I thank the Speaker for providing me with the opportunity to hold this debate. I am a railwayman’s daughter. I am also a railwayman’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter, and had the opportunity to work for Network Rail for a few years myself.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech and congratulate her on securing the debate. On the subject of fatherhood, is she aware that Merseyrail provides free travel for pensioners travelling from the Merseyside area to Chester, but that pensioners who catch the train at Hooton must pay to travel to Chester?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is always important to speak up for pensioners, especially those related to us. I am sure that people outside this place will take note of his comments.
As I was saying, I come from a long line of railway people. I mention that not to emphasise a lack of imagination in the McGovern family but to say that in this debate, I will be demanding in speaking for the future of rail in Merseyside. However, I do so in the knowledge of how difficult questions of investment can be.
For reasons that I will suggest shortly, public transport should be central to the current national debate about the economic future of our country. This afternoon’s debate focuses on Merseyside and the surrounding areas of north Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire, but my point—that infrastructure planning is at the heart of economic development and poverty alleviation—could be made about many places in our country.
This year, the Secretary of State for Transport will set out the Government’s investment priorities for our rail network for the five-year period from 2014 to 2019. It is a significant opportunity. It will set the agenda for investment and begin thousands of conversations about how we can speed up, increase capacity and provide access to markets for our many citizens who are looking for a job or need access to parts of our economy.
I am pleased to be here as the MP for Wrexham and to support my hon. Friend in her debate. Many big businesses such as Jaguar Land Rover, General Motors in Ellesmere Port and Airbus provide jobs not just across Merseyside but in north Wales. It is important to enable access to those jobs for people who do not have private transport. We need a good public transport network in the region.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He and I have tried to work closely together on these issues, for the reasons that he mentions. People do not respect administrative boundaries when it comes to getting a job. We must ensure that people in residential areas, a lot of whom need work, have access to big businesses such as the ones that he mentioned. I hope that I can suggest exactly how we might do so.
Hopefully, my hon. Friend will agree that many people separate, isolate or segregate transport as just a means of moving goods or individuals from one place to another. Does she agree that there are also massive economic, health and well-being and social benefits to infrastructure, and that it creates the sorts of job and employment opportunity that she will know are all too needed on Merseyside?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is quite right. If we consider the body of evidence produced by, for example, the Thameslink and Crossrail projects in London, we find exactly what he suggests. Transport infrastructure underpins economic development, but it also gives access to employment, and to the personal dignity involved, to those who currently do not have it. With that point in mind—
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in her speech. Does she agree that for places such as Skelmersdale, the most populous town in my constituency, not to have a rail service in the 21st century places the town and its residents at a massive disadvantage and reflects the desperate need for investment in local rail services? To amplify the comments made so far, communities such as Skelmersdale must have rail services, which will deliver significant regeneration benefits socially, economically and culturally—
Thank you, Mr Robertson. I promise not to test your patience any more by taking further interventions. My hon. Friend and I have mentioned Skelmersdale in this Chamber before. She will correct me if I am not right, but I believe that the reduction in rail service happened just before Skelmersdale became a new town. How ironic that such a residential centre should not have a rail link. That must be addressed as well.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
With all those points in mind, the test that I would set the Government for their priorities is this. First, whatever those priorities are, will they help rebalance the UK economy? Secondly, will those priorities address existing pockets of poverty in the UK? I would be grateful if the Minister addressed those points of principle.
I remind everybody that Merseyside has an important place in rail history. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket set a speed record at Rainhill in Merseyside. One year later, the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened as the world’s first steam passenger service. However, wonderful though that history is, it is not enough. We need a fantastic economic future as well. Luckily, that seems to be happening for Merseyside. We have a brilliant, burgeoning visitor economy.
During the recent “Sea Odyssey”, I am told, hotels in the city were at 99% occupancy, against the backdrop of a large increase in the number of hotels. We have a successful visitor economy on our hands. Our port is also growing, and more development is possible through the Wirral Waters schemes and others. What infrastructure does Merseyside require to ensure that economic growth is achieved, and that growth, when it comes, significantly benefits the least well off?
Turning to the specifics, Merseyside’s rail network is very busy already, and it is well used. Especially through the east side of my constituency, services are busy and getting busier by the day. However, a key problem is the existence of what I call railway black holes. That was not always the case. Many parts of Merseyside and the surrounding area suffer from poor connectivity because their railway station was closed or their service reduced many years ago, when it was not clear that railways would be as popular and necessary as they now clearly are. There are public transport gaps across Merseyside. As a result, perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most disadvantaged communities in our region are in those blackspots. We have already mentioned Skelmersdale and the surrounding area, just across the border in Lancashire. Parts of north Liverpool also suffer. They are important population centres. Parts of the Wirral, such as the Woodchurch estate, which need a railway station within a short distance so that people can get to work do not have that connectivity.
There are some important issues for the Government to consider. The Minister might mention the northern hub. It is important to finish the northern hub in order to get the full benefit. Only through quick links—four trains an hour between Liverpool and Manchester—will we open up the commuting area. We also need to look at the Halton curve, which could provide two routes into Liverpool and help with managing the west coast main line.
Parts of my constituency of Wirral South are very well connected to employment centres in Liverpool and Chester, and onwards to Warrington and Manchester, but other parts are less fortunate. They are served by a railway running from Bidston, on the Wirral, through Heswall, Neston and Deeside to Wrexham in north Wales. I stand to be corrected, but I believe the route has received little or no significant investment for years. The unreliable and infrequent service means that those of my constituents in Heswall who have the choice tend to opt for their cars rather than the train. Members representing constituencies in north Wales tell me that it is also common in Flintshire and Deeside for people to opt automatically for their car rather than the train. Those without access to private transport are then left with either rail services that are not as good as in other places, or slow buses. Electrifying the line, which is fewer than 30 miles in length, would tie it in and provide through services to Liverpool and more frequent trains.
I know that these are difficult times and I understand that even if we were to start planning for further electrification, it would be a long process to find funding over a number of years. During the economic instability of the 1980s, however, the then Government electrified parts of the Merseyside rail network, namely the line through Rock Ferry, on the other side of my constituency. That has underpinned today’s economic development, so investing in rail, even at times like these, really works. Unfortunately, some parts were left out and those areas form today’s gaps, but if it was possible to invest in our rail network in the 1980s, I am sure that it should be possible to do so again today. There are long-term benefits to electrification.
I would like to add, as a slight caveat, that we need rolling stock as well as infrastructure. There will be a cascade of new rolling stock as the Thameslink programme comes online. Will the Minister comment on how that is proceeding? It would be helpful if the rolling stock could make more trains available.
In my test for the Government’s priorities, how will my proposal for extra electrification help? First, it must be recognised that the railway line happens to link the potential of Wirral Waters, in north Wirral, with industry in Deeside, where we hope to see much growth. It runs between those two flagship zones for economic development. North Wales and Liverpool have a historic connection: many people from one area visit the other on holiday, and vice versa, and more people from Merseyside now want to visit the beautiful surroundings of north Wales. We want a direct rail link between the two to serve those people well.
Secondly, on poverty reduction, we know that we have to tackle worklessness by reducing travel-to-work barriers. This is not a “get-on-your-bike” mentality; people are already trying to make journeys between centres of population and centres of employment. We have to plan for how we can support them to do that in a way that will give businesses the confidence to invest because they know that there are skilled people available to hire. This is about addressing historic imbalances in rail investment and seeing whether we can do some infilling of pockets with a relatively modest investment that could have a long-term impact on economic development.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will plot a journey for us on how we can make progress with this project, which has been an aspiration for many years. My predecessor worked on it and other Members present have spent a great deal of time promoting it. On economic development and the difficulties that we face, especially in an area where a large number of people are employed in businesses that export to the eurozone, we need to continue to support the underlying infrastructure investment that will keep our industry strong.
More than simply arguing for the investment from which my own constituents could benefit—I do not apologise for doing so, although it is not enough to do just that—I hope that I have made a case for the potential in Merseyside and its surrounding areas in north Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire. Our region has much to offer a rebalanced UK economy. I hope that the Government will seize tomorrow’s opportunities and, by doing so, set in progress some of the answers to today’s economic strife.
I am pleased to be able to respond to this important debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing it. I concur with her that Liverpool’s real place in railway history is as the home of the first passenger railway. On the railway’s opening day, an MP got run over, which was a little unfortunate, but I will try to avoid such an incident in the future. Today, the city of Liverpool has one of the most intensive and busiest suburban networks outside London. A number of rail improvements have been delivered or are due to be delivered in the coming years and I will discuss them in a moment, but first I will address some the hon. Lady’s general points.
The coalition fully agrees that investment in our transport network is crucial. It can help to generate growth and improve competitiveness, which is why, despite the difficult public finances relating to the deficit, we have prioritised investment in our road and rail network. Our programme of rail improvements is bigger than any since the Victorian era. I agree that providing opportunities for employment, as well as widening labour pools and access to jobs and employment, is one of the key benefits of rail improvement schemes.
The hon. Lady was kind enough to refer to the previous Conservative Government’s activities in electrifying lines in the 1980s. The coalition Government also recognise the benefits of electrification, which is why we have a programme to roll it out in the north-west and on the Great Western line. We will also consider what more can be done. The hon. Lady asked about rolling stock cascade. Network Rail is programmed to deliver the electrification in the north-west and on the Great Western line that will start to deliver that cascade. The work is going well and is on schedule. We are also making progress on the Thameslink procurement, which is a key trigger for making available rolling stock to be cascaded elsewhere in the country, potentially to Merseyside.
The hon. Lady mentioned the aspiration to electrify the Wrexham to Bidston line. I am, of course, aware of the scheme and have discussed it with Merseytravel. I acknowledge its potential in relation to the economies of Wirral and Deeside, and she is right to mention the potential benefits of better links between north Wales and Merseyside. She will probably be aware that, a few years ago, Merseytravel and the Welsh Government asked Network Rail to undertake a study outlining the costs of the electrification proposal, and the figure produced was £207 million, so it is quite a high-cost scheme, which makes delivery a challenge. There was little follow-up on the study, and it must be recognised that, although we support electrification, if schemes are to go ahead they need to demonstrate value for money and be affordable.
Does the Minister agree that although railways are not cheap, compared with the billions that have been provided for Thameslink, which will have a great impact on London, the proposed investment is modest; that what matters is the resulting cost-benefit ratio; and that we need to clarify exactly what those benefits will be?
I agree that we need to assess carefully the value for money of every scheme, but we also need to look at overall affordability. I am afraid that even when one is talking about Government spending, £200 million is a significant amount. I am impressed with the work that Network Rail is doing, for example, on how to get the costs of delivering electrification down. I hope that there is scope to see whether there might be a more affordable scheme in the future.
For a local line, we, like the previous Government, would normally look to the local authorities to seek out the funding to realise such a scheme. We know that such schemes are important to the local authorities and, if they attach a priority to them, we would expect them to consider their options for funding. That might include the major local scheme, which will reopen in 2015. That has funded some very important improvements, for example, at Kirkstall Forge and in Coventry. There are options open to Merseytravel and the Welsh Government. As we have done in the past, the Government are prepared to engage with them if they want to do further work.
We take broadly the same position on some of the other improvements mentioned in today’s debate. On proposals to upgrade the Halton curve, we recognise the potential local benefits and we would be happy to work with the local authorities on their aspirations. However, again, the local authorities need to identify the funding.
I am sure that the right hon. Lady, like all Ministers, is used to special pleading and everyone thinking that their project is the most important, but is she aware of the huge increase in visitor numbers to Liverpool and the importance of the extra connectivity my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) talked about to the future of the city and to growing the local economy? That is what the Government keep telling us that they want to see in relation to rebalancing the economy.
We fully agree that improving our rail network can help us to achieve our aspiration to rebalance the economy and close the prosperity gap between north and south. That is why we are investing in a major programme of rail improvements, a number of which will benefit Liverpool—I am about to come on to those—including the announcements we have already made about the northern hub.
It is very important that we consider how to get the maximum benefits from rail investment to help to provide the jobs and prosperity that I think everyone in this Chamber wants. I acknowledge that rail has been key to Liverpool’s success as a port. In recent years, there have been a number of measures to improve rail freight connectivity. Under the previous Government, the Olive Mount chord was reopened to facilitate better freight train access to the port. The upgrade of the west coast main line has cut journey times between London and Liverpool, and a total of 106 new Pendolino carriages will be in use on the line by December, amounting to a 20% uplift in capacity, which obviously benefits many people in Merseyside travelling between Liverpool and London.
A competition for the next west coast franchise is under way. We are emphasising the importance of raising passenger satisfaction and service quality and improving punctuality. However, I fully agree that it is not only north-south connections we need to focus on. It is vital that we improve connectivity between our great cities of the north of England, because that is another way we will achieve the goals, rightly set out by the hon. Member for Wirral South, of rebalancing the economy and boosting the economy of the north of England.
In our spending review, we confirmed the control period 4 programme of rail improvements, including line speed improvements between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. Electrification in the north-west, which was another programme we inherited from the previous Government, was also given the go-ahead. That includes electrification of the line to Wigan via St Helens, which will benefit commuter services in Merseyside. The Ordsall chord recently got the go-ahead, which is a key part of the northern hub scheme.
I am sorry, but I need to conclude now.
Although located in Manchester, that scheme will benefit Liverpool because it will deliver those faster journey times between Liverpool and Manchester that the hon. Member for Wirral South rightly identified as very important. The combination of that with the electrification of the north trans-Pennine line to York means that we will see improvements to journey times between Liverpool and Leeds. When those very important improvements are complete, journey times will decrease from around 109 minutes to 77 minutes.
In the meantime, TransPennine Express is consulting on a new timetable that could result in an additional service between Liverpool and Newcastle. We welcome that because it could increase capacity on the route and deliver some journey time savings early, in advance of those infrastructure upgrades that are also going ahead. As I have many times before, I assure hon. Members that we are considering all the remaining schemes in the northern hub, including increasing the capacity of the Chat Moss route. That is very relevant to Merseyside. We will assess what is affordable and what can be included in the high-level output specification that we will publish over the summer.
I will end by referring to some of the real successes we have seen on the Merseyrail Electrics network, which was devolved to Merseytravel and supported by a grant of around £70 million a year from the Government. Passenger satisfaction ratings have risen significantly to 93% in autumn 2011 and high levels of reliability have been achieved. All the trains have been refurbished and automatic ticket barriers have been introduced in many stations. All of Liverpool’s five underground stations are to receive a £40 million overhaul in the next few years, and £20 million is being spent on refurbishing Liverpool Central station, which forms a key hub of the Merseyrail network. Merseytravel is putting together plans to replace every train on the Merseyrail network. That is an ambitious programme and my Department is happy to provide advice on developing the case for replacement rolling stock.
That programme provides an illustration of what the devolution of transport decision making can achieve. We have consulted on our proposals to devolve the local major scheme to local transport bodies. Local authorities might like to consider the scheme I mentioned in relation to their aspirations to improve local rail services. We are also discussing a city deal with the Liverpool city region, which has identified improving connectivity as essential to its future economic growth.
Last but certainly not least, our HS2 plans will see classic compatible high-speed trains running off the new network on to the west coast line to serve Liverpool directly. That will provide improved connectivity to London and faster journey times and will further assist in achieving the goals, which I am sure the hon. Member for Wirral South and I share, of regenerating the economy around Merseyside, promoting growth in the north of England and rebalancing our economy. A high-quality rail network is one of the means we can use to achieve those objectives.
Question put and agreed to.