It is already a city strangled by traffic.
Yet soon even more commuters will be heading onto Preston’s clogged up roads when the busy rail line from Blackpool shuts down.
Electrification work could bring months of nose-to-tail misery for travellers who normally let the train take the strain. Fleets of coaches will battle their way into Preston from the Fylde Coast to replace more than 100 rail services on the line every day.
But with the buses due to take more than twice as long as the trains – in excess of an hour instead of just 26 minutes – there are fears some travellers will snub public transport altogether and opt to make the 17-mile journey by car.
With the city already groaning under its normal weight of traffic – typified by last week’s latest gridlock gloom – more vehicles could bring even more misery, particularly in the build-up to the festive period.
Lee Petts, managing director of Preston-based consultancy Remsol, and a former Institute of Directors’ Lancashire chairman, said: “I think that the works they’re performing are essential, but it’s probably a mistake to close the line in the run-up to Christmas.
There is never a good time to carry out this type of work, but we have planned it to take place outside of the main holiday season so it causes the least impact.
“Notwithstanding the provision of rail replacement buses, I suspect this will simply deter a lot of shoppers and visitors travelling both ways and encourage more to do to journey by car instead, causing more congestion on our already-clogged roads and leading to traffic misery and worsening air quality.”
Network Rail says the closure is essential to complete its electrification of the line from Blackpool to Preston.
Work has been going on for months, including 10 weekend shutdowns earlier this year. But the company says a total closure is now needed from November 11 to complete the scheme.
The line between Preston and Blackpool South, which includes Lytham, St Annes on Sea, Squires Gate and the Pleasure Beach, is scheduled to re-open on January 29. The branch from Kirkham to Blackpool South is not part of the electrification programme. But the service to Blackpool North, which goes via Poulton-le-Fylde and Layton, will remain closed until March 25.
A spokesperson for Network Rail said work to electrify the Preston to Manchester line had “not led to a marked increase in traffic in the city”.
Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s London North Western route managing director, said: “The upgrade of the line between Preston and Blackpool is the largest rail investment in the area since the 19th century. It will enable greener, quieter and more reliable train services.
“There is never a good time to carry out this type of work, but we have planned it to take place outside of the main holiday season so it causes the least impact. I am confident the short-term pain will certainly be worth the long-term gain of transformed train travel in future.”
The work is part of the £1bn-plus Great North Rail Project to deliver cleaner, quieter and more reliable train journeys by May 2018. Stations are being upgraded and Network Rail has rebuilt an aqueduct, 15 road bridges, five footbridges and enlarged a tunnel.
A rail users group spokesman predicted disruption would be “inevitable”.
Tony Ford, chairman of the South Fylde Line Community Rail Partnership, said: “I suspect that some passengers will find the bus service rather arduous. But some of the bus services are not stopping at every station so that will reduce the journey times.
“It is inevitable that there will be some disruption. But once complete, passengers from the Fylde Coast will have better services from Blackpool North to Preston and beyond with electric trains giving quicker journeys and a more pleasant travelling experience.” The improvements are being welcomed by councils and businesses looking to the future, although there are concerns about the extra traffic they could generate in the short-term.
Coun Peter Rankin, leader of Preston City Council, said: “We appreciate that the line needs improvement and there is no convenient time to close it, but we look forward to a new and improved service in 2018.
“In the meantime, I am optimistic that between options such as the replacement bus service, park and ride, and a selection of city centre parking with access from varying points, the city will not be too badly affected.
“But as always, we will work with the County Council to ensure that if solutions are needed, the right decision is made and implemented quickly.”
Richard Watts, Lancashire County Council’s rail development team manager, added: “The work to upgrade the Preston to Blackpool line has been long in the planning and we have been working with Network Rail and Northern Rail from a very early stage.
“We have worked closely with Northern Rail to plan the rail replacement buses, which will provide frequent and high-quality services in order to meet the needs of passengers as far as possible.
“Our experience of similar previous rail closures suggests that most rail users will choose to use a good quality replacement service, and are not aware of any evidence that it will create significant extra demand on the local road network or availability of parking.”
Neil Thornton, director of city living champions EtcUrban, said: “As a city centre developer we support all ideas to improve public transport and connectivity around our towns and cities.”
And Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, said: “Upgrading the rail lines from Preston to Blackpool will go a long way to improving public transport.”
and tackling rail overcrowding on this well used route.”
A journey by train from Blackpool North into Preston city centre takes an average of 26 minutes.
But while Northern Rail say their replacement fleet of brand new Palladium buses will do the trip in 65 minutes, there are claims it could take even longer than that.
Commuters, taxi firms and a Lancashire MP have all accused the train company of under-estimating the time it will take - especially during morning and evening rush hour.
Mark Menzies, MP for Fylde, said: “I am concerned that these timings are so tight. Poulton to Kirkham is around 18 minutes in light traffic and Kirkham to Preston is 22 minutes in light traffic.
“To leave just 20 and 25 minutes respectively for these trips, I suggest, is a mistake, especially when we take into account potential delays on the A583 and in Preston city centre.
“I will be writing to Northern Trains to ask them to increase the length of time they have allowed for this bus link, to ensure passengers are given a fair indication of the time it will take between stations.”
Northern Rail said it has timed its temporary schedule after carrying out test runs and said it is “realistic and accurate.”
But one regular commuter from Cleveleys to Preston said: “Northern Rail must be replacing their trains with helicopters because that is the only way you will get there during rush hour.”
A spokesman for Northern, which runs the trains, said: “We have worked closely with colleagues from the rail replacement bus companies to devise the proposed timetables.
“We have researched the times taken to travel between the various stations and have carried out ‘dry runs’ at peak times to ensure our timetables are both realistic and accurate.