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Southport to Manchester Rail Services

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the hybrid arrangements. Members should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail services from Southport to Manchester.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to have obtained this debate about train services to and from my constituency to Manchester, particularly the Manchester Piccadilly service, which is critical for my constituents and local businesses. Many of my constituents use that train service for employment, particularly in Wigan and Manchester, for education and for leisure. Local businesses also rely on the train service to bring potential customers, employees and other visitors to our tourist economy. All they want—indeed, all they deserve—is a direct train to the south side of Manchester.

My hon. Friend the Minister is aware that I have campaigned on this issue since I was first elected as a Member of Parliament. The good news is that, over that time, we have repeatedly fought and won to secure the future of this important service. I owe much credit to the Southport and Ormskirk rail travellers association and to the numerous Rail Ministers who have preceded my hon. Friend, including my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), the former Member for Orpington and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I know he shares an interest in this particular line, as its alteration impacts his constituents as it does mine.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), who has led on this issue with me, and my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Bolton West (Chris Green) and the hon. Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for their support. When there have been problems with rail timetables, we have collectively done our best to respond and force changes to the benefit of our constituents.

The bad news is that I cannot set out that glistening picture today because the service is once again faced with the prospect of being downgraded. In January, the Department for Transport, in partnership with Network Rail and Transport for the North together, having already established the Manchester recovery taskforce, launched a consultation on timetable options to improve rail performance in the north of England. That represented a major backward step for many of my constituents, who had only just secured the return of their direct services to Manchester Piccadilly. As one of my constituents said: “The most frustrating thing is that we only secured the return of the direct rail service to Manchester Piccadilly back in December, and whilst it was far from perfect, we had direct rail services to Piccadilly. Less than a month later and our town’s rail services are back on the table like a poker chip.”

The key issue is not about having a consultation, but about the reason behind it and the front-loaded way in which the options to change the routing and frequency of some existing journeys have been too heavily stacked against my constituents from the start. All three options presented by the Manchester recovery taskforce would remove my constituents’ direct rail service to Manchester Piccadilly.

Before I address that point, I will set out for the Minister the nature of the problems that my constituents currently face. Manchester has five city centre stations. For many years, the Southport line had two daytime services to Manchester—one to Victoria in the north of the city and one through Piccadilly on the south side to Manchester airport. The service specification for the Northern franchise let in 2016 meant that the long-standing Southport airport service was withdrawn and all trains from my constituency were to be routed to Victoria.

A campaign challenged that change, conducted passenger surveys and, in collaboration with the rail authorities and train operators, analysed travel data, which proved journeys to Manchester were destination-specific to one of the five city centre stations for reasons of work, business, study, health, leisure and, in the case of Piccadilly, connections to the rest of the country. Two thirds of Southport and Lancashire residents travelling to Manchester usually required the south side.

In April 2017, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, who back then held the responsibility for our country’s rail services, recognised the issue and directed the franchisee, Arriva Rail North, to present a business plan that would deliver an already identified solution. Following my election as Member of Parliament for Southport in June that year and with ARN dragging its feet, I asked the campaign group to draw up a business case, which I sponsored and presented to the Secretary of State for Transport in January 2018.

The case was accepted by the rail industry. By then, it was committed to the May 2018 timetable debacle, which included the withdrawal of the Southport airport service. Two morning and evening services were retained. The services were restored incrementally up to the completion of the reinstatement in December 2019, but that did not include services directly to Manchester airport. When emergency key worker timetables were introduced with the first covid lockdown last year, the Southport line services, like many, were halved. Significantly, in recognition of the line’s importance, the train operator, which is now Northern Trains Ltd, devised and implemented a non-standard train path and timetable to maintain a direct key worker service to the south side. Since the pandemic, the Southport line has been one of 12 operated reliably and punctually through the Castlefield corridor.

Those are issues with the current service, but I come now to the fundamental problem of the Manchester recovery taskforce’s consultation and the proposed timetable changes to and from Southport: the downgrading of our direct rail services. When it is fully running, the line will benefit those of my constituents who want to get on a train at Southport station and sit on it as it carries them through to Wigan or perhaps the north side of Manchester. That might be of benefit to some of my constituents. However, for those who do not want that or who want a faster service to Piccadilly, such proposed timetable changes were never the answer. My constituents have been asked to forgo a service that takes them to one of the three stations in south Manchester and within a five to 10-minute walk of their workplace, the universities and the hospital. They are now being asked to use a rail service that will take them to a place they do not want to travel to, on the wrong side of the city, which will add a further 20 minutes to their overall journey time.

Allow me to provide the Minister with a bit of context. Piccadilly is the busiest station in central Manchester and the only one in the north-west region that provides connections to services everywhere in Britain. It is not a backwater at the end of the metro service. Manchester Piccadilly is a crucial stop that promotes my constituency’s tourist economy and acts as a pathway to tens of thousands of visitors each year, including to the Southport Air Show, the Southport Flower Show and, I am proud to say, The Open, which was held at the Royal Birkdale in 2017 and attracted almost a quarter of a million visitors. The station is also crucial to my constituents’ having the opportunity to attend good universities and access employment opportunities. There is now talk of a fourth compromise option, but the MRT should not be planning for Oxford Road to be the main Manchester station for my town. The demands of my constituents and visitors is driven by destination—simply put, they need to be where they want to be.

The idea that the industry will decide what sort of service people can get confirms that, for so long, it has felt that it enjoys playing trains until it concerns the passengers. However, passengers are key, and those who choose to use the service must have it available to Deansgate, Oxford Road and Piccadilly along the Castlefield corridor. Similarly, my constituency should not be seen as a scapegoat to alleviate congestion along a busy stretch of line, for which there is no operational argument. I was deeply concerned when the MRT reported timetable changes that showed that it had always been the intention to remove my town’s direct rail links to Manchester Piccadilly under the caveat of consultation, and that the main destination of services from my town would be Oxford Road.

That was never made clear in the consultation, but it absolutely confirms my constituents’ fears that the Manchester recovery taskforce’s consultation was nothing more than a caveat to removing my town’s direct rail services. At some stage, it was always going to turn around and say, “We want to remove the direct rail service to Manchester Piccadilly. You can get off at Oxford Road instead.” I rejected the idea in 2017, when I was first elected, and I reject it now, as do the overwhelming majority of my constituents who responded to the consultation.

I urge the Minister to ensure that the Northern franchise continues to provide a direct service between Southport and Manchester Piccadilly on the mainline, and not just for Oxford Road. There has to be a sufficient number of services at the right time and with enough seats, so that people can use the service that they need. My constituents want the services restored and, at best, strengthened. Some might say it is natural for me, as the local Member of Parliament, to stand up and say that for my constituents, but it matters beyond my constituency.

Some people using the services to Manchester Piccadilly are not from my constituency but get on at my station. As I have said, this issue affects a number of hon. Members’ constituencies, just as it affects large areas of Lancashire and Merseyside. Instead of using the trains, some of my constituents have already started to drive to Manchester because of the reduced service. If that is the trend, it will likely increase the chance of one of the three proposed changes put forward by the Manchester recovery taskforce being implemented. How does that help our 2050 climate target? How does that achieve levelling up?

We want more people to use the trains, but we will not achieve that if services are cut off from entire communities such as mine. We want the country’s economy to thrive. It is right that we level up across the UK—an idea that my constituents fully support—but levelling up is not a wonderful esoteric prize that only a few should benefit from. It must apply to all parts of the country. Good train services matter to my constituents, and are crucial if we are to build back better from the pandemic and strengthen our economy for us all. I urge everyone involved—the Minister, Transport for the North, Network Rail and the Department for Transport—to do everything to ensure that my constituents continue to have the train services that they need. We must continue to see people using the trains bringing people from Manchester and Wigan to my constituency, and from Southport to Manchester, to provide opportunities to access good jobs and education.

The debate left the station on time at 1605 and must arrive at its destination on time, no later than 1635. I call the Rail Minister.

This debate is all about the destination of the train. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This is my first time responding to a debate in this place, and I look forward to going back to Westminster Hall. Some would say I look forward to its coming home—forgive my voice; I might have been singing that a bit last night.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing this debate on rail services between his constituency and Manchester. As he demonstrated in his words, he genuinely is a hard-working, straightforward representative of his constituents. He does not mess around. I have enjoyed my interactions with him. He always finds a way of getting his way, and I hope that I can work with him to assuage some of his worries. Currently, there are just not enough passengers on our trains, so we need to get people back.

As my hon. Friend is aware, we have a rich railway history that put this country on the world stage with its Victorian pioneers, its ingenuity and engineering achievements. To continue that legacy, the Government have outlined plans that will continue to take our rail network forward. Thanks to record levels of funding that will help us to build back better, as my hon. Friend said, as we recover from the pandemic, we will also deliver the biggest modernisation programme that the railway has seen for more than a century.

Since 2010, we have invested £29 billion in northern transport. The 2020 Budget also committed to invest £4.2 billion in intra-city transport settlements from 2022-23 through five-year consolidated funding settlements for eight city regions, six of which are in the north. Capacity funding, confirmed at Budget 2021, is supporting city regions and preparing them for the settlements, and 70% of capacity funding has been allocated to city regions in the north.

More than £22 billion has been invested in phases of HS2 to deliver the essential north-south connectivity, and cross-regional rail has received a much needed boost thanks to the upgrade of the trans-Pennine mainline. Only last month we announced an extra £317 million to improve that vital route for freight and passengers, which connects Manchester, Leeds and York via Huddersfield. That comes on top of the £589 million that was put into the programme last year. A lot of investment is happening in our railways, especially in the north.

The Government are committed to levelling up the country, which is why we are planning to spend, on average, more on transport in the north compared with the south, the midlands and the east of England. A strong, effective railway is central to that ambition. As the country moves out of the pandemic, it gives us an opportunity to introduce a new era for the railway that puts the passenger at the heart of everything we do.

My hon. Friend will no doubt have heard about the plans to reform Britain’s railways with a new public body, Great British Railways, which will simplify our railways and deliver more simple, modern fares, and will bring about a financially sustainable railway that is fit for our times. The plan for rail will prioritise punctuality, reliable services and the passenger. Our trains in the north are already delivering that. Records show that more than 90% of services have been on time in recent months. However, there is much work to be done. Passengers travelling on some areas of the network are not getting the service that they deserve, and for too long people in Manchester and wider afield have suffered train delays and cancellations due to the congestion that my hon. Friend outlined around the city.

In January 2020, a taskforce made up of industry experts was formed to identify options to tackle that. I do not have to remind my hon. Friend what happened in May 2018, when infrastructure not being delivered, overpromising on a timetable and industrial action combined to deliver unbelievably poor service and cancellations on the rail system for his constituents and many others across the whole country. We need to avoid that, because when passengers come back they will expect to travel on a reliable, resilient and very clean railway. The work that commenced in January 2020 is focused on Manchester, but it recognises that the issues of rail congestion in the city itself are felt across the whole of the north, including my hon. Friend’s constituency of Southport.

At the centre of all this is the need to improve immediate rail performance in the north to provide a train service now, as well as an infrastructure plan for the medium term, that works for passengers and freight, and that will support the growing economy of Manchester and the north as a whole. With that in mind, the taskforce conducted a root-and-branch review of the timetable and consulted on three possible options, as my hon. Friend said, earlier this year. In doing so, the taskforce, which includes Transport for the North and Transport for Greater Manchester, aimed to strike a balance between providing a high-performing railway that will benefit all passengers into Manchester—before the pandemic, more than 150,000 people a day—versus changes in journey patterns for a relatively small percentage of people.

That is a big choice. It also aligns with Greater Manchester’s 2019 rail prospectus, which recognised that a simpler service pattern on the Network Rail network was necessary in the short term. That may mean that passengers need to change between services to complete their journey, but it will ultimately result in services that are reliable and punctual, which is always at the top of people’s list of priorities. The taskforce estimates that a regular commuter into Manchester could benefit by up to one hour a month in reduced delays compared with the pre-covid timetable that performed so poorly.

More than 800 people and organisations gave feedback to that consultation, which has been invaluable in developing a solution. Indeed, my hon. Friend gave great feedback to it, along with a host of experts that he brought to the table, once again, as he would say, to make that point. Although there was broad acceptance that we could not go back to the old timetable, one of the strongest areas of feedback was on access to the southern side of Manchester from Southport and Wigan. I have met my hon. Friend on a number of occasions, with and without officials, to discuss the matter. We had a very long meeting in March following a one-to-one briefing that was arranged between Northern Rail and a representative from the Ormskirk, Preston and Southport Travellers’ Association to explain the thinking and choices involved in option development.

The taskforce has really gone out of its way to reflect carefully on the representations, and continues to work closely with local transport authorities on revisions that aim to address as many concerns raised as possible, including those of my hon. Friend and his constituents. We have also given room for extra consideration by agreeing to defer any major changes until December 2022, so that we have the time to get this right. The revised proposals for a new timetable structure will soon be considered by the political leaders in Transport for the North, as well as by me and other Ministers, after which I hope to make a public announcement, including a formal response to the consultation. The train operators will then lead a further consultation in the autumn on the fine detail of a new timetable, before moving towards implementation.

It is recognised that that is not a long-term fix. Manchester is a major railway hub that fuses the needs of inter-city travel with local commuters and a huge and growing amount of freight traffic. There is no easy solution to the congestion problems, but improving the infrastructure will be critical. To address that, we are developing an ambitious programme of infrastructure improvements across the decade. The first business cases are being finalised now; once they are agreed, the work will be finished around 2025. It includes improvements from new passenger information technology to extra platforms across Greater Manchester and the city centre.

But there is much more to do to make Manchester’s network ready for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. The plans for the medium and longer term include resignalling and remodelling some of the busiest stations and reconfiguring very complex junctions. The designs and business cases are also being developed and are expected to be ready by 2023.

Work is happening on the ground now. In March, Network Rail was instructed to start work on lengthening platforms across Greater Manchester to accommodate the longer six-carriage trains that are now a regular feature across the north. We are making sure that stations have the platform capacity to accommodate them; work on that is due to finish in 2023. As part of a £500 million investment, TransPennine Express has introduced three new fleets into its passenger service, providing 13 million extra seats a year.

Likewise, another £500 million has been invested in 101 new trains for Northern, providing more space for customers, including wheelchair users, and consigning the old Pacers to history—something my hon. Friend both worked towards and campaigned for. Those longer trains can carry more passengers and are faster, and they use the latest technology to reduce emissions and journey times. They have also created new jobs in the region, as can be seen in the recently opened state-of-the-art maintenance and servicing depot, which is important to what we are doing at Wigan. These changes are significant, but by working together on a package of projects that deliver reliability and reflect passenger demand, they really will make a difference.

Elsewhere, I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that his bid to the restoring your railway ideas fund to improve connectivity by reinstating the Burscough curves is currently being considered. Outcomes of the bidding round are expected to be announced in the next few weeks.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for securing this debate and rightly shining a spotlight on rail services between Southport and Manchester. The railway provides a vital lifeline for many people across the north, and the Government are committed to modernising the network as part of their wide-reaching levelling-up agenda. I reassure my hon. Friend and the House that a tremendous amount of work is being done, which aims to provide for a faster, more reliable network for all. Through a combination of infrastructure work and timetable changes, it will make a positive difference to everybody who travels on our services across the north. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to make sure that it works for his constituents as well.

Sitting suspended.