Transport Accessibility: Bolton West

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 20 June 2023.

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Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Conservative, Bolton West 4:22, 20 June 2023

It is a pleasure to get this Adjournment debate on public transport accessibility in the Bolton West constituency. Public transport is important to so many of my constituents who use it on a regular basis, whether for leisure reasons, to go to work or to go to the shops. However, it is immensely important for those people in the constituency who do not use it that we use the infrastructure overall to make sure that public transport can take a substantial load off the transport needs in and around the constituency.

This Government have a very good story in recent years in terms of investment. A few years ago, the Liverpool to Manchester electrification project was completed. It was part of the Government’s ambition to level up and get the northern powerhouse going. The electrification of our railways is key to that. Not only that route, but the Manchester to Preston route, which goes right through the constituency, was electrified. There were huge technological challenges with tunnelling and historical concerns about our industrial heritage, but the Department and the wider team ensured that the project was delivered. We could then get rid of the ancient trains and have new, modern coaches on our tracks, which has made a significant difference. They are quieter, cleaner and far more attractive. If we want to encourage people to use public transport, we should deliver an attractive service that they feel happy and comfortable using.

There was also significant investment—£85 million—in the Ordsall Chord. That is part of the wider investment we need in Greater Manchester to ensure that the railway system works better, given that the city of Manchester is such an important hub for the wider railway system in the north-west of England and a key part of north-south connectivity.

More work needs to be done in the city of Manchester on, for example, the digitalisation of the railways. Even as we are improving services in many ways, there is congestion, and there are challenges in getting around Manchester and into Manchester from Bolton West and further afield. Improving services in the city of Manchester will enable Bolton West and neighbouring areas to improve their services too.

The Ordsall Chord is a magnificent structure, which is visually impressive. A huge amount of talent is responsible for the engineering behind it. The structure was made by Severfield steel in Lostock at the heart of Bolton West. One reason why I am so enthusiastic about the Government’s actions on railways throughout the country—there is obviously a huge plan for HS2—is that much of that transport upgrade will require Severfield and other manufacturers to increase their output to deliver those magnificent projects. It is not just about the railways in Bolton West or the city of Manchester and beyond, but about manufacturing jobs in the steel industry, which rely on such investment.

I am looking forward to the delivery of the Daisy Hill accessibility project. The platform is currently not accessible to people in wheelchairs or with mobility challenges. When the project is started and rolled out later this year, it will give those people the opportunity to use the railway station in Daisy Hill. It will also enable people to come to Westhoughton and that part of the constituency.

Significant challenges can be produced by success. One big concern is about car parking spaces in the constituency. The car parks at Lostock railway station, Blackrod, Horwich Parkway and Westhoughton are often full. That is partly because they are used by people who have a short drive to the railway station, from where they carry on their commute, perhaps up to Preston or down to the city of Manchester. However, the problem is not only down to local commuters.

Car parks are also full because of the commuters who travel from further away in Lancashire. People will drive into the Greater Manchester administrative area because there is a distinct drop-off in rail fares there. From talking to my hon. Friend Robert Largan, I know about the concerns that exist there. Railway passengers should get on at their local stations, but they have to drive into Greater Manchester to avoid parking fees and to pay lower fares. I therefore believe that this is a problem for not just Bolton West, but constituencies across the Greater Manchester area and constituencies and areas around Greater Manchester.

Resolving the parking problems would be useful for local residents, but if we want a more environmentally friendly public transport system, it must reflect the concerns and interests of car drivers, many of whom use public transport as a stage in their journey to and from work.

The electrification project is ongoing. The Liverpool to Manchester and Manchester to Preston electrification has been of benefit to my constituents. We also have an ongoing electrification project between Bolton and Wigan. In the short term, it causes some disruption. When communication about these projects is well delivered—and Members have a role to play in ensuring that we get the information from the Department or the railways and share it more broadly—it gives a positive view of what we are doing, and people can buy into and appreciate the wider project. I think constituents are looking forward to getting these improved services and improved rolling stock.

I remember going to school in Widnes from Liverpool on the Pacer trains. People complained about them at that point, and as a Member of Parliament I have heard people complaining about them in the constituency in recent years. It is a relief to see them gone, and that demonstrates the progress we are making.

I think more of my constituents use the bus to get to work than the railway, so in many ways, bus services are more important. As part of the devolution strategy, this project has been handed to the Mayor of Greater Manchester. I appreciate that it will take time for the Mayor to develop his plans and ideas and to work with Ministers and the bus companies. He is now rolling out his devolution plan for Greater Manchester in the boroughs of Bolton and Wigan. I may be the Member for Bolton West, but my constituency also covers part of the Borough of Wigan, so this is of great interest to me and my constituents.

I look forward to seeing how the Mayor will deliver his plan. For me, the mark of success will be if we have a more comprehensive service covering a better geography, with more point-to-point travel, so that people can get to work early in the morning, late in the evening or on Saturdays and Sundays. It is not just about the main routes. Some routes in Greater Manchester have very good bus services, where one bus is chasing after the other. We need to ensure there is a comprehensive system of bus services wherever people are, whether it is in a poorer neighbourhood or a wealthier neighbourhood, so that they can get to their place of work, be it in the town centre, the city centre or on a trading estate.

This is my challenge to the Mayor of Greater Manchester: now that he has the power—and it is a power he has wanted for a long time—he has to make sure he can deliver that comprehensive bus plan for my constituents in Bolton West, so that not only Bolton but Wigan and all the parts of them are better connected. Buses ought to be part of the plan, so that when we look at investment in Greater Manchester it is not always about getting to the centre.

One of my concerns about devolution is that it seems to be focused on the city of Manchester; it is only about having a railway network and a bus network to the city of Manchester. It is immensely important that we develop the radial aspect as well. We want to be able to go from Bolton over to Bury or down to Trafford. We want that radial aspect and to be able to reach out from Bolton West over to Chorley, Wigan and other places. That is what good public transport ought to be delivering. It should not just be about bringing people to the centre of Greater Manchester; it ought to enable people to go wider.

I appreciate that the Mayor does not necessarily have responsibility for the railways broadly or the bus services. That is where I would ask my hon. Friend the Minister and the wider team to make sure that they work with him, the other Mayors across the north of England and the boroughs and councils, as well as the providers of these services, to make sure that the system does not have artificial barriers, such as the barrier I mentioned between my constituency and the Chorley constituency. People should not feel as though they have to get in their car and drive, which to a certain extent would defeat the point of having that comprehensive transport system or public transport system—one where people can get on the bus or the train and relax, look out the window, or perhaps do a little bit of work on the way to work. They should not feel the need to get in their car to start that public transport journey.

My understanding is that there is multi-modal smart ticketing between buses and trams at the moment, which will become increasingly important; although it is quite technologically challenging in many ways, I look forward to that opportunity when it also applies to the railway system. I realise that it is really rather complicated, but the trams do not reach the Wigan or Bolton boroughs, so when that system applies to us, that will be one of the things making public transport far more convenient.

I appreciate the ongoing work on walking and cycling routes, with Government investment from Westminster being given to the Mayor, so that people do not have to drive to the railway station. They will feel comfortable with walking routes, or more so with cycling routes, if they are delivered well and there are appropriate facilities at the railway stations, giving people that comfortable option of being able to cycle to the railway station, whether they have a fold-up bike that they can take on the train or they leave their bicycle at the station. I think those options are immensely important. I appreciate that some parts of Greater Manchester are rather more hilly and perhaps rather more rainy than Oxford and Cambridge, but I do think that if people are given that option, there will be significantly more take-up over time.

I will just talk about three other projects that are not in the narrow sphere of public transport but are immensely important. About 15 years ago there was a move to get a congestion charging zone in Greater Manchester, and the suggestion at that time under the Government in 2008 was that a further expansion of the tram network was dependent on a congestion charging zone being imposed on Greater Manchester. It was very frustrating that that investment was contingent on a congestion charging zone. There was a referendum in Greater Manchester in 2008, and every single borough opposed a congestion charging zone—even the city of Manchester, which would have had the least negative impact.

That scheme has been revisited, admittedly in a distinct form as a clean air zone, but fundamentally much of the practice is very similar to what we had before. Initially, it does not apply to cars—it applies to buses, vans and lorries—but one of my concerns is that it will evolve over time. We want to be positive about public transport, but if this modern iteration of that congestion charging zone is imposed, people will feel—and do feel at the moment—that they are being told to stop using the vehicle they normally use because it is convenient, and have no choice but to use public transport. They are almost coerced into using public transport. I appreciate that the initial plans for the congestion charging zone in Greater Manchester do not cover cars, but I suspect that in the very near future they will, and many people see that project as coercive. I think it is the duty of the Mayor of Greater Manchester to make sure that in Greater Manchester public transport is a choice that people want to take, rather than a choice that they feel coerced into taking.

My final note on this topic is similar: I know the Mayor has raised a point about workplace charging zones, where people driving to work have a tax on them, or perhaps a tax on their business. Again, I can see why the Mayor would want to have that revenue-generating system, but the emphasis should be on improving the railway system—as this Government are doing—upgrading it, and making it cleaner and more efficient. We should be building that capacity, not just in the Bolton West constituency but across Greater Manchester and beyond, and improving the bus system. I appreciate that the Government have given immense powers, ability and support to the Mayor of Greater Manchester to deliver on that.

There is a lot of discussion about the tram system and how it is going to be expanded, but I am not tempted at the moment to say that it should come to my constituency from Greater Manchester, though many constituents would be. Perhaps its coming to Bolton North East would be more appropriate, because that links with Bury far more effectively than it perhaps would with Bolton West. We are actually blessed with railway stations right across the constituency. I have mentioned Horwich Parkway and Blackrod, and we have Westhoughton, Daisy Hill, Hag Fold, Atherton and Lostock, which link in with the wider network. I as a local Member of Parliament and many other colleagues right across the country champion the cause of the local public transport network. It is my judgment: I enjoy using the buses and the trains, because I so often find driving so frustrating. It is far more relaxing and far more comfortable and, when I come into work and I do what I do, I am often in a better and more relaxed state of mind.

I ask the Minister to continue his good work with what he is doing in promoting the railways, to continue working with colleagues on the overall transport infrastructure and to make sure that the ongoing delivery between Bolton and Wigan is delivered on time.