Lancashire could bid to host new Great British Railways headquarters, as call goes out to back county rail schemes

The northern transport body fighting to revive the vision for a high-speed train line connecting Manchester and Leeds has also been urged to back Lancashire’s railway ambitions.

By Paul Faulkner
Saturday, 27th November 2021, 2:47 am
Updated Saturday, 27th November 2021, 2:48 am

Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport Charlie Edwards told a meeting of the Transport for the North (TfN) board that he wanted the organisation to help make the case for several key connectivity projects in the county.

He also revealed that Lancashire was considering making a pitch to host the new public body, Great British Railways.

The organisation, which is due to begin its work in 2023 when it will replace Network Rail, is intended to better integrate the UK railway. It will own the network’s infrastructure, collect fare revenue and set most fares, operate and plan the rail network and set timetables.

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The government announced last month that it would be staging a competition for the town or city to become the headquarters of Great British Railways. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested at the Conservative Party conference that the base should be in the North.

County Cllr Edwards said he wanted to see that goal set out in “every single thing we [as a board] talk about”.

“I know it’s a consolation prize, but it has to be one of them. Lancashire are looking at how we can put in a bid as well,” he said.

Other areas to declare early interest in becoming home of the new body include York, Crewe and Doncaster.

TfN board members had gathered for the first time since publication last week of the government’s £96bn integrated rail plan, which revealed that an upgrade to the Manchester to Leeds route would not see the entirely new line that TfN had sought, but would be made up of a combination of new track and improvements to existing lines. It was also announced that part of the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds would not go ahead.

The move sparked fury from Northern leaders and County Cllr Edwards told the meeting that Lancashire was “absolutely gutted” for Yorkshire. However, he also appealed to the board to throw its weight behind bids being made by Lancashire under the Restoring Your Railways Fund.

“I need to make sure that Fleetwood to Poulton is championed by this group and Skipton to Colne, the link in Skelmersdale…and the South Fylde loop, Clitheroe to Hellifield – every single one of these. I need you guys to champion investment in Lancashire,” he said.

The reopening of the Poulton to Fleetwood line is currently being assessed as an advanced proposal to the Restoring Your Railways Fund, following a feasibility study earlier this year. In September, it was also revealed that Lancashire County Council was submitting a strategic outline business case to the government to build a new station in Skelmersdale – 65 years after the previous one closed.

However, just one of five Lancashire bids to round three of the “ideas” section of the Restoring Your Railways Fund was successful when the results were announced last month.

Although the government will make a 75 percent contribution to the cost of feasibility study to reconnect Rawtenstall and Manchester by rail, there was no such support for assessments of proposals to re-open Midge Hall Station in South Ribble, build a new station at Coppull in Chorley, make rail improvements in Pendle or reinstate the stretch of track known as the “Burscough Curves”, which would allow for direct train travel between Preston and Southport.

County Cllr Edwards said that if there was any underspend on the government’s £96bn plans – which include £42bn in funding the HS2 line to Birmingham and Crewe – then “every penny” should stay in the North.

He also successfully requested the removal of a call for “mediation” in a motion committing TfN writing to the Transport Secretary to investigate funding options – including, potentially, via a local contribution – for the delivery of the board’s preferred Northern Powerhouse Rail option. County Cllr Edwards said that the idea of mediation raised the question of what would happen to TfN depending on the outcome of that process.

“As an organisation…it’s nice that we can have this chance to vent, but at some point, the venting’s got to stop,” he said, calling for the board to define the “co-sponsor” status that the government has now imposed on TfN for delivery of its rail plans in the North.

Meanwhile, in a statement read out to the TfN board, Lancashire Enterprise Partnership board member Mark Rawstron expressed his “utter disappointment at the total lack of ambition demonstrated in the integrated rail plan”.

“[It is] a real missed opportunity to develop a co-ordinated approach to transport connectivity across the Noth. From a business perspective, this will mean real economic and other regeneration opportunities are, at absolute best, not maximised and, more realistically, will be missed altogether.

“The lack of emphasis on freight and port-to-port connectivity is a huge missed opportunity to show leadership and economic strategy. The private sector would respond with real cash and action if strategic investment was supported,” Mr. Rawstron said.