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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Fleetwood - Preston - When - How ?

Amid today's media interviews on recent the private journeys of the Prime Minister's Senior Advisor - an obviously strained Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport (who is actually doing a good job) has endorsed plans to reopen two of the many branch railway lines closed under edicts of the unlamented Home Counties accountant Dr Beeching. These decisions are forerunners of further closed railway connections being brought back to life.

Grant's Department has now signed off on two funded schemes for a branch line in the north east - and presumably as balancing act, the dormant rail link which ran from Poulton to Fleetwood. Having now gained Government endorsement for a reopened rail service to Fleetwood - competitive views over the format of this connection is raging at local and regional level.

Edwardian connections - a full load of passengers on the Fleetwood to Barrow service !

First up in the railway reopening stakes is the long lived Poulton and Wyre Railway Society. An active and vocal conclave of ardent rail supporters whose efforts over the years have seen parts of the dormant railway trackbed cleared of undergrowth as well as Thornton's Railway Station site. Their efforts include restoring to service a superannuated British Railways diesel powered multiple unit set capable of providing a taste of former times in a heritage operation along parts of a reopened trackbed. Other restoration work has been taking place at the Society's compound within the Hillhouses Enterprise Zone on land owned by NPL (which acquired the former ICI site for industrial usage).

Requirement for heavy rail operation, which their proposal involves comes with drawbacks one of which is the regulatory requirement for any new rail line to be freed from at level road crossings. The line from Poulton to Fleetwood presently disconnected from the national network at Poulton Station and its former junction with the Blackpool to Preston mainline - has an important level crossing in Thornton village adjoining the station. Proposals for instating a further new at grade crossing over the line close to Burn Naze to facilitate road traffic into the designated Enterprise Zone (Hillhouse) is a deterrent for reintroducing heavy rail service further north into Fleetwood. Arriving at Fleetwood the railway right of way presently ends amid overgrown foliage on an alignment originally serving the riverside edge of Wyre Dock used for transshipment of timber and other materials arriving at the once busy port. A further extension of the existing trackage north into Fleetwood would involve at least on other at level road crossing.

A second option being forthrightly propositioned by local politicians while enjoying support of Blackpool's transport operator is to utilise the same railway trackbed from Poulton onto ABP land adjoining Amounderness Way (A 585) at Wyre Dock for a light rail service. This was originally the path of the railway into Fleetwood Station sited alongside seagoing ferries. The light service would involve a link along the existing right of way passing by Hillhouse Enterprise Zone and Thornton to Poulton and thence to Blackpool. For this purpose a tramtrain service that straddles both tramway and railway but to less rigid operating standards could be delivered which obviates the problem of level crossing legalities imposed on railways per se. Fleetwood's town centre would be renewed with connections linked to the coastal tramway at the Ferry. Fleetwood's town centre needs and its riverfront sites presently awaiting investment and crucial redevelopment would secure a permanent boost (as would the Market and Museum). Plans for a new fish business centre to take up emerging opportunities for the once thriving trawling industry - as well as awakened sea ferry links from the port to Barrow, Douglas, Belfast and Scotland's western coast would all be reinvigorated through this single strategic development.

The light rail option with tramtrain operation will further strengthen Blackpool Transport's coastal tram service; itself undergoing studies for new alignments and connectivity with south Fylde communities. Importantly new power systems technologies introduced across the world involve hydrogen cell power systems and similar applications, mean that tramtrain operation no longer is dependent upon overhead catenary. Clean energy delivery removes the threat of effluence from any diesel or carbon fuel motive power - and without need for overhead power wire comes with far less capital costs compared to the familiar electric rail (and tram) infrastructure.

Equally important is the potential for a new tramtrain service to and from Fleetwood to continue on from Poulton to Preston - and Poulton into Blackpool. More expansive options that extend south serving the second Enterprise Zone and business corridor along Squires Gate Lane are logical connections transforming Fylde coast communities and enhancing off-road travel away from private cars.

Of course none of this will easily pass inherent hurdles of localised politics and embedded factions which have always bedevilled the Fylde's economy. Four public authorities with differing political perspectives embrace a population west of the A6 to the waves of the Irish Sea - from the Ribble Estuary to Morecambe Bay. Integrated transport patterns and seamless infrastructure could do so much to release growth and transformation of this part of Lancashire. Anchored in the north by Lancaster with its burgeoning University campus and directly south by an important centre of education and training, along with engineering and technology credentials lies the City of Preston. The Fylde remains buttressed in a green swathe of land with coastal fringes held in thrall by three decidedly different authorities ever concerned with parochial boundaries.

Preston was once the largest provider of electric trams in the UK - its famous Dick Kerr Company red brick Edwardian era factory still standing (and vacant) after a century of engineering bustle and innovation, particularly associated with rail and tram development. In 2020 Preston is itself braced to welcome back electric trams to sustain economic growth - offering its own potential for joined up connections for a modern, fast and clean tramtrain service. One which will change forever the direction of growth and development affecting wider demographics; from Fleetwood to Salmesbury, Blackpool to Warton as examples. Blackpool itself will benefit from enhanced tram infrastructure, fitting in with its all electric bus plans - now just a few years away. Hydrogen cell and fuel power systems are eminently suited to development based in the large brownfield site at Hillhouses - with available test track and prototyping designs capable of proving trials on a Fylde rail network.

New generations emerging can look to infinitely greater swathe of skills and sustained employment potential close to home - accessible by light rail and electric bus connections integrated in a way we can only marvel at when viewing the realities delivered elsewhere in Europe in this ever fast changing century. Both Preston, Blackpool, Fleetwood and Lancaster all come with even more technology pedigree through embedded operations of BAE Systems in Salmesbury, Warton and Barrow - an amazing high technology cluster conjoined with universities and skill training centres in the northwest. Albeit geographically distanced at present. When simply viewing the future of rail connections (re)emerging from Fleetwood - there is a whole lot more needing to be fed into evolving strategies that optimise benefits for generations ahead in this century. Perhaps this throws light on what's at stake.

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