Rail Services (Erewash)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 7th December 2010.

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Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash 12:30 pm, 7th December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership and chairmanship, Mr Gale. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise in Parliament the important issue of train station provision and rail travel in my constituency. The debate will focus particularly on the need to reopen a train station in the Ilkeston area. There is a proud history in Erewash of working on the railways. For generations, many engineers, construction workers and drivers have serviced the rail lines in the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire area. Indeed, my late grandfather, who lived nearby in Nottingham, spent his entire working life as an engineer and fitter on the steam trains. In his later years, he was one of the few remaining experts on steam trains, and was able to offer advice on them well into his 90s.

There is a well-utilised train station service in Erewash. The station at Long Eaton provides regular local and national train services; indeed, the fast train to London now takes only one and a half hours. However, Long Eaton station is right in the south of the constituency, and there is a gap in provision in the north. Ilkeston is one of the largest towns in the UK without a train station. There used to be three stations in Ilkeston, but there has been no provision since Ilkeston Junction station closed in January 1967 as a result of the Dr Beeching report. The stations in Erewash were part of the Erewash valley line running from Trent junction up to Clay Cross and Chesterfield.

Any new station would in all likelihood have to attract the support of a train company running services north to Sheffield, which would also stop at Ilkeston. At the appropriate time, I will gladly make any necessary representations to train companies to highlight the benefits of stopping at Ilkeston. There is a gap in the provision of local services, and I seek progress from all the relevant authorities in making this much-needed service a reality.

Although I have been a supporter of this cause for the past three years, a campaign to reopen a train station in Ilkeston was up and running long before I was elected as the area's MP earlier this year. Indeed, local residents need to take credit for their persistence over the years. There is a hugely popular Facebook campaign, which lists many supporters. This year, the local newspaper, the Ilkeston Advertiser, also launched an excellent campaign backing the reopening of the train station, and supporters can write to the paper to express their support.

Although additional train services would in themselves assist in Erewash, the benefits to Ilkeston of a reopened train station go well beyond rail provision. Ilkeston town centre and market need as much support as possible to bring in shoppers and visitors. We have suffered the loss of a number of shops in the town in recent years, and the ability to draw people back to the area would be a real help.

From a social and economic point of view, the recent recession has had a disproportionate effect on Erewash. Residents experience relative geographical isolation from work opportunities, and that is compounded by significantly lower car ownership levels than elsewhere. Bus services are also a little limited. The decline in the manufacturing sector over the past 10 years and factory closures are also part of the background.

A recent report produced by Experian and commissioned by the BBC provides further evidence to demonstrate that Erewash is perhaps more vulnerable than other areas to economic pressures. Out of the 324 boroughs considered, Erewash was down at No. 251, although such statistics are a reflection not on the spirit and enthusiasm of the people of Erewash, but on the history of the local economy and, therefore, its ability to withstand an economic downturn.

I turn now to the unemployment figures for September 2010. Erewash borough has the highest rates of unemployment of the districts in Derbyshire. We need support and investment in our area. A train station would be just one element in bringing about that investment, but it would be a successful element and one from which the whole community would benefit.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I hope that my hon. Friend recognises, as I do, that a train station linking Ilkeston to Nottingham would not only relieve the congestion on the A610, but bring employment opportunities, allowing people from former coalfields in Erewash-there are similar areas in my constituency-to access employment in the city of Nottingham.

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I agree. The possibility of enjoying the benefits of employment and the ability to travel to work would be much improved. As my hon. Friend suggested, that would revitalise the whole of the east midlands up to Sherwood.

Any proposal for a train station would be backed by the local business community in Erewash. Our excellent local business group, the Erewash Partnership, certainly supports the campaign. I had better declare now that the local MP is always asked to sit on the partnership's board, and it is a real privilege and honour to do that. The partnership would assist wherever needed to help the plan come to fruition.

Turning to the approach taken by the coalition Government, I have been encouraged by the observations made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in his Budget speech in June, and by the Secretary of State for Transport, on the importance of rail travel. In his recent statement of 25 November, the Secretary of State set out the Government's plans for investment in rail infrastructure and rolling stock.

I have undertaken meetings in recent weeks and months with the borough councils and the county council in Derbyshire. I have written to the leader of Derbyshire county council, and I am encouraged by the reply that I have received. That letter, from Councillor Andrew Lewer, dated 25 November, confirms that the station proposal, the estimated cost of which is £5 million to £6 million, is one of the major transport infrastructure proposals in the local transport plan, and that it is deliverable within the time scale of the current Parliament. Further, he accepts that the plan offers good value for money.

I am further encouraged by the fact that, following my letter, the leader of the council accepts that serious discussions will take place next year and, importantly, that a bid for funding from the regional growth fund will be made in January 2011. Of course, I support that bid, which will be made through the newly formed local enterprise partnership. That is good news, and I am grateful that the county council is making the application in the short period before the January deadline.

Having addressed the social and economic case for a station in Ilkeston and put it in its historical setting, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will agree that there is a powerful case for a station to be reopened in Erewash, particularly in the Ilkeston area. I will do all I can to support any proposals to make this project a reality.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I praise her long-standing commitment to this cause. As she knows, some of her constituents are likely to use Langley Mill station in my constituency. Will she join me in calling on East Midlands Trains to sort out access to the platforms there at long last? Southbound passengers arriving at Langley Mill have to go down a steep and slippery flight of steps. There is also no disabled access, and the only option for disabled people is to get a train into Nottingham and back out again so that they can use the other platform. There have been many promises over the years that the situation will be sorted out. Most recently, we were promised some sort of chairlift, and it would help rail passengers in both our constituencies if progress could be made on that.

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. Of course, there must be suitable disabled access at Langley Mill. I would similarly campaign for such access at any new station at Ilkeston, although I am sure that there would be appropriate access for those who are less able. With those remarks, I will conclude.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Minister of State, Department for Transport 12:39 pm, 7th December 2010

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gale. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jessica Lee on securing the debate. She is clearly an able advocate for her constituents. She set out with great clarity the benefits that a new station at Ilkeston or in the Ilkeston area could bring them. She has made an attractive case for taking the project forward.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government's view of the proposal. As we have heard from my hon. Friend this afternoon, the provision of a new station has the full support of Derbyshire county council; I understand that Nottinghamshire is also very supportive. My hon. Friend also outlined strong support in the local area, among the population and the business community. That is pivotal; the benefits of the proposed new station would accrue almost exclusively to a localised area. In such cases, the Government look for strong local support if progress to be made. It is for local authorities rather than Whitehall to determine whether a new station is the best way to meet the transport needs of the community.

I am encouraged to learn that Derbyshire county council has taken a very active role in taking this scheme forward, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash. The county council has engaged well with Network Rail and with Northern Rail, the local train operator. My understanding is that in 2009 Derbyshire commissioned a feasibility study, building on work on the proposal that was carried out in 1999 and 2000. That study concluded that a new station would be deliverable in practical terms and indicated that the project had the potential to yield good value for money. The study indicated that income from generated travel-passengers using the station who previously would not have travelled by train-could more than cover the on-going costs of running the station.

The study is significant. The pressing need to address the deficit that we inherited from our Labour predecessors means that we have to take more care than ever to safeguard taxpayers' money and keep spending under control. It is therefore very difficult for local rail schemes to get the green light if it is expected that they will require an additional ongoing subsidy from the taxpayer. While the studies that have been carried out do not provide us yet with a definitive answer on value for money or commercial viability, they give us some credible evidence that calls at a new station could be deliverable without an additional subsidy.

Assuming that that issue is potentially resolvable, there are three further questions that it would be useful for us to consider this afternoon. First, how could the capital costs of building a new station be funded? Secondly, is it possible to accommodate calls at the new station within existing schedules? Thirdly, will the existing and future franchisee be prepared to call at a new station?

As to the first question, it is for Derbyshire county council as the promoter of the new station to identify funding for the capital costs of building it. It would be open to the county council to prioritise the project for support from the integrated transport block. However the crisis in the public finances means that all councils face difficult choices on how they use limited capital budgets. ITB budget cuts certainly make it more difficult for that funding stream to provide the answer in this case. However, the Government have announced two new sources of money, which could be relevant to the project, and which are well worth considering.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned, one of those sources is the regional growth fund, which is expected to be worth £1.4 billion over three years and is now open for its first round of bids. I am pleased to hear that Derbyshire has been quick off the mark, and expects to be able to put in a bid soon. The fund is designed to stimulate enterprise, encourage growth and create jobs in the private sector. It can be used for investment in transport, because tackling congestion and improving connections between cities and towns to link people to job opportunities can maximise agglomeration benefits; those can be two of the best ways to boost economic growth. I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend had to say about the difficult economic climate for her constituents. No doubt those factors will be relevant in the consideration of the bid for funding from the regional growth fund. I also take on the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for Erewash about the economic benefit that a new station could generate in the local area.

If an RGF bid is to have a realistic chance of success, the supporters of the scheme, such as the county council, are important. My hon. Friend has worked with private sector partners in the business community; I am delighted to hear that that is what is happening. It is good to hear of support from the Erewash Partnership and others in the business community there. I understand that a local enterprise partnership is being set up in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. No doubt its involvement in the project will be very useful in helping to identify private sector support and, potentially, contributions.

A second potential source of support for such a project is the local sustainable transport fund. The coalition has established that fund to deliver local transport projects that stimulate growth and reduce carbon emissions. We expect the fund to contain £530 million over the CSR period-so it is a substantial amount of money-and we will provide more details shortly on how it will operate and how local authorities may be able to bid for and get access to the funding. That funding stream may be relevant and worth considering in this case. Thus there are various options, which the county council and the others who support the scheme may want to explore. I emphasise that my officials are happy to discuss those possibilities further with the county council and the promoters of the scheme.

I now move on to my second question-whether a stop at Ilkeston can practically be accommodated within the existing service pattern. Two regular passenger services pass through the proposed site: the Liverpool-Norwich service run by East Midlands Trains and the Leeds-Nottingham service run by Northern Rail. Following early discussions with the train operators, I understand that the county council concluded that stopping the Leeds-Nottingham service would be the more feasible of the alternatives, although that would not necessarily preclude other services from calling in the future, if it proved to be commercially viable.

The good news is that Network Rail is funded to re-signal the Erewash Valley line and the western approaches to Nottingham station. The work is due to finish by 2013. I am advised that that upgrade could potentially create the additional time in the schedule needed to enable services to call at a new station at Ilkeston. However, services would have to be fairly tightly timed, and that would put some additional pressure on the timetable. It is important to consider the effect of that pressure on reliability and the overall impact of a new station on longer distance passengers. The market for travel between Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds is growing. There is strong support among local authorities for journey time reductions between Leeds and Nottingham. Making a call at an additional station would run counter to that ambition. Journey times would be about three minutes slower than otherwise.

In essence, as is so often the case with the configuring of rail services, there is a balance to be struck between the local interests of my hon. Friend's constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, and the economic benefits that could accrue across a wider area with shorter long-distance journey times. Careful thought would need to go into getting that balance right. However, the evidence that I have seen does not lead me to conclude that the issue would give rise to an insurmountable barrier to the project going ahead: so that is not a show-stopper either.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

It is worth putting on record our thanks to the Minister's Department for the amount of money that is being spent not only in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire but in the whole of the east midlands. That will, I hope, push forward the east midlands, generate more jobs and drive us out of the disastrous economic position that the Government found when they came to power. Does my hon. Friend recognise how important it is to make transport links-not just new train stations like the one that is wanted at Ilkeston but links to cycle routes and other public transport hubs-so that people can get from their place of residence to their employment, to generate their own income and drive the economy forward?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Minister of State, Department for Transport

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. A striking aspect of the comprehensive spending review was the Chancellor's commitment to continued investment in our transport infrastructure. Past spending squeezes often meant that the axe was taken to a whole range of transport upgrade projects. We have decided not to do that, because those projects can play an important role in generating the growth we need to get out of the economic mess left by the previous Government. Integrating different modes of transport can, of course, yield important benefits for passengers and, similarly, valuable economic benefits, if people have better access to different modes of transport and we try to co-ordinate them.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I concur with the Minister's assessment. The Liverpool-to-Norwich train was taken off from stopping at Langley Mill, and was effectively replaced by the Leeds-to-Nottingham service, which stops twice in my constituency, at Alfreton and Langley Mill. That service has proved very popular, according to the number of people I have seen on that train when I have used it.

I would strongly oppose any timetable changes that removed that service from stopping at either of those two stations in my constituency. This proposal should be an incremental addition to that service, not a replacement. There have been rumours of a threat to Langley Mill station if Ilkeston were reopened. I would urge the Minister not to go down that route.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Minister of State, Department for Transport

I am not aware of any intended subtractions of services. As my hon. Friend says, we are discussing today whether it is realistic and practical to add a service and a station at Ilkeston, but he makes a good point.

The third of the questions that I posed at the start of my speech was whether commercial incentives alone would motivate train operators to call at a new station at Ilkeston. That is another important issue that we need to address. Before going ahead, the Department would expect the county council to confirm with Northern Rail whether it would be prepared to stop at a new station. However, its franchise is coming to an end relatively shortly, and it is not easy to predict what approach a future franchisee might take. Although the studies undertaken for the county council indicate that revenue from the station calls would outweigh the costs of its operation, train operators might take a different view of the impact of journey-time changes on longer distance passenger numbers, and hence on ticket revenues.

The Department of Transport is certainly prepared to consider whether it would be justifiable and appropriate to include obligations in relation to the new station in the future franchise contract. As the House will be aware, the Government have been assessing how to reform the franchising process, and we made a further announcement on that today. We want to see a move away from the specification of highly detailed inputs that leave little flexibility for train operators to innovate and respond to the changing needs of passengers. That said, franchise contracts under the new system will continue to contain obligations on service levels. We could consider whether that should include obligations in relation to a new station at Ilkeston.

The issues raised by the third question that I posed look as if they also could be resolvable. However, I would emphasise the word "resolvable", not "resolved". It is important to ensure that the commercial case for the station is rigorously assessed, so that the Department, the county council and train operators can be as confident as we can that the new services would be commercially viable. That is pivotal. Without that confidence, it is difficult to see how the project can get off the ground.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash for the opportunity to give an indication of the Government's approach. In conclusion, it is clear that the coalition will face difficult decisions if we are to address the crisis in the public finances that we have inherited and get our economy back on track.

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I am very encouraged by the Minister's response, in particular the view that, although there are hurdles and complexities to this project, all have the potential to be resolved. That encouragement will be received well in Erewash.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Minister of State, Department for Transport

I am grateful. In these difficult times, there will be issues to resolve about whether funding can be secured, but this is a worthwhile project, and I and my officials at the Department of Transport are happy to continue to work with the hon. Lady and Derbyshire council to see if there is a way forward. The crisis in the public finances puts significant constraints on the funding available but, as I said earlier, the Chancellor has clearly accepted that transport infrastructure projects can often yield high value for money for taxpayers. They can provide economic benefits many times their cost. That is why rail has emerged from the spending review in a far stronger position than most people expected, albeit with some necessary tough decisions on fares. We have broken the recurrent pattern of spending squeezes of years past, which was to take the axe to a wide range of capital infrastructure projects, with rail and roads often the first to suffer.

While proposals for a new station at Ilkeston need to be taken forward locally-rather than through the national rail budget-a number of funding streams might be a source of support, as we have been able to consider this afternoon. Along with my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash and for Sherwood, and others who have taken part today, I feel that this is a worthwhile project. My officials at the Department for Transport remain happy to work with the county council to see if a way can be found to take it forward. I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash for giving the House the opportunity to consider this important issue for her constituents and others in the area.

Sitting suspended.