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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:22 pm on 28th November 2018.

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Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 3:22 pm, 28th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. In view of the time, I shall try to run through my comments at relatively high speed. Without wishing to repeat comments made by my hon. Friends and colleagues this afternoon, I want to reiterate three points of particular interest. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, Jack Brereton, on securing this debate on matters of infrastructure and transport. I think that we speak with one voice about our city, as we all recognise the importance of such investment and what it can unlock for the economics of both the city and the wider North Staffordshire area.

Every Monday morning, my journey to Parliament place starts at Stoke-on-Trent railway station. I can get on the 10.12 train and pretty much be in Portcullis House just after midday. That is a two-hour door-to-door journey. It is a fabulous journey time, considering the distance. However, some mornings it takes me 45 minutes to get from my home to the railway station in Stoke-on-Trent—a journey of not more than four miles—if I hit peak traffic. I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, and other colleagues who mentioned it, about the wider infrastructure around Stoke-on-Trent that allows people access to the rail network.

Stoke-on-Trent railway station deals with more than 3 million journeys a year. If Kidsgrove, Longport and Stafford and the stations that immediately serve the conurbation are included, we are easily talking about 4 million or 5 million journeys a year. That is not an insignificant number, but getting to a station at peak travel time can be the most arduous part of the journey, irrespective of where someone is going on the rail network. I would welcome comments from the Minister about what plan the Government have to deliver the integrated transport system that we need, which would serve North Staffordshire well. I am not only talking about driving a car, but about local bus routes. Bus services in North Staffordshire serve the places they need to serve; but they do not necessarily go to the places passengers want to go to. For someone who lives in Staffordshire Moorlands, trying to get to Stoke-on-Trent railway station—which is the one that serves the community—from Leek, Werrington or Cheadle would be a struggle on public transport at the key times when people seek to travel. Likewise, moving around the city becomes difficult.

I want to focus particularly on the Crewe-Stoke-Derby line. I think that the theme for today’s debate has been hinted at. It is not necessarily the greatest service in the world. My hon. Friend Paul Farrelly was right when he called it a single-carriage boneshaker. It is a single carriage that trundles through Stoke-on-Trent—an embarrassment to a rather impressive railway station. People going to Derby or Uttoxeter can often be seen squeezing on to a single carriage. The only other time I see that is when I try to get on to the Northern line at busy times when I come to this place. At least then there is another train coming in two minutes, rather than an hour.

We know—and it is what Midlands Connect has done with its services—that with an increase in frequency and a doubling of carriage size there could be a 72% increase in use of the line from Crewe to Derby. That would result in new passengers using the line for access to the services available in Derby and Crewe. It would also, for Stoke-on-Trent’s purposes, mean more people coming to the city to take on the new jobs that will be coming as part of the local growth programme. As my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth and Andrew Griffiths mentioned, we are missing a trick by not having services that work on race days. The A50 may now be resurfaced, but it can still only take as many cars as it could before. The roundabout halfway along, with the hotel that JCB uses, remains a snagging point. Regardless of how smooth the roads to it and around it are, more cars cannot go through that neck than will fit. We are therefore missing a trick in the matter of alleviating pressure on the A50 as well as boosting the economic activity of one of the county’s largest employers, and one of the largest contributors to the economy.

I can get from Stoke-on-Trent to London in about an hour and 25 minutes. That is without stopping at Milton Keynes; with that stop, it takes about 1 hour and 35 minutes. However, when people come from London to Stoke-on-Trent they often say to me “I didn’t realise it was this close.” They mean they did not realise they could get there so quickly. Sometimes we forget that Stoke-on-Trent’s position on the rail network and its proximity to London make for good timing, which businesses can make use of. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I mention that the issue was pushed to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Ms Ghani, when she was talking about High Speed 2. There are still things we are unsure about, with respect to HS2 provision in Stoke-on-Trent. We know we should be served by the compatible work, and that there will be a train stopping at our station. We do not know what the cumulative impact will be on our existing fast services and our existing commuter service to the rest of the county. The hon. Lady gave us as much information as she could at the time, I think, but there is still a question, on which we should like some guarantee, as to whether the additional HS2 service will in fact be additional—that it will not be in place of our existing fast train service. That could be cost-prohibitive, and there are issues as to whether it will serve intervening stations, and as to how sustainable it is.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, David Rutley—and we have discussed the matter. Lovely as Macclesfield is, if the train is going north it should go from Macclesfield to Manchester, and, ideally, to Manchester airport. If that cannot happen by way of high-speed rail, a local service that can take people from Stoke-on-Trent to Manchester airport would be a huge boost to the local economy. We already have the direct link through Birmingham International station to Birmingham International airport, but we do not have a similar link going north.

I want to touch on freight, as we have talked quite a lot today about passenger services. Stoke-on-Trent relies heavily on freight, particularly for the ceramics industry. Clay coming from Cornwall travels up the west coast main line to be deposited at a repository just south of the city, from where it can be taken to the various wonderful potbanks we still have in the city. There is an opportunity, through the ceramic valley enterprise zone and the Blue Planet site with JCB, to consider spur lines that could allow the direct delivery of a rail service to those areas where economic growth and new jobs will be delivered in the city. When JCB took on the Blue Planet site, it said that the spur line that exists on a map is still technically a registered railway. There was even an opportunity for it to consider moving additional work there, so that it could compile its well-identified brand of diggers, put them on a train, and send them straight out—that would alleviate some of the stress and strains placed on the local road network when big loads move through.

Finally, what can we do with existing railway lines that are not used? As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, many of the trackways used by the Knotty, the old North Staffordshire loop line, still exist. They would not be usable or functional for reopening a railway in their current state, but there are examples—not least the line that runs from Silverdale to Newcastle and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme—of lines that have been turned into cycle routes or pedestrian-friendly routes away from the main line, and where alternative forms of transport can use the infrastructure that was once laid down to allow people to cycle or walk. If we could consider those issues, we could take some of the history and heritage of our railway infrastructure in North Staffordshire and put it to better use for pedestrians.

Finally, those Members who, having heard this debate are on their way to Stoke-on-Trent and cannot wait to get on a train, will now find when they get to the station a wonderful new establishment called the bod.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—