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Rail Services: North Staffordshire

Volume 650: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2018

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail services in North Staffordshire.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I welcome the Minister back to the Department for Transport. It is fantastic to see him there again, and I thank him for meeting me earlier in the week.

I have called this debate on rail services in north Staffordshire because the issue is of particular concern in the local area. The nub of that concern is that, having once enjoyed one of the best rail networks in the world, north Staffordshire now has services that are too few and often very far between.

I will, however, set out how north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent are on the up. There are many opportunities for sustainably improving rail services across the area. All stakeholders must grasp those opportunities if we are to maximise fully the benefits of the vast taxpayer investment in High Speed 2.

I am not limiting this debate to tinkering with the day-to-day services we currently have, but I make no apology for focusing on services to and through my constituency, as an exemplar of the wider state of services in the north of the county. Strategic rail service improvements are needed both in and around Stoke-on-Trent. If realised, they will maximise opportunities for regeneration, freight expansion and serious productivity gains across north Staffordshire, allowing people to get around more easily and access the broader range of skilled opportunities we are seeing across the county.

Thanks to the Government’s industrial strategy, we are planning for a sector deal for ceramics, which can include a UK centre for ceramics research that will secure global Britain’s leadership in new-generation components. That includes high-tech automotive, aerospace, defence and digital industries, medical devices and implants, and renewable energy technology.

Our transport strategy needs to keep up with our economic ambitions. It is not just about getting people and supplies into and around Stoke-on-Trent; it is about getting much-needed and demanded goods out. For example, rail improvements can unlock fast and efficient supplies for the Government’s house building commitments. Our manufacturers of bricks, tiles, and household ceramics are the best in the world.

Looking to the future, we can learn much from our past. A century ago, north Staffordshire had one of the most comprehensive rail networks in the country, alongside one of the largest urban tram networks. Affectionately known as the Knotty, after the Staffordshire knot, it included the loop line, which was immortalised in the literature of Arnold Bennett.

Sadly, our local network emerged from the horror of war into the disasters of nationalisation. Like most parts of the country, north Staffordshire was hit by the post-war industrial decline, and those of our stations that did not fall during the war fell to the Beeching axe and its legacy. Indeed, Fenton and Fenton Manor in my constituency were already closed before Beeching began his report. Trentham, Meir and Normacot were lost as a direct result of it. Today, the only station to remain open in my constituency is Longton.

Unlike most other parts of the country, north Staffordshire has not seen any reversals of these cuts. Indeed, in May 2004, further stations closed at Wedgwood and Barlaston, though allegedly, 14 years later, these are still only temporarily closed. They are, I believe, the only stations nationally on the definitive map that do not have any services stopping. That is despite seeing significant new housing growth in the area and being sat next to the world-renowned tourist destination that is World of Wedgwood. At Etruria, the so-called Strategic Rail Authority got rid of the station altogether, crushing any suggestion that it might be reopened to serve constituents travelling from stations such as Longton to Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme.

These days, fortunately, Stoke-on-Trent is on the up. It is a city enjoying a modern industrial revolution. It is now one of the fastest growing and best places to start a new business in the UK. Traditional industries have been reborn, with some of our key ceramics manufacturers growing by more than 50% over the past few years. We are more than just ceramics; manufacturing more widely is booming in the city, making up a significant share of the economy. There are also significant advances in high-tech, digital and research. There is an increasing vibrancy in the wider area, with two universities—Keele and Staffordshire—both growing, one based right outside Stoke-on-Trent station. The city is increasingly a hub for logistics operations, and our industrial heritage has catalysed a burgeoning tourist industry.

As a result, our growing city’s roads are increasingly congested, as are many throughout much of north Staffordshire and across the wider economic sub-region. A revival of rail travel is not only sustainable, but essential and will further help to catalyse new housing and jobs growth without worsening the misery of road congestion.

However, while we bridge the northern powerhouse and midlands engine, in rail terms the city and the wider economic sub-region of north Staffordshire and south Cheshire sadly often fall between the stools of meso-level devolved authorities around Greater Manchester and Greater Birmingham. This unaccommodating situation is exacerbated by Stoke-on-Trent’s geographical position on the Network Rail map. The city appears as a kind of bottleneck between Network Rail areas. It is in fact split across two Network Rail devolved areas, with two thirds in London North Western and a third in London North Eastern. That is totally illogical, and there is no clear leadership provided across the north Staffordshire conurbation. Currently there is no scope for the city to enjoy remapping and franchise transfers of local services to a more Stoke-on-Trent-focused body or a company, as was suggested in the case of local Birmingham services from Nottingham and Leicester and the move from CrossCountry to West Midlands Rail.

Things are moving in the right direction, and it is encouraging that Network Rail is now considering a route study focusing specifically on the economic geography of north Staffordshire and south Cheshire, recognising the importance of developing plans that adequately satisfy future growth demands.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is going to make this point, but while we had phenomenal and welcome investment in the Virgin west coast main line upgrade under the Labour Government, one of the consequences was that local services deteriorated because fewer services could be run while the faster trains were going along the route.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It is very true of stations that I have already mentioned. Etruria, Wedgwood and Barlaston all lost services as a result of those changes, so I would agree with him.

I am especially delighted that we will be receiving investment from the transforming cities fund, which I hope will take forward much-needed improvements locally. That includes Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Stoke station masterplan, which sets out the ambition to transform the station, vastly improving capacity and facilities; leveraging in significant new development in the wider area on the back of the improvements; ensuring that the station is ready to receive HS2 services; providing opportunities for additional local rail services; and making the main station the integrated hub it needs to be for the city.

It is certainly essential that more is done to improve the capacity and the offer at Stoke-on-Trent station. It is the main station that serves the Potteries conurbation of nearly 500,000 people, yet it has only very limited platform and concourse capacity, as well as poor-quality retail facilities. Improving our local transport infrastructure is a fundamental requirement for improving labour mobility in the city, increasing productivity and wage levels, and decreasing time lost to congestion. We need to ensure our railway corridor and its stations are fully connected with the towns that make up the city. In particular we need to connect Stoke-on-Trent station to public transport throughout the rest of the city and the wider conurbation.

A key part of the transforming cities fund will be to integrate bus services much more effectively with the main station, providing a more comprehensive public transport network. As an HS2 destination, we have great potential to multiply the growth we have enjoyed in rail travel to the city in the last 25 years and to ensure that all the communities that make up Stoke-on-Trent are linked into any future opportunities.

We should not limit our ambition. Light rail may also be part of the mix for restoring to Stoke-on-Trent some of the services we have lost and so better connect our communities. The line from Stoke through to Staffordshire Moorlands, which could serve Fenton Manor in my constituency, would be a good opportunity for that. Similarly, a future metro-style service could run through the conurbation from Blyth Bridge to Crewe to help relieve capacity and significantly improve services through the urban area.

Technology is moving on. Rolling stock is lighter and cheaper, and for restored routes there is the potential for rails that are longer-lasting and cheaper to run on. Alongside that, smart ticketing offers the opportunity to create a much more effective urban public transport network for the conurbation. However, local rail services, as we see through Longton on the north Staffordshire Crewe-Derby line, are far from meeting current needs, never mind our future ambitions. I stress that all destinations along the route are united in that cause. We regularly see people struggling to get on often single-carriage trains that run only once an hour, and local media have reported people having to get taxis due to trains being so overcrowded.

Despite that, annual passenger usage at Longton has doubled since 2009-10, and the station has higher usage numbers than commuter stations serving London, such as Dorking West, Morden South and Sudbury Hill. Indeed, they are not far short of the figures for Epsom Downs in the Secretary of State’s constituency. When I welcomed the Secretary of State to the city earlier this year, he travelled with me on the rush-hour commuter train from Stoke to Longton. I assure hon. Members that he did not enjoy that service, because of the cramped conditions. He could see for himself that overcrowding is a major issue, and I am happy that a specified requirement of the new East Midlands Railway franchise issued by the Secretary of State is for longer trains. We must ensure that that is delivered.

We also need the new franchise to deliver more frequent trains. One train an hour supresses demand and the potential of the line. Midlands Connect recognises the potential for more frequent services, which would be transformational for our local economy and give more people confidence in rail services as a viable alternative to the car and our congested roads.

Enhanced Sunday services are especially important. We currently suffer from having only afternoon services, due to there being only one shift in signal boxes. There is also a strong case for extending the existing services beyond Derby and Crewe to Nottingham, Lincoln or Norwich in the east, and to Chester or Manchester airport in the west. The line once served such locations, only for them to be cut back. However, signalling improvements, particularly around Derby and Nottingham, have created additional paths to make that much more easy to achieve. Extending to Nottingham would have the desired effect of allowing people to transfer more easily to services further east, rather than having to change twice, as they do currently. When Crewe is redeveloped for HS2, it is imperative that through services from north Staffordshire westwards to Chester and Manchester airport are enhanced, not hindered.

It would be great if we could secure an accessibility project at Longton station as well, through Access for All funding. Platforms at Longton are accessed only by steps—an often insurmountable challenge for people with limited mobility. The bid that we have submitted would significantly enhance the station. It would help shoppers to get into the historic market town, which relies on customers and visitors getting there, and getting back with what they have bought. That would complement the Government’s high streets initiative, as I was happy to discuss with the Minister for high streets, who visited Longton earlier this month.

Local volunteers are making superb efforts to keep local stations clean and welcoming as part of the North Staffordshire community rail partnership. I know that the Minister will thank those volunteers for their dedication and hard work. In fact, I will be speaking at a meeting of the partnership’s sister organisation, the North Staffordshire rail promotion group, tomorrow evening. That group does excellent work representing rail users and promoting greater improvements to our local rail network. Its members hope that the frequency, capacity and reach of services to and from Longton and many other stations will be increased, and that new franchisees will work with Network Rail to progress the reopening of stations. Stations at Meir and Fenton on that line would be especially welcome to those communities, restoring important rail links and recognising the significant economic and housing growth in those areas since the stations closed.

If we are to successfully deliver further new homes and jobs, the need for reopened stations at Fenton and Meir will become irresistible. The reality is that the limited frequency of services on the line mean that those stations could likely be reintroduced without much real impact to service patterns. Indeed, passengers from Fenton and Meir could help the line to thrive. I have lost count of the number of stations that, on reopening, have vastly exceeded the expectations of rail companies and the Department for Transport in attracting new people on to our rail network.

I now turn to the future of the wider rail network, to which Stoke-on-Trent is connected, and specifically to HS2. Local stations such as Longton need to be seen as key feeder stations for local HS2 traffic. Opportunities for employment and homes could be spread more widely, and the area could be a destination for tourists attracted to the authentic Potteries landscape of potbanks, many of which are in Longton. The Secretary of State knows from his visit exactly how ambitious we are. The scale of rail improvements that we are seeking and planning for is, like HS2 itself, unmatched since the Victorian era. We are keen to embrace the opportunities of HS2, which has huge potential in terms of new homes and jobs growth, delivering a significant uptick for UK GDP, and the potential to move the city from being a net taker to a net contributor.

For that to happen, the Government need to be clear about the best future services pattern to meet projected growth, and to recognise the importance of upgrades on the conventional network to fully enable comprehensive, classic, compatible services to a wide range of destinations. Unless we have full integration of HS2 with the conventional network, we will fail to deliver the full benefits of upgrading our rail infrastructure. I am afraid that a number of bottlenecks will remain on the network post HS2, permanently affecting what is possible in terms of service. That is most pronounced going north to Manchester or Liverpool, where we are yet to see effective solutions from HS2 or Network Rail. Those organisations have not been working together effectively to develop meaningful solutions.

It is imperative that Stoke-on-Trent continues to enjoy regular fast services to London—at least one every half-hour, as we have now, or more frequently. HS2 compatibility should offer my constituents improved quality of services and journey times, and not diminish those. Any future redevelopment of Stoke station must take full account of the importance of delivering the full advantages of HS2, helping us to maximise both housing and commercial development across north Staffordshire, and fully seizing the economic opportunities that Stoke-on-Trent offers.

Frustratingly, the current proposal is for us to have only one HS2 train an hour, terminating at Macclesfield. I am afraid that really is not good enough. Of course, it is welcome that we are to be an HS2-connected place. Although I would say nothing to denigrate the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), it is a reality that the majority of people will want to use high-speed rail to travel between the largest cities. I therefore urge the Government to focus on ensuring that proposed services go beyond Macclesfield and terminate at Manchester Piccadilly.

It is also essential to address the lack of fast, direct services between Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham, to match the good-quality services currently offered between Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester. HS2 has the potential to address the severe overcrowding and poor connectivity currently experienced on that route. One HS2 service every hour from Curzon Street through Stoke-on-Trent and further north would help to relieve significant bottlenecks to the north of Birmingham, especially through Wolverhampton.

In addition, there is potential to improve connectivity further by providing new, direct, inter-city services that are currently lacking, such as between Stoke-on-Trent and Liverpool. Such a Birmingham service could do Curzon Street, Stoke-on-Trent, Crewe and Liverpool Lime Street. That would fully exploit the huge potential for economic growth from the midlands engine and northern powerhouse initiatives, with Stoke-on-Trent being the key gateway to the north.

Smooth connectivity on services that run from Stoke-on-Trent is important. Trains should, as far as possible, minimise waiting times for those connecting from stations such as Longton. It is not uncommon to have to wait up to 50 minutes for connecting trains, simply because only one train an hour goes to stations such as Longton. Operators need to recognise the potential for substantial passenger growth from the city. Many current services are extremely overcrowded and in desperate need of an upgrade.

At present, the most significant problem is with CrossCountry trains through Stoke-on-Trent and Stafford, which tend to be four to five-carriage diesel multiple units. We really need to double that. Bimodal eight-carriage units would be able to meet the real demand on that route. Longer, more frequent bimodal trains on the Manchester-Bournemouth line through Stoke-on-Trent would also open the possibility of increased travel to Heathrow via Reading for Elizabeth line services.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. I entirely back him on all these issues, particularly on CrossCountry through Stafford and Stoke. I recently stood all the way from Oxford to Stafford because it was a four-coach train. That was not the first time I have had to do that; it happens pretty much all the time. Those trains obviously need to be doubled in size without delay.

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I totally agree. From travelling on those routes myself, I know that they are very overcrowded—in some cases, so overcrowded that I would say they are unsafe.

The northern end of the route between Stoke-on-Trent and New Street suffers particularly from significant overcrowding, which has a knock-on effect on the reliability of cleanliness and catering availability. It is also concerning that overcrowding on trains is creating safety issues, especially at New Street, where limited numbers of doors and small vestibule spaces are simply not designed to accommodate the large volumes of passengers changing trains.

There is also real potential to expand services east-west, either through the CrossCountry franchise or by allowing entrepreneurial open access operators on that part of the network, resulting in better competition. As I mentioned, the Crewe to Derby line has the potential to facilitate east-west services well beyond those that already exist. It is worth noting that the journey time from Liverpool to Nottingham is virtually the poorest between any major cities in the country. Midlands Connect demonstrates the potential to facilitate a new inter-city service that could connect Crewe to Totton, as well as connecting other east-west destinations via Stoke-on-Trent. Essential to that is redoubling the line between Crewe and Alsager, which is the only single-track section of the line and is widely recognised as a major constraint on service enhancement. That will prove particularly challenging once HS2 is operational, but I am pleased that Network Rail now recognises this challenge and understands that it is far from impossible to overcome.

I am delighted that the Department has announced the Williams review, a much-needed root-and-branch review of how our railways work today and how they should be reformed for the successful future of the dynamic, customer-focused and more competitive industry that we want to see nationally and locally. It should tackle the issues highlighted in the excellent work of Transport Focus. The fare-paying public want value for money, punctuality and a seat, all of which should be reasonable asks.

I make several asks of the Minister. Will he continue to support transport improvements in Stoke-on-Trent through the transforming cities fund and support for accessibility work at Longton station? Will he commit to ensuring that HS2 benefits the whole of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire, with improvements on the classic network to fully maximise the opportunities for Stoke-on-Trent? Will we get more services for Longton, new stations at Meir and Fenton on the east-west line that runs beyond the current artificial termini of Crewe and Derby, and franchises that provide longer, more frequent and better serviced trains and greater opportunities for open access providers to enter the market to enhance competition and better meet demand?

To achieve our potential, a new era of railway expansion is necessary. This is a national issue, but its local effects are particularly acute in north Staffordshire. I am delighted to have been able to outline many of the issues, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Thank you, Mr—sorry, Sir David. My glasses need adjusting, and so does my memory.

I applaud the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), particularly for his focus on once-functional railway stations in his constituency and for his call for light rail to go alongside bus improvements in his city, which lies next to my constituency in north Staffordshire. I will focus on something different: train operator Midlands Connect’s proposal to improve east-west and west-east rail services. That is important in itself, but the march of HS2 makes it crucial.

I was the first MP through the Lobby to vote against the HS2 extension from Birmingham to Crewe. It was largely symbolic, I admit, but there were two important reasons for it. First, at that stage the HS2 proposals largely bypassed Stoke-on-Trent. Without improvements, the lessons from overseas, not least from France, are hardly encouraging for areas bypassed by high-speed rail. Secondly, although we need more capacity, the driving motivation behind HS2 seems so often to have been for people to get out of London and back into it more quickly from north to south. Connectivity in Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and across the north-west is frankly woeful, and it very much deserves the priority that it is now being given under the working title of HS3.

Newcastle-under-Lyme is one of the biggest towns in the UK—perhaps the biggest—whose centre is not served by a railway station. In most advanced economies in Europe, that would be not only an anomaly but totally unacceptable. My Conservative opponent in the 2017 general election, with whom I get on very well, placed a new mainline railway station for Newcastle at the heart of his campaign; I do not know whether he knew this, but across the patch it earned him the nickname of “Choo Choo”. It is an admirable ambition, and I would certainly love a new light railway station to restore Newcastle to its former glory, but I do not usually put “Dear Santa” requests at the heart of electioneering, either in times of austerity or otherwise, which is why I have never called for the Government to step in and build Newcastle a new castle. A realistic and proper priority is to vastly improve rail links between Crewe, Stoke and Derby and beyond, not least with HS2 on the horizon.

Anyone who has taken the slow, crawling bone-shaker of a ride from Stoke to Crewe well knows what I mean. It is a joke—but it is no joke. It takes up to half an hour to travel the 15 miles to Crewe and another 50 minutes or more to traverse the 35 miles to Derby. That is an hour and 20 minutes, if you are lucky, to travel 50 miles in this day and age—practically what it takes to get from Stoke to London.

As for the quality, I must admit that I once missed that service, despite arriving well in time. I remember it only too well: it was St George’s day 2015, not long before the general election, and I was going over to Derby. I sat innocently sipping coffee in the newish gourmet café at Stoke station, forgetting that the one-carriage service cannot be seen through the windows. I watched it slowly sliding out of the station without me as I wiped the froth of my cappuccino away. I was tempted to chase it to nearby Blythe Bridge station, but slow as the train is, there would have been no chance of making it through the peak-hour traffic jams of Stoke-on-Trent to catch it.

That brings me to my next point, which Midlands Connect’s scheme highlights. Improvement to rail services in north Staffordshire must go hand in hand with road improvements, not least in relation to HS2. Years ago, we had one great road improvement: the A50. I remember interviewing Stan Clarke, the local and legendary chair of St Modwen Properties, for The Observer 20 years ago in his boardroom at Uttoxeter racecourse. I asked him what the proudest achievement in his life was, and the answer came as rather a surprise: it was driving the A50 from the M1 to Stoke, because it made the land that he had gathered around JCB much more valuable. It certainly improved the journey, but it is now time for rail improvement in our area and on the other side of the city to go hand in hand with improvements to the roads.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will therefore join me in congratulating the Government on the £50 million-plus that they have invested in road improvements on the A50 in Uttoxeter, which will make a big difference to all our constituents.

I will congratulate any Government on any improvements in our area, but they must go much, much further.

Like many of my constituents in Newcastle, I live pretty much halfway between Stoke and Crewe. Driving at peak times to Crewe—where the new HS2 station will be, with more frequent services and with services to Manchester as well as London—means hitting huge jams around junction 16 of the M6. If the Government are to make the huge investment in HS2 work for our area rather than against it, it will demand sensible investment in other road and rail projects in north Staffordshire.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South on securing this debate and I commend Midlands Connect for its plans to upgrade services. I urge the Minister and the Government not just to listen, but to act and invest.

As a Cheshire MP, I speak on behalf of residents of the town of Alsager, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) mentioned in his excellent speech.

Alsager station is just a mile from the Staffordshire border. The rail route from it passes through Staffordshire, runs to Stoke-on-Trent and beyond, and is served by the same rail companies: East Midlands Trains, London Northwestern Railway and West Midlands Railway. In his speech, my hon. Friend harked back to the days when many of the workers in the pottery manufacturing companies travelled conveniently to their jobs in the Stoke area, including from Alsager. I think trains are particularly valued by Alsager residents for that reason. One wrote to me that

“Alsager residents value their trains, particularly as bus services aren’t brilliant, but there needs to be better communication between train companies and better links between stations.”

I will come on to the detail of that in a moment.

Earlier this month, I held a surgery late one evening at Congleton station. I was impressed, though not entirely surprised, that no less than 30 to 40 residents came along on a dark wintry evening. I know from my postbag that there are considerable concerns in my constituency about train services. Many of the points raised by residents at that meeting are echoed by residents in Alsager. They include a lack of joined-up thinking by rail companies on the services and timing of trains; trains are too infrequent and often overcrowded, and they stop too early in the evening; and there is some confusion and a perception of unfairness about charges. Having held that surgery with Congleton residents, I now contribute to this debate on behalf of my Alsager residents.

I have four points, and I apologise if some appear to be somewhat technical in detail, but the detail of timing can make all the difference to a daily commuter, and the detail of charges can make all the difference to young people for whom finances are a big consideration. The main issue is that, with only two trains an hour each way from Alsager, they are timetabled too closely together—only five minutes apart. I have raised that with train operators to no avail, so I hope that the Minister might be able to do something. I know he is a very hard-working and earnest Minister, always smiling, whatever is put before him.

Here is an example of the problem: the 11.11 am from Alsager to Stoke is followed by the 11.16 am from Alsager to Stoke, provided by a different service. The next train is at 12.11 pm. The trains that arrive close together from Crewe can also cause problems for cars and congestion at the barriers at Alsager, because the barriers can be down for 10 minutes or more. Passengers who aim for the later of the two trains, but arrive a little short of time, albeit with enough time to make their train, can be stuck on the other side of a barrier that has been down since the earlier train, and they miss their train.

My second point is on ticket pricing. An advance single ticket from Stoke to Manchester can cost as little as £6.10, but an anytime ticket from Alsager via Crewe, which is two stops closer to Manchester, costs £12.70. I asked the young person who raised this with me, “Can you not buy an advance ticket from Alsager?” They said, “Yes, technically you can buy an advance ticket from Alsager to Manchester, but it is not economical. You buy the £6.10 advance ticket from Stoke to Manchester, and to make use of that, you pay £5.10 to travel two stops back on the line from Alsager to Stoke.” The difference in price for a young person travelling regularly is a big one.

My third point is about the lack of connectivity and joined-up thinking. To get from Alsager to Congleton on the train, a passenger would have to go via Stoke or Kidsgrove. I drive that in about 10 minutes by car, but travelling by rail can involve long waits for connecting trains. The connecting trains are not well timed or organised. I apologise for the figures here, but to get to Manchester, National Rail recommends the 11.16 am to Kidsgrove, which is one stop further away from Manchester, which gets in at 11.21 am; there is then a 40-minute wait for the 12.03 pm to Manchester. The passenger might as well drive to Kidsgrove and park there—if they have a car. Again, that is not always practical for young people. Alternatively, there is a 24-minute wait at Crewe station, but the ticket is about £1 more expensive, so it is cheapest and quickest to pay £5.10 to go two stops back to Stoke, then catch a quicker and cheaper £6.10 train to Manchester from there. That is all too confusing unless someone is very familiar with the way the trains work.

My fourth and final point relates to a promise made in August 2017, when a West Midlands Rail spokesman said:

“The new franchisee, West Midlands Trains Limited, will continue to run direct services to London from Stone, Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent and Alsager.”

Alsager passengers all hope that they will still be getting the service in December this year—three days’ time—as suggested then. The franchisee representative continued:

“The only difference from December 2018 is that these services will go to Euston via...Birmingham...rather than Tamworth and Lichfield on the Trent Valley Line. The change of route for London bound services so they run through the heart of the West Midlands Conurbation follows a major public consultation in 2015 where the majority of passengers said they wanted more trains from Stone, Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent and Alsager to Birmingham.”

My constituents tell me that not much has been said about that since then. It would be very helpful to know whether the service to London is going to go ahead in three days’ time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing such a timely debate.

North Staffordshire is perfectly situated in the centre of the country, and we currently benefit from good direct lines to both Manchester and Birmingham, as well as an excellent service to the capital, but while those connections to other major economic hubs remain strong, beneath the surface there is another story, which Members have already touched on. Lack of capacity on certain routes and historical under-investment in our smaller local stations has left the Potteries with a rail system that does not always meet the needs of travellers and commuters. Those limitations have a knock-on effect on our local economy, and with our tourism industry continuing to increase—who would not want to visit Moorcroft Pottery, Ford Green Hall or Burslem School of Art?—it is more important than ever that people can get to and from our city as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

The hon. Gentleman made particular note of the Crewe to Derby line. The lack of capacity on that route is a matter of regular complaints from my constituents. The size of trains, often consisting of just one carriage, is frequently insufficient to meet the needs of passengers. The problem is particularly acute at peak time for people working in and travelling to Derby or Crewe, as well as on race day, as revellers on the way to Uttoxeter find themselves squeezed shoulder to shoulder throughout the corridors and vestibules.

Capacity is also a problem on the CrossCountry service to Birmingham, Bristol and Bournemouth—a particularly expensive and appalling service. I do not want to rant about my own experiences, as that would be an abuse of the Chamber, but they have not been good. More importantly, my constituents are regularly subjected to spending the entire journey jammed into the vestibule with dozens of other passengers. That is made worse by incredibly poor customer service and a disgraceful attitude towards passengers from rail staff. On one occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) and I were forced to intervene when staff refused to allow a heavily pregnant woman to sit in the only seat available, which happened to be in first class, to avoid the sweltering crush of an over-packed vestibule, with people being forced to stand in the toilet. That was a shocking incident and one which, more than a year later, CrossCountry has never adequately responded to.

It is clear that capacity is an issue on the line, even on those more frequent services, but I wish to make another vital point about the under-investment in, and under-utilisation of, our smaller local train stations. One such example is Kidsgrove train station, a well-used local station that provides vital transport links with the wider area—although I am sad that some people have to travel back and forth, because everyone should visit Kidsgrove. In 2010, the station’s usage was 100,000 journeys per year; today it stands at 228,000. Despite the evident demand for a local transport hub, it has taken nearly a decade to secure the additional investment that residents have long campaigned for. At this point I must thank Jon Honeysett for his advice and support during the campaign.

When I was first elected to Parliament in 2015, one of my first acts was to meet the then Transport Minister to make clear the importance of the investment. At that time the issue had already been rumbling on unresolved for seven years, but at last the long-awaited improvements to the station have begun, and I want to put on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for his direct intervention in support of the project. Work is now under way to improve and expand the station car park, which will include an hour of free parking for local residents to support the local town centre. The improvements to the access bridge, which will make it fully disability accessible, are on course to be completed by next summer. No one will now have to travel from Stoke to Crewe in order to come back to Kidsgrove to get off the train.

I am delighted that after years of campaigning, the investment was finally secured, but it is indicative of the Government’s attitude to transport infrastructure outside of the major conurbations that it took so long. Such lack of focus on the importance of smaller stations can also be seen when it comes to Longport station, located in Burslem in the heart of my constituency.

Burslem is the mother town of the Potteries and plays a key part in our city’s cultural renaissance; it is also a big draw for tourists visiting Stoke-on-Trent to explore our proud ceramic heritage. It is home to Middleport Pottery, a beautifully restored Victorian potbank and the home of the iconic Burleighware pottery. It is an architectural showcase of our town in its own right. It is also the station that services Port Vale football club. Given Burslem’s obvious importance to our city, it would make sense to make greater use of Longport station as a way of getting people easily to and from the town, yet that station is served by only a small number of routes, including the previously mentioned Crewe to Derby line and one early morning service to Manchester. By improving connectivity within the six towns as well as routes in and out of the city, we could provide a huge boost for the local economy and begin to tackle the immense strain on our road infrastructure.

A truly effective public transport system is one that is tailored to meet the needs of local businesses and local residents. Currently, we simply do not have that. We should begin to make timetabling more responsive to people’s needs, not just with regard to the daily commute, vital though that is, but with an eye towards bringing more people into the local area, especially for major events.

In the summer I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful Weeping Window exhibition on display in my constituency. The installation attracted more than 100,000 visitors, but many more could have come if additional rail services had been offered to get people to and from Longport station. Sadly, given the Government’s long and depressing track record when it comes to infrastructure investment in the north and midlands, I fear such improvements will be stymied. Despite years of talk about the northern powerhouse, the Institute for Public Policy Research North found that Government spending on transport in London has risen twice as much per person compared with the rest of the country since 2014. While London receives £1,019 per head in public spending on transport, the west midlands receives less than half of that—just £412 per person. That imbalance cannot continue. Our rail services are vital to my constituents, but our transport infrastructure will achieve its full potential only when residents’ concerns about quality are matched by the Government’s urgency to invest.

It is an absolute pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Sir David. It is also wonderful to welcome the Minister back to the Department. It is particularly good for me that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) talked about the Government’s record in investing in infrastructure. As I alluded to earlier, in my tenure as the Member of Parliament for Burton I have seen more than £50 million of Government investment in the A50 upgrade. I was also lucky enough to receive some £6.1 million from the Minister. When I went to him with a proposal to upgrade St Peter’s bridge in Burton, he listened carefully and considered the case that I put to him. He got out his pen and wrote a cheque for £6.1 million, which has made a huge difference to St Peter’s bridge and helps with traffic flow in and around the town.

Although I am the MP for the constituency of Burton, I represent both Burton and Uttoxeter, or, as the locals call it, Utcheter, and I rise today to speak about the problems of transport in Uttoxeter. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned Uttoxeter racecourse. Uttoxeter is famous for many things. It is the birthplace of Dr Samuel Johnson and those mighty yellow diggers, JCB. It is also the home of Uttoxeter racecourse, one of the country’s finest. As the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) said, it was formerly owned by Sir Stan Clarke. It provides a huge boost for the local economy in Uttoxeter. On midlands grand national days—if you ever fancy coming, Sir David, I would be delighted to host you—some 16,000 people descend on Uttoxeter to enjoy the fabulous hospitality provided by David MacDonald, who runs Uttoxeter racecourse, and his brilliant and dedicated team. With recent investment, the racecourse is going from strength to strength. We have regular meetings on Sundays that start at 1 o’clock. Racegoers are keen to attend the races, have a flutter and enjoy the day. With thousands of people wanting to attend, one would think they would be able to hop on a train and arrive at the handily located train station right next door to the racecourse: a 30-second walk. However, the first train to Uttoxeter on a Sunday is at 2.30, which means racegoers have already missed at least an hour and a half of good betting. That causes the racecourse great concern and racegoers great frustration.

I have been campaigning for some considerable time for improvements in the service. The problems with the single-carriage train that rattles along have already been discussed. Clearly, there is no way that that service adequately serves the numbers of people that want to come to Uttoxeter to enjoy our hospitality. When the earliest train to Stoke from Uttoxeter on a Sunday is the 15.03 and to Derby the 14.54, it is simply not sufficient. I have been banging that drum for some time and I had some good news. I am pleased to relay it to colleagues, who will be interested.

I wrote for the 20th or 30th time to the Minister’s predecessor and he wrote back in the summer to say that

“there will be an extra carriage (or carriages) operating on the route. This will be supplemented by additional early and late services and improved Sunday services.”

I was cock-a-hoop that the campaigning had led to a promise of increased services on a Sunday, so I wrote back to the Minister to see if I could winkle out a little more detail, and he wrote back:

“To clarify the position on Sunday services on the Crewe-Derby line, we have specified that an early morning Sunday service is to start from 2021.”

That is wonderful. Rather than, as we had hoped, modernised signalling facilities, what is being proposed is extra signalling staff to change the signals manually. That solution is very welcome. It will mean that my racegoers in Uttoxeter will be able to get there in plenty of time, perhaps to have a pint or two of Marston’s Pedigree, which is served at the racecourse, and enjoy the facilities. It will improve the service for residents in Stoke and Derby, too. Never completely satisfied, however, I have a question for the Minister: I am really pleased that the service is to be improved and that we shall benefit from that, but why wait until 2021? I urge the Minister to do as he did for me previously and get out his chequebook, and see whether he can bring the date forward a couple of years. Let us have a date of 2019 rather than 2021. If that happens, the Minister can come on the first service on a race day, and have a flutter with me. I will even give him a fiver for a bet.

I have met all three people who are bidding for the new franchise and have made the case for improved services. I think that if the Minister casts his beady eye over the bids and measures them against the requests that I have made for improvements in carriages, quality and punctuality, we can have an improved service. I know, given the rigour and commitment that he brings to his role, he will do that.

I have one further question before I conclude. It concerns the other of the two towns that I represent—Burton—and I want to talk about the station, maintained by East Midlands Trains. When I showed the former Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), a picture of Burton train station he said it was the ugliest train station he had ever seen. He was being quite polite. It is hideous—an eyesore. The Prince of Wales would, I think, call it a carbuncle. It is important that the station, which is the gateway to Burton—and Burton is the gateway to the national forest—should be improved rapidly. We need to improve its aesthetics and quality. I am pleased to say that East Staffordshire Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council are committed to trying to improve the quality of the station, but we need a helping hand. May I ask the Minister whether he would be prepared to come to see for himself the wreckage that is Burton train station? Perhaps together we can put on a bit of pressure to make sure that Burton has the pretty and attractive train station it deserves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I was concluding my remarks by inviting anybody who is on their way to Stoke-on-Trent on a train to stop at the new bod, the establishment that has been put together on the station by Titanic Brewery, replacing the first-class lounge. They have made the station safer by doing that, because the traditional cafés that were there closed around 5.30 pm or 6 pm. That meant that if people were catching a train after 6 pm, they sat in a cold, wet station with no access even to a cup of tea, and with very few people around. That new provision is open until quite late, meaning that there are people keeping an eye on what is going on there. There is a safe place to sit and, importantly, it is showcasing one of the best employers and businesses in Stoke-on-Trent—according to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, it is based in Burslem. I congratulate once again the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South on securing the debate.

Owing to the Division, this session will now finish at 4.16 pm—colleagues should bear that in mind. I call Rachael Maskell.

Thank you, Sir David—it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I welcome the Minister to his place. It seems that he has so much power in his pen already, and I will certainly be joining the queue to make bids for my constituency.

I welcome the debate, which has been led by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). It has been really crucial for the future of Stoke, and he presented his case very comprehensively. Ultimately this debate is about connectivity across our rail services, which is vital. We must remember that that is the purpose of our rail service: this is not about rail itself, but about ensuring that passengers and freight can move across our country smoothly and have the interconnectivity that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) raised in terms of intermodal connectivity, which is vital for ensuring that our systems work.

We have heard today about the need for station upgrades and reopenings, as well as improvements to routes. Those are absolutely vital for the economy in and around Stoke. It was a pleasure to talk to the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) earlier in the week, and he reminded me of the history of Stoke’s rail services and of how local MPs and pottery owners did not want stations in Stoke, because they would mean that pottery workers’ wages would have to be put up. Today, we have the reverse situation, with MPs campaigning to ensure that we have good-quality rail services for that very reason—so that wages can increase for the local community. How things can change over time.

We need to ensure that the vital economy around the ceramics industry—we have heard how the industry is moving into wider manufacturing and digitalisation—is serviced by a good transport system. I felt the pain of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South as they talked about the one-carriage bone-rattler on the Crewe to Derby line and about the time it takes to move along the tracks. In fact, it can take as long to travel between Stoke and Derby as it does between Stoke and London, and it can take even longer to travel to Nottingham. We have a real problem with connectivity between our east-west services, particularly in the midlands and the north, and it is vital that we address that. Labour has said that that is a priority for us, and that is true not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central touched on, of Crossrail for the north—often referred to as HS3—and making sure that we get a full upgrade, because that will really build the northern powerhouse.

I felt the frustration of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) when he highlighted that although HS2—super high-speed rail—is being built, there is little point to it if we cannot connect into it and travel to it, bar at a snail’s pace. It is important that we think those issues through when enhancements are projected.

The debate has made it clear that the fragmentation across the railway service has created much of this pain. Stoke-on-Trent railway station hosts five different rail operators, and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) highlighted the lack of joined-up working across those services. That is why Labour has put on record that we should have one railway system—a new model of nationalisation, which does not go back to the past, but which moves forward to make sure we get that connectivity on track and train, but also across the whole network. People’s journeys do not start and stop where operators do, and we need to ensure that the whole system works.

There must also be transparency on fares—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned—so that people actually know what they are paying for when buying tickets. Let’s face it: we all feel we are being done when we buy our train tickets, so we need that transparency.

We also need to make sure that we have proper planning when operations, maintenance and enhancements are brought into rail services, to make sure those services are integrated and properly planned so we get the services we need. We need to look at not only track and train upgrades, but electrification and digitalisation, to move our railway system into the new era.

We should also ensure that every station is accessible. I remind hon. Members that many stations are still inaccessible 23 years after the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That is a real disgrace. If they are accessible for disabled people, they are also accessible for parents with little ones in buggies, shoppers and everyone else who wishes to use the railway network. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on her tenacious campaigning for access improvements at her station, Kidsgrove, which has clearly born fruit. MPs have campaigned for that for years, but she has delivered it for her constituents, and she must be congratulated on that.

We need to invest in the right places, and we need to reopen stations—especially given the opportunity that light rail could bring to places such as Stoke—to make sure we see a modal shift out of cars and away from congestion and polluting the environment, and on to well-connected rail services and good buses. We in this House have a duty to drive forward the debate against climate change, and we do that not just by talking about it—we have talked much—but by the decisions and actions that we take.

It is so important that Midlands Connect, the transport infrastructure body, really works on this agenda with local Members and the local authority. We want the best in the UK—not just the best for places such as Stoke, but the best in Europe. There are so many great examples out there of how connectivity and cleaning up rail and transport systems can be done, and we are ambitious about making that happen.

In concluding, I will just touch on HS2, because it has been mentioned in the debate. We need to ensure that there is good connectivity into HS2. During its construction, we need to make sure we maximise the opportunity for rail links to ensure that places such as Stoke and beyond end up with the connectivity they need. I heard the plea made very clearly about having links into Manchester airport, which is absolutely vital for the local economy, but it is also about making sure we have the connectivity map. My fear about HS2, which I have articulated a number of times, is that it has become about HS2 itself, as opposed to about enhanced rail infrastructure across the country. We need to move the debate forward and ensure accountability to make sure we get the rail service we need across our country. HS2 comes with opportunities—we have heard how Crewe could be revitalised as a vital railway town—and we must make sure that Stoke does not miss out.

We have had an excellent debate this afternoon, and many issues have been raised. I am sure the Minister’s pen is poised, given the multiple requests he has had this afternoon. As we move forward, I am confident that Labour has the right plan for the future of our railways. We do not need the Williams review; we have done the work with all the stakeholders on the railways. We are ready to run—we just need to have the Minister’s pen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (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 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 the Member for Burton (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. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (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 colleagues’ 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 the Member for Congleton (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 main line. 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. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (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.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I very much thank the Minister for his response, particularly about the need for additional capacity and more carriages. It is welcome that there will be more carriages and better services, particularly on evenings and weekends. There is not time to go through all colleagues’ comments, but I thank all those up and down the route who have contributed to the debate. Various stations have been mentioned, from Kidsgrove to Stoke, through to those in Congleton, Alsager and Uttoxeter. There are many colleagues further afield along the route who have not had the chance to contribute, but I know they are all very much in favour of improved services.

We must improve services for the rail network around Stoke-on-Trent to build on, as the Minister said, our ambition as an area for growth, housing and jobs. Improved transport will bring opportunities and important connectivity for all communities across Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire to our main station once we receive those HS2 services. Through improved rail services, communities will benefit from growth in wages, skilled job opportunities and housing.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).