Midge Hall Railway Station

– in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 17 April 2024.

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

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble 6:51, 17 April 2024

May I say how grateful I am to the Speaker for granting this important debate, and to the Minister for responding? The topic is a train station called Midge Hall, which is to the west of Leyland. It provided a much-loved local service, but unfortunately, during the Beeching cuts, it was designated for closure. What happens now for the people of west Leyland is that a train comes along to Midge Hall station and stops, and the passengers peer out at the platform, but they cannot get off, and no one can get on. This has been described as nonsense, and the people of Leyland and the broader communities of South Ribble have said to me on many occasions that they agree.

Let me examine, with the House’s permission, why I am trying to fix this situation. Midge Hall was originally closed back in the ’60s. It sits on a line that goes directly between Preston and Liverpool. I was not around on this planet to understand the rationale for the closure at the time, but there has subsequently been a significant development, in the form of a trading estate not too far a walk from the station. There has also recently been a wonderful brownfield development of homes on the old Leyland test track, where the heavy goods vehicles used to be whizzed around in circles. You can imagine the size of it, Madam Deputy Speaker. Houses are being built there, and the ultimate plan is to have up to 2,000 people living there, within a very short walk of Midge Hall station.

Let me return to the train station. Why does the train stop, allowing passengers to peer out at a platform they can only dream of using, then carry on? It is because the line switches to a single track there, so the train has to stop for the exchange of a safety token. This means that there is already dwell time at the station, because the trains already stop there. We are looking for an opportunity for investment in new station platform access and buildings. There is a precedent. Recently, near Liverpool, a train station of a similar age and ilk was reopened and connected to the Merseyrail network. The station works cost approximately £13 million, so even with some cost inflation, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, we are not talking about an unachievable amount of money to allow passengers to get on and off a train where it already stops to exchange a token.

Let me talk about the broader issues, because it is not just that nonsense that I am trying to right. There are businesses within walking distance that are not served well by public transport, and approximately 1 km south of the site, within easy access of an active travel walkway and cycleway, the Government have a planning application for a third prison at Ulnes Walton. That decision is with the planning inspector, who, extraordinarily, reopened the planning inquiry just to focus on the issues of transport and infrastructure, and the servicing of the new prison. I politely suggest to the Minister, and Ministers in the Ministry of Justice, that reopening Midge Hall station will be important in addressing some of the issues that are being considered by the Planning Inspectorate, given the station’s proximity to this new development site.

But that is not all. I am a Conservative and a realist; I understand that we need to use taxpayers’ money well. The issue is not just use of the existing train and platform. There is an opportunity to make the Preston-to-Liverpool train service zing even more. As the Minister well knows—he is a dedicated and passionate advocate of the railways—when Merseyrail was created, it made a decision to have trains running on a third rail, an electric rail that runs alongside the track and supplies electricity to the trains. The point where Merseyrail turns into Northern Rail—where Liverpool turns into Lancashire—is at Ormskirk, which is a wonderful town. The line that the trains use stops at Ormskirk, because buffers have been put up. Those buffers are purely administrative; they demarcate the point to which Northern trains run the service, and from which Merseyrail trains run the service. Anybody using the line from stations in my patch—from Croston or Rufford, for example—who wants to go to Liverpool gets the train to Ormskirk, stops, gets out, toddles down the platform, past the set of buffers, waits for the Merseyrail train to come, then gets on that and continues their journey to Liverpool.

Previously, with the technology available, it was expensive to try to run trains directly from Liverpool to Preston because of the question of how we would supply electricity to the trains. Installing the third-rail infrastructure is expensive; given the need to store overhead electricity, it is not a cheap job. Here, the miracles of modern science and wonderful engineers in the UK and around the world come to the rescue, with the recent innovation of battery-powered trains. Merseyrail is already starting to run battery-powered trains to solve problems like this one. When the third rail ends, trains continue their journey on standard rails, with no additional electricity needed. They go to their station, come back, pick up the third rail and their charge, and carry on.

My argument to this House, and to the Minister, is that removing the buffers at Ormskirk and installing battery trains on the line will improve the service, allowing for a direct connection from Leyland, Lostock Hall, Preston, Croston, Rufford, Ormskirk and the stations beyond to Preston or Liverpool. Furthermore, this innovation will improve the usage of the line, which will result in greater footfall at Midge Hall, which will further improve the case for allowing people to get the train from there.

For context, if somebody who is on the Midge Hall side of Leyland wants to get a train to Liverpool, they walk all the way across Leyland to the main Leyland station, which picks up a line that goes via Wigan, then comes in through the east of Liverpool. There is enormous support in South Ribble for a direct service between Preston and Liverpool. That would cut journey times and carbon emissions, and open up leisure opportunities involving Liverpool’s fantastic nightlife, which has been highlighted wonderfully this weekend, after the warm welcome that all Liverpudlians gave to visitors to the Grand National. All those opportunities are unlocked by infrastructure.

As I am sure you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, the idea behind the northern powerhouse—a passion of many of us in this Chamber, not least you—is to grow the economics of the north of England through agglomeration economics, which is, in part, the idea that better joining up communities creates a larger spread, which allows for economic growth. Infrastructure is the tool that connects those communities to deliver economic growth and a northern powerhouse. What is not to like?

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

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

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble 7:00, 17 April 2024

I have spoken about how trains already stop at Midge Hall station, which has a signal box and a signalman, and how passengers can see a platform but cannot get on or off. I have spoken about the opportunity to further improve the line by creating direct trains between Liverpool and Preston by removing the buffers at Ormskirk that currently prevent trains from running straight through. I have spoken about battery-powered train technology, which would allow trains to run from Ormskirk to Preston without spending enormous amounts on transport infrastructure. But there is one final part of the picture.

Rosie Cooper, the former West Lancashire MP, is wonderfully articulate about the public transport gaps in central and west Lancashire, and one more thing that Beeching removed that would make Midge Hall and the Liverpool to Preston connection sing if they were reinstated is the Burscough curves. For context, the railway line from Preston to Ormskirk and Liverpool crosses the railway line from Southport to Wigan. Historically, two curves allowed trains to go directly from Southport to Preston or Liverpool.

I note the presence in the Chamber of my hon. Friend Damien Moore. If he wanted to visit me in Croston, he would have to get on a train from Southport to Wigan, walk across to a different station in Wigan, get a train to Leyland or Preston and then get a train down on a different line. In the 21st century that feels more like a game of logic than a piece of transport infrastructure. Although I accept that is a larger task than reinvigorating an old platform or removing the administrative buffers, it would be remiss of me not to talk about it in the context of this scheme and the case for Midge Hall.

I have spoken to the stakeholders, and they all suggest that the first important step is a feasibility study. A feasibility study on reopening Midge Hall station was conducted in 2019 and showed a potential issue with dwell time. However, thanks to this Conservative Government, we have replaced the hated Pacer trains, which took a long time to stop and a long time to start. There is a case for looking again at the opportunities for reopening the station without affecting the timetable.

I was with Network Rail executives at the Midge Hall site on Friday, and they had no objections in principle to the scheme. They could see the support for the railway, with two packed carriages heading down for ladies day at the grand national.

Will the Minister consider doing a feasibility study? Will he consider finding the funding to open Midge Hall, and to supporting us to do so? Will he help me to work with both Northern Rail and Merseyrail to get rid of the buffers at Ormskirk and to introduce a battery train service to reinvigorate the line and the broader region? And does he consider reopening the Burscough curves to be feasible? Although that is separate from the two issues I have raised today, it is an important part of improving rail infrastructure across west and central Lancashire.

Photo of Damien Moore Damien Moore Conservative, Southport 7:04, 17 April 2024

I commend my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher for all her efforts to improve rail connectivity in the areas mentioned in the debate. It is great to have her as my constituency neighbour, working really hard on this issue, which is important to our constituents for all the reasons she highlighted. She has continually campaigned on Midge Hall railway station since she was first elected, and she is not letting her constituents down today.

Connectivity between regions is as important as connectivity within regions. Liverpool is in Merseyside and Preston is in Lancashire. We thank the Department for Transport for the extra funding going to both areas—they are getting about half a billion pounds to spend from the money that would have been spent on HS2. The temptation is always to spend such funding in a single area, but connectivity between the areas is important because of all the economic activity that goes on between them. That should be further enhanced by people being able to move between the areas by an easy train journey, rather than a complicated journey that they would be less likely to make.

Connectivity is also important because we have an education triangle in the area and people living within it find it hard to get around it. There are universities at both ends of it, which people should be able to get to easily. However, people living in the middle of the area find it incredibly difficult to get to a mainline station, so they make car journeys rather than take the train. That is a retrograde step when we think about our carbon footprint.

We are working on the issue. There are a huge number of stakeholders in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, including businesses and those in the education sector. The Ormskirk, Preston and Southport Travellers’ Association, which is one of the rail passenger forums, has continued to support our efforts in making the connections that are incredibly important to our constituents.

I thank the Department for Transport for its efforts in prioritising regional connectivity, but connections between regions might need a ministerial steer. When people in the affected communities think about their journey to work, college or university, they do not think about who their political representative is; they just know the journey is difficult and want someone to step in to resolve the problem. My hon. Friend and I are doing everything we can to resolve that problem for them. It is a really important time to seize the opportunity to improve the quality of the life for our constituents. I know my constituents in Southport want to see these improvements, as do my hon. Friend’s constituents in South Ribble.

I am sure the Minister is aware that we will continue to campaign for these concerns to be resolved until we see a feasibility study that will, I am sure, unlock these projects and make them a reality, making life easier for our constituents. I hope the Minister has taken that on board. We need a conversation about connectivity between areas because of the passengers affected in those blackspots. Rather than the money being spent on great services within each area, helping connectivity between our constituencies is equally important.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 7:08, 17 April 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher on securing this debate on the merits of reopening Midge Hall railway station and providing direct services between Liverpool and Preston. I appreciate her tireless work in campaigning for the transport needs of South Ribble and the wider region. I also give credit to my hon. Friend Damien Moore for the work he does in the same vein for his constituency.

My Department prioritises investments in our roads, railways and public transportation systems that meet the needs of our growing population, enhance connectivity and drive economic growth. Transportation is the lifeblood of any thriving community. It connects people to opportunities, goods to markets and services to those in need. Lancashire has seen tremendous growth and development in recent years, but with changing demands. That is why I am proud to be part of a Government behind Network North, a significant £36 billion programme of transport investment across the country. This will not only address our current challenges, but lay foundations for a sustainable, prosperous future.

Turning to the pitch for Midge Hall station, the Ormskirk-Preston branch line currently accommodates an hourly service, which is interworked with the Colne and Blackpool South services. The single-track operation is, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, token-controlled between the Midge Hall and Rufford signal boxes, meaning that trains currently stop at Midge Hall, south of Midge Hall Lane, to exchange the token with the signal box operator. Trains going southbound are required to stop at the token exchange point and receive the physical token, or hand it over if they are going northbound. The complete process from the closure of the Midge Hall Lane level crossing to the reopening of the crossing takes approximately two minutes for a northbound train and three minutes for a southbound train, with the train dwelling for between seven and 10 seconds. My hon. Friend mentioned that trains therefore stop at Midge Hall for the token exchange, but there are currently no platform facilities to allow passengers to alight.

How can we help, as we have been asked by my hon. Friend? On 26 February we announced allocations for the £4.7 billion local transport fund for local authorities in the north and midlands outside of city regions. This investment will deliver an unprecedented long-term funding uplift and is the first transport investment of its kind for these areas. This fund will empower local leaders to support the transport projects that matter most to their communities, helping create jobs, grow the economy and level up the country. Of course, we will need the support and co-operation of local communities to make this a success. Hon. Members should let their voices be heard, champion the improvements their constituents are calling for, and work with their local authorities to turn this vision into reality.

I am sure that my hon Friend welcomed the news that Lancashire County Council has been allocated £494 million from this local transport fund, to be paid over seven years, starting next year. Local transport authorities have the freedom to choose from a range of projects, such as building new roads, installing or expanding tram lines, or improving train stations. We will shortly publish advice for local authorities to help them make the most of this opportunity.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport recently met the leaders of Lancashire County Council to discuss a number of local transport schemes, including the reinstatement of the Burscough curves, which my hon. Friend Damien Moore has championed. Indeed, I believe that he has met his local transport authority to the same end.

The Secretary of State stressed that these projects—the projects that we have heard about from my hon. Friends—could benefit from the local transport fund, but it will be for the council to determine whether it is prioritised for investment. We have written to each local authority, making it clear that they will be expected to consult local MPs—such as the champions we have heard from today—as they develop their plans for spending their LTF allocation. I encourage my hon. Friends to work closely with the council and advocate for the work needed at Midge Hall and the Burscough curves. I know that they are looking to me to play the lead in making the case with them. I am very happy to do so and to help sell the case that they have made so eloquently this evening.

On the second point from my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, about extending train services beyond electrified routes, I agree that new technologies have the potential to decarbonise the rail network while unlocking additional destinations, bringing environmental and service benefits to passengers and local communities. To help deliver the Government’s net zero commitment, we will electrify additional lines and deploy alternative traction technologies, such as battery, as she mentioned, where it makes operational and economic sense. The Government are supporting the development of battery and hydrogen technology in rail through innovation funding and research. This includes work on safety and wider issues that will have to be considered before rolling out this technology more widely.

Since the start of 2019, my Department has provided around £4.75 million in funding through its first-of-a-kind competitions, which are run by Innovate UK, to help decarbonise the railway. That includes £750,000 to facilitate trials of the UK’s first hydrogen-powered train, which was showcased at COP26. Earlier today, the Minister for technology and decarbonisation, my hon. Friend Anthony Browne, launched the latest round of transport research and innovation grants, offering organisations and academics the chance to win their share of a £1.3 million fund to seek solutions to some of transport’s greatest challenges.

My Department has also helped to get innovations off the ground by supporting trials, including approximately £2.15 million of rail network enhancement pipeline funding for the UK’s first fast-charging, battery-only train. Remarkably, a recent test train travelled a record-breaking 86 miles on battery power alone. We hope to see the first scheduled passenger service later this year. It is that type of technology, which we are investing in, that will allow us to reach our 2040 target to take all diesel trains off the line, and will be the type of solution that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble has rightly called for.

I was pleased to see that some of those new technologies are already being deployed in the area. Headbolt Lane station, which the Secretary of State opened last year, is the first station to benefit from battery technology on the new class 777 trains, removing the need to extend the third rail beyond the existing Kirkby station. Of course, the matter of further extension of the Merseyrail services, either over the Burscough curves or from Ormskirk towards Preston, is a local one. Merseyrail is a devolved concession, with key strategic decisions made at a local level by Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. It is right that local leaders, not Ministers in Whitehall, decide whether such projects are the best way to meet local needs. It is that ethos—more power and more investment in local hands—that is driving the Government’s new approach to transport, and that has seen us double the Liverpool city region’s sustainable transport settlement to £1.6 billion.

I close by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble for securing the debate, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Southport. I assure them both that I take on board their points about local public transport needs. The fund is made available, including for business cases, for projects such as those we have heard championed this evening. I want to see those projects being invested in, so I have great hope and optimism that we can assist my hon. Friends with their campaigns. I assure them both that my door is open to them to discuss wider transport opportunities that will benefit their constituents, and I will do what I can to help sell the case for their rail projects.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.