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Greater Manchester Metrolink

Volume 638: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Wendy Morton.)

Hold on to your seat, Mr Deputy Speaker, while I take you through the history of Greater Manchester’s tram network. [Interruption.] We could have two hours on this, but if it is any help, I promise not to take us anywhere near that—unless there is trouble on the line and we get delayed.

If my hon. Friend is going to give us a history of Manchester’s tram network, which I look forward to, will he join me in paying tribute to the man described as “Mr Metrolink” by the Manchester Evening News—Councillor Andrew Fender, without whom we might not have a Metrolink system at all, and who stands down from Manchester City Council in May after 41 years of dedicated public service?

Councillor Fender has been a real transport inspiration for many people in Greater Manchester. He is actually a very quiet and reserved character; he is not somebody who grandstands—who seeks attention. He works in the background and diligently gets on and does the work that is very complicated, often very technical, and requires a lot of time and dedication. I have absolutely no doubt that without the time that he put in to transport in Greater Manchester—not just the tram system but the bus network, and cycling routes especially—it would not be as advanced as it is. I think that is a very fitting tribute. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

Greater Manchester’s tram network opened in 1992 and is now the UK’s biggest light rail network. It is essential to Greater Manchester’s economy. We know how important transport is. It is important to get people from A to B, but it is also essential to do so efficiently, to make sure that we reduce congestion, that people can get to work affordably, and that there are routes that take people where they need to go for their employment or for leisure. People vote with their feet. The light rail system in Greater Manchester carries 41 million passengers every year. It covers 60 miles over 93 stops. However, as always in Greater Manchester, we are not content to stand still. We want to go even further.

At the moment a new line is being built to Trafford Park, and that will provide fantastic connectivity to one of Europe’s largest employment sites. People across Greater Manchester will be able to travel through the city centre and on to Trafford Park, and capitalise on the jobs that are being created there. That builds on the success of the airport line, which will take people to Manchester Airport, one of our enterprise zones—also essential for getting people to decent, well paid, secure jobs, particularly now, and in the future too.

I am ever mindful that the Government have committed to reducing pollution levels massively in our cities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a working, modern, technology-friendly public transport system is essential for Manchester and other cities like it, and that the expansion of services into the south will attract more people into using the service, making it more effective, and therefore cost-effective, and benefit the environment as well?

That is a very important point about the benefits for the environment and the economy. At one point, I was slightly fearful that we were going to make a claim for an extension over to Northern Ireland, which would be a great day out, but I might struggle to—

As the hon. Gentleman is talking about providing extensions, I would like to make a bid. At the moment, as he knows, East Didsbury is at the end of the line, as it comes out towards my constituency of Cheadle. We would love to see the line go all the way through to Stockport, as well as going to Manchester Airport, so that we would get true connectivity around the south of our area.

That is an important point. I will mention some potential routes later. There is a case to be made not only for the Didsbury line to be extended, but for a connection from Ashton through to Stockport and through to the airport, because as important as the connections in and out of Manchester city centre are, so too are the orbital links connecting the boroughs around Greater Manchester, beyond the city of Manchester. We should be ambitious; we need to create a transport vision that will guide us for decades. The people who laid the foundations for Manchester’s current Metrolink system came up with that idea—that nugget of how Greater Manchester could be different, and could be modern—many, many generations before it was built. It is important that we now take on that responsibility for the next generation, and plan that far ahead. I think Stockport ought to be the beneficiary of a tram line. I think we ought to be able to connect the whole of that eastern ring, too.

The Oldham line, which is my particular interest, started construction in 2011 and opened in 2014. Work began in the year that I became council leader in Oldham and so we had the great success of work beginning on the line. It was previously a heavy rail line, which was then decommissioned, to be turned into a light rail system. Clearly, that caused a lot of disruption and not everybody was convinced that a tram coming through the town would pay dividends and ultimately be a benefit to it, given all the traffic chaos that naturally happens when we start laying tram tracks on the road network. Plenty of people said, “If you build a tram from Oldham to Manchester, surely people are just going to go to Manchester and that will be to the detriment of Oldham.” We said, “No, this is about that connectivity that makes us part of a great Greater Manchester. If Oldham sits in isolation, thinking it is an island, and does not capitalise on one of the best cities in the world, we are missing a trick.”

It was important not just to capitalise on a great city, but to have a vision for Oldham that meant it could be the best Oldham it could be. Metrolink was very important as part of that vision and that future economy. Significantly, the phase 3 line saw an investment of £764 million. It also connected many key sites. Obviously, it connected through Oldham and on to Rochdale, but it also went through two previous housing market renewal sites. We know that where Metrolink stations are placed, there is a good effect on the housing market and demand in that locality. So Freehold, where the Metrolink stop is placed, was a key site for housing market renewal. We know the local authority is keen to see that being redeveloped, with the eyesore of the Hartford mill, which might be the subject of a future Adjournment debate, demolished to make way for decent, secure accommodation for people to live in and to create a thriving neighbourhood. Metrolink also connected the Derker community, where there was a lot of clearance as part of the housing market renewal project. Now it has fantastic family houses for people to live in, just a walk to the station, where they are connected to Rochdale, on to Manchester and further into the network—to connectivity that is vital for them.

As I said, people vote with their feet. The old heavy rail system, with the clunker carriages we used to have on the old Oldham Mumps station, carried 1.1 million passengers a year, which was impressive, but nowhere near as impressive as the figure of 3.6 million people using the current Metrolink system on the same line. So we know this has a material effect on increasing passenger numbers, and the more people who go on the tram, the fewer the people who have to travel by car, because they have a genuine alternative, provided in a more environmentally friendly way.

If the Government are serious about creating the northern powerhouse, it is crucial that we rebalance the UK’s economy. But we also need to understand that if all we do is benefit Manchester city centre and the south of Manchester, which have historically been the better performing parts of Greater Manchester, and we do not concentrate on north Manchester, which has historically underperformed compared with the south of Greater Manchester, we will miss an opportunity to make sure that every part of the northern powerhouse can benefit from future investment. Let me give some context on that, because this is not just about a northern Manchester bias and saying “Why does south Manchester get everything at our expense?” This is where the facts are. The gross value added return for Manchester south is £34.8 billion a year, which accounts for 68% of the total GVA for the whole of Greater Manchester. So we can see that an underperforming north Manchester—I am not saying south Manchester is necessarily overperforming—needs to do far better to rebalance and to contribute to that greater GVA. To do that, we need concerted and long-term investment planning—on transport, on housing and on schools. So this debate is about how we might achieve that.

Those who have been on the Manchester Metrolink and gone on a real journey will perhaps bear with me while I take them on what could be a journey of the future, if the Government and Greater Manchester are willing to work together on this plan. I am going to concentrate on the potential of connecting Oldham with Middleton and then on to the Bury line at Heaton Park. Currently, when the tram comes down the Metrolink track and gets to Westwood station, it turns off to the left, towards Manchester. In the new journey we are taking today, however, the tram could continue straight down Middleton Road, towards the sunny climes of Middleton. People could benefit from a park and ride in Middleton town centre and go on further towards Heaton Park, and join with a Bury line that would connect them with Bury and that part of Greater Manchester.

Coming back, where the line currently carries on to Rochdale after Oldham Mumps, people could go on from Mumps, perhaps up Ashton Road or even along the disused railway line—which would be a cheaper option, although clearly not to the benefit of as many people—on to Ashton town centre, where the line currently terminates. There is nothing worse than a line that terminates; we could at least carry it on and make it nice and tidy. People could carry on straight to Ashton town centre and then, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) said, there would be the potential of a loop to Stockport and on to Manchester airport. Suddenly, we are beginning to create what the Manchester Evening News has dubbed the “circle line”. That is a way to use public transport to create proper interconnectivity across Greater Manchester, just like the M60 motorway currently provides for car users. That would be a fantastic boost for many people accessing jobs and for our local economy and tourist industry.

All that would also give Oldham a critical part to play as an important transport hub. It would not just be the place that people pass through; it would mean that Oldham Mumps, which is currently a strategic regeneration site, would be a critical point of interconnectivity between Bury, Rochdale, Manchester and Tameside, and perhaps further on if we have further extensions. Oldham would become an important place for investment and regeneration, and I believe it would be an important catalyst for the rebalancing of the Greater Manchester economy.

To achieve all that, we need to be honest. Currently, financial modelling is heavily predicated on the question, “What does this mean for GVA return?” If we invest £1, what will be the pound-for-pound return in the local economy? This is where the way in which we assess capital investment in this country needs a fundamental rethink. There ought to be a measure to take human capital into account.

What is our starting point if we want everybody to have equal opportunity to access well-paid, secure jobs and decent leisure and sporting facilities? To do that, we need to accept that different communities in Greater Manchester will start at different points and that a rebalancing will need to take place. It is important to bear in mind that we can rebalance in two ways: we can bring the highest-performing area down to the level of the lowest-performing area, so that they are equal but have to share scraps of the table, and the economy will suffer; or we can use investment to raise areas that are not currently performing as well as they could be, so that everybody thrives across Greater Manchester.

To achieve that second option, we need a different way of assessing GVA return, because the truth is that on any assessment today, building a mile of Metrolink track in, say, Trafford would have a higher GVA return than building a mile of Metrolink track in Oldham, just because the starting point is very different. I do not believe that that is the way to generate an investment plan that rebalances the economy in the way we need it to be rebalanced.

This debate is about setting out a potential route, but I am not precious about exactly which road or route the new tram line ultimately goes along. I am, though, passionate about Oldham realising its full potential. I am passionate about people in Oldham being able to access high-performing, decent, secure, well-paid jobs throughout Greater Manchester. I am desperate for young people in Oldham to recognise that their horizon is not just at the end of their street, but is much further away, and for it to be available to them because it is affordable and accessible.

Let me tell a personal story. I have been helping my son to navigate the complex world of apprenticeships and college courses. We were looking at some apprenticeships in Trafford Park, which is not far away at all—we can get there by car in half an hour. My son was looking at engineering courses. The problem is that our bus system does not connect young people with Trafford Park in a way that means they can work shifts on those jobs. For instance, if a young person living in Royton wants to get to Trafford Park for a 6 am shift start, they would have to set off at 11.30 pm the night before, because the buses do not start until quite late in the morning. Therefore, if a young person cannot get a driving licence and a car to make their own way there, and they are reliant on public transport, which for people in Royton is a bus at the moment, straight away they are excluded from working shifts in one of the largest engineering employment locations in Europe. That just cannot be right.

I am not saying in this debate that if all we do is to build a bit of Metrolink track, Oldham will be fixed. My point is much broader: we need to get transport in Greater Manchester right for the people who live in Greater Manchester. Significant effort has been made by the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and by his team on the Greater Manchester combined authority. Sterling work has been carried out by Andrew Fender and by all the very dedicated officers that work at Transport for Greater Manchester. The truth is that much of this comes down to resource and investment. Unfortunately, in Greater Manchester, we have lost many local bus routes that would connect young people in particular with the job opportunities of tomorrow, and we need to see investment in that area.

We also need proper capital investment that at least puts Greater Manchester on a par with London. We want Greater Manchester to thrive and to play an active part in the northern powerhouse, but the northern powerhouse cannot be done on the cheap; it needs investment on a par with that of this great capital city. Manchester deserves absolutely every penny of that investment. If we see even a fraction of it, we will see very different outcomes for young people in Greater Manchester.

I urge the Government to get behind this. I am not necessarily talking about the A to Z route that we are proposing—that will come out of a feasibility report and a technical assessment of what is possible and, of course, it has much to do with patronage and whatever physical barriers may be in place. There should be no barrier to our desire to make Greater Manchester absolutely great. That can happen only if the Government come to the table, offer real investment and work with Greater Manchester to make sure that transport in the future is far better than it is today.

What a joy. In that case, I can extend my speech. I am very glad to hear it.

When I read the name “Jim McMahon” I thought that it was referring not to the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), but to one of my great heroes, the former quarterback for the Chicago Bears and, latterly, the Green Bay Packers. My sense of excitement on being invited to respond to him and my sense of delight that he was taking an interest in the transport issues of Greater Manchester was absolutely intense. However, my sense of delight is no less great in having this opportunity to respond to the hon. Gentleman, who was himself an award-winning leader of Oldham Borough Council.

If I may say to the hon. Gentleman, he is a little confused about some of the responsibilities involved in his area. For buses, he is very welcome to address himself to Andy Burnham, who has responsibility for buses. Indeed, he has enhanced powers under our new legislation. He has rightly addressed the subject of the Manchester Metrolink system. Everyone in this House who has travelled on the Metrolink—I was travelling on it recently myself—will agree that it has been a colossal success for the conurbation. I absolutely agree with him, and, as a member of the Government, I pay tribute to Councillor Andrew Fender for the work that he has done over the past 41 years. Opinion is divided in Manchester as to whether he should be regarded as Mr Metrolink, or just Mr Transport. Whichever it is, we congratulate him, and the hon. Gentleman’s point was very well made.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, transport is of enormous importance to this Government—absolutely in the north-west and as part of the strategic development of the north as a whole. We very much agree with local partners that transport is essential for growth, which is why we are investing significantly in local and regional transport infrastructure, including £15 billion for the strategic road network and £6 billion for local schemes through the local growth fund. This investment is designed specifically to drive the economic growth that we wish to see, to allow the other opportunities that come from transport including the social and family benefits, and to relieve the economy—at least temporarily—from the effects of congestion.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are creating a northern powerhouse to rebalance the economy, and that is a shared aim. The reason for creating Transport for the North as an entity was specifically to provide a local voice that could convene and gather those different projects and schemes—that total regional ambition—into one place that would support economic growth in the north. We will invest £13 billion during this Parliament to connect the region better, so that northern towns and cities can pool their strengths and create not a series of city economies or regional economies separated by geography, but a single powerhouse economy. Of course, Greater Manchester is at the heart of that.

I accept all those points. The event that we attended in Manchester with the Northern Powerhouse Minister was very much in the spirit of working together across party political lines in order to get the best outcome for Greater Manchester, but I made a point at that meeting that, when HS2 is in place, it will take the same amount of time to get from Manchester to London as it does to get from Royton to Trafford Park. Those local connections are vital if we want the economy to thrive.

Yes, that is an interesting and well-made point. Of course, it is true that every journey begins with a local journey unless one happens to live in the terminus. It is also true that, as with the Metrolink, the secret of HS2 is a capacity story, as much as it is a speed story. As the hon. Gentleman has well said, the capacity of the Metrolink has greatly increased over the last few years, and that is one measure of its great success.

As the House will know, Greater Manchester has seen a revolution in its public transport over the past few years. Through the innovative Greater Manchester transport fund, which combined local funding with significant support from central Government, as well as real support from the local growth fund we have seen the introduction of bus corridors including the Oxford Road bus corridor, which is believed to be the busiest in Europe; the Leigh-Salford guided busway; new bus stations and multimodal transport interchanges across Greater Manchester; and a step change in support for cycling and walking. I pay tribute to the Mayor of Greater Manchester for the work that he has done with Chris Boardman in reimagining the possibilities for walking and cycling across the whole area. It is something that Chris and I have worked closely on and that the Department fully supports.

The Chancellor confirmed in his spring statement last week that a further £243 million from the transforming cities fund is being provided to the Metro Mayor of Greater Manchester to support public transport, improve sustainable travel and boost local productivity. This again demonstrates the Government’s strong commitment not just to Manchester, but to mayoral combined authorities.

Although rail is not my specific brief, it is worth saying that the great north rail project has allowed us to upgrade Manchester Victoria and connect Manchester’s three main railway stations for the first time through the Ordsall Chord project. Over the next few years, the chord will provide new and direct links to Manchester airport from across the region, and will free up capacity at Manchester Piccadilly. We have delivered upgrades and electrification between Liverpool and Manchester, and cut the fastest journey time by 15 minutes since 2015. We have also upgraded the route between Manchester and Wigan, and are currently delivering a comprehensive package of route upgrades and electrification across the north-west and Yorkshire, including between Manchester, Bolton, Preston and Blackpool. Of course, the success of the Metrolink has been at the centre of this development, as the hon. Gentleman rightly acknowledged. This started in 1992 with the opening of the first phase between Bury and Altrincham and has continued through to the current construction of the Trafford Park extension. The first extension, to Eccles in 2000, linked Salford to the city centre.

In 2008, Metrolink embarked on a £1.9 billion investment programme that transformed the network and its service. It tripled in size, providing improved connectivity to jobs, retail and leisure opportunities for communities across the region. New park-and-ride facilities made the network even more accessible and have helped to reduce traffic congestion across the region, while customer facilities have been upgraded and a brand new fleet of trams has been introduced. Extensions were completed to Chorlton in 2011, to East Didsbury, Droylsden and Ashton-under-Lyne in 2013, and, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, to Oldham and Rochdale by 2014. I congratulate him on his timing in arriving at Oldham Council in time to take credit for many of the successes that were about to occur. That is always a good quality in a politician.

In addition, the Airport line was opened in 2014, winning the civil engineering achievement of the year award at the prestigious national rail awards in 2015. Other improvements have included the short extension to Media Village and, more recently, the Second City Crossing. The latter project is a short but important route designed to alleviate congestion and improve capacity by providing a second route through the city centre. It is already helping to improve the reliability and resilience of the network and allowing it to be operated to its full extent. The most recent development, however, is the construction of the Trafford Park extension, which is currently under way. This has been funded in part as a result of the devolution deal with the Greater Manchester combined authority, which gives the city the greater certainty it needs to invest in this, and other, important local schemes. This scheme, worth £350 million, will link some of Greater Manchester’s busiest visitor destinations as well as running through Trafford Park—Europe’s largest trading estate and home to more than 1,400 businesses employing over 33,000 people. Services are expected to start in 2020.

The result of all this investment and exciting development is that Metrolink is now the largest light rail network in the UK, with 93 stops along 57 miles of track. It is a model of what can be done with steady and sustained investment. It is a public transport network that passengers are using in large numbers, with 37 million passenger journeys in 2017—an increase of 10% on the previous year. That is a massive success overall and a reason why investment continues both from the Government and from the combined authority’s own resources in order to make it happen.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s continued support, which he has made very clear, for further extensions to the Manchester Metrolink system such as the Ashton loop line from Ashton town centre to Oldham, and a spur to Middleton linking up to the Bury line to create an orbital line across the north and east of the conurbation—a “circle line”, as he has described it, at least in potentia. Indeed, he spoke on this topic in his maiden speech on 19 January 2016. The future development of the network is a matter for the Mayor of Greater Manchester, the combined authority, and Transport for Greater Manchester. I understand that the combined authority has a number of ideas about future expansion, including possible routes to Stockport, and a loop around Wythenshawe linking into the proposed HS2 station at Manchester airport, as well as, in the longer term, a possible third link across the city centre.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on putting this issue squarely on the public agenda once again. It faces local constituency interests and authorities as much as it faces central Government. For our part, we are currently considering a bid for funding from the large local majors scheme fund for a short extension of the existing Airport line to the expanding Terminal 2, which would ultimately be part of the Wythenshawe loop. We will announce a decision on that fairly soon. I also understand that Transport for Greater Manchester is looking closely at using tram-train technology. The current project to provide this between Sheffield and Rotherham should provide useful lessons on how this type of technology—potentially very useful and highly applicable—could be used elsewhere.

The Government will continue to work with the combined authority as it develops its strategies, and we will continue to consider future bids for funding. Greater Manchester has shown that it is also able to make use of its own resources and those of third parties to develop extensions without direct Government funding. I applaud that, but there is clearly merit in continuing to co-operate and work closely together on these big infrastructure projects.

The Metrolink system is only one of the light rail systems in this country. Our view on this development in transport is very simple: we support it and think it has massive benefits. We have already seen the impact of better integrated transport links for both passengers and the local economy in cities such as Nottingham, Birmingham and, as we have heard today, Manchester. In all three, the light rail system has become an integral part of the transport network. We have supported it because we know that it is part of a strong and resilient economy.

The new £1.7 billion Transforming Cities fund recently announced by the Chancellor will provide funding for more light rail schemes, which will help to drive productivity and growth in cities where it is most needed, connecting communities and making it quicker and easier for people to get around. The new fund will enable more English cities to reap those benefits, helping to deliver the opportunities and ambition of the industrial strategy across the country.

The joy of a light rail system is not merely that it supports an integrated transport network, which reduces congestion, but that it is good for air quality and very environmentally friendly. It is a green form of transport, which makes locations better places to live, not just better places to get to. We have seen evidence that implementing a light rail system helps to stimulate long-term employment growth and attract inward investment, boosting local economies. It can also bring in tourism and give a sense of place and distinction to an area—even one as already distinguished as Oldham.

I have seen examples of the transport system being a key consideration of companies wishing to invest. Few companies these days do not think about transport when deciding where to locate their main offices or even satellite offices. They know that light rail is popular with its users, and that is reflected in the statistics published by the Department for Transport, which show a record number of passengers using light rail. Passenger numbers continue to rise in England, to a record 267 million since records began in 1983. Independent figures also show passenger satisfaction riding high at around 93%, and 90% on the Metrolink.

However, we also have to be realistic and acknowledge that light rail is not necessarily suitable for every place. Each place is different and has its own demands, needs and interests. We feel that there is scope for the sector to look more closely at how light rail can integrate with future forms of transport, such as driverless cars and other forms of mobility, as a service. The Government will continue to work closely with the sector across all of these modes to help bring about the improvements we all want to see in this area.

The Manchester Metrolink has been a great success. It has improved connectivity, access to jobs and retail and leisure opportunities for communities across the region. That has been made possible by the combined commitments of significant local transport investment by central Government and investment made through the combined authority. We are confident that the Metrolink system will continue to play a key role in the future success of Greater Manchester, and I am delighted that this issue has been placed firmly on the public record by the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.