In calling Mr David Morris, I appeal to Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that the hon. Gentleman can be courteously heard.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is privilege to speak this evening on a subject that is close not only to my heart, but to the hearts of my constituents. Many in the House would not know the relevance of Carnforth station other than knowing that it was the site for the filming of “Brief Encounter”. Since then, however, the station has unfortunately fallen into disrepair, and during the Beeching era, all the trains were brought to Carnforth to be scrapped. Today, I am imploring the Minister to take on board my remarks because Carnforth station is the centre of the railway universe in this country. Everything passes through it from Edinburgh to London but nothing stops there.
I thank the Minister for being here to listen and respond to this important debate. I must stress that I speak for the whole community of Carnforth. That community has been built up from a railway town. Years ago the nearest major town was Warton, where the Washingtons were from, but then Carnforth developed because it was a railway town. Eleven years ago, a friend of mine, Peter Yates MBE, whom I am pleased to say is here today, brought the community together and raised £1.4 million to rebuild this historic station not just for the sake of the station, the community, the “Brief Encounter” café and the iconic clock—if anybody goes to Carnforth, they will see just what an amazing place the station is—but so that the station can be used as a railway station once again.
Although we would not have used the phrase at the time, this was a big society project—before the phrase was even coined. The community is united in asking for help for the next step in reopening the west coast main line and the trans-Pennine platforms. However, we are in a Catch-22 situation. The trans-Pennine and west coast main line trains cannot stop at Carnforth because there are no platforms there—it is a chicken and egg situation. Carnforth was not even included in the route utilisation strategies report to any great extent because the trains could not stop there, yet everything goes through it. We cannot put the platforms in, however, until the rail operators agree to stop there.
As a community, therefore, the people of Carnforth have suggested that we take the bull by the horns and request that we start negotiations with the Department for Transport and Network Rail to start rebuilding the platforms. We need to cut through this Catch-22 situation, which is nobody’s fault but highly damaging to the whole community. We envisage a future in which trains from north, south, east and west will use Carnforth as a hub for north Lancashire and the south lakes. With all the will in the world, Oxenholme is, with respect, too small to be the hub. We have tried it for many years but it has not worked. The Lake district is full of cars because existing rail services cannot cope with the capacity.
I recently spoke to Chris Gibb from Virgin Trains about this subject, and happily he agreed that Carnforth is in a strong position to be a rail-ride hub. Not only do we have the space and direct and fast access to the Lake district via the M6; we have a comprehensive road network in the area. Virgin was clear that anything that pushed more lakeland tourism into the west coast main line would get its support, and now we have agreed an action plan under which Virgin will agree to stop trains there if it is satisfied with Carnforth. We also have the solid support of councillor Tim Ashton, the head of transport at Lancashire county council, who was good enough to accompany me to the last meeting we had with the Department.
It is not only tourists who would benefit from these platforms being rebuilt. At the moment, it is hard to travel between the Furness peninsula and Kendal. It would be an easy and short journey if passengers could change at Carnforth and it would enable ease of access to the lakes for those on the east coast. Enabling commuters to move around our area by public transport would bring huge economic and environmental benefits to north Lancashire and the south lakes. When the now Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend Mrs Villiers visited Carnforth during the election, the train stopped in the station for 10 minutes. That was my cue to get her to Lancaster. If anybody has ever driven around Lancaster, they will know that it is the biggest car park in Europe. I had to park the car up, transport myself through the streets and put her on the train that had stopped at Carnforth half an hour before.
With an expanding population and given the space that it needs to grow, it seems logical to give Carnforth the chance to live up to its potential. This Government have already taken important steps to boost connectivity in our area. They have started the first serious negotiations on open access to the west coast with Alliance Rail. For those right hon. and hon. Members who are not familiar with the proposal, Alliance plans to run services in competition with Virgin using free space in the timetable. Those services would use brand-new hybrid trains, which are good for the environment and would enhance the whole network. Because the services would go to Barrow rather than Glasgow, they could stop at the existing platforms at Carnforth and potentially provide a direct London service, but that welcome new service would be even better with our new platforms. The proposal is very welcome, and I think I speak for everyone in my constituency, and certainly for the community in Carnforth, when I say that I hope the negotiations will lead to Alliance Rail becoming a reality.
The Government, despite opposition, are pushing ahead with High Speed 2. Once HS2 is built, we will be able to stop west coast trains at many more stations. We want Carnforth to be one of the stations that benefits, and with the platforms already in place we would be a prime location. But we could also offer lots in return, enabling west coast passengers to enjoy all the benefits of rail ride that I talked about earlier. This would be a real integrated transport system whose benefits would far outstrip the cost of the platforms.
On the subject of cost, the £1.4 million previously raised by my friend Peter was not from Department for Transport rail budgets; it was raised through one-off grants and local fundraising. If we get permission to build the new platforms, I would like to stress that we will not come with a begging bowl to either the Department or Network Rail. We will raise our own funds for our project. That is unheard of, but we can do it. We have already rebuilt the station from a shell, and we can re-lay the platforms. In a time of difficulty, it is only fair that we pay our way, and we are doing that, as people in Carnforth have always done.
Today, I have tried to sketch out in the simplest detail why this complex proposal would have huge benefits for our region. Clearly, I have left out certain details because of time and complexity, and as this is the last speech of the day, I am sure that we would all like to go home. However, this is very important for the whole community in Carnforth, including the Railway Trust. Peter Yates has prepared an excellent report that I am happy to supply to anyone who requests it. We have everything in place to be a real transport hub—except the platforms. We are committed as a community to put them in; we just need Government support.
I know that this is a strange request, but let us look at the benefits. We are not going to ask for any Government money. We have a proven track in our community projects of rebuilding and the whole community is behind the proposal. This is the big society in its highest form. We want to integrate with an infrastructure network that has been serving our country for more than 100 years, and I would like to ask for formal negotiations to begin, so that we can talk to everyone concerned about re-establishing the platforms for the benefit of the whole community of Carnforth.
I congratulate my hon. Friend David Morris on securing this timely debate on the important subject of platforms at Carnforth station, and on enabling us to have this brief encounter tonight. He has set out with great clarity the arguments in favour of reinstating the fast-line platforms at the station, and his passion and commitment cannot be doubted. I also pay tribute to the work carried out by local people in restoring the station to its former glory.
In 1945, David Lean filmed his romantic classic “Brief Encounter”, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, at Carnforth station. Many will remember the key role that the station played in the film. The image of the station clock remains resonant for many filmgoers, as my hon. Friend mentioned. However, a long period of decline set in, following the Beeching era. By the early 1990s, the once splendid station had fallen into disrepair. The Carnforth Station and Railway Trust Company Ltd was formed as a local initiative in November 1996 to restore the derelict buildings. A £1.5 million project was commenced in late 2000 in co-operation with Railtrack. After three years work, the Brief Encounter refreshment room and visitor centre was opened on
As my hon. Friend explained, local ambitions at Carnforth now focus on the reinstatement of the mainline platforms at Carnforth station, which closed in 1970. However, it would not be possible to discuss the reinstatement of the mainline platforms without referring to the planned developments for the inter-city rail services on the west coast main line. In January, the Government issued a consultation on the specification for the new inter-city west coast franchise, which is due to commence in 2012 and will replace the current Virgin Trains rail franchise. The current franchise operates more than 300 train services a day, delivering more than 26 million passenger journeys and 3.2 billion passenger miles a year, providing train services along the west coast main line from Euston to Glasgow in Scotland. It serves the key cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and north Wales. Passenger growth has shown a continuous increase since 2003. The effects of the volcanic ash clouds in 2010 and earlier this year and the associated aviation disruption have contributed to a considerable modal shift from air to rail—something that the Government very much welcome for climate change reasons. The objectives for the new franchise set out in January therefore include exploiting the full potential of the route and maximising capacity.
The Government believe that the former system of franchising had become too prescriptive at the point of bidding and lacked flexibility once operational. A new franchising system has been devised to facilitate and encourage significant private investment, and is designed to deliver important benefits for passengers. The Government also believe that longer franchises are necessary to encourage such investment, build successful long-term working relationships with Network Rail, focus franchises more strongly on the quality of outcomes for passengers and deliver the best possible value for money for the taxpayer in a highly constrained public spending environment.
Where does all that fit in with the Carnforth station platform request? Let me turn to the local aspirations for the station once again to become a stop on long-distance services. It is important to emphasise that both the current Virgin Trains franchise and the new inter-city west coast franchise have to accommodate many different markets. A key issue in any proper consideration of the matter is whether a proposal to stop London train services at reinstated platforms at Carnforth would work operationally and commercially. Initial analysis by the Department suggests that a call at Carnforth would require a stop at another station to be deleted. Therefore, a potential gain at Carnforth would result in a disbenefit to passengers from other stations on the route. Obviously that would require some hard and careful decision making.
I should point out that Virgin trains stop in Carnforth for 20 minutes in the morning and evening, but they do not let passengers on. I spoke to Chris Gibb about this subject less than 12 months ago, and he said that if we had the platforms, those trains could take passengers on. The issue is something to do with the schedule for cleaning the trains.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information, which I was not aware of. I will investigate that to see whether it represents a way forward. My point, however, is that there is a potential trade-off between extra stops on the service and the speed of the journey between two key points where the main market is. In an ideal world, we would obviously like to meet both requirements—the local aspirations that exist, as well as the need to get longer-distance traffic transferred from air to rail—and journey times are key to delivering that. However, I will certainly look at his point, which is valid.
It is fair to say that the west coast main line is heavily used in the Carnforth area, with up to three long-distance services an hour between London, Birmingham or Manchester and Glasgow or Edinburgh, plus regular freight services. Those trains are already popular and well loaded. Capacity problems already exist, and growth in demand continues. Indeed, it is interesting to note that, even in the recession, we have seen buoyant markets for rail that have continued to expand at a time when other forms of transport have not seen the same response. Despite the £8.8 billion upgrade, the west coast main line is already suffering some congestion when it comes to access for freight services and local services, so we have to ensure that the line is used to best capacity.
Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy for the west coast main line was published on
These enhancements have delivered significant revenue growth since December 2008 and increased rail’s share of the total travel market on the routes served by the west coast main line. These are markets rail serves well and there are strong calls for further journey time reductions, as my hon. Friend will recognise. All these and a number of other issues mean that stopping long-distance London services at Carnforth would probably involve a number of trade-offs that are less straightforward than might first seem to be the case. As I said, however, I will investigate the specific point that my hon. Friend raised with me and write to him about it subsequently.
Similar considerations apply to the other train services that operate on the west coast main line, which might also be candidates for additional stops at reinstated platforms, such as the services currently originating in Birmingham and Manchester. It is already possible to travel direct between Carnforth and other stations to the south. This seems to imply that the main benefit of stopping non-London services at reinstated main line platforms at Carnforth would be to create new direct journey opportunities between Carnforth and stations to the north—including Oxenholme, Penrith, Carlisle and other northern destinations into Scotland.
As can be seen from what I have said today, nobody should underestimate the fact that reinstating the fast-line platforms at Carnforth station would involve more than some hard decision making. It is not simply a question of finding the money for the platforms, although I pay tribute to the tremendous spirit that my hon. Friend and his constituents are demonstrating in their willingness and determination to try to secure their reinstatement. Local funding is, of course, important for platform reinstatement, but it does not necessarily determine whether a future franchise would require trains to stop there. It is certainly a way forward and clear willingness has been shown to secure money for that particular end. Indeed, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, local people have already demonstrated what they can achieve with the improvements already made to Carnforth station.
Such local funding, if enough could be found to cover the potentially substantial costs, would reduce the initial financial burden. However, we would also have to ensure that the ongoing additional maintenance and renewal costs were covered. The next step for those in favour of reinstating the fast-line platforms at Carnforth would therefore be to identify how this reinstatement could be delivered and, indeed, funded in the longer term in respect of those additional maintenance and renewal costs. The Government believe that the local authority would also have an important role to play and we would wish to see whether it supported such a move as part of its transport strategy. Equally, it would be vital that there was clear support from a train operating company for such a move.
In conclusion, the Government welcome local initiatives to improve rail services as fitting their wider localism agenda. The Department is always very happy to provide advice and guidance, but we think that decisions like this are best made locally. At the end of this debate, let me say to my hon. Friend that I recognise and sympathise with the case he has put forward. There are significant problems, which I have identified—stopping services and the penalty in journey times—but I will go back to my officials and raise with them one more time the points that he has raised tonight to see if there is any way we can make any progress, without me making any commitments from the Dispatch Box tonight. I will write to him about both the general and specific points he has raised.
Question put and agreed to.