Dronfield Station:150th Anniversary

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:01 pm on 29th June 2020.

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

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.