Exclusive: Business makes the case for more direct trains to London

THE Government is being urged to draw up a long-term strategy to improve beleaguered rail links to one of Yorkshire's most popular destinations amid accusations that train services are stuck in the Victorian age and stifling enterprise.

The first formal bid of its kind to bolster the rail network to Harrogate has been submitted to the Department for Transport in the hope that as many as a dozen direct daily services to and from the spa town and London will ultimately be introduced.

The long-running campaign to improve rail connections to Harrogate has seen a 25-page report compiled over the past two months, and the dossier has now been sent to the Department for Transport.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The bid to boost rail links has been overseen by the Harrogate Chamber of Trade and Commerce amid mounting concerns that poor train connections are hampering business growth in the town and the wider district.

The Chamber's chief executive, Brian Dunsby, said: "An awful lot of work has gone into compiling the data to prove the case, but we are only too aware that we need to make sure that any additional services are used if they are introduced.

"Harrogate's circumstances are in many ways unique, as we have such a large number of visitors for both business and leisure, and we do believe that the improvements to rail services are long overdue."

The conferencing industry is a cornerstone of Harrogate's economy, although it is feared high-profile events could be lost as organisers look elsewhere because of travel difficulties.

It is estimated that visitors spend 331m in the district every year, and there are more than 1,750 rooms in hotels and guest houses in Harrogate alone – far outweighing the numbers in similar towns that already have direct London rail services.

Events at the Harrogate International Centre attract more than 200,000 business visitors every year, with about 40 per cent coming from London and the South-East.

However, passengers wanting to travel to London have a single direct service to King's Cross each day – leaving Harrogate at 7.28am and taking almost three hours.

The only alternative is connecting services to either York or Leeds and changing there, but there is only an hourly service between Harrogate and York at peak times – and fewer trains at other times.

One of the biggest issues is that there is only a single track for large sections of the route between Harrogate and York, so trains rely on manual signalling that has changed little since the Victorian age.

Harrogate Borough Council's cabinet member for planning, transport and economic development, Councillor Don Mackenzie, said: "We need assurances that rail links will be improved. It is simply not good enough that techniques dating back to the Victorian era are still being used on the line between Harrogate and York.

"We get a lot of business and leisure visitors to Harrogate, often from abroad.

"However, many international visitors will be put off from making the journey if they are having to change trains at Leeds or York before they arrive in Harrogate," he added.

The route between Edinburgh and London via Yorkshire is now effectively under state control after a public sector company, East Coast, took over from the troubled franchisee National Express in November last year.

The Department for Transport's franchise sponsor, Geoff Appleby, is now being urged to ensure a clause it written into any future franchise agreement to increase direct services between Harrogate and the capital when the East Coast Mainline is passed back into private hands in 2012.