Pennine Lancashire: Closing the gap

It’s a small 12 mile stretch of abandoned railway north of Colne but it represents the route the government needs to set off on if it is to reach its levelling-up destination.

The line between Colne and Skipton was removed in 1970. Restoring it would bring a massive economic boost to East Lancashire.

It would open up Yorkshire’s economic powerhouses to its communities and businesses and create a major trans-Pennine route linking Liverpool on the west coast to Hull in the east. Little wonder it has been described as a “no brainer”.

It is also one of a number of rail project proposals that would be of major benefit, not just to the east but to the whole of the county.

Last spring, the Department for Transport (DfT) authorised the progression of the Skipton to Colne project through to the ‘develop’ stage of the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP). Campaigners are now waiting to see what happens next.

Initially the focus was on restoring passenger services totransform connectivity, however supporters of the scheme say it is vital that the line has the capability to become a major east-west freight route.

In November last year the Skipton East Lancs Rail Action Partnership (SELRAP) pressure group commissioned a study from global engineering and consultancy firm Arup.

The brief was to review passenger demand and quantify the “huge” social and economic benefits new services on the line would bring to the area.

The Skipton-Colne rail corridor is home to around 676,000 people, 32,000 businesses and nearly 200,000 jobs. The report spelled out the challenge, stating: “The current rail network is failing many communities, and holding back East Lancashire’s economic potential.”

However, its authors added: “A new 12-mile rail corridor will be transformational – forming the North’s fourth trans-Pennine link, supporting the levelling-up of the East Lancashire and wider Northern economy.

The corridor would enhance connectivity, improve productivity, increase employment, foster innovation, and deliver inclusive growth. It would open up opportunities for communities across East Lancashire, spreading and enhancing the economic benefits from Yorkshire.

The current rail network is failing many communities, and holding back East Lancashire’s economic potential.

It added: “Improvements to connectivity can support and facilitate sustainable economic growth in East Lancashire by providing access to employment and training opportunities, widening labour markets and reducing costs to businesses.

The report also addressed the positive impact of freight services in terms of the environment and the economy. That potential impact is also behind the growing case for the creation of a new rail freight terminal on the Huncoat power station site.

Supporters of the emerging vision also believe it could be transformational and are urging the county council to throw its weight behind the idea, which would need serious private sector investment.

They point out the location is just 16 miles from the West Coast mainline and has a direct link to the port of Liverpool. If the line was upgraded goods manufactured in East Lancashire could be at a deep-sea port in an hour.

Its development would also be attractive to businesses in Manchester as an alternative to the heavily congested Trafford Park terminal.

Graham Jones, Haslingden and Hyndburn’s former MP and a SELRAP trustee, is one of the supporters of the idea. He says: “It is gaining an awful lot of momentum and makes real sense. Network Rail has said it is an ideal location. We need someone to get hold of this and move quickly.”

The idea also has the support of the #AmazingAccrington group. Chairman Murray Dawson says there is an “ongoing” lack of government funding and investment in the area and adds: “The rail freight terminal at Huncoat would be an ideal project to get over the line and would have a big impact locally.

Other potential rail projects are also hoping to make a difference, if they can get the support needed to move them off the drawing board. Neil Shaw, chief executive of Rossendale council says: “There is an opportunity in strengthening the infrastructure of the Pennine region.

We are particularly keen to secure government funding for the rail link from Rawtenstall into Manchester and we have had positive indications from recent announcements which inch us closer to this happening.”

In the Ribble Valley, work continues on the campaign to reopen the Clitheroe to Hellifield line, axed in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, to passengers. Again, it could bring an economic boost to the area worth millions.

In May last year the council was told that its bid for government cash to work up a business case to re-open the line had been successful.

The government has got its levelling up agenda, but we’ve not seen much of it yet and what does that really look like?

If it happens it would restore rail links for passengers and freight between Clitheroe and Skipton, Leeds to the east and Lancaster and Carlisle to the north.

Complementary rail services are also under consideration, including increasing the frequency of trains between Clitheroe and Manchester and a direct route between the town and Preston.

Council leader Stephen Atkinson said: “It will be a huge boost to the borough, worth tens of millions of pounds to the local economy and East Lancashire as a whole, by improving east to west connectivity.

“The main infrastructure is already in place and the Clitheroe to Hellifield line is in good condition, which gives us a great start.

The economic boost that the restoration and improvement of rail links can have on a community has already been seen in the east of the county.

The successful £13m reopening of the Todmorden Curve rail line some five years ago – four decades after its last commuter journey – saw travel time between Burnley Manchester Road and Manchester Victoria reduced to 45 minutes.

The line, which saw around 400,000 journeys between 2018-19 alone, has encouraged businesses to relocate to the town and acted as a catalyst for more investment.

Paul Kendrick, managing director of Accrington-based e-retail giant Studio, believes the opportunity for East Lancashire from more of this kind of infrastructure investment could be “immense”.

A freight terminal at Huncoat would be a big boost for his business, which imports goods from around the world. Better transport links would also be of benefit in terms of the logistics around delivery.

However, he wants more action and less talk. He says: “The government has got its levelling up agenda, but we’ve not seen much of it yet and what does that really look like?

“We need to see a plan for transportation, to move goods around the country in a far more efficient way.”

He adds that such a plan must also improve travel locally, so people can move around the area quickly and easily, encouraging them to make their homes and careers in Lancashire and halting what he calls “the talent drain”.

Miranda Barker, chief executive of East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, believes it is vital that east Lancashire is properly linked into the Northern Powerhouse rail project.

She says: “We need the HS2 rail link, but we also need to open up better east-west rail links to open up Yorkshire for East Lancashire.

“The Skipton-Colne link would create an effective freight link from Liverpool right across the Hull. It is all about the export of our goods.”

Transport for the North (TfN), which represents local and combined authorities, as well as business leaders, has called on the government to make “bold” choices on rail to level-up the region.

Peter Molyneux of TfN says: “We will continue to make the case for a sustained pipeline of infrastructure investment to support the government’s levelling up agenda.  

It is crucial that we are fully involved in the crucial decisions as things like the Integrated Rail Plan are taken forward to ensure our region’s needs are fully considered.”

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