Orders of the Day — Rail Services (Wansbeck)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:20 pm on 27th April 1999.

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Photo of Denis Murphy Denis Murphy Labour, Wansbeck 10:20 pm, 27th April 1999

I thank the House for allowing me this debate. My constituency is served by a limited passenger rail service. The east coast main line runs from the edge of the constituency. It provides limited access, and is, therefore, little used. The purpose of my debate is to make a case for the reopening of passenger services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway to give access to a population in excess of 200,000 people.

There are strong social, powerful economic and pressing environmental arguments in favour of such a development. The railway between Ashington, Blyth and Tyneside has a long history, dating back to the earliest days of railways in the north-east. It was, not surprisingly, built with coal in mind. The developing collieries of south-east Northumberland needed to transport large volumes of coal to the staithes on the Tyne at Percy Main. Passenger services were introduced between Blyth and Newcastle in 1847, extended to North Seaton in 1859 and to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in 1872.

For about a century, passenger and freight trains ran side by side along a complex network of lines connecting Morpeth, Ashington, Bedlington, Tynemouth and Newcastle. By the 1950s, the growth in the number of cars and increasing competition from bus services resulted in the decline of passenger numbers. The service to Bedlington and Morpeth succumbed in 1950, and the remaining services were vulnerable to the attentions of the 1963 Beeching report on the future of railways.

As expected, passenger trains were recommended for withdrawal, and services on the Blyth and Tyne line ended in November 1964. I remember that date, because I travelled on the very last passenger train to run on that line.

Although passenger trains had gone, the Blyth and Tyne line continued to operate thanks to continued heavy freight flows to and from Blyth power station, Lynemouth and Ellington collieries, and North Blyth. Even main line trains could occasionally be seen, having been diverted from the east coast main line between Morpeth and Newcastle by engineering works or, occasionally, operational mishaps.

The southern end of the line saw significant changes in the late 1970s, with the conversion of the British Rail north Tyne loop as part of the Tyne and Wear metro network. Fortunately, the requirements of freight services meant that a link with the main line was retained at Benton. Ever since passenger trains were withdrawn, a body of opinion in south-east Northumberland has favoured their restoration, not only to make journeys easier in the immediate area, but to reconnect to the national rail network to counteract a perception of remoteness.

In its submission to the coalfields task force, Northumberland county council recognised that remoteness. An increasing emphasis is being placed on sustainability, encouraging development adjacent to transport corridors and the reuse of previously developed land and buildings. The problems in the coalfields may not always be as apparent as those in inner cities, but they are, in many respects, comparable in scale and intensity. They are exacerbated by peripherality, both in the region and nationally. A fragmented settlement pattern poses a whole array of additional problems in delivering effective regeneration programmes.

Rural and urban problems are interwoven throughout the area, giving it a distinctive character. The area has been described as being like an inner city that has been pulled apart, and that description is accurate.

During the 1970s and 1980s, prevailing transport policies tended to favour investment in the road network over initiatives to strengthen the railway system, and little progress could be made.

As the 1990s progressed, there was a growing realisation that unrestricted growth in the use of road vehicles, particularly private cars, would lead to problems of congestion and pollution that could be addressed partly by investment in public transport and other sustainable forms of transport. Supporters of the Blyth and Tyne line sensed that an opportunity to achieve our aims might be in the offing. In 1992, Northumberland county council, Wansbeck district council and Blyth Valley borough council pressed for the passenger train proposals to be included in the then Northern Region Councils Association proposals for rail travel. Then, as now, the case was made that train services could play an important part in supporting and strengthening the local economy, and improving the environment by providing an attractive alternative to the use of the private car.

The economy of Wansbeck is fragile. The district council recently commissioned a survey by Sheffield Hallam university into unemployment and social exclusion. The study contended that the deteriorating situation in Wansbeck, following the industrial closures of the 1980s and 1990s—and from an already low baseline—had been largely overlooked by various Departments in their assessments of local needs and the prioritisation of funding bids under the single regeneration budget regime.

There were several reasons: the relatively peripheral and northern location of the district, distant from the major conurbations of Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside; indeterminate spatial status as a coalfield area with some features in common with inner-city, rural and urban areas; deprivation in small towns, characterised by a proud but somewhat parochial and isolationist culture; an erroneous perception of Northumberland as a relatively affluent sub-region; and lack of attention to extreme disparities of wealth within and between districts.

The district is in the top 6 per cent. of local authorities in Britain for concentrated poverty, and the top 5 per cent. for concentrated unemployment, according to Warwick university. On local economic performance and future prospects, it is even further disadvantaged and lies in the bottom 2.5 per cent. of British local authorities according to the Henley centre for forecasting. The combination of depressed local economic conditions and local concentrations of multiple deprivation justify the classification of Wansbeck as one of the areas of greatest need, as referred to in the new Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions policy statements on SRB funding, alongside higher profile deprived areas in metropolitan local authority districts across the United Kingdom. That is a grim and bleak assessment of the underlying dynamism of the local economy, and yet another reason why we need passenger rail services to strengthen and develop it.

In 1995, the campaign gathered momentum with the commissioning of a feasibility study into the potential for improved public transport services in south-east Northumberland. It included in its brief an appraisal of the prospects for passenger train services between Newbiggin, Ashington and Newcastle. At the same time, Regional Railways North East, then part of British Rail, was asked to comment on operational matters so that the practical aspects of running a train service could be addressed.

The consultant's report was encouraging. Several options were examined in great detail. The first option involved an hourly service between Newcastle and Ashington, with new stations at Shiremoor West—for interchange with the Tyne and Wear Metro system—Seghill, Seaton Delaval, Newsham, Bedlington Green Lane and Ashington.

Option 2 was an hourly service between Newcastle and Ashington calling at the seven new stations I have listed and New Hartley, West Blyth, Bebside and North Seaton. Newcastle to Newbiggin, my preferred route, was an hourly service based on the extensions outlined previously, and serving additional new stations at Woodhorn and Newbiggin. Other options were examined, but were considered at the time not to be particularly viable. The report concluded that the reintroduction of passenger trains between Newcastle, Ashington and Newbiggin was justifiable and warranted more detailed investigation.

As part of its franchise commitment, Northern Spirit, the local train operator, was required to undertake a feasibility study into the provision of new local rail services. That was another welcome development. November 1997 saw the first scheduled passenger train between Newcastle and Ashington for 33 years. A special service for the county council's highway and transport committee, with the co-operation of Northern Spirit, it represented an awareness-raising exercise that was well covered by the local media. The special train raised the profile of the project and demonstrated the potential of the route as part of an integrated public transport strategy for the area.

Nexus, operator of the Tyne and Wear network, also gave the project its active support and examined the potential for linkage between the Blyth and Tyne line and the metro system. It was suggested that an interchange facility at Backworth, where the Blyth and Tyne and metro routes run side by side, would open up the range of journey opportunities in Northumberland and Tyneside, while not jeopardising the concept of a fast and direct train service to and from Newcastle central station and the rest of the rail network.

Railtrack also provided technical input which showed the likely costs associated with passenger services and the frequency with which trains could run, bearing in mind existing freight traffic that was using the route and track and signalling constraints.

In 1998, a working group was set up to include council representatives and transport operators to make further progress. Membership of the group included ARRIVA Northumbria. It was recognised that liaison with the major bus operator in the area of the Blyth and Tyne line was important to minimise the prospect of direct competition which would ultimately be detrimental to both bus and train services.

Publication of the Government's White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" in July 1998 represented a further boost to the prospects of the return of passenger trains. It confirmed the Government's shift away from road building and towards public transport-based alternatives, and promised financial help towards such projects as the Blyth and Tyne by means of an infrastructure investment fund and the rail passenger partnership scheme.

Those new funds are a practical manifestation of the Government's wish to encourage a shift away from car use, while supporting investment proposals that help to provide an integrated transport network. At the same time, planning policies have been amended to support developments and locations which increase the use of public transport and attempt to reduce distances travelled by car.

Public transport corridors will increasingly become a focus of housing and commercial development. Given the successful reintroduction of passenger rail services, the Blyth and Tyne corridor could become a growth area for jobs, services and homes, to the benefit of all those living in south-east Northumberland. Such a proposal will help move towards integrated transport, reduce car use, congestion and pollution and, more importantly, perhaps reduce social exclusion by increasing access to jobs and services.

In conclusion, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to support the proposal. The capital cost of new stations and improved signalling will be about the same as the cost of one mile of new motorway. The initial revenue loss could be turned into a profit based on 4,500 single journeys a day—an opportunity for us to provide a truly integrated transport system.

As I said earlier, I travelled on the last passenger train 35 years ago. With my hon. Friend's help, I look forward to the Government, if necessary, bridging the gap. I hope that I am one of the first passengers to travel on the first train from Wansbeck to Westminster.