Are we close to finding the missing link?

‘Inauspicious’ is perhaps one of the politer adjectives that could be used by the 100,000 annual users of Colne railway station to describe the Spartan facilities that await them at the start or end of their journeys.

Nestled in the heart of the Pennines, there is just a single waiting shelter on hand to protect passengers from bad weather, while availing themselves of the hourly local stopping service to Blackpool South (operated by Northern).

Residents of this once heavily-industrialised corner of Lancashire may feel especially aggrieved should they be old enough to recall February 2 1970.

That was the date when the former mill town’s Victorian-built station was largely demolished and degraded to an unstaffed, single-platform affair. It was also the date when through services across the Yorkshire county border to Skipton were unceremoniously ended, and Colne became the outlying terminus of a newly singled and truncated East Lancashire Line running from Gannow Junction at Rose Grove, near Burnley. All this happened despite the entire route having been proposed for retention in Dr Beeching’s infamous 1963 report. 

Using slow and unreliable Pacers, this unloved and operationally limited branch line has now come to be seen as something of a dead end, and a poor option for commuters. It’s easy to see why - its infrequent services are timed to take more than 70 minutes to complete the 30-mile journey to Preston, and onward travel to the area’s main employment market in Manchester requires a change at either Accrington or Blackburn, for a journey lasting almost two hours.

With no passing loops, there’s also desperately little scope for recovery from late running, as only one train can access the line at a time.

Following the loss of direct services 46 years ago, passengers for nearby Skipton, Leeds and the rest of West Yorkshire have no alternative than to head west to Accrington, in order to access eastbound services on the Calder Valley route. Leeds can be reached this way in the absurdly long time of 2hrs 50mins, with an added 43 minutes for those then changing for a reversal to Skipton. 

Other public transport options do exist, but bus services for the short 11½-mile hop over the hills to Skipton are timed to take 42-48 minutes during the day - more than twice the time it used to take by rail. 

But while the attractiveness of utilising the iron road has remained unappealing in Colne, less than a dozen miles away residents in the pleasant Yorkshire market town of Skipton have fared much better. 

Skipton has 4,000 fewer residents than the 19,000 living in Colne, yet over ten times as many people using its station. Skipton has four platforms accommodating 2-4 trains per hour to Leeds along the electrified Aire Valley Line, plus five services a day to Lancaster, three to Morecambe and six to Carlisle. There is even a single direct service to London King’s Cross each day, operated by Virgin Trains East Coast.

It’s easy, therefore, to see why 75% of commuters in Airedale choose to use rail, while 70% of commuters in East Lancashire travel by car. 

With the standard of rail provision in these two towns now so obviously poles apart, economic disparity has unsurprisingly increased at an alarming rate since 1970. While Skipton enjoys low levels of unemployment, Pendle district and other parts of East Lancashire are consistently ranked among the most economically deprived in the UK. The relative health of the adjacent economies is ably reflected in average house prices, which are nearly double in Skipton (£155,000) than in Colne (£84,000). 

Colne’s lack of connectivity to the regional economic centres of Manchester and Leeds has been the critical factor in creating these high levels of deprivation, while narrowing the opportunities for economic development by increasing local perceptions of geographic and social isolation.

Improving transport links between the two towns is therefore a ‘no-brainer’, bringing Colne and the 200,000 residents of the wider East Lancashire area to within 20 minutes’ travelling time of Skipton and the employment opportunities of West Yorkshire if direct rail services were restored. 

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