A commuter rail link between Rossendale and Manchester could be on track after a study reported the route was ‘feasible and cost effective’.
Politicians, business leaders and officers, including Leader of Rossendale Council Alyson Barnes, met with Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry in London to update him on the outcome of early strategic case for rail investment.
They also lobbied Transport for the North (TfN) to get the link included in its forthcoming Investment Programme.
Five options were examined and evaluated in the feasibility study, but Coun Barnes stressed any commuter route had to work 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 have full 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.”
Rossendale is the only borough in Lancashire without a national rail link and the congestion on the A56 and M66 at peak times has been reported as second only to London.
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 therefore want to see the rail link treated as a high priority scheme in the forthcoming TfN Investment Programme 2020-50. This would be a precursor to funding a Strategic Online Business Case and the remaining development and planning stages needed to take the project forwards.”
Rossendale and Darwen MP Jake Berry described reconnecting Rossendale and Manchester as ‘crucial’. “I regard this link as crucial not just for Rossendale but to the whole development of the Northern Powerhouse. 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 added: “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.”
Rossendale Councillor Janice Johnson is a member of the East Lancashire Railway Trust Board and said the transport situation is ‘desperate’. “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.”
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.”
East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Miranda Barker welcomed the report. She said: “Speaking on behalf of the business community this would be good for them. 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.”