Dronfield Station:150th Anniversary

– in the House of Commons at 9:06 pm on 29th June 2020.

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

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Conservative, North East Derbyshire 9:47 pm, 29th June 2020

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to be able to speak this evening. It is a pleasure to be able to spend a few minutes celebrating a recent success story, and a real success story, of recent decades in North East Derbyshire: the rejuvenation and rebirth of Dronfield train station, which this year celebrates its 150th year of operation. Much of what we debate here in this place is understandably, and perhaps rightly, challenging and difficult: the impossible resolution of an intractable problem; the distribution of finite resources against infinite demand; and the challenge of remorseless change—wanted or not, planned or otherwise, progressive or ill-advised—in the communities that we seek to serve. That is exactly what we are placed here to do in this, the crucible for national debate, and it is what we must focus on most of the time. Yet even in these troubled times, much is left unsaid here of the quiet successes, the unnoticed achievements and the abilities of communities to thrive, rejuvenate and transform. These are just as, if not more, important in the long term. Each of us sitting here sees this on a daily basis in our own constituencies, the places we have the privilege to represent.

That is very true of me in North East Derbyshire, which is a constituency of rebirth and rejuvenation if ever there was one. It is my home, and it is a place that has picked itself up over the past 40 years and transformed itself into an aspirational success story: a can-do, go-getting, keen-to-progress part of the world that looks forward with hope while still celebrating our proud past. That can be seen in each of the 41 communities I represent and in countless individual successes, but none is more obvious than the rebirth of Dronfield station, a once-thriving rail terminus that had been left to decline over the later part of the 20th century and that has sprung back into life since the new millennium. This has happened through a combination of transformative spirit, civic pride and the hard work of countless volunteers who had a vision for what Dronfield could be and, more importantly, who were determined to see it through.

Before I talk about the important anniversary we are celebrating this year, first, a word on Dronfield. A small number of Members may not be familiar with North East Derbyshire’s largest community, although I think all Members here today other than you, Mr Speaker, are either somewhat familiar with or have heard of Dronfield because I have talked to them about it. I happily know that the Minister knows about the town.

I hope the House will permit me to offer a brief introduction. A historic market town nestled in the beautiful Drone valley, Dronfield is first mentioned in the Domesday Book and is home today to more than 20,000 people, a stunning 12th-century church and the world’s oldest football club. Presiding over its high street is a distinctive stone memorial erected in the 19th century to celebrate Robert Peel, as a gesture of Dronfield’s thanks for the repeal of the corn laws and to celebrate free trade. We whisper it quietly, because we do not want too many people to know it, but just a few years ago it was named one of the top 10 places to live in Britain, not least because of its fantastic location, its great civic pride and its tremendous community spirit.

For hundreds of years, Dronfield was a hub for the lead trade, for coal mining and for industry, and it was that business and industry that first attracted the Midland Railway in the 1860s to consider it for a new station on a new railway line it was constructing between Chesterfield and Sheffield. Rail had come to the north midlands a few decades earlier with the opening of the North Midland Line almost 180 years ago to this very day in May 1840. It was constructed quickly, and the line, which has been known for much of the time since as the old road, missed out both Dronfield and Sheffield because of the topographical challenges and the steepness of the hills around the town, preferring instead to go through the easier Moss valley to the east towards Rotherham.

The old road, designed by George Stephenson, brought jobs, industry and growth to settlements such as Clay Cross, Killamarsh, Eckington and Renishaw, yet Dronfield just a few miles to the west was forced to wait until it was linked to the network. Fast forward 20 years, and with improved technology, Midland Rail decided it wanted to build a direct railway to Sheffield. In 1864, Sir Joseph Paxton, the MP for the decidedly non-Derbyshire constituency of Coventry, but otherwise better known as the head gardener at Chatsworth, laid a petition before the House of Commons. That resulted in the Midland Railway (New Lines and Additional Powers) Act 1864 and the start of the construction of the new road line, which would finally link Sheffield, and with it Dronfield, properly to the network.

Six years later, on Monday 1 February 1870, the new station in the centre of Dronfield welcomed its first service at 4.55 am to the sound of church bells and a brass band. For much of the next century, Dronfield station was at the heart of a burgeoning and growing town. Through boom and bust, war and peace, goods transitioned to the market yard, the commuter went off to work in Sheffield, and, in times of crisis, it saw the sight of a soldier waved off to war.

The station became indelibly linked with the town, its people, its industry and its ambition, yet mirroring the national story of rail, the station fell on tough times in the post-war period, and Dr Beeching’s axe swung as viciously through north Derbyshire as it did elsewhere in the country. Over on the old road, the original railway line through north Derbyshire, the entire line was closed to passengers, eliminating dozens of stations at a stroke. While the new road was reprieved and continued operations, Dronfield itself was determined surplus to requirements and deleted from the timetable. The last passenger service left at 21.41 on Saturday 31 December 1966, with the goods station closing a few years later.

While trains would still thunder through Dronfield on their way to Sheffield, Chesterfield or London, none would ever stop. Dronfield station became a ghost, and that was how it remained for over a decade, until a snowstorm in 1979, combined in true 1970s style with a union strike by the gritters from South Yorkshire, meant that the roads to Sheffield became impassable. For just a short period, British Rail opened the station out of necessity, to literally allow people in and out of the town. Out of nowhere, the platform stations were reported full, overwhelmed by demand from those wanting to use the train for 20p each way to Chesterfield or Sheffield.

Two years later, a local service was reinstated, but services again waxed and waned over the years without any clear plan and perhaps what we would charitably call an eccentric timetable. By the early 2000s, the station served only about 30,000 passengers a year on just a few services a day, without the ability, for example, to travel southbound until 1 o’clock in the afternoon.

The true modern renaissance of Dronfield station began 16 years ago, in 2004. Frustrated by a highly intermittent service and a lack of strategic planning, a group of residents led by Dr Peter Hayward came together to push for the restoration of a functioning and regular train service for the town. The first opportunity was via the announcement of the restoration of the Nottingham to Leeds service, which was warmly welcomed throughout the midlands and Yorkshire but which, inexplicably, left Dronfield out of its initial timetable and all its route maps.

The Dronfield Station Action Group was born, and, ably supported by the hard work of previous Member for North-East Derbyshire Natascha Engel, determined to restore services. Natascha told me of a concerted campaign in the town and down here in Westminster, including on the Terrace, to restore Dronfield to the train map, so that a proper service could finally be offered. One of the enduring features of Dronfield is its civic pride and immense community spirit, and the action group had all that in spades, along with a clear objective to improve the service for the long term. That is exactly what happened.

In December 2008, a new modern era was ushered in, with Dronfield receiving regular services once again. In a fitting tribute to its original opening, the first service was welcomed back with a brass band. Over the past 12 years, the station has not looked back. Passenger numbers have climbed from just a few thousand to a quarter of a million a year. Dozens of trains stop each day, rather than thunder through—almost 300 a week now—serving Chesterfield and Sheffield locally, along with the more distant destinations of Liverpool, Norwich, Leeds and Nottingham.

An active and hugely respected Friends of Dronfield Station, supported by local businesses, Dronfield Civic Society, Dronfield Rotary Club and the Dronfield Eye, among many others, lovingly supports, tends and promotes the station, and keeps pushing to take advantage of the opportunities that remain. We are all particularly proud and grateful for all the hard work that FODS volunteers put in around the year to keep the station looking so nice and well kept. The cleaning of the station, the tending of the flower beds and the improving of the facilities are done behind the scenes week in, week out. For the past decade or so, FODS has also run an art competition for local schools, proudly displaying that art in the waiting areas for travellers to see and admire.

Dronfield is the very model of how a station can be reborn, and, as Natascha tells me, many in the early years came to see how it had been done. Dronfield is a proud town and proud of its station, the living embodiment of what is possible when residents put their mind to it. Notwithstanding the extremely difficult challenges of recent months, the future looks bright, and together the community is committed to building upon those recent successes. Further improvements to the station are in plan, and FODS continues to campaign for further links and improved frequencies. Together we are keen to safeguard existing services, to continue improvements in the co-ordination of public transport and to build up the opportunities of Northern Powerhouse Rail and the greater links with London planned for the coming years.

The renaissance of Dronfield station is a metaphor not just for a town on the up, but for an area that is keen to progress. I was born and grew up in north Derbyshire, and in my 40 years the transformation has been immense—a revitalised ambition to seek new opportunities, to grab the possibilities in front of us and to build on our advantages for the long term. As so often happens, history has the opportunity to repeat itself. The renaissance of the new road through Dronfield station now allows us to look at the old road once again.

Dronfield has shown the success of public transport in north Derbyshire in the past decade, and now the other Midland Railway Line closed by Dr Beeching may be stirring into life too. Just a few weeks ago, we won funding from the Government to explore the possibility of reopening stations closed 40 years ago in the next valley. I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his willingness to support us to look at whether we can do that. Dronfield has shown the way and the demand. Our determination is to build on it further in the coming years in Dronfield and elsewhere. History removed both 50 years ago, and it would be a fitting tribute if we could return both the old and the new road to their former glories. A few months ago, FODS kindly invited me, the mayor of Dronfield, local residents and supporters to unveil a plaque at Dronfield station celebrating this milestone birthday. The plaque reads: “The first 150 years.” It was a privilege to unveil that plaque and to celebrate the renaissance of a station led by people power and Natascha Engel, an MP who showed me the way in helping our local community.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Conservative, North East Derbyshire 10:00 pm, 29th June 2020

It was a privilege to celebrate Dronfield station, its supporters, their determination and their grit, and their sheer hard work to make a success of a microcosm of Dronfield as a town and North East Derbyshire as a whole.

To everyone who has been involved in the first 150 years, thank you, and here’s to the next 150. This is a brilliant example, for the Government and the Minister to take note of—a successful community aspiring to do more and coming together to forge a real and enduring success story.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Minister of State (Department for Transport) 10:01 pm, 29th June 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Lee Rowley for securing this fantastic debate on Dronfield station to recognise and commemorate its 150th anniversary. His speech was a beautiful historical recital of Dronfield’s intermittent relationship with our railways. I hope that it will have a very strong relationship with our railways going forward.

I am slightly concerned because this is the fourth Adjournment debate that I have done without the presence of Jim Shannon. I am not sure whether even having an Adjournment debate without his presence is in order.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have just received a text from him, actually; he has got a strong relationship with Dronfield station and wishes it a happy birthday.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire knows, I am a former Member of the European Parliament, and I represented his constituency in the east midlands for a decade, so I know the town pretty well. I have canvassed there—possibly not quite as successfully as he did in recent elections, but I do know it pretty well. I was going through my diaries to see whether I ever did catch a train from the station. I cannot say I ever have, but I very much look forward to having the opportunity of doing so at some point in the future.

My hon. Friend knows that this is a huge milestone for the town of Dronfield. I should start by congratulating him on his support of the Friends of Dronfield Station, and asking him to thank them on behalf of the Department for Transport for everything they do to improve and love their station and its services. I am sure that those who visit the medieval St John’s parish church or Dronfield Hall Barn appreciate the stunning flowers and hanging baskets that adorn the station and how clean it is kept. Until the outbreak of this terrible virus, it was quite possibly one of the cleanest stations on our rail network.

My hon. Friend will know that the Government are investing record levels in rail funding to deliver the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century. In fact, we are spending £48 billion over what we call control period 6—that is the slightly Soviet terminology for a five-year period of rail spending—which runs from last year to 2024, to improve rail services for passengers and freight customers while maintaining current high levels of safety and reliability.

I was extremely pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned that he had supported a bid to the Restoring your Railway fund to reopen the Sheffield to Chesterfield via Barrow Hill line, which includes Dronfield station. As hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, earlier this year the Secretary of State for Transport invited Members, local authorities and community groups across England to come forward with proposals for how they could reinstate axed local services. Thanks to the Government’s £500 million fund, long-isolated communities across the country will benefit from better rail connections that will level up regional economies, boost access to jobs and education, and kick-start the restoration of lines closed more than 50 years ago. So far, we have committed a sum of £300,000 to an ideas fund to kick-start the process to encourage innovative ideas that will be considered for future funding. We are now working with successful bidders, as my hon. Friend said, to agree the scope of the work. We will provide guidance to help each scheme to get to a point where they can develop a full business case to become part of what we nattily call the rail network enhancements portfolio—the big chunk of money that I mentioned earlier.

I know that my hon. Friend is interested in what goes on around his area to help to connect the town of Dronfield and others, and that he is well aware of what is going on in the Hope Valley capacity scheme. That scheme is an important part of the Great North Rail project to transform journeys between the northern powerhouse cities of Manchester and Sheffield by removing a bottleneck in the Hope Valley line. I am pretty sure that he will be pleased to know that we are continuing to look at ways to speed up this work, and I am quite sure that, actually, we might hear quite a lot from the Prime Minister tomorrow about how we are going to speed up all sorts of things when it comes to big chunks of infrastructure in our country.

For example, on this particular line, Network Rail is currently undertaking early signalling design in parallel to the tendering process. This element of the design is very time-consuming and is therefore a significant driver of overall timescales, and we are trying to speed it up. I am pleased to say that this is proceeding to programme, despite challenges posed by the covid-19 pandemic. It is also liaising with train and freight operating companies to secure possessions, where we take control of the whole track and close it down for a period of time, so we can do proper work and agree any changes to the network that may be required during construction. These activities are normally decided once the contract to deliver the scheme has been let, so we are beginning to work out how to improve the network.

I shall turn now to the midland main line upgrade. As Members know, we are investing huge sums of money in the midland main line, which was completed in 1870. It will enable improved long-distance passenger services between Sheffield, Nottingham and London, as well as improved services between Corby, Kettering and London. There will be more seats, faster inter-city journeys, and new fast and efficient inter-city and express trains. For long-distance journeys, we will reduce journey times by up to 20 minutes in the peak and a brand new fleet of bi-mode trains will be introduced. For journeys from Corby through Luton into London, including from Wellingborough, passengers will benefit from a new and dedicated electric service. From 2021, the trains will be fast—like today, but longer and with more seats. This means more comfortable journeys for long-distance and commuting passengers at the busiest times of the day. These measures will provide over 50% more seats into London in the peak, once the upgrade is complete.

My hon. Friend mentioned a concern to me previously about reducing the direct calls at Dronfield in the existing East Midlands rail service to Manchester and Liverpool. I can assure him, having checked, that I do not know of any such proposals and my officials do not either, so I would like to think that they are safe, at least for the time being.

This has been a celebration of a town and its relationship with the railway. My hon. Friend mentioned the successful campaign led by Dr Peter Hayward and Natascha Engel, the former MP for the area. I know how much they worked together to ensure that the reintroduced Nottingham to Leeds service did actually stop in Dronfield.

My hon. Friend also talked about the success of this railway. Railways are very much like “Field of Dreams” moments with Kevin Costner, because when you build it, people do come. They really do use their service, and they fall in love with it. Sometimes it is a love-hate relationship, but they absolutely do love it—because when it disappears, as it had done for a period of time, my word, do we, as politicians, hear about it. As he mentioned, there were just 32,000 people using trains from Dronfield in 2006, going up to a quarter of a million in 2018. It is a fantastic success story.

I am quite sure that with my hon. Friend at the helm and with the amazingly strong campaign by Friends of Dronfield Station, the station has a fantastically bright future in our railways. Dronfield station can feel tremendous pride in this magnificent milestone and has a tremendous amount to look forward to.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.