The Bickerstaffe Record
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Cotterill on the Council, The world beyond West Lancashire

Rail fail

09.20.10 | 1 Comment

I’ve been meaning to cover the report to Cabinet about the ‘The Northern Rail Hub – Transforming Rail in the North study’ document for a few days now, not least because I know there’s local journos out there waiting on my every word. 

They know I’m particularly interested in the local transport infrastructure, and in how what we do now on transport may have very long term consequences on the economic and social well-being of the people of West Lancashire.

So first things first. 

It was good to see the matter on the September Cabinet agenda.  The document actually came out in February, and I met with Sir Richard Leese and senior transport officers at Manchester City Council/Greater Manchester Integrated Transport Authority about it back in June to discuss the implications for West Lancashire. 

Of course the Tories will deny that my getting on with making representations to the relevant people and agencies is what woke them up to the existence and importance of the report, but heh, the good thing is that the Tories have now woken up.  Better late than never.

What’s a bit worrying is that the Cabinet report appears to play down the importance of the whole thing:

I think that it is fair to say that most of the improvements will only be of indirect benefit to services in West Lancashire. They will, for example improve capacity and provide better connections that will, in the future, open up opportunities to increase the number of trains from Southport to Manchester.

Mmm.

Part of the problem, certainly, is that the actual  Norther Hub document produced for consultation is quite brief, and lacks a lot of the finer detail about the proposals, but if you look behind the scenes to see what the Greater Manchester Integrated Transport Authority is up to, then I think we see stuff that’s VERY relevant to West Lancashire.

In particular, there’s the agreement to progress with developing:

Capacity for electrified services to operate via Chat Moss route and WCML [West Coast Main Line] with the ability to provide a fast service between Wigan and Manchester (para. 2.8)

This plan, which if things go well could be implemented by 2013/14, would bring down the Wigan-Central Manchester travel time to as little as 20 minutes, I understand, and along with the potential Skelmersdale Rail link and the existing route into Wigan from Southport via Burscough and Parbold, significantly change the possible Travel to Work options for people dependent and/or keen on public transport.

While work journeys from West Lancashire to Manchester account for just 1.2% according to the most recent available stats (2001 census), and while travel from Manchester into West Lancashire doesn’t even register as a statistic, the signficant shortening of journey time might open up a whole new range of opportunities.

That’s not to mention of course, all the leisure and culture opportunities that are opened up, though for a significant percentage of the population that would depend on West Lancs council getting its act together over concessionary travel (which I won’t cover in this post, but which also figured in my discussions with Richard Leese and his colleagues).

As a result of the council not paying enough attention to the detail of these developments, the Cabinet’s response to the consultation looks half-hearted and insular. 

Instead of simply writing to let Network Rail about how important the Burscough Curves and Skelmersdale Rail Station are  – and they most definitely are – the Cabinet should be putting forward its carefully argued support for other schemes over the border like the one I refer to (and its knock on effect for rolling stock improvements on the other Wigan-MCr line), and building an overall case for the inclusion of West Lancashire within the overall scheme.

Instead, what we’re likely to get (notwithstanding my own advocacy work on behalf of the Labour group and indirectly the people of West Lancashire) is a continution of the exisitng state of affairds, whereby the key policy makers say the following about the ‘Extent of the Hub':

The geographic extent of the Network Rail study is from Manchester as far as Liverpool, Wigan, Preston, Blackburn, Leeds, Sheffield, Buxton, Stoke-on-Trent, Crewe and Chester. This is roughly the outer boundary of the Manchester journey to work area. The impacts of improvements in this area, both in terms of service patterns and service performance, will be significant throughout the north of England as services operate well beyond these locations. The PTE has worked hard to ensure that a balance is struck between the consideration of shorter distance commuter services and longer distance services.

West Lancashire has been excluded, placed beyond this ‘rough’ outer boundary when places further away like Stoke make it in, principally because its Tory Council has not seen it as important enough to stay involved. 

The simple reality is the council has not taken its responsibilities seriously, and this is reflected not just in the fact that this important document is only being commented on several months after it appeared (February 2010) but in the strategic weakness of the reply.  

The Labour group has already made much stronger representations (via myself) and I’ll be asking it to follow up the Cabinet comments with further representations.

Perhaps even more worrying in terms of the Tory council’s performance on transport, though, is that the Cabinet does not even seem to be clear what’s going on with the Skelmersdale Rail Link feasibility study, which has been funded from the last section of the Single Programme fund monies that Labour brought to the area in 2000, alongside a Merseytravel and a County Council contribution, and is due to be ready by December 2010.

The cabinet decision says that the folllowing comment should be sent in response to the Norther Hub document:

The Borough Council is working closely with Merseyrail to gain a better understanding of the business case for a Skelmersdale link which we believe will have considerable social, economic and environmental benefits for the region. We will be happy to share the results of this study with Network Rail so that it can, hopefully help to shape your future investment plans.

Leaving aside the apparent confusion between the roles of Merseyrail and Merseytravel, the comment fails to mention that the feasibility study now being undertaken is part 1 of 5 stages undertaken as part of Network Rail’s own ‘Guide to Railway Improvement Projects’ (GRIP 1), and that Network Rail is therefore a key part of this process in the first place. 

So of course we’re ‘happy to share’ the results of the feasibility study – the sharing is written into the current feasibility study.

Yet again, this reflects a Tory cabinet that doesn’t really understand transport, and has failed to take responsibility.

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