Rail and Road Access to Port of Liverpool

On Tuesday 19th April Peter secured a Westminster Hall Debate on Rail and Road Access to the Port of Liverpool.  This is a very important issue for Bootle constituency.  Here is Peter’s full speech.

I beg to move, that this House has considered road and rail access to the Port of Liverpool.

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate under your stewardship, Mr Chope. The port of Liverpool, which is primarily situated in my constituency and falls within Bootle and Seaforth, has a long history of serving this country in times of peace and war. Many buildings around the port hinterland still bear the marks and shadows of the bombing of the port in the May blitz of 1941. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the bombing, I pay tribute to everyone who served on or near the port in those dark days and to the people who were killed or injured, of whom there were many.

The port became a lifeline to these islands during the war in general, and during the battle of the Atlantic in particular. Between 1 and 8 May 1941, over seven consecutive nights, German planes dropped 870 tonnes of high-explosive bombs and more than 112,000 incendiary bombs around the Bootle, Litherland and Seaforth environs. Lord Haw Haw addressed the people of Bootle with the words, “the kisses on your windows won’t help you”,referring to the tape supposed to prevent flying glass. Unbelievably, only 10% to 15% of the properties in the town were left unscathed.

Thankfully, those days are gone, and we have much better, friendlier and more peaceful relationships with our European neighbours. During the dim recessionary days of the 1980s and for most of the 1990s, our connection with the European Union was a lifeline when the Government turned their back on us and talked of the managed decline of the city. I am pleased that those days are over, and I look forward to devolution gaining pace, which will enable us to run many of our own affairs rather than be run from this place.

That sets the context for what I want to say about rail and road access to the port of Liverpool. I am afraid that the degree of synergy, co-operation and collaboration among the various agencies responsible for transport has been woeful. I believe that the devolution process will help to address that lacuna. While Highways England pushes on with its assessment of the road links—new constructions or reconstructions—Network Rail appears to be taking a “mañana” approach to the need for significant investment in the rail links to the port. It seems to have put the rail freight connection in the “too difficult to do” box. Highways England is talking of anything between £120 million for a new road and £300 million for a realigned road being needed. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Network Rail has decided that £10 million in total over three financial years will do the trick. That is the sum of investment in the port rail infrastructure. To use a phrase much used in Merseyside, are they having a laugh?

Highways England has not covered itself in glory. It has shown a pretty grim attitude over many years to the people who have to live along the Dunnings Bridge corridor. The local authority and my councillor colleagues have had to fight tooth and nail, through their contractors, to keep the Dunnings Bridge corridor cleaned, to get its street lights sorted out, to get its gullies unblocked, to have the grass cut and to enforce standards on lorry drivers who feel free to use the lay-bys as toilets, among other things.

Highways England seems incapable of providing soundproofing to just half a dozen semi-detached houses that have no acoustic protection from the thousands of cars and lorries that pass through night and day. It spent huge sums on glossy leaflets and several million pounds on decommissioning a traffic island on the route to the docks, but it seems incapable of sorting out triple glazing or some other acoustic amelioration. I am afraid that the Government’s recent response to me on that matter does not instil confidence that this long-standing issue will be sorted any time soon.

For those and other reasons, many people in my constituency and beyond have little confidence in Highways England’s ability to get the road link from the M57 and M58 right. Will it listen to calls for significant tunnelling along either route—in the Rimrose Valley country park or the Dunnings Bridge-Church Road corridor? What other more or less radical plans will it consider? Have the decisions already been made? The devil is in the detail. The agency’s history of dealing with local concerns sets the scene for local communities’ levels of confidence in future plans and proposals.

At the mention of the building or reconstruction of major highways, Highways England’s lethargy dissipates and its energy levels grow, because they are sexy, big projects. Why would it bother with the routine things that affect people’s daily lives when it can pore over road plans and spend hundreds of millions of pounds to boot?

Many people in the area surrounding the port—or the docks, as it is better known—are suspicious of the local benefits that the expansion will bring. That will not come as a big surprise to most people in the area. People understand the regional, national and even international benefits, but they ask themselves what the local benefits for jobs and growth will be. They are sceptical. I do not share that level of scepticism. I believe that the port expansion will bring benefits to our community.

I have discussed the issue with many of my local councillor colleagues, including Councillor Gordon Friel, who is a councillor in that area. However, it is difficult to break through the scepticism when people believe the vast majority of port-related traffic will simply move in and out of the port along one or other road, and when the rail option, which most believe to be the most appropriate, languishes on a shelf somewhere, if indeed it has even been produced. The rail line I refer to is the Bootle branch line. It is about 7 miles long and runs from the west coast main line to the port. I use word “runs” loosely, because it is in a dreadful state. I will not take up Members’ time by setting out how dreadful it actually is—suffice it to say that it is.

We can compare that with the activity of professional rail aficionados, civil servants and the Government on High Speed 2 or Crossrail 1 and 2. We can compare the £16 billion spent on Crossrail’s 73 miles of track and 26 miles of tunnels, and the £30 billion projected for Crossrail 2, with the £10 million over three years that is to be spent on the Bootle branch line, which serves a port that is one of the largest in the country and expanding. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced £80 million just to start the planning for Crossrail 2—a staggering eight times the amount that will be spent on the actual works on the Bootle branch line. Crossrail 1 cost £210 million per mile of track, so recent announcements of £340 million for rail services across my region equate to only 1.5 miles of Crossrail 1 track. The figure for Crossrail 2 will be double that for Crossrail 1.

Before anyone suggests that Liverpool city region should be grateful, don’t bother. The Government need to reprioritise capital spending, of which the south-east, and London, in particular get the lion’s share, to other areas—then we might be grateful. I agree with Mayor Joe Anderson of Liverpool and my colleague Councillor Ian Maher of Sefton Council that we now need transformational funding. I have a cunning plan: to rename the Bootle branch Crossrail 3. By that measure we would get money thrown at it, and the Minister would be falling over himself to accommodate us—but perhaps the plan is not cunning enough.

All stakeholders agree that a multi-modal solution is required. The requirement to improve rail access has been talked about for decades. The last study before the recent Highways England assessment was in 2011. It concluded that there was spare rail capacity, but that the port facilities were a major barrier. Five years later, that issue has still not been addressed. In 2011, it was estimated that a modal shift to rail could increase the amount of freight carried by rail from 2% to 11%. In the 2015 study, it was considered too “ambitious” to use a 15% rail share, due to funding constraints and the ability to persuade freight hauliers of the advantages of rail. The study concluded:

“It is clear that any increase in rail freight beyond 24 trains per day will most likely require a new rail line to be constructed to the port and there are expected to be a number of significant issues associated with this”.

By the way, Crossrail 1 will have 24 trains per hour each way. I accept that we are not comparing like with like, but the point is well made for illustrative purposes. So there is a surprise: evidence of a mentality that, as I suggested earlier, wants to put the issue in the “too difficult” box, because no one will care, and in any event it is not London.

Network Rail therefore has no such plans in its programme. If the Government were serious about rail freight, other than getting to grips with Network Rail, they would increase the investment in rail network in and out of the port of Liverpool to ensure the maximum modal shift to rail, and provide incentives for freight hauliers to shift to rail and so avoid overly congested roads.

The Government gave the port operators a significant regional growth fund grant to expand the port, even though a feasible strategy to ensure that goods could be moved in a variety of ways was not in place. I am afraid that the chaotic, unplanned, uncosted, piecemeal approach to the port’s transport needs is creating tension and irritation in local communities and uncertainty across the board, with a perception, at the very least, that Governments—not just this one—have not simply taken their eye off the ball but never had it on the ball in the first place.

I am sure the Minister can see that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that economic development and growth is seen as being just as important in the Liverpool city region as anywhere else. Given that, a crumbs-from-the-table approach to the infrastructure needs of the port of Liverpool is just not good enough. It is disrespectful to social, economic and businesses communities alike. I therefore exhort the Minister to take a fresh look at the plans, or rather the lack of plans, that Network Rail has for non-road port traffic ingress and egress. He should also ensure that Highways England stops acting like a robber baron and treats my community with the respect that it deserves.

If you detect an air of irritation in my voice, Mr Chope, you would be correct. The Luftwaffe could not push Bootle, Litherland or Seaforth around, so Highways England and Network Rail have little chance, and they would be well advised to take that into account in their deliberations.

 

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