third of residents of the city do not have access to a motor vehicle and are heavily reliant on taxi services, because sadly the bus service is in need of improvement. It is important to make that case for local people, particularly those who live on the outskirts of our city. In Milton, Baddeley Green and Stockton Brook, people have to get off First Bus Potteries and get on to another bus near Endon and Brown Edge to get to Leek. I believe Leek, which has about 25,000 residents, is the largest town in the country not to be served by a railway station.
Nearby is the glorious Alton Towers. The Stoke to Leek line has the potential to go through it and connect to one of this country’s great tourist attractions. That would help build our long-term tourism strategy, which is to have more than just one-day visits. We are delighted to have these visitors; we had about 6 million before the covid pandemic, but sadly only 200,000 turned into overnight stays. This railway line, which would offer connectivity to Alton Towers and other tourist attractions around north Staffordshire, would incentivise people to stay overnight. That would build on the success of the Hilton building in Stoke-on-Trent city centre, and the Goods Yard site, which is under development thanks to the levelling up funding and will bring more hotel space.
We have the fantastic World of Wedgwood in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, but even better, of course, is Middleport Pottery, which has been proud to be the home of “The Great British Pottery Throw Down” in the past. Of course, we also have the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and the Gladstone Pottery Museum. That is why it is so important that we have the ability to boost our tourism, our education opportunities and our employability in our city, and to better connect our city to residents who do not have access to motor vehicles in the way that people in a more privileged position may traditionally have outside our great city. The line will also help to improve the air quality in our great city. That is so important, especially when a lot of the people who live in Stoke-on-Trent used to work in the pots and the pits and suffer with long-term health ailments because of the type of industry in which they worked for so many years.
I hope that the Government remain absolutely, fully committed to the restoring your railway fund. I hope to hear from the Chancellor in the spring statement—I will allow him to go to the autumn statement this year at the very latest—that he will commit to Stoke-on-Trent and Leek getting the Stoke to Leek line back once again.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate on a topic that he knows we very much share an interest in.
The restoring your railway fund is one of the best policies of this Conservative Government, and it should be a model for future public policy. The involvement of local Members of Parliament as sponsors, and other key local stakeholders, has been an excellent way of developing high-quality bids that democratically garner local support. Infrastructure projects can often be imposed and attract controversy, so this grassroots-up approach is far more desirable and more likely to deliver economic and social benefits.
As the Minister will know, the fund has provoked interest across the country, especially in north Staffordshire, which I will focus on. Poor transport connectivity in Stoke-on-Trent and wider north Staffordshire is a major barrier to employment, skills and general quality of life. A third of households in Stoke-on-Trent have no access to a car, yet people depend on car transport because, for many, public transport is non-existent, which severely holds back opportunities. The strategic road network through the city is operating at around 110% capacity and parts of the local road network are far worse, resulting in terrible journey reliability. Local bus operators now say that they are often unable to run reliable services due to the levels of congestion, and we have major air quality problems.
As I have said in this Chamber before, it is important to recognise that north Staffordshire is one of the few parts of the country that were not only hit by the Beeching axe but by further reductions in rail services under the last Labour Government. Services to Barlaston and Wedgwood ceased as part of the west coast main line modernisation in 2004. Such was the short-sightedness of the last Labour Government that Etruria station was permanently closed in 2005, with the platforms completely removed in 2008, to shave but a few minutes off high-speed Pendolino services. Thankfully, times have changed and we now recognise the benefits of encouraging more people back on to our railways, but much needs to be done to restore much of our local connectivity.
The Conservative Government have been extremely supportive of improving local transport for Stoke-on-Trent. As we heard, we have secured £40 million through the transforming cities fund for local bus and rail improvements and £31 million through the bus service improvement plan, as well as funding towards our restoring your railways projects. The first of these to reopen—Meir station, which was closed in 1966—is now progressing to an advanced stage, having secured a further £1.7 million to develop the full business case and detailed delivery study. I was pleased to meet representatives from DfT, Network Rail and the city council just before Christmas, and it was great to hear how well our plans are progressing.
Reopening a station in Meir could have a transformative impact on the local community. Both wards in Meir are identified by the all-party parliamentary group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods as being in the top 225 most left-behind neighbourhoods in the entire country. A key problem in Meir is poor transport. More than 40% of households in Meir North do not have a car; public transport is non-existent in parts of the area, and Meir suffers from significant road congestion and air pollution. The lack of effective public transport in Meir is a major barrier to employment and skills opportunities and severely restricts quality of life. Reopening the station in Meir would make a huge difference to a part of the country where levelling up matters most, by opening up a wealth of skilled employment opportunities and massively enhancing access to local colleges and universities. If we secure the full backing of the Government, work could start on site in 2024, and our plans would be relatively easy and cheap to deliver.
Alongside that, I have been working closely with my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), to reopen the Stoke to Leek line. The project is not as advanced as the Meir project, but we were delighted to receive funding from Government that enabled us to submit our excellent strategic outline business case in November. The project would see not only the restoration of rail services to Leek for the first time since 1965, but the reopening of a number of stations throughout Stoke-on-Trent and the Moorlands, including one at Fenton Manor in my constituency. It would significantly help to level up opportunities and massively enhance access to work and skills, as well as tourism. The extremely poor local transport connectivity would be transformed, addressing significant road congestion and air pollution.
Currently, the fastest train journey from Stoke-on-Trent to London Euston takes around an hour and 24 minutes, which is quicker than travelling the 12 miles from Leek to Stoke station by public transport at peak times. That journey time would be improved with further HS2 services connecting us into London, but the benefits will be severely limited if we do not address our chronically poor local transport. Train services from Stoke to Leek would only take between 23 minutes and 25 minutes—around a third of the current peak-time journey times on public transport.
Reopening the line would make a huge difference to communities along the route, opening up major new employment opportunities and helping to deliver the economic growth our area needs, as well as taking vehicles off our roads. I strongly encourage the Minister and the Department to back the Stoke to Leek line moving to the next stage—a full business case and detailed delivery study.
The restoring your railway fund projects to reopen Meir Station and the Stoke to Leek line are taking place alongside the work being done by the West Midlands Rail Executive to look at reopening Trentham station, and the vision of Stoke-on-Trent City Council—led by the excellent Councillor Abi Brown—for a properly integrated light rail network for the Potteries, creating a properly integrated public transport network. I urge the Government to give us their full backing to ensure we can properly level up opportunities in Stoke-on-Trent and wider North Staffordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate. Representing Darlington, the birthplace of the railways, I have been pleased to have many opportunities to raise railway-related issues in my time in this place. This includes campaigning to save Locomotion No. 1, getting our railway bridges painted, pushing for tactile paving at Darlington Bank Top station, leading the case for an overhaul of North Road station, stopping London North Eastern Railway from cutting services and calling for livestreaming to British Transport Police of onboard CCTV.
Darlington has a rich rail heritage—indeed, it is the starting point of the world’s railway story. As we approach the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington railway in 2025, there could be no better time than now to be having this debate. As we have already heard, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Beeching cuts, which saw the decimation of many of our railway lines, the impact of which we still feel today with the loss of connectivity it brought about.
Levelling up is about righting the wrongs of the past and reversing underinvestment in regions such as the north-east, which has been overlooked by Governments of all colours. I am proud that the transformation of Darlington’s wonderful Bank Top station—a cathedral of Victorian railway engineering—backed with £139 million of Government investment, is adding additional platform capacity and connectivity to our regions. The restoring your railway fund is a further way that the Government are levelling up, helping to unlock connectivity and restore long-lost connections with communities, for which, even after the passage of so much time, people have a great affinity.
I and many other north-east colleagues also are pushing for the Leamside line to be restored, which will do so much to unlock capacity on the east coast main line. Darlington connects to the Bishop line, and in turn connects to the Weardale line. Working with colleagues, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), and primarily our hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), strategic overview case funding for the Durham Dales line has been secured. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has also secured business case funding for feasibility of the Consett to Tyne line.
These projects to restore our railway links can help to deliver public transport that is fit for purpose, getting people to where employment opportunities are and opening up communities that are currently disconnected to new investment opportunities. Further, the lines would serve some of the areas of the north-east with the lowest rates of car ownership, where there is heavy reliance on public transport. It is not right that people are further disadvantaged by matters outside their control. Reopening the lines would go a long way towards ending this disadvantage and help to boost the local economy.
Finally, I want to mention North Road station in my constituency, which sits on the Bishop line. The station, on the original Stockton to Darlington railway line, has a number of problems, including the platform height and depth, inappropriate furniture and fencing, and the shameful waste of the use of the historic canopy for shelter. I firmly believe that we can do better, and I am pleased to be working with Network Rail, Northern, the Bishop line, Darlington Borough Council and Tees Valley Combined Authority to secure solutions and funding for those issues. That sits alongside the £35 million investment in Darlington’s flagship Railway Heritage Quarter, which adjoins North Road station. The preservation and improvement of the station is a hugely important project and would complement the work already being undertaken to showcase Darlington’s rich rail heritage.
In the north-east, all rails lead to Darlington. The restoration of the lines I have mentioned would be hugely beneficial for improving local connections and boosting business, employment, education and leisure opportunities for my constituents and residents across the north-east, and I am grateful to have been able to put these points on the record.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating it.
When I was first elected by the island as the Member of Parliament for Ynys Môn, some of the earliest contact I had was from constituents who were concerned about the fate of the disused Gaerwen to Amlwch railway line. That 17.5-mile line came about as a result of the Anglesey Central Railway Act 1863 and was operational by the late 1860s. It connected Amlwch in the north of Anglesey to the island’s market town of Llangefni, and joined the main line to Holyhead at Gaerwen.
Amlwch was once the second largest town in Wales, with a port and a mine at Parys mountain. When the railway opened, the copper and minerals mined there were transported off the island by rail, instead of by sea. However, after nearly 200 years, the line was closed to passengers as part of the Beeching cuts in 1964. It continued to service the needs of the Octel bromine plant in Amlwch until 1993, at which point it was closed, and it has since lain unused. Some parts of the line are largely intact today, and one can still find old stations next to the track. In other places, the track has been removed or is very overgrown.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on the line: a company called Anglesey Central Railway Ltd wants to revert the line to a railway and was awarded the lease to the line by Network Rail in April 2021, and a group called Lôn Las Môn wants to turn the line into a multi-use path for active travel. I believe that the line is a huge community asset that is currently untapped, and it should be put to a use that the community supports, be it rail or an active travel path.
To try to provide some clarity on the matter, in March 2021 I and Transport for Wales supported a bid to the restoring your railway ideas fund in the third and final round of funding. We were successful; ours was the only bid from Wales to receive funding in all three rounds. Transport for Wales was awarded £50,000, which was matched by an additional £50,000 from the Welsh Government, to produce a feasibility study on the future use of the line. The results of the study have now been submitted to the Department for Transport and are under consideration. The study found that re-establishing the line would cost £144 million for heavy rail or £93 million for light rail. An active travel path would clearly be deliverable at a lower cost.
Anglesey Central Railway has a team of volunteers progressing physical works and vegetation clearance. It is working towards the key milestone of a Transport and Works Act order—a TWAO—with a deadline of April 2023 set in its lease. It is likely that the deadline will be extended, particularly given the challenges and impact of the pandemic on its work. However, the anticipated costs of rail are significant, particularly in the context of the £500 million announced in 2020 for the restoring your railway fund.
Time will tell whether the Department for Transport considers that the project ticks the restoring your railway boxes of levelling up, reconnecting communities, providing socioeconomic and transport benefits, and being deliverable. The Minister has informed me that his decision will be made by the end of spring. My constituents are keen to know, and I am regularly contacted for updates. I reiterate my invitation to the Minister to visit Ynys Môn —if he brings his wellies, I can show him the disused line.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my fellow Devon MP and hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on bringing forward this important debate. I always appreciate the opportunity to talk about the challenges of rural transport.
In 1964, northern Devon lost the train line between Bideford and Barnstaple, although the tracks were not lifted until 20 years later. The area now boasts the fantastic Tarka trail for walkers and cyclists. While the trail is a great resource for local communities and visitors alike, the distances across rural areas and the changeable weather mean that it is not a practical commute for all but the most hardy and fit commuters.
Over the past few years, hundreds of homes have been built between Bideford and Barnstaple, with hundreds more planned. We absolutely need that housing, but it puts pressure on our infrastructure. In rural North Devon, our transport infrastructure is limited; for the 10-mile route between Bideford and Barnstaple, it essentially consists of the B3233 through Fremington or the single-carriageway A39. Without traffic, the journey should take 15 to 20 minutes by car or 29 minutes on the bus, but commuter traffic often pushes those times up to well over an hour, causing much frustration and clogging the roads on a daily basis. Bringing back a train connection between Bideford and Barnstaple would do much to prevent that congestion, and it would give communities affordable and environmentally friendly ways to reach Barnstaple and further afield by connecting the route all the way to Exeter.
I am fortunate that I have an active group that has put a significant amount of work into the possible rail line. Part of the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, the Tarka Rail Association is one of the longest-established community rail partnerships in the country. Since its formation in 1977, it has championed the interests of users of the Tarka line, its 12 stations and their communities between Exeter and Barnstaple. In 2021, the association formally adopted the ACE Rail campaign, named after the Atlantic Coast Express, which until 1964 came from London Waterloo to serve Barnstaple, with an onward portion to Bideford in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox).
ACE Rail now stands for the Atlantic Coast to Exeter railway, and the campaign seeks a transformational rail service linking northern Devon with the county capital by doubling the service frequency from hourly to half-hourly and increasing the speed of journeys to compete with cars, with an additional limited-stop express service connecting Exeter Central with Barnstaple in 50 minutes rather than the present 75 minutes. The difference that the development of the line would bring cannot be understated. While it would obviously lessen congestion, it would go further by connecting the area with opportunities that are currently out of reach. We already know that limited transport options limit rural productivity. If we support rural productivity and improve connections to these areas, we could add an estimated £43 billion to our economy.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking, I am keen that as many people as possible have access to spaces where they feel confident to travel actively. Due to the narrow nature of a few pinch points on the route, it would not be possible to maintain the Tarka trail as it is and to develop a new rail line. I am keen that, instead of sticking to the historical, mainly coastal route, we look at a different line that more directly links Barnstaple to Bideford.
Having previously submitted a bid for Combe Rail, which would have connected Barnstaple to Braunton—sadly, that bid did not move forward—I know that there is huge support in North Devon for expanding our rail network. That previous bid lacked a viable connection to the main Barnstaple station, but the Bideford connection would directly join the two largest towns in northern Devon and go on to Exeter. We need to find ways to ensure that rural Britain’s connectivity does not lag even further behind our more urban constituencies.
I hope that the Department considers reopening the restoring your railway fund to new bids. My North Devon constituency would benefit considerably from the route I mentioned. I hope that the Minister takes that ask seriously—he is also very welcome in North Devon, and I would always bring wellies—so that my community can reduce its reliance on cars and take advantage of the many benefits that the train line could bring.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship again, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate on the restoring your railway fund via the Backbench Business Committee. I commend all the hon. Members who have spoken so passionately on behalf of their constituents about exactly why their areas deserve funding for railway lines and how that would help to boost local economies and reinvigorate local communities.
The restoring your railway scheme has noble aims of connecting long-neglected towns and villages to the railways and investing in local infrastructure. Indeed, successful bids can deliver real opportunities for locals. However, the scheme’s execution, just like that of the so-called levelling-up funding across our nation, has been a competitive, chaotic and careless mess. Sadly, the reality of the scheme is that it barely scratches the surface. I commend the principle of expanding our network, but the fund fails to tackle the major issues that affect UK rail. It lacks vision, coherence and a long-term plan. The restoring your railway fund seems to be an apt metaphor for this Conservative Government.
The reality facing passengers is that train services are later, less frequent and more expensive than ever. Piecemeal extensions of lines and renovations of stations provide a select few with improved services, but without a comprehensive transport plan or vision, I fear that the projects will not reach their full potential. The Government are failing to deliver even this paltry offering. When £500 million was allocated to the scheme in January 2020, the then Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), stated that delivering it would ensure that, after the Beeching cuts,
“more than half a century of isolation is undone.”
However, just last week, the current rail Minister told the Transport Committee that we should manage our expectations, and noted that it is unlikely that the Government will be able to deliver most of the funding bids. Will the Minister clarify which schemes are at risk? The scheme looks like another perfect example of this Conservative Government over-promising and under-delivering.
Instead of slapdash spending and flashy competitions, our railways need a proper long-term strategy and leadership. We need proper investment. The Government’s strategy is equivalent to keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best. Perhaps that is their calling card, given their shambolic handling of the recent rail strikes. The future of our transport is too important to leave to chance. Under this Government, there is little comprehensive strategy. They have demonstrated that clearly with Great British Railways. Since its launch, we have been told that GBR will revitalise our railways, improve our services and advance our infrastructure, but what do we hear from the Government today? Absolutely nothing. After all this time, we have not even heard where the organisation might be based, and Ministers have admitted that there is no prospect of any GBR legislation in the transport Bill in this parliamentary Session.
What about HS2? What happened to the more than 60 promises made by Ministers on the delivery of the eastern leg? HS2 will not be delivered in full. What about delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail in full? How about an annual rolling programme of electrification of our railway lines? And where is the annual rail network enhancements pipeline?
To make matters worse, after 13 years of cuts, cuts, cuts, we are being promised even more cuts. Network Rail is being forced to make £4 billion of efficiencies in the next few years, and it has been reported that train operating companies expect to cut their budgets by over 10%. It does not take an industry expert to know what that will mean: fewer services, further increases in fares, and job cuts.
Our railways provide a unique opportunity to connect our nations and regions. With the right investment and vision, we can unleash the economic potential of our great towns and cities. I am sure that is a sentiment the new Rail Minister agrees with, so perhaps he could enlighten us about his long-term vision for tackling regional disparities across our railways and about whether he, unlike his predecessor, hopes to offer more than just short-sighted contests and managed decline.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate on the restoring your railway fund. Like me, he has a passionate interest in the future of our railways, and I pay tribute to him as my predecessor.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members will know that the £500 million restoring your railway fund was announced in January 2020, with the aim of delivering on our manifesto commitment of levelling up and beginning a process of reopening lines and stations in England and Wales that had previously been closed. This investment is being used to explore and deliver on how we reconnect communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education opportunities.
We have already seen that in action, as many hon. Members have mentioned—not least those who represent Devon. I was delighted to travel to Devon last November to help celebrate the first anniversary of the restoration of the Dartmoor line between Exeter and Okehampton. That was the very first reopening under the restoring your railway manifesto commitment. It was delivered on time and on budget, and I am pleased to say that the restored service has been hugely popular. Over 250,000 new journeys have been recorded on the Dartmoor line in its first year. I was heartened to meet members of the local community and to hear how the reinstated line has improved their lives and is boosting local businesses, college numbers and tourism.
Another restoring your railway scheme, which I plan to visit in the next month or so, is the Northumberland line. It received £34 million of funding in January 2021, which has enabled track to be upgraded for passenger services. Once open, the Northumberland line will reintroduce direct passenger trains between south-east Northumberland and the centre of Newcastle, improving access to jobs, leisure and learning, with services likely to start in 2024. The area has been identified as being in the top 10% of most deprived areas nationally, and it has the lowest rates of regional car ownership, with poor public transport options into Newcastle.
I thank the Minister for giving way. On the point about levelling up communities, will he ensure that projects such as Meir station, which has so much potential to level up communities, are considered favourably and that that ability to level up areas is considered in the assessment process, to ensure that levelling-up factors determine which projects get the go-ahead and move forward to full development?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point and for his work on the Transport Committee. I will indeed look at the issue in that regard. It is important that the business case has a good cost-benefit ratio, but it is not just the direct return on money that matters; following the reform of the Green Book rules, one also needs to consider—this is great news—what projects do for regeneration and decarbonisation, and these projects deliver on both fronts.
As hon. Members will appreciate, the restoring your railway fund is heavily over-subscribed. My Department received nearly 200 bids—200 excellent bids—to the ideas fund element of the programme alone. We also reviewed proposals whose business cases were already in their advanced stages, such as the Northumberland line and the Bristol to Portishead line, along with existing proposals to introduce a number of new stations under the new stations fund element.
On the points raised by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), I gently remind him that eight schemes under the restoring your railway fund are being delivered; 13 are progressing past the strategic outline business case towards their full business case; and 23 projects have been taken through the ideas fund stage. So I did not recognise the part of his speech where he said that not much appeared to have been delivered. And one of my hon. Friends said, the beauty of this fund is that one gains the buy-in of the local community, local Members of Parliament lead things, and schemes are decided from the grassroots up, not from the top down, which I dare say would be more the line of thinking of the hon. Member for Slough.
I will not give way, because I have quite a lot to go through.
I appreciate that many hon. Members—particularly those who have sponsored individual proposals—will have received disappointing news along the way about their schemes not progressing under the restoring your railway programme, although hopefully with constructive and detailed feedback. I hope that the process has been helpful in allowing promoters of projects all over the country to develop their cases.
The hon. Member for Slough also mentioned my contribution to last week’s Transport Committee, which I was very pleased to attend. As I mentioned, we need to be mindful of the fact that it will not be possible for all schemes in the restoring your railway portfolio to progress to the next stage of development. The fact is that we do not have a limitless budget; indeed, although schemes may show promise at an early stage of their business case, some may not be able to cover their operational costs in the long term, and we should not add greater cost to the railways, given how stretched the finances are. When one looks at the schemes that are already being delivered or that are moving to the full business case, one gets quickly to £500 million halfway down the list, so I do want to manage expectations. At the same time, however, that demonstrates that we are getting on with things and spending the fund’s money. We should also be mindful of the wider context of the rail portfolio, where all projects face increasing costs for a variety of reasons, particularly inflation.
Hon. Members should know that I have asked my officials to carry out a review of all the schemes in the restoring your railway portfolio to prioritise the most viable projects for the next stage. That is particularly important in the light of the remaining budget we have available, so that we deliver the most we can under the challenging financial constraints we all have to live with. I emphasise that the process will be driven by data, expertise and careful consideration—that goes back to the third point my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay made, about how we will determine matters. I also assure hon. Members waiting to hear back about bids made to the second and third rounds of the ideas fund element of restoring your railway that those bids are being fully and fairly considered as part of the overall review process.
I want now to respond to the excellent points, cases and pitches that have been made this morning. First, with regard to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), the Ferryhill project received further funding in June 2022. Sedgefield station is a possible additional stop between Ferryhill and Middlesbrough, and it is under consideration.
I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for his kind words. As he noted, the Wellington and Cullompton project is progressing to a full business case, and a decision will be made once that has been finalised.
In her brilliant speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) made a pitch for Stourbridge and Round Oak, and it is hard—wellies or no wellies—to resist the points that she made. I know that the bid was not successful in the first ideas round stage, and I hope there has been feedback about what more can be done. I am happy to meet her to go through matters, and I really note—as should her constituents—the passionate pitch she has made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) referred to the Stonehouse Bristol Road station. The Department is reviewing strategic outline business case, and we will get back to her.
As ever, brilliant speeches were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), who made a great pitch for the Stoke-Leek line. That is an ideas fund 3 project, and the strategic outline business case is being reviewed by the Department. I know that my hon. Friends will keep on at me in that regard, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South should be assured that Meir station has been funded to full business case. That was announced in June 2022.
The Leamside project is championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson); it is also being talked about outside this place, and I was delighted to meet Members from across the north-east yesterday in that regard. My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the Darlington to Weardale project. That is also in ideas fund 3. We are reviewing the strategic outline business case, and I thank him for the passionate points he made to champion the project.
Every time there is a rail debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) is here making the case for her constituents. Despite the spelling of my first name, I will not try to pronounce the names of the projects, but I will tell her, more importantly, that the strategic outline business case, having gone through ideas fund 3, is being reviewed. I am already on my way to see her with regard to other projects, and I am sure I will bring the wellies and we will tramp through. To continue the welly references, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) is a real champion for transport and Combe rail. I know it was unsuccessful in the ideas fund, but I want to talk with her to find out what more we can do.
I want to respond to two other points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. On what happens when local stakeholders do not support a bid, the beauty of these applications is that we want people to be able to crack on at pace. Obviously, it is challenging when one part of the stakeholder community is not willing to support a bid. That applies in particular if a planning authority is involved. I note the points made by my hon. Friend, who comes up with some brilliant ideas and suggestions. I hope his council will think again and join the local stakeholder community in supporting his bid.
My hon. Friend also asked me to recommit to the fund. I recommit to that fund; it is a brilliant scheme that allows MPs and community members to get involved and get back the railways they lost many years ago. I want to finish by congratulating him again—
I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind. I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, and I hope I have assured him and other hon. Members that we are taking a rigorous approach to assessing the projects. In terms of those being taken forward, I want to ensure that the projects that will deliver the greatest benefit for the community succeed.
This has been a welcome debate, although I do not think I should take the 22 minutes that are still available for what is supposed to be a short winding-up speech. I am particularly grateful for the Minister’s replies about the Government’s continuing commitment to the scheme overall and to the budget, particularly given some recent press speculation.
The railways seem to be in a different position today, compared with what we saw in the past. Given some of the comments made during the debate, I am sure the Minister has, like me, been reflecting on the fact that it is only 17 years ago that a Transport Secretary was saying that the railways
“can’t be in the business of carting fresh air around the country”.
That was widely interpreted as potentially heralding another round of Beeching-style cuts, whereby we would build a big new railway in the form of HS2 but shut down rural branch lines. It is great to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister the positivity and vision about the future of the railways, and that they really connect communities and are not just a transport scheme that sits in aspic.
I congratulate my hon. Friend again on securing the debate. Does he agree that programmes such as reopening the Penrith to Keswick line, reopening Gilsland station and extending the Borders railway through Longtown to Carlisle would feed into the west coast main line? Should not the Government take the two-pronged approach of restoring those links and holding Avanti West Coast to account for the unacceptable service on the west coast main line?
I am conscious that I could probably start a whole new debate by getting on to the subject of Avanti trains and their performance. However, I agree that the line brings a sense of Union connectivity; communities in the borders areas do not operate on the basis of the political dividing line between England and Scotland, but very much work together. Reopening the railway line my hon. Friend mentioned would be a great sign of that, and I know that he will continue to be a major champion of it.
We should reflect on the fact that there is the potential for a renaissance in our railways. It would have been easy today to focus on current disputes and not to look at the great future we have. We are seeing major investment and large-scale electrification on our rail network for the first time in decades. People can again look forward to a railway being part of their future, and not just something that their grandad or grandmother tells them about using in the past.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Restoring Your Railway Fund.