Northern Powerhouse Rail and Leamside Line

Transport – in the House of Commons on 24th November 2022.

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Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

What steps his Department is taking to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Leamside line.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As set out in the autumn statement, the Government are committed to delivering the Northern Powerhouse Rail core network outlined in the integrated rail plan. Reopening of the Leamside line would be best considered by north-east partners as part of a future city region settlement.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Yesterday, at the Great Northern conference, the Transport Secretary promised that Northern Powerhouse Rail will indeed go ahead. Since the Government know that it is going ahead, they should also know what that entails. Does it, or does it not, include the Leamside line?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I am aware that the Leamside line closed in 1964, that she and others across the Chamber have been campaigning for its reopening and that Transport North East is currently conducting a series of studies into the costs and potential benefits. I will restate that the integrated rail plan stated that it would be best dealt with as part of a future city region settlement. Of course, we will await further details from Transport North East as they come out.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

I welcome the Minister to his place. When it comes to Northern Powerhouse Rail, can we remember that it is not Manchester Powerhouse Rail or Leeds Powerhouse Rail? It is Northern Powerhouse Rail and that includes the north-east. The Leamside line is a critical part of the infrastructure, which gets us resilience locally, resilience in connections to the Union and local transport initiatives. Could I encourage the Minister to meet me, Transport North East and other interested Members to appreciate its importance to the north-east fully and to ensure that it is considered properly?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is a true champion for rail in the north-east, and I know that he has been campaigning for the reopening of the line. I agree that the northern powerhouse means the entire north and not just parts of the north; that is the culture that I see. I commit to meeting him, Transport North East and other bodies that he wishes to invite for further discussion. However, I remind the House that funding budgets are tight for the Department for Transport and that not every single project that Members will want to see can be brought forward.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I warmly welcome the new Secretary of State and the entire ministerial team—and in particular the former Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman, who I am sure will bring his expertise and experience to the team. Of course, the problem for him and the benefit for the Opposition is that we know what he really thinks. [Laughter.] Has he managed to persuade the Secretary of State that the integrated rail plan under-serves the needs of the north and lets down those who require change the most?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Lady for her very warm welcome and her pledge to hold me to account on things that may have been written before. I am passionate about seeing the entire levelling up of the United Kingdom when it comes to rail. On the integrated rail plan, I gently remind her, using words from a Transport Committee report, that we welcomed

“the scale of the Government’s promised spending on improving rail in the North and the Midlands. £96 billion is a very substantial sum;
it has the potential to transform rail travel for future generations” and level up the country. Wise words; I still believe in them now.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I thank the Minister for that gentle reminder. He knows full well that that was not what was promised to the north and the midlands no fewer than 60 times and in successive Conservative manifestos. Not only are the north and the midlands not getting the infrastructure that they require, but rail services across the country are in freefall, experiencing record cancellations on top of fewer services than at any time since records began. One couple wrote to me this week and said they felt in danger from overcrowding and began to understand how real tragedies could occur. Will the rail Minister apologise for his predecessor’s signing off the decision to slash tens of thousands of services every month and confirm when those services will be restored?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It is of course the case, post the pandemic, that travel habits have changed. Rail is at only 80% of its pre-pandemic patronage but services have been reduced by only 10%, so we continue to subsidise on that basis to the tune of £16 billion. There is a great commitment to rail on behalf of the Government across the country, but we have to look at the entire taxpayer burden that is paying for that and difficult decisions will have to be made. I very much hope I can work with the hon. Lady in a constructive manner to ensure we talk up rail and try to get more people on the rail network, and that it continues to grow as it had before the pandemic.