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Rail Services: North Staffordshire — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:06 pm on 28th November 2018.

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Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North 3:06 pm, 28th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate Jack Brereton on securing such a timely debate.

North Staffordshire is perfectly situated in the centre of the country, and we currently benefit from good direct lines to both Manchester and Birmingham, as well as an excellent service to the capital, but while those connections to other major economic hubs remain strong, beneath the surface there is another story, which Members have already touched on. Lack of capacity on certain routes and historical under-investment in our smaller local stations has left the Potteries with a rail system that does not always meet the needs of travellers and commuters. Those limitations have a knock-on effect on our local economy, and with our tourism industry continuing to increase—who would not want to visit Moorcroft Pottery, Ford Green Hall or Burslem School of Art?—it is more important than ever that people can get to and from our city as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

The hon. Gentleman made particular note of the Crewe to Derby line. The lack of capacity on that route is a matter of regular complaints from my constituents. The size of trains, often consisting of just one carriage, is frequently insufficient to meet the needs of passengers. The problem is particularly acute at peak time for people working in and travelling to Derby or Crewe, as well as on race day, as revellers on the way to Uttoxeter find themselves squeezed shoulder to shoulder throughout the corridors and vestibules.

Capacity is also a problem on the CrossCountry service to Birmingham, Bristol and Bournemouth—a particularly expensive and appalling service. I do not want to rant about my own experiences, as that would be an abuse of the Chamber, but they have not been good. More importantly, my constituents are regularly subjected to spending the entire journey jammed into the vestibule with dozens of other passengers. That is made worse by incredibly poor customer service and a disgraceful attitude towards passengers from rail staff. On one occasion, my hon. Friend Gareth Snell and I were forced to intervene when staff refused to allow a heavily pregnant woman to sit in the only seat available, which happened to be in first class, to avoid the sweltering crush of an over-packed vestibule, with people being forced to stand in the toilet. That was a shocking incident and one which, more than a year later, CrossCountry has never adequately responded to.

It is clear that capacity is an issue on the line, even on those more frequent services, but I wish to make another vital point about the under-investment in, and under-utilisation of, our smaller local train stations. One such example is Kidsgrove train station, a well-used local station that provides vital transport links with the wider area—although I am sad that some people have to travel back and forth, because everyone should visit Kidsgrove. In 2010, the station’s usage was 100,000 journeys per year; today it stands at 228,000. Despite the evident demand for a local transport hub, it has taken nearly a decade to secure the additional investment that residents have long campaigned for. At this point I must thank Jon Honeysett for his advice and support during the campaign.

When I was first elected to Parliament in 2015, one of my first acts was to meet the then Transport Minister to make clear the importance of the investment. At that time the issue had already been rumbling on unresolved for seven years, but at last the long-awaited improvements to the station have begun, and I want to put on the record my thanks to Paul Maynard for his direct intervention in support of the project. Work is now under way to improve and expand the station car park, which will include an hour of free parking for local residents to support the local town centre. The improvements to the access bridge, which will make it fully disability accessible, are on course to be completed by next summer. No one will now have to travel from Stoke to Crewe in order to come back to Kidsgrove to get off the train.

I am delighted that after years of campaigning, the investment was finally secured, but it is indicative of the Government’s attitude to transport infrastructure outside of the major conurbations that it took so long. Such lack of focus on the importance of smaller stations can also be seen when it comes to Longport station, located in Burslem in the heart of my constituency.

Burslem is the mother town of the Potteries and plays a key part in our city’s cultural renaissance; it is also a big draw for tourists visiting Stoke-on-Trent to explore our proud ceramic heritage. It is home to Middleport Pottery, a beautifully restored Victorian potbank and the home of the iconic Burleighware pottery. It is an architectural showcase of our town in its own right. It is also the station that services Port Vale football club. Given Burslem’s obvious importance to our city, it would make sense to make greater use of Longport station as a way of getting people easily to and from the town, yet that station is served by only a small number of routes, including the previously mentioned Crewe to Derby line and one early morning service to Manchester. By improving connectivity within the six towns as well as routes in and out of the city, we could provide a huge boost for the local economy and begin to tackle the immense strain on our road infrastructure.

A truly effective public transport system is one that is tailored to meet the needs of local businesses and local residents. Currently, we simply do not have that. We should begin to make timetabling more responsive to people’s needs, not just with regard to the daily commute, vital though that is, but with an eye towards bringing more people into the local area, especially for major events.

In the summer I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful Weeping Window exhibition on display in my constituency. The installation attracted more than 100,000 visitors, but many more could have come if additional rail services had been offered to get people to and from Longport station. Sadly, given the Government’s long and depressing track record when it comes to infrastructure investment in the north and midlands, I fear such improvements will be stymied. Despite years of talk about the northern powerhouse, the Institute for Public Policy Research North found that Government spending on transport in London has risen twice as much per person compared with the rest of the country since 2014. While London receives £1,019 per head in public spending on transport, the west midlands receives less than half of that—just £412 per person. That imbalance cannot continue. Our rail services are vital to my constituents, but our transport infrastructure will achieve its full potential only when residents’ concerns about quality are matched by the Government’s urgency to invest.