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Train Services: Telford and Birmingham

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered train services between Telford and Birmingham.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a great privilege to be able to come to this place and raise the concerns of the residents I represent, and to have a Minister come and listen to them. In this place, as we have just seen, we often debate issues of great national and global importance, and sometimes we forget to focus on the issues that have the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of those we serve.

Telford, my constituency, is a vibrant, thriving and rapidly growing new town set in the heart of rural Shropshire, and this year it is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It has a unique identity and a proud industrial heritage as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It is a shining example of what a successful new town can be. When Telford was designed half a century ago, it was intended to be self-sufficient, with all services, shopping and jobs provided locally. At that time, people were moving to Telford to get out of Birmingham, to live a better quality of life. However, the design of Telford in that way has meant that in many ways we are now cut off and somewhat isolated. Fifty years on, that self-sufficient model is not a model for a successful business centre, which requires excellent connectivity by both road and rail in order to thrive.

Telford has become a significant population centre and a very important business centre in the heart of the west midlands. It has inward investment, enterprise, commerce, advanced manufacturing and all sorts of hi-tech and new businesses coming to the area. Unemployment has halved and apprenticeships have doubled since 2010. With that, we should be experiencing good transport connectivity and rail networks fit for our growing new town, but sadly that is not the case.

Despite being surrounded by a rural hinterland of gorgeous Shropshire countryside, Telford is only 27 miles west of Birmingham, so we should be perfectly positioned for commuting to or leisure activities in Birmingham. We are next to the UK’s second largest city and should be able to capitalise on that opportunity, yet it takes us 47 minutes to get from Telford to Birmingham by train. We have only two trains an hour, and they are spaced so that if we miss the one at eight minutes past the hour, we have to wait 45 minutes for the next train. The issue is not just the spacing. Once we are on the train, the service is slow. It is a stopping service. The train chugs along reluctantly, stopping at every little Shropshire village that it passes along the way, and often it has only two carriages, which will inevitably be full to bursting at peak times.

As Telford has grown, more and more people have chosen to come and build their lives there, and more and more people want to travel to Birmingham for both leisure and work, so overcrowding is all too common, with people often standing for the whole of the 47-minute journey.

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the issues of the track and the capacity of the trains. Does she agree that, in addition, companies such as West Midlands Trains, which won the new franchise, need to look at stations—in particular, Albrighton and access to it, and Wellington, which has 750,000 passengers a year but where there is leaking at platform 1 and no toilet facilities outside opening hours? Some of those basic passenger experiences also need to be looked at—experiences on platforms as well as on the tracks and in the carriages.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. There is a great deal more work to be done and I feel that we have been somewhat neglected over the years in Telford and the surrounding areas. It is important that we address this now for the future of our area. That is why I have come to this place this afternoon.

The journey to Birmingham from London is one hour and 27 minutes or thereabouts, but trying to go on to Telford is a throwback to a completely different era. There is this slow, crowded stopping service, which takes 47 minutes, as I mentioned, and that is enough to move any commuter on to the road. The infrastructure investment has lagged behind our rapid population growth and our growth as a business centre. As you can imagine, Mr Hollobone, residents are regularly in contact with me to tell me about their struggles and their frustrations on a daily basis, so I want to give a voice to their experiences.

The train service between Telford and Birmingham simply does not meet the needs of a modern, thriving new town. In fact, Telford is the fastest growing new town in the country and the fastest growing town in the west midlands, yet we have had the same train service for as long as I and many others can remember, and it is not moving forward.

I have experienced exactly the same issues in Stoke-on-Trent with the services into Birmingham, and we are seeing the same amount of growth. Would my hon. Friend agree that, if integrated properly, HS2 provides a significant opportunity to take many of the rail services from locations such as Stoke-on-Trent off that route, freeing up more paths on the route through Wolverhampton into Birmingham?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, because that part of the track around Wolverhampton is the reason we have these problems in Telford. I completely agree that if we can clear that track, we will have more opportunities for additional services on the line from Telford to Birmingham.

Five years ago the train service was just slow, irritating and inconvenient, as I have described. Now it is all those things, plus it is a real battle to even get on to the train during peak times. If Telford is to fulfil its true potential as an attractive place to live and work, we must have a 21st-century link to Britain’s second largest city. It is just on our doorstep, but we cannot get there. We must have good connections to the rest of the country, and Birmingham is a gateway to do just that. That is imperative for our success to continue.

Over a number of years there has been a long debate around electrification. It has been discussed over and over. It has now been kicked into the long grass for this particular section of the track. In some ways that really is not the problem. What really matters to people who use the service is reliable peak-time trains that commuters can use to easily travel those 27 miles to Birmingham. The recent proposal to take Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs jobs from Telford to Birmingham exposed the very real challenges that commuters face daily. A 47-minute stopping service, irregularly spaced and with overcrowded carriages, makes people think twice before accepting a job in Birmingham. That is no good for people’s income and no good for our economy. It is a lost opportunity. That is why connectivity is utterly essential to Telford’s future. We do not want to be just an afterthought.

In Telford, we make a significant contribution to the west midland’s economy and we have the potential to do so much more. I would say that we are the beating heart of Shropshire and the centre of gravity for the area, with new businesses choosing to locate in Telford and people choosing to move to Telford all the time. We are not just some sleepy county town on the way to Wales. We are a centre of innovation, enterprise and growth, but without the ability to easily get to Birmingham, we are cut off and it is holding us back.

Another aspect that I have not mentioned is trying to get back from Birmingham after a night out. That in itself is a massive struggle that puts people off going to Birmingham for the evening at all, because if the preceding train has just gone, they can be stranded at New Street station for up to an hour. Once on the train, it is back to the sluggish chugging along, stopping at every Shropshire village, and so on. That is not the 21st century. We should be able to go to Birmingham and enjoy a night out without thinking of the ordeal of getting back home.

I know that the Government are committed to improving rail services and delivering a rail service fit for the 21st century. We have had a change of provider in Telford—that happened last December—and the Minister will be glad to hear that we have experienced some improvements to our service, and many more are promised. We will have an additional train per hour with effect from December this year, and that is very welcome indeed. However, there is much more to do if our train service is to keep up with the needs of our town—as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is not now in his place, mentioned.

We need more carriages. We need at least one fast train per hour, missing out those little Shropshire villages, for which there is no demand at all—I never see anyone getting on and off at these little stops between Telford and Birmingham. We also need sensible spacing of trains running in any one hour, to avoid lengthy periods between trains. It seems almost thoughtless to have two trains an hour running with a very short space between them.

As I have mentioned, our train service has failed to keep pace with Telford’s development and growth. This is impacting on the everyday lives of ordinary people trying to go about their jobs and get to work. It inevitably impacts on the success of our town. One thing that I am absolutely delighted about—I am keen to raise this—is our fantastic new footbridge linking the station to the town centre. I am grateful to the Government for the £10 million of funding for this wonderful, new bridge, which will transform the gateway to Telford and really change the way people perceive it as they enter into our town. The construction of the bridge from the station is well under way. People’s experience of using the station will be totally transformed.

I know that the Minister has responsibility for roads, but I would be delighted if he could ask his colleague, the Minister with responsibility for rail, to find time in his diary to come to Telford and open our railway station footbridge later in the year. I urge the Minister and the train operators—both West Midlands Trains Ltd and Arriva Trains Wales—to please not forget about Telford. We are doing great things for the economy locally and nationally. We must have the connectivity to keep on doing what we are doing, to keep on bringing in jobs and to keep on growing the region.

When thousands of people’s everyday lives are impacted by small issues that could be changed, we have to think seriously about why we are not doing it. There are some recommendations I would make today to our train operators—I hope they are listening, as well as the Minister. We need to drop some of the stops along the route to Birmingham. We are a business centre and we need to be able to go faster. This service is not a tourist stopping service to admire the attractions of Shropshire; we are talking about a function of business, and we must have that there. We must have enough carriages, because we cannot have only two carriages that are constantly overflowing. It is perfectly obvious that having an extra carriage would make all the difference. We must also have sensible spacing, particularly with the new train per hour, which is due in December. Trains need to be spaced sensibly around the whole hour, so that they do not all come at once. We must ensure that we do not have that 47-minute journey with a 45-minute wait between services.

Telford is an exciting place to live. Without doubt, it is one of the most successful towns in the midlands, economically and in terms of quality of life. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary in Telford and look to our future, we must ensure that our rail services match our economic growth and our huge ambitions for the future. That is essential if we are to continue to be the shining success story of what a new town should be. I will be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Hollobone. It is a positive delight to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a delight to speak in a debate that falls 100 years after the granting of the vote to women and the successes of suffragism and the suffragettes, and 50 years after the founding of Telford as a new town. I can think of no better way of unifying those two ideas than in my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan).

I am absolutely delighted that the Minister has raised that point. I have not had the opportunity to put on record that a relative of mine called Janie Allan was a militant, socialist suffragette and was in Holloway, where she was force-fed. It is thanks to her that so many of us are here today. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr Hollobone, for bringing that to a train debate.

I am honoured to be intervened on so early. I do not think I have ever been intervened on during the beginning of my introduction, but it was for such an honourable and honest cause. What a fantastic thing to say—I very much thank my hon. Friend for that.

It says more about my hon. Friend than I can that she has brought this debate at this juncture, and I congratulate her on it. It gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss rail services between Telford and Birmingham. She has built a formidable reputation as a vigorously campaigning and hard-working constituency MP on behalf of her local people, and it is easy to see why. I would not, judging by the gravamen of her speech, wish to live in one of those small villages that sit between Telford and Birmingham, but, with that small exception, her speech was very well made.

As the Chamber will know, I am responding on behalf of my colleague the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who is the rail Minister. Until very recently, he was steering the Space Industry Bill through the Commons on the Floor of the House, and he has therefore been unavoidably detained. I am sure that this is a debate that not merely colleagues and officials, but train operators, and West Midlands Trains in particular, are learning from and enjoying.

Let me pick up many of the themes that my hon. Friend has described. As she knows, and as she put well herself, the train came relatively late to Telford, because Telford itself was a new town. Since then, the town’s Central station has become one of the biggest success stories in the west midlands. Since opening in 1986, the station has grown beyond all expectations and now caters for something like 1 million passenger journeys every year. As my hon. Friend said, that has created a degree of growing pains; in some respects the station is, in the best sense—to the extent that these things can have a best sense—a victim of its own tremendous success. In fact, those numbers make the station busier than some of the region’s more established rail centres, including such storied names as Worcester Shrub Hill, Stratford-upon-Avon and Tamworth, to name but a few. It is a far cry from the days when the town’s rail needs were met by the likes of New Hadley Halt and Wellington station, which was once even renamed “Wellington-Telford West” to indicate that it served the neighbouring new town.

As my hon. Friend knows, on 10 December last year West Midlands Trains took over the operation of the West Midlands franchise from the previous incumbent, London Midland. The new company, whose responsibilities include operating both of the stations in her constituency, has committed to £1 billion of investment across the west midlands to deliver better journeys for all.

With her characteristic focus on the here and now, my hon. Friend has pointed out that the issue is not, at this point, electrification, but the bread-and-butter matters of capacity and service. I think that is widely recognised. The new franchise, which will run until 2026, will see passengers in the west midlands benefit from £700 million of investment in new and refurbished trains, including 400 brand-new carriages. That will increase the size of the fleet to 709 carriages from 563, and create space for an additional 85,000 passengers on rush-hour services, the majority of which will be in the west midlands.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) will be thrilled to hear that a further £60 million is to be spent on improving facilities at stations, including providing over 1,000 new car parking spaces, as well as more room for people to park—I am delighted to say this as the roads and cycling Minister—their bicycles. Every station in the franchise will also benefit from new information screens, more than 800 of which will be installed by spring 2021. Passengers will be able to see real-time journey information, including on train loading, so that they can work out where to board and what to do during any disruption, although I am sure that is a remote possibility. Passengers will also benefit from ambitious targets for the roll-out of smarter and more convenient forms of ticketing, which should be available on 50% of all passenger journeys by 2020 and 90% by the end of the franchise term.

Should delays and cancellations occur, and they inevitably do from time to time, passengers’ rights have also been strengthened. Compensation will now be available after delays of just 15 minutes or more, which is a marked improvement—of 50%, 100% or 200%, however it is counted—on the 30-minute threshold offered under the previous franchise. Eventually passengers will be able to make and receive compensation claims directly from an app, which will go hand in hand with the provision of free wi-fi on practically all trains.

The new franchise also plans to make great strides to break down the barriers to rail travel for those people who have restricted mobility. From 2020 the amount of notice required for passenger assistance will be halved to 12 hours, before falling to just four hours by 2021. By that date a trial of a turn-up-and-go service will also be undertaken. Other initiatives to recognise the railway as a community asset include an investment of £1.25 million to develop community rail initiatives, and a sustainability strategy to deliver a 49% reduction in carbon emissions and support the local supply chain.

As well as looking forward to better stations and more services, the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford will soon be able to enjoy more comfortable journeys on new trains. From 2020, 80 modern diesel carriages will be introduced to operate on services in and around Birmingham, including on the Telford line. In addition to offering a higher quality environment, these vehicles will have more seats than the carriages they are replacing, which should help to alleviate the rush-hour overcrowding that, as she mentioned, has resulted from the line’s growing popularity.

I have spoken so far about the franchise-wide improvements, but the line from Telford to Birmingham will also be transformed thanks to changes to the timetable, enhancements to station facilities and additional rolling stock. In December 2018, West Midlands Trains will create a regular all-day half-hourly service between Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury, calling at Telford. It will run from Monday to Saturday, and will complement the existing hourly service provided by the Wales and Borders franchisee, Arriva Trains Wales, making three trains per hour overall. I hope my hon. Friend will agree that that is a significant improvement, and it may go some way towards dealing with the dreadful situation she described of being stranded after an evening on the town. At the same time, West Midlands Trains will introduce a regular hourly local service to Birmingham on Sundays, in place of the current irregular Wales and Borders service. Then, in May 2021, that will be increased to two local trains per hour, which when combined with the hourly long-distance service from Wales, will mean three trains an hour all week. All of that will be achieved while maintaining similar journey times to today.

A better service deserves a better station, and Telford Central station is set to benefit from a range of improvements over the next few years. By the summer of this year—again, I rejoice in this as the Minister concerned—a bike hire facility will be installed. This will allow locals and visitors alike to find out for themselves why the area is known as “the birthplace of industry” by taking a trip to the Ironbridge UNESCO world heritage site and its surroundings. This work will be complemented by an expansion in the number of cycle parking spaces at Telford Central, due to be completed in 2021, and the development of station travel plans for both Telford and Oakengates. Those are designed to help promote sustainable travel to and from the stations by bringing together initiatives into a co-ordinated package that is delivered through partnership between the rail industry, the local authority and other stakeholders. Car users will benefit from an expanded and modernised car park. One hundred new spaces are to be created, and an automatic number plate recognition system will be installed to make it easier for passengers to pay for their car parking.

My hon. Friend mentioned apprenticeships. She will be pleased to know that the new West Midlands franchise will create 900 new apprenticeships over its course, and that the ambition is that at least 20 of those engineering and driving apprentices—I hope that the engineering apprenticeships will, in part, be at the new university in Herefordshire—will be female.

Smarter payment solutions will not, however, be exclusive to the car park. New ticket machines equipped with smart ticket readers are to be installed at both Telford Central and Oakengates stations. That will complement the introduction of the other smart ticket products that I have already outlined.

We know that change has to meet passengers’ needs and that modernisation must reflect the reality of people’s lives. That is why, as part of improving the ticketing arrangements, we have listened to what passengers have asked for and are introducing flexible carnet products from 2020. These will enable passengers to purchase a set number of journeys, and then redeem them as and when required.

Another common area of passenger feedback relates to the upkeep and repair of stations. Telford Central and Oakengates will be subject to a service quality regime that is designed to drive up station and customer service standards. The regime will be linked to cash penalties for the franchisee, and poor performance will result in money having to be reinvested in improving the customer experience. The same is true for Wellington station, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin would be grateful to hear if he were here.

The service quality regime will be overseen by West Midlands Rail, a consortium of 16 local authorities from across the region that has been created to lead rail transformation locally. Through a novel partnership arrangement, my Department and West Midlands Rail will jointly manage the new franchise, with West Midlands Rail taking the lead for services across the region, including those provided in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford.

The benefits of that collective but local focus can be seen right now, as a scheme is being delivered at Telford Central to better connect the station to the town and to create step-free access to all station platforms. That scheme, funded by my Department and delivered by Telford and Wrekin Council, is an excellent example of how partnership working between central Government and local government can enhance the lives of local people. That Telford and Wrekin Council is a member of West Midlands Rail is further cause for optimism for the town and its rail users.

Rail users in my hon. Friend’s constituency have much to look forward to. In the next few years, they will enjoy better and more frequent services all week on more comfortable trains and from more pleasant stations. Their rights will be defended not only by the tireless efforts of my hon. Friend, but by West Midlands Rail, which, as a devolved body, will be responsible for delivering local leadership for local services. The west midlands deserves the best possible rail service, and that is what my Department, my ministerial colleagues and my hon. Friend are determined to provide.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered train services between Telford and Birmingham.

Sitting suspended.