A COMMUTER rail link between Rossendale and Manchester could be on track after a study found the route was ‘feasible and cost effective’. Rossendale Council leader Councillor Alyson Barnes and officers, along with MPs and business leaders from across the rail route, met with Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry in London to update him on the findings of the early strategic case for rail investment. They also lobbied Transport for the North (TfN) to get the link included in its forthcoming Investment Programme as a ‘high priority’.
Rossendale is the only borough in Lancashire without a national rail link and struggles with severe congestion on the A56 and M66 at peak times. The report found that 14,000 Rossendale residents travel daily to work with 9,000 going into the Greater Manchester area. Five options were examined and evaluated, but Coun Barnes stressed she wanted to see a commuter route working in conjunction with the existing heritage East Lancashire Railway.
The report describes a ‘promising option’ as a peak period shuttle service between Rawtenstall and Bury using the East Lancashire Railway and a new heavy rail link from a disused platform at Bury Bolton Street Station to Castleton. Passengers would then have access to Manchester, Rochdale and West Yorkshire.
The report concludes: “Overall, we believe this work indicates that feasible options exist for investment which could deliver significant economic benefits, reduce congestion, and meet environmental targets in a way which will not harm the valuable operations of the East Lancashire Railway, and may even be to their benefit.”
Coun Barnes said: “The East Lancashire Railway is an incredible success story bringing visitors and tourism into the Rossendale economy and we do not want to lose it. However the current commuter network between Rossendale and Manchester is not. At peak periods both car drivers and bus passengers find themselves in nose to tail traffic on the A56, M66 and in the city centre and there is no potential to ease that situation. We want to see the rail link treated as a high priority scheme in the forthcoming TfN Investment Programme 2020-50.”
Rossendale and Darwen MP Jake Berry described reconnecting Rossendale and Manchester as ‘crucial’. He said: “I regard this link as crucial not just for Rossendale but to the whole development of the Northern Powerhouse.”
He said progress on the link had previously failed because it had not been a top priority for Lancashire County Council – but now it was. Transport for the North is also officially considering the plans and Mr Berry said: “This is the value of having the study done. The next big challenge is about getting Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham to prioritise it and realise the significant growth it could bring to Manchester. Look at the economic growth in Rossendale since 2011, unemployment has been halved and more businesses than ever are setting up. My concern is that unless we solve many of the transport problems facing the Valley, it is going to stop further economic growth. This is not just about people going to Manchester to work from Rossendale but about Rossendale being able to access the skills of people from Manchester.”
Eden Councillor Janice Johnson is a member of the East Lancashire Railway Trust Board and said the transport situation is ‘desperate’. She said: “A commuter rail link would be marvellous. We need public transport upgrading, not just for now but for future generations and we have to think outside the box. I remember my son-in-law coming home to Rossendale from work in Wythenshawe and he had seen eight accidents that day en route, as a result he moved out of Rossendale for work.”
Irwell Vale resident Margaret Barker, 92, used to get on the railway at Ewood Bridge in her younger days to travel to Blackpool to go dancing. She now uses the heritage line to go shopping in Ramsbottom and Bury and said: “If it was to go further afield then I would go wherever it went.”
Rossendale commuter Simon Dalley, whose award winning business GrowTraffic is based in Bacup and South Yorkshire, said: “When I worked in Manchester I tried every means to get to work, car, train, bus; everything apart from walking. I used the X43 from Rawtenstall leaving at 6.55am to get into the city centre about 7.45am.”
He gave up driving to work because of cost, both in terms of fuel, parking and traffic. He abandoned the train because of the unreliability of the service from Todmorden and the hilly route from home to the station. Simon said: “The X43 is just as packed as the train was so I think a commuter rail link from Rawtenstall would be a way forward. It would be a really positive thing for Rossendale in general. It is crazy that such a big population centre does not have access to a rail link.”
Lancashire County Council Executive Director of growth, environment, transport and community service Stephen Young said: “The County Council is committed to transforming transportation links particularly in Rossendale which is the only district in Lancashire without a station on the national rail network. We see this as essential in further driving our collective economic aspirations and are fully supportive of this proposal and study.”
The plans have also been supported by East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce. Chief Executive Miranda Barker said: “Transport is always top of the list in terms of problems that businesses in East Lancashire mention. We are really good at manufacturing in this area, but then when it comes to transportation it is expensive and slow. We are also short of qualified engineers and while we are working with colleges, they often want to live in the city.”
She supported a heavy rail link, rather than a tram, because she said it would provide skilled workers with the means of travel to Rossendale while also providing potential to assist the movement of goods both in and out.
The original Rawtenstall railway station closed in 1972 and the East Lancashire Railway extended its heritage line from Bury to Rawtenstall when it opened a new station in 1991.
The report was commissioned by Rossendale Council in partnership with Lancashire County Council and was carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
Story by Catherine Smyth Media