It follows a debate at Lancashire’s County Council’s budget meeting last week in which a Labour opposition proposal to commit to a feasibility study was defeated. The motion called for £50,000 to be spent investigating how to better connect Fleetwood to the rail network in the region.
There was widespread agreement that the town needed better transport links - but that was the point at which consensus hit the buffers in County Hall. Some councillors hitched their wagons to traditional trains, while others got on board with the idea of light rail.
And in the fallout from the political debate, two community groups with an interest in the issue also seem to be heading in different directions.
The Poulton and Wyre Railway Society (PWRS) has spent more than decade dedicated to the cause of restoring the line, which closed to passengers in 1970 when British Rail reversed a decision by its previous chairman, Dr. Richard Beeching - usually associated with closing routes - to keep the Fleetwood to Poulton stretch open.
The group was given special permission to access the line and its members have cleared years of overgrowth from significant sections of the track, which continued to be used for freight until 1999. Its short-term aim is to create a heritage railway service between Fleetwood and Poulton, with a longer-term vision for the reinstatement of a commuter service.
But PWRS chair, Brian Crawford, says there are more pressing priorities than a feasibility study - like acquiring the land which would allow rolling stock to start running short trips from a base at Burn Naze.
“We need Wyre Council to purchase the land from Network Rail and then lease it back to us. It’s too early for a feasibility study, because we don’t yet have that lease - and, in any case, costs change over time,” Brian explains.
“We are ready to roll, we just need someone to cut the tape and say ‘go’. Once we get established and prove we can operate, hopefully we can persuade the council to acquire more land along the corridor.”
A spokesperson for Wyre Council said that authority is “currently in dialogue with Network Rail...and looking at a number of different options, but nothing has yet been decided.”
Brian believes the line will prove profitable in the long run, especially if is also used for freight. And while he expects people one day to be employed in order to keep it running, he says the group’s volunteers - which include rail industry workers - could get operations going as soon as permission is in place.
But a spokesperson for Back On Track - Fleetwood Town Council member, Mary Stirzaker - says she is “impatient” and wants a feasibility study to look specifically at the possibility of running hybrid tram-trains on the line, powered by the latest hydrogen cell technology.
Her call follows last month's suggestion by Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard that the Fleetwood to Poulton stretch of track should not be restored for heavy rail, but instead form part of a wider loop line for trams on the Fylde. But Mary claims that would be the end of the line for the heritage service.
“Tram-trains can run without overhead wires, but trams can’t. If trams are used on that line, then no heritage trains would be able to run - and that would throw the work of all the volunteers back in their faces - it would be cruel,” Mary says.
“It will cost more in the long-run to use trains as a commuter service - I believe tram-trains are the best option for that.
“But I’m just making an educated guess - and without a feasibility study, that’s all any of us can do.”
However, Brian Crawford claims that there is room for trams to run on separate tracks alongside the railway - and that it does not have to be an either or option.
Back on Track has supported PWRS’s work on a section of the line near Jameson Road in Fleetwood, with volunteers helping to bridge a gap in the track at that location and ensure that future services could ultimately connect to a new station, Fleetwood Central, close to the Fleetwood Marsh Nature Reserve.
There may be differences of opinion about the most suitable rolling stock to run on the relaid line, but there is agreement that the collective effort made so far should be recognised - and rewarded.
“Volunteers have been out all year round, right through winter, for the past 12 years,” Brian says.
“We are working in hope, but if we don’t eventually make this a reality, there will be a lot of broken hearts.”
Lancashire County Council leader, Geoff Driver, asked officers to report back to the Conservative authority’s cabinet with a costed proposal for a feasibility study, after dismissing Labour’s suggestion as “unrealistic party political posturing”.
Labour opposition leader, Azhar Ali, said his party’s plan would “make a difference”, adding: “Let’s get on with it.”
COUNCILLORS CLASH OVER CONNECTIVITY
The debate about a feasibility study into the re-opening of the line between Fleetwood and Poulton showed that councillors were split over the final destination for the project.
Here is what they had to say:
Lorraine Beavers, Labour, Fleetwood East:
“I am proud of my town and the people who live in it, but my town is dying - one of the reasons is the lack of investment in transport links. Fleetwood needs its trains back. We have one road in and one road out for a town of 28,000 people. Public transport doesn’t work if you live in Fleetwood. Preston is a 2-hour bus journey away and Lancaster on public transport is too complicated to even try and explain.”
Charlie Edwards, Conservative, Morecambe South:
“I completely agree [that] this town needs to get moving again. But I’ve had meetings with Transport for the North and the [solution] cannot be heavy rail, because there’ll be need for a level crossing - so the only [option] is light rail on that part of the network. So I can save you £50,000 now, because a feasibility study will say a heavy rail link cannot work.”
Stephen Clarke, Conservative, Fleetwood West and Cleveleys West:
“I totally agree with this feasibility study. Without a proper link to Fleetwood, industry will not invest, because the transport links are so bad. There is no reason why we can’t have level crossings on mainlines - only down the road in Carleton there is a crossing which the Virgin Trains go across. There is a huge amount of [freight] which could come into Fleetwood by rail.”
John Fillis, Deputy Labour opposition leader, Lancashire County Council:
“I’ve now heard three different proposals [for this line] - so shouldn’t we have a feasibility study to see which one works? Manchester are investing in trains which will go on light and heavy rail, but we need a kickstart to put the case forward before Transport for the North comes in. If we in Lancashire won’t support [this project], how can we expect the rest of the North to do so?”
Alan Vincent, Conservative, Cleveleys South and Carleton:
“Paul Maynard MP came out with an innovative and positive vision for a tram extension and I think we need to look at that as an alternative. There are massive problems getting a rail connection in Fleetwood, not least that there is very little interest from commercial operators in putting one back in.”
4.75 miles - distance between Poulton station and proposed Fleetwood Central
2 - stations on line between Poulton and Fleetwood: Thornton and Burn Naze
£1.7m - ‘major project costs’, as estimated by Poulton and Wyre Railway Society