THE biggest challenge facing our rail network is dealing with the growth that we are experiencing. Capacity is the biggest question.
We have more services on our network now than at any point in British history, with 140,000 services per week, and we have more passengers on our network than ever before, with 1.8 billion passenger journeys per year.
That is more than one billion more passengers carried on our railways every year since privatisation. A huge transformation has happened in our rail network.
That has been achieved without compromising safety – we have a fantastic safety record, which is obviously at the heart of the rail industry.
The challenge is putting more capacity into our network to meet the demand, having turned this industry around from a declining to a succeeding sector.
That will be met in a variety of ways. The first, which attracts most attention, is obviously the construction of new lines, including HS2 more than anything else. That is a controversial project for some, but I am a big supporter of it.
We will also see capacity delivered via bigger and longer trains. The new rolling stock is transformative – just look at the new Azumas serving the East Coast Main Line. We will also deliver capacity by opening new lines and reopening lines.
That is at the heart of the Colne to Skipton project: reopening an important line that will connect Yorkshire and Lancashire. I support this project. It covers only 12 miles, there is existing trackbed, and it will connect people and jobs.
The Minister (Chris Heaton-Harris) will consider a variety of good reasons as he takes his work forward, but let me highlight some. First, the area already has congested roads, particularly in Colne – in fact, the M65 seems to end in Boundary Mill’s car park.
The rest of Colne can also be quite congested. Improving public transport in the area would be one way to improve the quality of life in Colne.
Transport connections would improve for communities much more widely. That would certainly be true of Burnley and the Aire Valley, which would be clear beneficiaries.
The trans-Pennine line is critical for the north of England’s economy, but it is congested.
The Government is responding with a £2.9bn trans-Pennine rail upgrade, but to really transform the northern economies we need to add capacity in lots of different ways. The trans-Pennine rail upgrade, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Skipton to Colne line all have a role to play, which is why I am pleased that the Government are taking this project forward through its development phase.
As a former Transport Minister, I have met campaigners and businesses who have been strong in their support for the project. We should pay tribute to their tenacity in keeping going, because it is not always easy to get transport projects off the starting blocks in the United Kingdom.
I met haulage businesses and people seeking to move significant amounts of freight from one part of the country to another, as well as people who simply recognise that some parts of the North have more vacancies and some parts have people who need work, and that transport is required to connect the two.
And if we look at the data published by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and covering the three-year period that we are right in the middle of, we see that the data from the national infrastructure and construction pipeline shows that the Northern region has higher per capita transport spending than the Midlands or the South – it is £248 per person for the North and £236 per person for the Midlands and the South.
We can combine that with the fact that the biggest project currently under way on the railways other than HS2 is the transport and rail upgrade, and we can look at the fact that rolling stock in the North is being renewed for the first time in a generation.
In only a few weeks’ time, the Minister will be able to say something that no Rail Minister has been able to say for a generation, which is that trains in the North are of a higher calibre than they have probably ever been, and they will be better than in any other part of our country.
I do not accept the basic position of Opposition MPs that the Government have failed to invest in the North and are failing to modernise, because that simply is not true. This is one project that has to be considered and taken forward – it has support right across the political spectrum. For those reasons, I urge the Minister to press on.
Andrew Jones is Tory MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough. An ex-Rail Minister, he spoke in a debate on the Colne to Skipton line – this is an edited version.