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South Fylde Line

Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2023

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

Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a great pleasure to be holding this debate with a fellow Lancashire Member of Parliament in the Chair. In fact, we have gone from one transport debate to another, albeit with a rather large gap in between. As a Lancashire MP yourself, you are more than well aware of the issues on our county’s rail network and of the need for modernisation of the infrastructure and rolling stock. Indeed, you have fought diligently on behalf of your constituents for exactly the improvements that I am fighting for for mine.

Today, I am pleased to be able to raise the subject of the South Fylde line. It is raised repeatedly not only on the doorsteps, but at local events and in written correspondence. Just standing on the platform at Preston station, people come up to me and say, “We need to do better than this.”

Throughout my time as Member of Parliament, I have fought to improve services. In this, we have seen progress. The dilapidated Pacer trains, which used to deposit waste directly on to the tracks, are thankfully a thing of the past. In 2018, I was delighted to reopen the modernised Kirkham and Wesham station following the installation of a new platform and two lifts serving it, providing, at long last, a station that was accessible to all.

I thank my really good friend for allowing me to intervene. May I say that I am delighted to hear that news? I last went to that station in July 1969 when I was going to the nearby Weeton camp. I have to say that it was showing slight age then, and so, some 50 years later, I am really glad that it has been modernised.

Colonel Bob, not only has it been modernised, but I still speak to constituents who remember you passing through in 1969. Once my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath—

Sorry. Once my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has passed through, he is never forgotten.

The holy grail remains, however, the doubling of services on the line through the installation of a passing loop, and I am concerned that efforts in that area have, frankly, stalled. In June 2020, I submitted a full restoring your railway bid to double train services on the South Fylde line. The bid was one of 50 submitted, with the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, selecting it to be taken forward with Government funding to help to put together a strategic outline business case.

The SOBC was submitted in November 2021, and since then there has been no further progress or communication from the Department. My fellow bid partners and I feel slightly abandoned, with even the formal email address of restoring your railway now closed. My purpose today is therefore to seek assurances that the project continues to have the Government’s backing. The years of hard work that went into reaching that stage must not be allowed to fall by the wayside. Earlier this year, I launched the campaign to get the South Fylde line back on track.

I will give some context to where we find ourselves today. First opened in the 1840s, a little over a decade on from Stephenson’s Rocket, the history of the South Fylde line parallels the story of Victorian Britain and our railways more generally. Major expansion came in the latter decades of the 1800s, with new stations opening to serve the booming Victorian holiday industry. That was growing in Fylde, not just in the beach resorts and the residential communities that sprung up alongside them. They provided vital links for those commuting to Liverpool, Greater Manchester and the great mill towns of east Lancashire, where industry was booming.

The post-war era saw our railways enter a period of decline, with the rise of cars and dwindling passenger numbers, and of course Dr Beeching’s cuts would soon follow. Despite that, the South Fylde line survived as a two-track line until the 1980s, when the axe finally fell and the line was reduced to a single track capable of serving one train an hour in each direction. Recent years have seen something of a consensus reached around Beeching and the period of his cutbacks, and the closures that started with his report: they were a mistake. To echo the Prime Minister’s recent words, they were an example of an “old consensus” that favoured cars over public transport.

As the Minister knows from our correspondence on the topic, the South Fylde line falls far short of what is satisfactory, and is even further from being a good service. Reliability is a major issue, with one delay having an impact on services for the rest of the day, and a single track is neither the only issue nor the sole reason for the reliability issues. Be it staff sickness, driver shortages, faulty trains or signalling issues, Fylde’s commuters have heard it all. On a weekday evening, rail replacement services have become an increasingly common occurrence, turning a 20-minute train journey from Lytham to Preston into one lasting almost an hour.

In addition, Northern cut the frequency of weekend services in August, the peak of the summer tourist season, for reasons that remain unclear to me. Recent data from On Time Trains listed St Annes-on-the-Sea as the 2,204th ranked station for reliability, with all stations located beyond the line’s division at Kirkham and Wesham ranking similarly. Remarkably, that is an improvement from August, when the station fell outside the top 2,500, out of just 2,617 open railway stations across the UK. That is miserable reading for Fylde’s commuters and the many people who choose Fylde as a holiday destination. The train, I am afraid, is an unreliable option for them.

My hon. Friend is articulating very well the problems on the line regarding punctuality, which we have seen for far too long. Of course, our aspiration for the South Fylde line is not just to improve punctuality but to double the number of trains that run on the line every hour. In both our constituencies, that would be of huge benefit to local tourism businesses in terms of creating jobs, inward investment and growth in our local economy. We both worked so hard to get the feasibility funding that was delivered now over three years ago. Would he urge our brilliant rail Minister to do everything that he can to try to look at creative solutions around the capacity issues at Preston, so that we can finally take the project forward and both our constituencies can benefit?

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Blackpool South gets huge numbers of visitors. Blackpool pleasure beach has its own train station, yet people choose not to take the train to one of the biggest visitor attractions in the UK; they come by other means. It is absolutely ludicrous. It is a real privilege to be able to welcome my hon. Friend, as he rows in behind my ongoing campaign for the South Fylde line. It is great when colleagues are working together for the same cause; it adds huge value.

As the SOBC pointed out, the rankings are based only on services that are formally recorded as cancelled. Services turned around before reaching the end of the line are not included, yet at Blackpool South, between March 2019 and March 2020, this occurred 173 times—the equivalent of 9.5 days-worth of services that did not complete the route. The problem has not gone away. For the stations not served, these are effectively cancellations, yet they do not appear in the statistics as such. Official figures are therefore significantly understating the problem.

HS2 may no longer be coming to Preston, but links across Lancashire and to nearby cities such as Liverpool and Manchester remain important. In addition, the west coast main line continues to offer frequent and relatively fast routes to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham and London. The cost of those trains is such that most people reserve seats on specific trains to have the certainty they need about their arrival time, which they simply do not have on a South Fylde line service.

The line travels through the heart of my constituency and we are deeply proud of it. We have several active friends groups, who work tirelessly to improve stations such as Lytham, St Anne’s-on-the-Sea and Squires Gate. I want to see more people on the trains, so that they can see and appreciate the work of the friends groups. One need only read local author Steve Garrill’s “Walks From The South Fylde Line”, or Community Rail Lancashire’s “Discover the South Fylde Line” to discover the trove of activities, be they leisure, cultural or entertainment, within reach of the line. Whether relaxing on St Annes beach and walking over the sand dunes, taking in the estuary views from Lytham Green, or testing your golfing skills at the world-class Royal Lytham, coastal Fylde has so much to offer and is a magnet for day-trippers and holidaymakers alike. Beyond Lytham St Annes is Blackpool pleasure beach, one of the country’s biggest visitor attractions. We also have a thriving night-time economy. All these activities are served by the unreliable and infrequent service on the South Fylde line.

As well as its fantastic hospitality and tourism offering, Fylde is a vibrant economic hub, and the rail line that serves it is vital for countless people commuting into or around Fylde and on to destinations beyond. A short walk from Salwick station, we have Springfields, for 75 years the home of British nuclear fuel manufacturing and a site that is primed to grow with the industry’s expansion in the drive for net zero. This season, AFC Fylde has returned to the National league—the fifth tier of English football—swelling crowds. Indeed, one of my London-based researchers told me about his experience of leaving a mid-week match at the start of injury time in the hope of catching the 9.30 pm train, missing the train by mere seconds, and instead having an hour’s wait on the platform for the next one. Similarly, supporters of nearby Blackpool and Preston North End will have had frustrating experiences getting to and from matches, despite the clubs’ stadiums lying a short distance from the South Fylde line.

I know from my time on the Transport Committee that my hon. Friend the Minister is passionate and has fought to ensure that his corner of East Sussex is served by a service that meets the needs of his constituents. I am privileged to have responding to this debate a Minister who understands the issues. When we served together on that Committee, he was never frightened of challenging the industry and holding it to account, and shining a light on shoddy, inadequate services. He does that for his constituents; I am doing it for mine.

Let us consider a comparison between Bexhill in the south-east of England, and Fylde, Lancashire. Bexhill has hourly trains to both London and Brighton, doubling to two in each direction during peak hours, with several additional trains to Eastbourne, Hastings and Ashford International. Battle sees twice-hourly services to London and Hastings, with an additional London train service running during peak times. Even Robertsbridge in my hon. Friend the Minister’s constituency—a village that, with a population of just over 2,000, is comparable to Wrea Green in my constituency—is connected to both London and Hastings by two trains an hour in each direction during peak times, with just 1% of services cancelled. That is the kind of connectivity that the Minister enjoys—he has fought for it—but the kind of which Fylde constituents can only dream. I am sure that he shares my resolve to put that right.

In response to the recent reliability issues that I mentioned, I ran a survey of my constituents to seek feedback on that topic. I will share a couple of examples that are representative of wider feedback and illustrate my point. These are the comments of a constituent:

“I’d love to be able to travel from Ansdell to my office in Liverpool but, with one train an hour meaning often poor connections—and then that one train being prone to cancellations, it’s rare that I feel I can risk it, so end up driving to Preston, which is longer and parking more expensive.”

That does nothing to help our carbon footprint.

Another said:

“If the trains were reliable then I would use them but, after having to find contingency plans at the last moment on too many occasions I no longer put myself through the stress of using them. Unfortunately, I often have to drive to Preston to rescue stranded family members when trains are cancelled with no reason! The train timetable we have at the moment fails to connect with the train timetables going North and South. If I am going to London I have to spend almost an hour waiting on a very cold and miserable platform and the same happens when I return. Likewise when travelling to Lancaster and further north. Why would I do it? I would park my car at Preston station and drive.”

That is just madness. It all comes at an environmental and financial cost, not to mention that it increases traffic on our roads at busy times. The inefficiency of having to drive to the mainline station at Preston, a dozen or so miles away, will not be lost on my hon. Friend the Minister. Passenger numbers are relatively low, which I contend is a direct result of the infrequency and unreliability of the trains, and has, I believe, led to under-investment in the line—a vicious circle that we must now break. If levelling up is to be more than a slogan, people in Fylde should not have to continue putting up with such abject service.

Let us look to the future and possible solutions. To refer back to the Prime Minister, I wholeheartedly agree with his statement that:

“What we really need is better transport connections in the north.”

The cap on bus fares is fantastic, and I am grateful to the Government for their investment in Fylde’s roads. The new Preston west distributor road—the Edith Rigby Way—has opened, along with a new junction to the M55, while the M55 link road, known as the Moss Road, and the A585 Singleton bypass, are fast approaching completion. However, as I mentioned at the start of the debate, the holy grail remains a return to twice-hourly trains on the South Fylde line. The most efficient way to achieve that is the installation of a passing loop around Ansdell, enabling trains to pass each other roughly halfway through the line’s route. We are not asking for anything extravagant—indeed, many of my constituents still remember a time when that line was dual track and services were more frequent. There was not a passing loop: the whole thing was dual track. As such, I believe that my ask on behalf of my constituents is modest, realistic and, above all, deliverable in a timely way.

The scrapping of the northern leg of HS2 in favour of investing in the road and rail connections that link our communities in the north delivers a great new chance to see this project become a reality. With £2.5 billion being allocated to local authorities to spend on projects in these areas, there is an opportunity to deliver lasting change for communities, such as delivering on the levelling up promises of recent years. As the Minister will recall, when I wrote to him this summer, one key obstacle he mentioned was the need to reserve capacity at Preston to allow certain platforms to be used for future HS2 services. That problem has now been made obsolete by the Prime Minister’s recent decision.

The previously submitted bid, which dates back to 2021, gave three options for the project, ranging from £23.9 million to £47.3 million. Those figures did not include the redevelopment of the former Royal Mail parcel platform at Preston for passenger services, which would instead have been carried out as part of HS2’s arrival, nor did they account for the inflation of the past two years, which has been particularly acute in the transport construction sector. I welcome that money, but with it being divided across the country and costs no doubt having risen, the Government may well still need to step in to support and help fund this critical project.

Rail connectivity is both our past and our future. Investment in it can help deliver economic opportunities for the future of Fylde’s hospitality, manufacturing and wider business sectors. The Government have been making that point in recent weeks, and I hope their words are followed by deeds. The passing loop is a project that we are crying out for, but it can become a reality only with the backing of both Government and local authorities. I hope that I can count on my hon. Friend the excellent Minister to help get the South Fylde line back on track. Let’s get on with it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on securing this debate on enhancements to passenger services on the South Fylde line. I really do appreciate his continued support for improving that line and the campaigns he has led on behalf of his constituents. He has been particularly kind to me, so let me reply in kind.

I served alongside my hon. Friend on the Transport Select Committee. He works incredibly hard, not just for his own constituents and their transport needs but for all constituents across this country, and I certainly appreciate that work. He now holds me to account, and he does so particularly well. I am grateful to him, and to Community Rail Lancashire and the South Fylde Line Community Rail Partnership, for all their work on the “Discover the South Fylde Line” guide. I am also grateful to the local volunteers involved in revamping the cycle shelter at St Annes-on-the-Sea station as part of its 150th anniversary back in the summer. There is more that my hon. Friend does, and I am keen to help him do more—he will know that that is genuinely meant.

I also understand the points that he makes about the reliability of the services on that line, their frequency and the ultimate knock-on effects for passengers, particularly those looking to make their connections to the west coast main line. I acknowledge that cancellations continue to be a challenge for Northern, largely due to sickness rates being higher than average, training requirements to bring more drivers into service, and aspects of Sunday working. I assure my hon. Friend and the entire House that Northern recognises that challenge and is continuing to progress its improvement plans; admittedly, though, some of these aspects will be addressed only through wider reform. My hon. Friend will be aware that, with Sunday working being voluntary on Northern, we will have to reform the railway to ensure it works in the way that its passengers insist it should work. That is currently with the trade unions, and we are looking to them to play their part so that we can deliver a service that is fit for this century.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of more frequent and reliable rail services to support his area’s visitor economy, and I hear the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) in that regard. They both make the entirely reasonable point that relatively low passenger numbers on the South Fylde line may be due in part to a lack of reliability and therefore of trust in the line’s services. It is a cycle we need to break and for which we need to find a solution.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde for sponsoring a bid to my Department’s restoring your railway programme. As he obviously knows—indeed, he referred it, but for good order I repeat it—the bid calls for the introduction of a passing loop on the South Fylde line to allow for the doubling of services from one train per hour to two trains per hour. I hear his call, and I want to assist him. He is right that we have had a particular challenge at Preston. We have discussed that, and he has bought forward solutions. I also hear him when he says that some of those issues may go away with the change to HS2, and I am particularly keen to see if we now have a solution that we can put in place. These matters will take some time, as we work out the consequences of the decision to move away from the final phases of HS2 towards Network North. However, I can tell him that I will be looking with my officials to see if we now have a solution, and if that is the case, I want to be in a position to help him. I am not yet in a position to confirm the outcome of the bid, but I will be in contact with my hon. Friend in due course, and I am very happy to meet him so that he can challenge me and officials if he disagrees with our conclusions.

My hon. Friend is completely right to highlight the comments by the Prime Minister about the need for better transport connections across the north. That is exactly why we have announced the Network North strategy, which will deliver improvements to various transport modes in the north of England, not just on rail. I know my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will have welcomed the announcement of a brand-new £2.5 billion fund to transform local transport in 14 rural counties, smaller cities and towns in every part of the north. That will cover the big city regions, but also areas outside them. Notably, it could include more trams for Blackpool.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Prime Minister’s announcement on HS2 opens up the conversation and allows us to explore possibilities for transport projects that will be locally led and the effects of which will be more locally felt. I am very keen to work with him, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South and other hon. Members on how we harness those possibilities and target improvements where they feel they are most needed. I also want to highlight that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary has agreed that Cottam Parkway station on the Preston to Blackpool line should develop its full business case under the transforming cities fund. This is another example of how this Government are delivering for the north of England.

To conclude, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde, who I believe may be about to stand up and intervene—[Interruption.] No, I got that wrong; he is just excited that I am getting him to the end, as I am sure you are, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank him for securing this debate, and for all he does to get everything his constituents need; he is assiduous in that regard. I want to assure him that I take on board the points he makes about the South Fylde line, and that my door is open to him to come and discuss the wider transport opportunities that will benefit his constituents under Network North. I also assure him that the loop and the issue at Preston will be looked at again, and I hope we will find a solution that will finally deliver for him and his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.