Morecambe MP David Morris campaign to get West Coast trains to stop at Carnforth and let passengers on and off seems to be gathering momentum - although it has yet to get government backing.
Although the government still seems set on pushing for less, not more local stops for train services, Mr Morris revealed their reasons for not granting a reinstatement to Carnforth stopping trains - that it would add five minutes to journey times - were groundless as most trains already stop at the station, despite its lack of platforms.
Building new platforms and reinstating stopping trains could not only boost local tourism, to Warton and the Lake Distirct, Mr Morris argues - it could benefit local commuters suffering the drive into Lancaster, which he describes as "biggest car park in Europe".
Stopping trains at Carnforth were scrapped during the Beeching era and Mr Morris has long campaigned for that to change, this week, imploring Minister Norman Baker to take action "because Carnforth station is the centre of the railway universe in this country.
"Everything passes through it from Edinburgh to London but nothing stops there," he told the House of Commons in a debate that followed the recent publication of Network Rail's Route Utilisation Strategy for the West Coast Main Line.
"Eleven years ago, a friend of mine, Peter Yates MBE... raised £1.4 million to rebuild this historic station," noted Mr Morris, "not just for the sake of the station, the community, the “Brief Encounter” café and the iconic clock — if anybody goes to Carnforth, they will see just what an amazing place the station is — but so that the station can be used as a railway station once again.
"Although we would not have used the phrase at the time, this was a big society project—before the phrase was even coined."
The problem for Carnforth station is that currently, neither trans-Pennine and west coast main line trains cannot stop at Carnforth because there are no platforms there. "It is a chicken and egg situation," argues Mr Morris. "Carnforth was not even included in the route utilisation strategies report to any great extent because the trains could not stop there, yet everything goes through it. We cannot put the platforms in, however, until the rail operators agree to stop there.
"As a community, therefore, the people of Carnforth have suggested that we take the bull by the horns and request that we start negotiations with the Department for Transport and Network Rail to start rebuilding the platforms. We need to cut through this Catch 22 situation, which is nobody’s fault but highly damaging to the whole community. We envisage a future in which trains from north, south, east and west will use Carnforth as a hub for north Lancashire and the south lakes.
"With all the will in the world, Oxenholme is, with respect, too small to be the hub. We have tried it for many years but it has not worked. The Lake District is full of cars because existing rail services cannot cope with the capacity."
Mr Morris says his campaign has had a welcome reception from Virgin Trains, with company representative Chris Gibb agreeing Carnforth is in a strong position to be a rail-ride hub. "Not only do we have the space and direct and fast access to the Lake district via the M6; we have a comprehensive road network in the area," says Mr Morris. "Virgin was clear that anything that pushed more lakeland tourism into the west coast main line would get its support, and now we have agreed an action plan under which Virgin will agree to stop trains there if it is satisfied with Carnforth. We also have the solid support of councillor Tim Ashton, the head of transport at Lancashire county council.
"It is not only tourists who would benefit from these platforms being rebuilt. At the moment, it is hard to travel between the Furness peninsula and Kendal," he told the Commons. "It would be an easy and short journey if passengers could change at Carnforth and it would enable ease of access to the lakes for those on the east coast. Enabling commuters to move around our area by public transport would bring huge economic and environmental benefits to north Lancashire and the south lakes.
"When the now Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right honorable Friend Mrs Villiers visited Carnforth during the election, the train stopped in the station for 10 minutes. That was my cue to get her to Lancaster. If anybody has ever driven around Lancaster, they will know that it is the biggest car park in Europe. I had to park the car up, transport myself through the streets and put her on the train that had stopped at Carnforth half an hour before.
"We have everything in place to be a real transport hub — except the platforms," he said. "We are committed as a community to put them in; we just need Government support... We are not going to ask for any Government money. We have a proven track in our community projects of rebuilding and the whole community is behind the proposal. This is the big society in its highest form. We want to integrate with an infrastructure network that has been serving our country for more than 100 years.
Responding to Mr Morris, Norman Baker, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Regional and Local Transport outlined planned developments for the inter-city rail services on the west coast main line and its plans for the new, longer inter-city west coast franchise, which is due to commence in 2012 and will replace the current Virgin Trains rail franchise and include "exploiting the full potential of the route and maximising capacity".
In that context, he said, "A key issue in any proper consideration of the matter is whether a proposal to stop London train services at reinstated platforms at Carnforth would work operationally and commercially. Initial analysis by the Department suggests that a call at Carnforth would require a stop at another station to be deleted. Therefore, a potential gain at Carnforth would result in a disbenefit to passengers from other stations on the route. Obviously that would require some hard and careful decision making."
Challenged on this claim, Mr Morris pointed out that Virgin trains already stop in Carnforth for 20 minutes in the morning and evening, but they do not let passengers on. "I spoke to Chris Gibb about this subject less than 12 months ago, and he said that if we had the platforms, those trains could take passengers on. The issue is something to do with the schedule for cleaning the trains."
Although unaware of this, Mr Baker would not commit to supporting the Morecambe MP's proposal. "There is a potential trade-off between extra stops on the service and the speed of the journey between two key points where the main market is. In an ideal world, we would obviously like to meet both requirements — the local aspirations that exist, as well as the need to get longer-distance traffic transferred from air to rail — and journey times are key to delivering that.
"...It is fair to say that the west coast main line is heavily used in the Carnforth area," he conceded, "with up to three long-distance services an hour between London, Birmingham or Manchester and Glasgow or Edinburgh, plus regular freight services. Those trains are already popular and well loaded. Capacity problems already exist, and growth in demand continues. Indeed, it is interesting to note that, even in the recession, we have seen buoyant markets for rail that have continued to expand at a time when other forms of transport have not seen the same response. Despite the £8.8 billion upgrade, the west coast main line is already suffering some congestion when it comes to access for freight services and local services, so we have to ensure that the line is used to best capacity.
"Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy for the west coast main line was published on 1st July. It corroborates the heavy usage of the line and the resulting capacity issues, but as my honorable Friend said, it did not consider the reinstatement of the platforms at Carnforth. The Department’s analysis is that journey times would be increased by around five minutes to accommodate calls at reinstated platforms at Carnforth. That has to be borne in mind and weighed against the significant journey savings and more frequent services that have resulted from the upgrade to the west coast main line. London to Glasgow is now 30 minutes quicker than it was before the changes, with a very competitive four hour and 50 minute journey time, while trains from Manchester airport and Birmingham to Glasgow and Edinburgh are now around 20 to 30 minutes faster.
"These enhancements have delivered significant revenue growth since December 2008 and increased rail’s share of the total travel market on the routes served by the west coast main line. These are markets rail serves well and there are strong calls for further journey time reductions... All these and a number of other issues mean that stopping long-distance London services at Carnforth would probably involve a number of trade-offs that are less straightforward than might first seem to be the case.
"...The Government welcome local initiatives to improve rail services as fitting their wider localism agenda," insists Mr Baker. "I will go back to my officials and raise with them one more time the points that he has raised... to see if there is any way we can make any progress."
• Network Rail Route Utilisation Strategy for the West Coast Main Line