With a question mark hanging over the long-awaited electrification of the Manchester to Blackpool railway line, plans to spruce up Preston station have now been axed completely. Reporter Matthew Squires asks: What now?
When former Transport Minister Lord Andrew Adonis was given a guided tour around Preston railway station last year he formed his view fairly quickly.
Stopping to examine the facility’s dank subway which connects some of the platforms, he summed it up by saying: “Poor lighting, dripping water and rattling trains overhead does not leave you feeling like you are experiencing the joys of 21st century train travel.”
The facility, a Grade II listed building, had just been ranked as one of the 10 worst in the country by the Government’s ‘rail champions’ around the time of his visit last November.
Lord Adonis was in the city to announce that a slice of £50m of much-needed investment was heading straight to Preston. It would pay for a spruce-up of the subway area, better signage and, most importantly, a new glass walkway connecting all platforms and ensuring that passengers, disabled ones in particular, could find and reach them more easily.
In addition, then Chancellor Alistair Darling announced in his final budget that the electrification of the line from Manchester to Blackpool was finally to get the green light, after years of campaigning.
It finally appeared, as one rail campaigner has said this week, like the North West’s time had arrived.
One election later and those aspirations now lie in tatters.
A huge question mark is hanging over the electrification idea, while the much needed upgrade has been scrapped completely under the cutbacks.
The new coalition government has axed the project entirely - part of £683m of cuts announced at the Department for Transport this week as part of the £6.2bn austerity measures. A spokesman for Network Rail, which was due to carry out the station improvement work, explained the cuts, saying: “Essentially in the times we are in we are looking to prioritise schemes which will either add capacity to the railways or improve efficiency on the railways and unfortunately schemes like this don’t do either of those things.”
It was perhaps inevitable. So what now for Preston station?
The news was today met with widespread, abject and understandable disappointment by rail campaigners. They say it is more evidence that the south has once again taken precedence over the north.
Roger Bell, of the Ormskirk, Preston and Southport Travellers Association, believes it is another example of the North West missing out on vital funding.
“I noticed they are still going ahead with the Crossrail (in London),” he said. “It is going to be all for them and nothing for us. Are you surprised? I’m not.”
The North West Rail Campaign has also described the news as disappointing.
“We have lobbied long and hard for improvements in the North West because we feel that the lions’ share of transport funding has been directed elsewhere,” Emma Antrobus, from the campaign, told the BBC.
“We thought it was coming to our time... and it seems that is not to be any more.”
But Virgin Trains, which currently runs the station for their ‘landlord’ Network Rail, says there is a possible answer, an opportunity for investment at Preston - and has today called for urgent changes to the rules on train operating franchises to allow vital private investment into stations as the public purse strings are tightened.
Only with longer franchises will train operators feel that pumping cash into station upgrades would be worth it.
A spokesman explained: “We are disappointed, we were looking forward to improvements being made to the station under the scheme.
“But there are other ways that the improvements can be done. For what seems like many years now we have been calling for changes in the rules to allow train operators to invest in stations.
“We think that with the year of Treasury cuts, where public spending is being curbed, the industry and the Department needs to look at the various options for private investment into stations.
“For that it does need longer franchises, which the previous Government has talked about.”
The Conservatives too made noises about the possibility of more flexible franchises while in opposition, but it remains unclear whether they intend to progress the idea.
Last year Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson produced a future “vision” for the West Coast Main Line which envisaged major improvements to Preston station if Virgin were given the flexibility of a longer franchise.
Meanwhile, improvements to six other stations in North West England - Manchester Victoria, Liverpool Central, Stockport, Crewe, Warrington Bank Quay and Wigan North Western - which were also due to be funded by the Department for Transport - have also been scrapped.
But, perhaps adding weight to Virgin’s argument, Network Rail has indicated there may still be improvement work at Manchester Victoria and they are planning to look at other funding sources.