Many peoplenot just in Pendle but across the region, and in North Yorkshire next doorsee the advantages in having this railway reopened. Getting a railway reopened, however, is a bit like pushing a boulder uphill. It is a never-ending task. The Countryside Agency produced a rail reopening toolkit in October last year, which claims to be a complete guide to the process of reopening a disused railway. It urges those who want a railway reopened to be rational and not fanatical. I will attempt to be rational this afternoon.
The Colne to Skipton railway opened in the autumn of 1848 and closed in January 1970. It is an 11.5 mile stretch running through very attractive countryside. There was a spur, which closed in 1965, from Kelbrook to Barnoldswickthe town where I livebut the link from Colne to Skipton is the key. After 30 years the track bed is still in good condition and if the link were reinstated it would open up east Lancashire to the prosperous market town of Skipton, over the border in North Yorkshire, and to the major commercial centres of Leeds, Bradford and other conurbations in Yorkshire. At the moment a train journey from Preston, on the west coast main line, to Skipton is a nightmare. It involves changing trainssometimes twiceover a convoluted, dog-legged route with a travel time of at least two hours, and often considerably more.
Restoring the link, and I hope electrifying it in future, would open up a whole range of possibilities. A link to Skipton would give people from east Lancashire access to the SettleCarlisle line and would in due course allow trains from east Lancashire to run into the national park almost to Grassington, the capital of lower Wharfedale, with its stunning countryside. That countryside is just sitting there, out of bounds to so many people in my constituency who do not have cars and who cannot get up there.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that with ageing populations in the whole of east Lancashire, many people would be able to access not just east Lancashire but parts of the much wider area to which he refers? People in our patches are quite rightly both rational and fanatical about reopening this line.
Mr. Prentice : Indeed, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency is adjacent to mine. The ClitheroeBlackburn line is a great success, with many people using it. There is a line from Skipton up almost to Threshfield, a couple of miles away from Grassington. It stops at the Tilcon quarry, but it is perfectly possible for that line to be opened up to passenger traffic in due course. That is what the Yorkshire Dales national park authority wants. We want to get people out of the conurbations for their leisure and recreation, into the glorious countryside of the national park.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point,
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although an enormous amount of heavy investment in signalling would have to be done to expand the capacity of that line. Railtrack would have to give it slightly higher priority than it does at the moment. Does he not agree that his constituency and mine have been unified economically for a long time? The textile industry embraced both the Yorkshire and Lancashire side of the chain and the Aire valley is, in many ways, the backbone of that industry. The lines of communication and the demand for commuting down that valley would serve the eastern part of Lancashire and my constituency in Yorkshire.
There are proposals to build a roadthe so-called A56 village bypassalong the line of the old track bed. That has been on the cards for years and has been championed vocally by the local Liberal Democrats. However, we cannot endlessly construct roads and build our way out of congestion by urbanising tranquil rural and semi-rural areas. Roads bring pollution and noise and are not always the answer.
At this point, let me introduce SELRAPthe Skipton-East Lancashire Rail Action Partnershipa campaign group formed just a few years ago in 2001 to work for the reinstatement of the railway. It has, through its Herculean efforts, had a huge influence on shaping public opinion. I pay tribute to a number of people involved in that campaign, including Steve Broadbent, Andy Shackleton, David Magnall, Steve Arnold and many others who work tirelessly night and day to build an ever-growing coalition of support.
My colleagues here todaythe right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)are patrons of SELRAP, as am I. My Conservative opponent at the next general election, Jane Ellison, enthusiastically supports SELRAP and has spoken publicly about the benefits of bringing back the railway. That is good. Members of the European Parliament, Diana Wallis and Chris Davies, have spoken in support, as has Virgin Rail. One of the major employers in Skipton and Riponthe Skipton building societyhas been vocal in its support.
Brian Simpson, the director of the north-west rail campaign, was in touch with me earlier today. That campaign represents the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive, Merseytravel, Greater Manchester chamber of commerce, Manchester airport and lots of local authorities, so it is a heavyweight organisation. He said:
North Yorkshire county council is fully signed up. Craven district council in North Yorkshireadjacent to my Pendle constituencywants the railway back and Lancashire county council has moved its position over recent years and has, through its structure plan, kept the railway option alive. People on the ground, including Kelbrook and Sough parish council, support the idea, and when SELRAP canvassed public opinion in the area last year, 87 per cent. of local people who responded said that they were likely or very likely to use a reinstated railway.
So what is the problem? The only fly in the ointment is the local Liberal Democrats who run Pendle borough council. Under pressure, they agreed that the track bed should be protected, but they show no enthusiasm for the project to bring back the railway, which is tragic. The leader of Pendle borough council, Alan Davies, said last year that the campaign to reinstate the line was a "pipe dream". He stated:
The Liberal Democrats exasperate me. They are like a franchise operationthey use a national logo, but on local policies they pick and mix. Nationally, the party would not recognise what Liberal Democrats say locally, as they resist bringing back the railway. Councillor Tony Greaves, Alan Davies's colleague and now also a member of the House of Lords, described the bid to bring back the railway as a "non-starter". Only a few weeks ago he told my local paper, the Colne Times:
The situation is changing even as I speak. The Railways Bill is before Parliament, the Strategic Rail Authority is being wound up and the responsibility for the shape of the network is to fall on central Government.
I was interested in what the Minister said yesterday in the debate on community railways. We need to involve and empower local communities, to help them get the rail services that they need. I reflected on the issue after listening to the debate and, with the new proposals emerging, I wonder whether there is an opportunity to reinstate dismantled railway lines as part of the community rail programme, from build right through to operation.
Why should the railway be reinstated? Some 20,000 people in Barnoldswick, Earby, Sough and Kelbrook do not have direct access to the rail network. I am not talking about a backwoods part of the country. There are major employers in the area, such as Silentnight Beds, Rolls-Roycethe fan blades for a lot of aeroplane engines are manufactured thereand Country Holidays. That is one reason why I want the railway to be brought back. Doing so would open up a new trans-
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Pennine corridor with North Yorkshire and Yorkshire beyond, and give people direct access to commercial and recreational opportunities. People who live in Yorkshire could sample and enjoy the recreational opportunities of Lancashire and the north-west and, as I said earlier, the Yorkshire dales would be opened up to the people in east Lancashire. Bringing back the railway would also reduce traffic in the national park more generally, which is surely a public policy objective that we can all agree with.
What about the feasibility of the reinstatement? As I said, the track is in good condition. The British Rail Property Board owns a section of track from Colne to Foulridge, which is about 2 miles long. Craven district council in North Yorkshire has a policy of protecting the 5-mile stretch from the Lancashire border to Skipton. Much of the track bed is in private ownership, but it is in good condition. The remaining 4-mile stretch is owned by Lancashire county council. It originally proposed using the track bed for a new bypass, in the deposit edition of the joint Lancashire structure plan, but the public opinion that I mentioned earlier forced a rethink. The original proposals were modified to allow other options, such as reinstatement of the railway.
Bringing back the railway is technically possible. North Yorkshire and Lancashire county councils commissioned the consultants Steer Davies Gleave to report on it, and in August 2003 it published its findings on the strategic value of the route for the development of trans-Pennine passenger and freight services. It concluded that the track bed is in good condition and largely intact, although it has been severed in two places, and bridges would be needed, one of them over the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The work would come with a price tag, but the consultants, who are skilled in such costings, estimate that it would be possible to reinstate the railway for £33 million. Such figures do not scare usthat is less than the cost of a single Eurofighter Typhoon. In 2003, Lancashire county council estimated the cost of building the new bypassover which the Liberal Democrats salivateas £37 million. So, it would be cheaper to reinstate the railway than to build the bypass.
What do we conclude from all that? There is a huge coalition of support for the reinstatement of the railway; the cost of bringing it back would be relatively modest; it would open up new economic and recreational opportunities for people on both sides of the regional border; it would lead in due course to the electrification of the railway from Preston to Skipton; and it would be a major driver in the regeneration of east Lancashire, where there are so many socially excluded people. That is the vision that I share with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon and the hon. Member for Ribble Valleyif I dare speak for themand with the thousands of people who support SELRAP. It is not a pipe dream, and I very much hope that it has the Minister's support.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on having secured the debate. He has conjured up a wonderful image of the opportunities that would be on offer as a
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result of opening the Colne to Skipton railway line, and I know that he has campaigned long and hard, alongside SELRAP, to bring his vision about.
My hon. Friend will be aware that our general approach to local and rural railways is to work towards putting them on a sustainable basis for the long term, so that they can continue to offer vital services for passengers and freight and to contribute to the local economy, as well as meeting Government targets on accessibility, the environment and, as he said, social inclusion. The general aim is to make better use of the subsidy already going into the railways, rather than providingat this stageadditional grants for development. To that end, the Strategic Rail Authority published the community rail development strategy in November 2004. Sadly, at present, re-openings fall outside the scope of the strategy. Even extensions that represent value for money in economic terms invariably require additional subsidy, which is currently unaffordable.
The existing railways at Colne and Skipton provide local and longer-distance services. The service from Colne is one train an hour to Blackpool via Blackburn and Preston. I understand that the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, with the support of Lancashire county council, is actively developing a partnership for the line between Colne and Blackburn, which it expects to establish by the middle of the year. It will work with the train operator, Northern, and with Network Rail, local authorities, community organisations, businesses, development and tourism agencies and other locally-based bodies to promote the line.
From Skipton, there are regular stopping services to Leeds and Bradford, generally two trains to each destination every hour during the day, and it is served additionally by trains running between Morecambe and Leeds, and Carlisle and Leeds. It is, of course, part of the well known and well loved Settle to Carlisle route. Lancashire county council has received the Steer Davies Gleave report on the future of the railway formation around Skipton and Colne to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred.
"In the short to medium term it appears difficult to make a case for route reinstatement to serve longer distance strategic passenger movements. However, in the longer term there may be potential, particularly if the funding environment returns to one more conducive to investment in rail capital projects. If the route were reinstated to serve longer distance movements it would offer an opportunity to serve areas within the corridor both by stopping express services and local services;
A double-track reinstatement would provide the greatest amount of operational flexibility which is potentially important for longer-distance passenger services that might have to be pathed through constrained areas elsewhere. The Villages Bypass scheme as proposed would effectively restrict the railway to a single-track reopening on the current alignment which might compromise the benefits to strategic passenger services . . . The most cost effective way of maintaining the rail alignment is for the Villages Bypass to adopt an alternative route from that proposed at present".
The report also stated that the forecast of local passenger flows was not sufficient to make a case for the railway in its own right, as the cost of installing track alone was £33 million. It may appear to be a drop in the ocean to my hon. Friend, but it is still a significant amount of money.
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The Strategic Rail Authority set out its plans for the railways in its strategic plan of January 2003. The plan makes no reference to reopening the line within the 10-year transport plan period, and it remains the position that there are no plans to do so.
The longer-term planning of the networkthat is, over the next five to 20 yearswill be determined by a series of regional planning assessments that the SRA is conducting to cover each English planning region. RPAs consider the function of the railway within current and future land use transport systems and its role in supporting the economic and wider development objectives of local, regional, devolved and central governments. Colne to Skipton falls within two RPA areas. Work on the north-west RPA is in progress, and the SRA expects to publish the conclusions in the spring. The Yorkshire and Humberside RPA is due to commence in the spring.
The SRA has taken the view that it would be prudent to safeguard the Colne to Skipton transport corridor for transport use until such time as the relevant RPA studies have been undertaken, as they will be of key significance in assessing the case for reopening the route for rail. It is a shame that the local Liberal Democrats do not share my hon. Friend's vision.
Since May 2003, the Lancashire structure plan has safeguarded the Colne to Skipton rail route for transport use, and the A56 villages bypass has become the third priority in the programme of major road schemes. The pre-adoption version of the Lancashire structure plan states:
"The value of the former Colne-Skipton railway line includes possible long term potential for rail reinstatement as well as being the current preferred route for the A56 Village Bypasses. It is, therefore, important that this corridor is safeguarded for transport purposes. Before a final decision is made on the most appropriate road alignment further analysis of options will be undertaken ensuring that the potential of rail re instatement is not precluded."
There are no plans to reinstate the railway between Colne and Skipton, but the route is safeguarded for transport use. I am sure that the enthusiasm and the campaigning zeal of my hon. Friend will carry his vision forward.