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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:57 pm on 28th November 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:57 pm, 28th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jack Brereton on securing the debate. The speeches we have heard from Members on both sides make clear the ambition for the area, and we have had some very informed contributions detailing how that ambition might be delivered.

There have been some common themes, including the connectivity and, in particular, the capacity of the north Staffordshire rail line. That reflects historical under-investment in our railway. That accusation can be made against Governments of all colours over a considerable number of years, but I do not think it is an accusation that can be made against this Government. We are looking at the biggest period of rail investment since the Victorian era. Just next year, from April onwards, we will be starting what is called control period 6, which will bring a £48 billion package of investment—a record in British history and the biggest since the Victorian era. Nobody can accuse this Government of failing to recognise the importance of rail or of not matching that in our Budgets.

As all the contributions to the debate showed, we can all agree on the tremendous importance of the region, whether in terms of industrial growth, passenger growth, the opportunity that has been presented by HS2, or the importance of passengers reaching the HS2 hubs so that they can access that new service, right down to the rail user groups as well. Would I share in congratulating those groups? Yes, I most certainly would. Rail user groups up and down our country do fantastic work, whether it is looking after stations or promoting services. This morning, I was at Hadley Wood railway station in north London, meeting some of its rail user groups, which have taken on a significant environmental project. Those groups and their work have changed our national policy. I was there to launch the Department’s review, carried out by John Varley, of Network Rail’s vegetation policy—how to make our railway lines more environmentally friendly. Rail user groups of course have a big role to play.

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I have listened carefully to representations about rail services and other matters, in particular about the services between Derby and Crewe. Overcrowding, especially during peak hours, is clearly a major problem, which has come about for a variety of reasons. Simple passenger growth along on the line has been compounded by the need to take some trains out of service in order to carry out accessibility improvements, alongside the regular maintenance cycle. I fully recognise that that has compounded the problem, but it is anticipated that overcrowding will ease as the new rolling stock is procured or released from elsewhere in the network. I recognise that that has caused inconvenience to communities represented by colleagues in the Chamber, and I regret that.

We seek ways in which to improve services in future. The Department and Network Rail are fully engaged with Midlands Connect, which has recognised the importance of the north Staffordshire line in its transport strategy. The Government have committed £12 million to fund Midlands Connect to the end of the next financial year, with additional investment to further develop focused transport proposals throughout the midlands.

With that support, Midlands Connect plans to produce a strategic outline business case next year, to assess how service capacity and frequency might be improved significantly on the north Staffordshire line, including consideration of infrastructure upgrades such as improved signalling or alterations to level crossings, rolling stock improvements, and operational measures such as changes to stopping patterns. The business case will look at ways of doubling existing service frequency and reducing journey times by 20 minutes. Midlands Connect estimates that increasing service provision in that way could increase passenger demand on the line by 72%, which is a figure quoted earlier.

Investing in that corridor will complement the midlands rail hub proposals, which seek to increase capacity radically and reduce journey times across the region. The work to develop the scheme is supported by the Department, which has provided a further £5 million. The work is intended to double the frequency of services between Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham and Lincoln.

Further to that, as part of the strategic development corridor work, Transport for the North is reviewing options to improve connectivity in the Crewe to Derby corridor as part of its strategic transport plan. We fully recognise the need to invest in modern infrastructure to support better services—the two go hand in hand, which is why we have the biggest upgrade of the midland main line since it was completed in 1870, in an investment worth £1.5 billion.

Ambitious works to modernise and improve the railway at Derby station were recently completed. In fact, I am to visit it tomorrow morning, and am very much looking forward to doing so. That once-in-a-generation upgrade includes 17 km of new track, 55 new signals, 79 sets of points and nine new overhead gantries. The previous complex and inefficient track layout has been simplified to allow for more direct train movements to and through the station. We are not investing in our railway network purely because we want the network to be invested in; we are investing to increase capacity. It is all focused on passengers, who are at the heart of what we are doing.

The next East Midlands franchise is a piece of live work. Through our ambition and the invitation to tender, we intend to get new capacity coming on stream using some of the capabilities that we have been discussing. The invitation to tender published in June specifies an ambitious programme of benefits and improvements, including a brand-new fleet of longer, quieter, comfortable and more efficient bi-mode trains, which will provide additional seating and improved on-board facilities for long-distance services. The three bidders for the franchise are Abellio, Arriva and the existing provider, Stagecoach. On timing, we anticipate the announcement of the winning bidder in the spring, with services to commence in summer next year.

To focus on the Derby to Crewe corridor, the north Staffordshire line will benefit from increased capacity, which was at the heart of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. Trains will operate with at least one extra carriage to help to satisfy local demand. That will be supplemented by additional early and late services, and improved Sunday services. I cannot immediately promise the timing wanted by my hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths, but I undertake to take that question away, look at it and come back to him.

As my hon. Friend is aware, however, Ministers are not directly involved in assessing bids, which is a piece of work done anonymously inside the Department, with the information kept secure because it is market sensitive. Bidders have nevertheless been incentivised to enhance existing direct journey opportunities, including east-west connectivity or the Crewe to Derby service. Passengers will also benefit from high-quality wi-fi and mobile connectivity on trains and in stations.

I have attended many transport debates, but never before has a Member highlighted the ugliness of their station; normally Members talk up their local area. Due to the miracle of parliamentary wi-fi, I have had a look at Burton station. It is not an architectural masterpiece, I recognise that. My hon. Friend was kind enough to invite me to visit his constituency, and I would be delighted to do so. Perhaps we could visit the St Peter’s bridge of earlier discussions, as well as looking at the station. He also mentioned a local brew on the way—always a pleasant thought.

Smart ticketing will be another feature of our modern railway. Smart ticketing options will be introduced for leisure and business journeys, including fares that offer better value for money for passengers travelling regularly but less often than five days a week. The new franchise has specified exemplary passenger satisfaction targets for trains, stations, customer services and dealing with delays. Ruth Smeeth spoke about customer service, and I agree that we must have the highest levels of customer service on our railways. The East Midlands competition has attracted a strong field of companies, all of them determined to operate that vital franchise. The winning bidder will be the one that impresses the most, while obviously ensuring value for money and a good deal for taxpayers.

One particular feature of colleague concern has been communication and collaboration between the different parts of our rail network, whether on the detail of the 12.11 and the 12.16 at Alsager, or on the services to London—which I believe will continue but, from May next year, are likely to go via New Street station in Birmingham. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce highlighted a number of other questions, as have a lot of colleagues, and I will go through the record of the debate to ensure that I write to everyone with the detailed answers they sought. From May next year, however, she may at least expect an attractive service via New Street.

As part of our strategic vision for rail, the new franchise will introduce new ways of working that put passengers first. The historical separation of track and train, no longer suitable for the challenges of today’s intensively used railway, will end. In its place, we will introduce a new “one team” approach to embed shared incentives between Network Rail and the new operator that will ensure that passenger interests come first in all decision making. I hope that colleagues agree that the vision for the new franchise to serve the east midlands will ensure a service that is far more ambitious than that which it replaces, and will play a significant role in securing the long-term prosperity of the region.

HS2 has been mentioned by many colleagues in this debate. It is a fantastic project, and I look forward to it enormously. It will transform transport connections right across our country. Looking further ahead to its local impact, the second phase of HS2 will deliver considerable benefits for the region and has the potential to support growth right across the UK. Crewe is a key station for connectivity; HS2 will generate significant opportunities not just there but, because it is such a hub, for Wales, Cheshire, Warrington, the Wirral and the immediate area around Staffordshire. Crewe will be the hub that connects those areas, the north of England and the west coast mainline. It will totally revitalise the area with new opportunities, bringing businesses, jobs and housing to the wider region. Through HS2 connections at Crewe, passengers will benefit from shorter journeys to London and vice versa, as well as improved cross-country journey times.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South highlighted the importance as a key feeder of Longton station in his constituency. That is entirely understood. The question now is how we maximise the benefits that HS2 will bring. This is a £50 billion-plus scheme; right across the country, contracts will be won by engineering businesses to deliver this fantastic scheme. The project now is how we maximise the opportunities and minimise the disruption to local communities during the build. We should be in no doubt, however, that HS2 is a fantastic, exciting project serving more than the immediate area; it is important for the whole UK. I certainly want Stoke-on-Trent to be served by HS2.

There have been a number of comments on timetabling, ticket pricing, local delivery plans for Staffordshire and whether the line from Stoke to Stockton Brook will be reopened. The rail strategy published in November 2017 includes a section on exploiting opportunities to restore capacity lost under Beeching where that unlocks housing and growth. Any potential reopening would need to be supported via a strong business case to demonstrate an economic return. Who might be the best people to produce those plans? That would be local councils and local enterprise partnerships. They know their areas best; they need to decide which transport schemes will bring the most benefit. We will work very closely with LEPs and authorities to help them with that work. Any proposal must be brought forward in line with the rail network enhancement pipeline, but we are keen for capacity to be increased and we recognise that reopening closed lines will be a feature of rail’s future.

The transforming cities budget was highlighted; that is a significant opportunity. Stoke is one of 10 English city regions chosen to work with the Department to design innovative public transport packages to make it easier and quicker for people to get around. Gareth Snell said that the journey from his home can take him up to 45 minutes; this fund is designed to help Stoke and other regions tackle some of their internal transport questions. They will be eligible for a share of up to £1.28 billion from the transforming cities fund and from funding as a future mobility zone. Each shortlisted region will have to develop its own plans, but regions are given some budget to help them make their bids.

I will go through the record carefully to see whether there are any questions I have not answered, but I have tried to answer as many as possible. I want to leave with hon. Members the message that we fully recognise the need for increased capacity on that service, as has been made extremely clear in this debate. The rolling stock needs to be improved. That improvement can help to unlock economic opportunity—that has been made clear by colleagues on both sides speaking with one voice on behalf of their region. That voice has been heard and I will do all I can to make the transport of the area much improved.