Rail Services (Erewash)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:39 pm on 7th December 2010.

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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.