Tees Valley Rail Transport

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:15 pm on 24th May 2011.

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Photo of Ian Swales Ian Swales Liberal Democrat, Redcar 4:15 pm, 24th May 2011

My hon. Friend’s intervention is timely, because I am about to talk more about the airport. I fully support his comments. It is essential that the airport is better served, and a frequent light rail service operating in the core area would help to change the economic fortunes of Tees Valley.

The use of rail services has continued to grow, despite the patchy service: last year, footfall increased by just less than 50,000; and in the past 10 years, the average increase in footfall overall has been 58%. Refurbished stations have shown the biggest increases, some in excess of 100%. The increase in passengers, along with huge further potential demand, means that new lines, trains and infrastructure are needed to meet the needs of residents and businesses.

Investment in existing stations is vital. For example, establishing a proper link to the airport is vital: Durham Tees Valley airport, or Teesside as it is still shown on departure boards all over the world, must be the passenger airport in Britain worst served by public transport, but the train line passes just half a mile from the terminal. Eaglescliffe station now has a main line service to London, but no information displays and only two small bus shelters for passengers. Redcar station needs investment as a gateway to the town and the new college and civic developments, and Darlington station needs investment to improve access to new educational and economic developments. The Redcar and Darlington schemes were included in the regional growth fund round 1 bid. The last new station in the area was Longbeck near Marske-by-the-Sea in 1985.

There are clear possibilities for further new stops on the existing lines. Some examples include Teesside park, for access to the new shopping area and the Tees barrage leisure facilities; Middlehaven, for the major new commercial developments and the Riverside stadium, home of Middlesbrough football club; and the James Cook university hospital, which is the major acute hospital for the area. Traffic to and from the hospital is a big source of congestion on one of the main access roads to Middlesbrough, and there are chronic parking problems at the site. Providing a good rail service would help to reduce such problems. The existing lines run close by, and a new station for the hospital was also part of the initial regional growth fund bid.

A number of other residential and commercial developments are current or planned along those routes, opening further possibilities for new stations, such as at Morton Palms, Darlington, and The Ings, Redcar. A further key need is to ensure that the new enterprise zone recently announced by the Government is well served by public transport. It is almost certain to be close to those rail routes.

I will now move on to freight. Teesport has recently been ranked variously as between the second and fourth largest port in the country, depending on the amount of industrial activity in the area. As well as serving the bulk process industries and being an import terminal for cars, Teesport has a rapidly growing container business, with giant new warehouses serving Tesco and Asda. The excellent facilities at Teesport mean that process industries inland also use the import/export facilities, and such industrial materials normally require shipment by rail.

The port has been successfully driving economic and employment growth. For example, 1,100 jobs have been created since 2007 and further exciting developments are planned. However, the existing connecting rail facilities need upgrading—for example, to provide clearance for modern 9-foot 6-inch containers—which is strategically important for the country. A successful Teesport backed by good rail facilities will help to reduce lorry use by millions of miles, bringing economic and environmental benefits. As part of the regional growth fund round 1, a gauge clearance project was submitted, which is vital to continuing the rapid, port-based economic growth. I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of getting more bulk freight off the roads and on to the railways.

The longer term vision includes more use of lines joining the core area and possible new lines. To the west, Darlington connects to Bishop Auckland via four other stations, including the former rolling stock manufacturing town of Shildon and, following the Hitachi announcement, the new rolling stock manufacturing town of Newton Aycliffe. The line from Eaglescliffe to Northallerton passes through the large population centre of Yarm-on-Tees, which I believe is in the constituency of my hon. Friend James Wharton. Beyond Nunthorpe, the line passes into the north Yorkshire moors and on to Whitby. Services on that line are always likely to be more of a leisure activity, but the first station is Great Ayton and most people in that area work in Tees Valley.

Finally, beyond Saltburn, part of the old Yorkshire coast line to Scarborough still exists as a freight-only line as far as the Boulby potash mine. The potash mine received money to expand in the regional growth fund round 1 and is a major local employer. I have recently been approached by an operator who is considering restoring a passenger service along the line to include the east Cleveland settlements it passes through, including North Skelton, Brotton, Skinningrove and Loftus. Use of all such existing lines to better connect people to the core Tees Valley services and opportunities should be part of our vision.

Serious discussion is also going on about reopening the old Nunthorpe to Guisborough branch line. Although the track has been lifted, the route is virtually intact as a walkway, and Guisborough has expanded to be a large centre of population, with most of the people working in Tees Valley. They are a large contributor to the heavy south-to-north road congestion at peak times. A rail service would reduce the current pressure to invest in new road solutions—some road-building proposals even involve taking land from the National Trust at Orenby hall.

More speculative would be the construction of other new lines and a Tees crossing nearer the river mouth. Redcar to Hartlepool is only seven miles as the crow flies, but the need to go a long way upriver to cross by road or rail means that their local economies are largely disconnected. A Tees crossing remains a dream for many in the long term. Where new lines are not economical, better co-ordinated bus services are needed to link centres of population to the rail network, for example from the Greater Eston area.

I appreciate that investment requires funds, but I urge the Minister to consider carefully the issue of fares. The UK already has some of the highest fares in the world. I live close to Redcar East station and, to travel one stop to the centre of town, the fare is only slightly less than a taxi fare—for just two people, a taxi would be the cheaper option for most short journeys locally. For long trips, we risk incentivising people to do the wrong thing. For my trip to Parliament each week, it is already cheaper to drive at 40p a mile than to buy a standard class open return train ticket. I hope that the Minister will recognise that fares must remain reasonable, as mentioned in the coalition agreement, and that continued public investment in the railways is in the country’s interest. That is the view taken by Governments in almost every developed country.

As I hope that I have illustrated, it is vital that Tees Valley receives the short-term investment it desperately needs to improve passenger and freight rail transport. Investment without a long-term vision, however, will not deliver the results that the people throughout the region want, so it is important that a long-term strategy is put in place to manage investment over time and to build the infrastructure needed. Tees Valley is an area with enormous potential to drive major growth in the UK economy. I hope that this debate has helped further the cause for improving Tees Valley rail transport, and I strongly urge the Minister to support the upgrades that are so badly needed.