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Transport Accessibility: Bolton West

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2023

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

It is a pleasure to get this Adjournment debate on public transport accessibility in the Bolton West constituency. Public transport is important to so many of my constituents who use it on a regular basis, whether for leisure reasons, to go to work or to go to the shops. However, it is immensely important for those people in the constituency who do not use it that we use the infrastructure overall to make sure that public transport can take a substantial load off the transport needs in and around the constituency.

This Government have a very good story in recent years in terms of investment. A few years ago, the Liverpool to Manchester electrification project was completed. It was part of the Government’s ambition to level up and get the northern powerhouse going. The electrification of our railways is key to that. Not only that route, but the Manchester to Preston route, which goes right through the constituency, was electrified. There were huge technological challenges with tunnelling and historical concerns about our industrial heritage, but the Department and the wider team ensured that the project was delivered. We could then get rid of the ancient trains and have new, modern coaches on our tracks, which has made a significant difference. They are quieter, cleaner and far more attractive. If we want to encourage people to use public transport, we should deliver an attractive service that they feel happy and comfortable using.

There was also significant investment—£85 million—in the Ordsall Chord. That is part of the wider investment we need in Greater Manchester to ensure that the railway system works better, given that the city of Manchester is such an important hub for the wider railway system in the north-west of England and a key part of north-south connectivity.

More work needs to be done in the city of Manchester on, for example, the digitalisation of the railways. Even as we are improving services in many ways, there is congestion, and there are challenges in getting around Manchester and into Manchester from Bolton West and further afield. Improving services in the city of Manchester will enable Bolton West and neighbouring areas to improve their services too.

The Ordsall Chord is a magnificent structure, which is visually impressive. A huge amount of talent is responsible for the engineering behind it. The structure was made by Severfield steel in Lostock at the heart of Bolton West. One reason why I am so enthusiastic about the Government’s actions on railways throughout the country—there is obviously a huge plan for HS2—is that much of that transport upgrade will require Severfield and other manufacturers to increase their output to deliver those magnificent projects. It is not just about the railways in Bolton West or the city of Manchester and beyond, but about manufacturing jobs in the steel industry, which rely on such investment.

I am looking forward to the delivery of the Daisy Hill accessibility project. The platform is currently not accessible to people in wheelchairs or with mobility challenges. When the project is started and rolled out later this year, it will give those people the opportunity to use the railway station in Daisy Hill. It will also enable people to come to Westhoughton and that part of the constituency.

Significant challenges can be produced by success. One big concern is about car parking spaces in the constituency. The car parks at Lostock railway station, Blackrod, Horwich Parkway and Westhoughton are often full. That is partly because they are used by people who have a short drive to the railway station, from where they carry on their commute, perhaps up to Preston or down to the city of Manchester. However, the problem is not only down to local commuters.

Car parks are also full because of the commuters who travel from further away in Lancashire. People will drive into the Greater Manchester administrative area because there is a distinct drop-off in rail fares there. From talking to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan), I know about the concerns that exist there. Railway passengers should get on at their local stations, but they have to drive into Greater Manchester to avoid parking fees and to pay lower fares. I therefore believe that this is a problem for not just Bolton West, but constituencies across the Greater Manchester area and constituencies and areas around Greater Manchester.

Resolving the parking problems would be useful for local residents, but if we want a more environmentally friendly public transport system, it must reflect the concerns and interests of car drivers, many of whom use public transport as a stage in their journey to and from work.

The electrification project is ongoing. The Liverpool to Manchester and Manchester to Preston electrification has been of benefit to my constituents. We also have an ongoing electrification project between Bolton and Wigan. In the short term, it causes some disruption. When communication about these projects is well delivered—and Members have a role to play in ensuring that we get the information from the Department or the railways and share it more broadly—it gives a positive view of what we are doing, and people can buy into and appreciate the wider project. I think constituents are looking forward to getting these improved services and improved rolling stock.

I remember going to school in Widnes from Liverpool on the Pacer trains. People complained about them at that point, and as a Member of Parliament I have heard people complaining about them in the constituency in recent years. It is a relief to see them gone, and that demonstrates the progress we are making.

I think more of my constituents use the bus to get to work than the railway, so in many ways, bus services are more important. As part of the devolution strategy, this project has been handed to the Mayor of Greater Manchester. I appreciate that it will take time for the Mayor to develop his plans and ideas and to work with Ministers and the bus companies. He is now rolling out his devolution plan for Greater Manchester in the boroughs of Bolton and Wigan. I may be the Member for Bolton West, but my constituency also covers part of the Borough of Wigan, so this is of great interest to me and my constituents.

I look forward to seeing how the Mayor will deliver his plan. For me, the mark of success will be if we have a more comprehensive service covering a better geography, with more point-to-point travel, so that people can get to work early in the morning, late in the evening or on Saturdays and Sundays. It is not just about the main routes. Some routes in Greater Manchester have very good bus services, where one bus is chasing after the other. We need to ensure there is a comprehensive system of bus services wherever people are, whether it is in a poorer neighbourhood or a wealthier neighbourhood, so that they can get to their place of work, be it in the town centre, the city centre or on a trading estate.

This is my challenge to the Mayor of Greater Manchester: now that he has the power—and it is a power he has wanted for a long time—he has to make sure he can deliver that comprehensive bus plan for my constituents in Bolton West, so that not only Bolton but Wigan and all the parts of them are better connected. Buses ought to be part of the plan, so that when we look at investment in Greater Manchester it is not always about getting to the centre.

One of my concerns about devolution is that it seems to be focused on the city of Manchester; it is only about having a railway network and a bus network to the city of Manchester. It is immensely important that we develop the radial aspect as well. We want to be able to go from Bolton over to Bury or down to Trafford. We want that radial aspect and to be able to reach out from Bolton West over to Chorley, Wigan and other places. That is what good public transport ought to be delivering. It should not just be about bringing people to the centre of Greater Manchester; it ought to enable people to go wider.

I appreciate that the Mayor does not necessarily have responsibility for the railways broadly or the bus services. That is where I would ask my hon. Friend the Minister and the wider team to make sure that they work with him, the other Mayors across the north of England and the boroughs and councils, as well as the providers of these services, to make sure that the system does not have artificial barriers, such as the barrier I mentioned between my constituency and the Chorley constituency. People should not feel as though they have to get in their car and drive, which to a certain extent would defeat the point of having that comprehensive transport system or public transport system—one where people can get on the bus or the train and relax, look out the window, or perhaps do a little bit of work on the way to work. They should not feel the need to get in their car to start that public transport journey.

My understanding is that there is multi-modal smart ticketing between buses and trams at the moment, which will become increasingly important; although it is quite technologically challenging in many ways, I look forward to that opportunity when it also applies to the railway system. I realise that it is really rather complicated, but the trams do not reach the Wigan or Bolton boroughs, so when that system applies to us, that will be one of the things making public transport far more convenient.

I appreciate the ongoing work on walking and cycling routes, with Government investment from Westminster being given to the Mayor, so that people do not have to drive to the railway station. They will feel comfortable with walking routes, or more so with cycling routes, if they are delivered well and there are appropriate facilities at the railway stations, giving people that comfortable option of being able to cycle to the railway station, whether they have a fold-up bike that they can take on the train or they leave their bicycle at the station. I think those options are immensely important. I appreciate that some parts of Greater Manchester are rather more hilly and perhaps rather more rainy than Oxford and Cambridge, but I do think that if people are given that option, there will be significantly more take-up over time.

I will just talk about three other projects that are not in the narrow sphere of public transport but are immensely important. About 15 years ago there was a move to get a congestion charging zone in Greater Manchester, and the suggestion at that time under the Government in 2008 was that a further expansion of the tram network was dependent on a congestion charging zone being imposed on Greater Manchester. It was very frustrating that that investment was contingent on a congestion charging zone. There was a referendum in Greater Manchester in 2008, and every single borough opposed a congestion charging zone—even the city of Manchester, which would have had the least negative impact.

That scheme has been revisited, admittedly in a distinct form as a clean air zone, but fundamentally much of the practice is very similar to what we had before. Initially, it does not apply to cars—it applies to buses, vans and lorries—but one of my concerns is that it will evolve over time. We want to be positive about public transport, but if this modern iteration of that congestion charging zone is imposed, people will feel—and do feel at the moment—that they are being told to stop using the vehicle they normally use because it is convenient, and have no choice but to use public transport. They are almost coerced into using public transport. I appreciate that the initial plans for the congestion charging zone in Greater Manchester do not cover cars, but I suspect that in the very near future they will, and many people see that project as coercive. I think it is the duty of the Mayor of Greater Manchester to make sure that in Greater Manchester public transport is a choice that people want to take, rather than a choice that they feel coerced into taking.

My final note on this topic is similar: I know the Mayor has raised a point about workplace charging zones, where people driving to work have a tax on them, or perhaps a tax on their business. Again, I can see why the Mayor would want to have that revenue-generating system, but the emphasis should be on improving the railway system—as this Government are doing—upgrading it, and making it cleaner and more efficient. We should be building that capacity, not just in the Bolton West constituency but across Greater Manchester and beyond, and improving the bus system. I appreciate that the Government have given immense powers, ability and support to the Mayor of Greater Manchester to deliver on that.

There is a lot of discussion about the tram system and how it is going to be expanded, but I am not tempted at the moment to say that it should come to my constituency from Greater Manchester, though many constituents would be. Perhaps its coming to Bolton North East would be more appropriate, because that links with Bury far more effectively than it perhaps would with Bolton West. We are actually blessed with railway stations right across the constituency. I have mentioned Horwich Parkway and Blackrod, and we have Westhoughton, Daisy Hill, Hag Fold, Atherton and Lostock, which link in with the wider network. I as a local Member of Parliament and many other colleagues right across the country champion the cause of the local public transport network. It is my judgment: I enjoy using the buses and the trains, because I so often find driving so frustrating. It is far more relaxing and far more comfortable and, when I come into work and I do what I do, I am often in a better and more relaxed state of mind.

I ask the Minister to continue his good work with what he is doing in promoting the railways, to continue working with colleagues on the overall transport infrastructure and to make sure that the ongoing delivery between Bolton and Wigan is delivered on time.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on securing this debate, and on speaking so passionately about the issues not just in his constituency, but across Greater Manchester and the wider region. He made the point at the very start of his comments that the transport infrastructure should not be a funnel towards Manchester city centre, but a fanning out, with a radial approach right across the region. As a Lancashire lad from not very far up the road in Blackburn, I am fully aware of many of the issues he has raised. I used to trundle through on those Pacer trains down the Ribble Valley line through Bolton and into Manchester, and we can see the transformation over the last few years with the investment from this Government. I have visited Bury recently, but I will be coming to Bolton soon, so I look forward to seeing some of the upgrades my hon. Friend has talked about, particularly around Daisy Hill station as I am the accessibility champion for the Department.

My hon. Friend talked about the radial movement of traffic around Greater Manchester, and I think it was particularly important what he said about the need to avoid any of the artificial barriers that council boundaries can sometimes create. I am really glad to see that he and other Conservative Members from across Greater Manchester are happy to work with the Mayor. Just yesterday, I had a meeting with the Mayor and my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (James Grundy) about some of the projects the Mayor is pushing forward. I am just so glad to see Conservative Members leaning forward on that. I know that some Opposition Members, if any had been here today, would not perhaps have wanted to talk about the Mayor of Greater Manchester, given that we know the relationship between him and the Leader of the Opposition could perhaps be improved, if I can put it like that. However, it is Conservative MPs who are really leading the fight for their constituencies right across the region. Given the long-standing nature of the career of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West compared with that of some of his colleagues in Greater Manchester, I am sure he will be able to guide them and help them.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the broader issues of economic opportunity, because that is what transport is really about. Yes, it is about getting from A to B, but it is also about why someone wants to get from A to B. It is about cultural connections, economic growth and delivering opportunity for people across the country, and I think that was at the heart of what he was really saying. It is about the broader levelling-up approach that the Government have taken in that space, and we need to continue that and do more of it.

The Government recognise the importance of transport to Greater Manchester, its people and the economy, and we have demonstrated that in the commitments made through the “trailblazer” deeper devolution deal, and our significant funding commitments, such as the electrification projects that my hon. Friend talked about. Indeed, when I was a special adviser in the Department for Transport a few years ago, I remember visiting Bolton with the then Secretary of State and my hon. Friend, to see some of that fantastic work in progress. It goes to show that over the past 13 years there has been a huge amount of electrification, compared with what happened in the previous 13 years.

Many tens of miles have been delivered under this Government, with about seven or so miles during 13 years of the previous Government. We are delivering, and we have more ambitious plans to carry on rolling out electrification.

My hon. Friend is right about the seismic shift in electrification. I cannot quote the exact number off the top of my head, but I will write to him with that. We are talking about a magnitude of 10, 20, or 30 times what happened under the last Labour Government. That shows a real commitment to transport in this country, and to faster, more reliable transport. Electric trains are also lighter, which reduces wear and tear on the network because they do not have to drag a full diesel engine. There are all sorts of benefits to electrification.

However, it is not just electrification. We have put more than £1 billion into Greater Manchester through the city region sustainable transport settlement over five years. Most areas of local government love the prospect of a five-year plan, but we have delivered it. We have delivered it because we need that long-term vision, and we want to back that long-term thinking for Greater Manchester, to ensure that it can properly level up. There are also local public transport and active travel networks. On top of that, we have invested £94.8 million to support the implementation of Greater Manchester’s bus service improvement plan, and another £35.7 million for the zero-emission bus network.

Just in the past fortnight, the Secretary of State and I signed off an additional £18 million in extraordinary funding for Greater Manchester, to help maintain local transport services until the end of 2024. Two weeks before that we announced a further £72.3 million infrastructure package for rail services in Greater Manchester and the north-west, with upgrades to Manchester Victoria, and a third platform being built at Salford Crescent. That will help to ease those bottlenecks into Manchester, and particularly on the Manchester to Bolton corridor that my hon. Friend will know well. Those works support future service improvements to a range of destinations across, and not just into, Greater Manchester and beyond, including the constituency of my hon. Friend. That forms part of much wider plans to transform rail services in the area and across the north of England, including the trans-Pennine route upgrade and electrification of the Wigan to Bolton route that my hon. Friend mentioned. All those schemes build on in excess of £1 billion investment completed in 2019, which upgraded and electrified many railway lines across the north-west, and introduced that crucial new fleet of trains for Northern and the TransPennine Express for which we had waited so long.

Let me turn to the specifics of the electrification on the Wigan to Bolton line, which my hon. Friend mentioned. In September 2021, the Government invested £78 million to electrify the railway lines between Bolton and Wigan by the middle of this decade. That vital project will enable the Bolton to Manchester corridor, which is one of the busiest rail routes in the area, to host longer electric trains with a greater seating capacity—that is often a concern mentioned by our constituents up and down the country, particularly at peak hours. The work will electrify 13 miles of track and lengthen platforms for six-car capacity at Westhoughton, Hindley and Ince stations. Line closures have been happening since January, delivering the early works, including replacement of bridges. Indeed, as I speak the new Ladies Lane concrete bridge spans over Hindley station are being readied for installation this weekend. Project plans to ensure delivery at the earliest opportunity are in progress so that passenger benefits can be realised swiftly.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to note that in December 2022 the timetable successfully implemented a number of changes developed through the Manchester taskforce, to improve on the performance levels experienced in 2018 and 2019 when delays marred a significant number of journeys. The Bolton corridor saw an increase in train lengths to provide sufficient capacity to meet demand, a standardised timetable pattern and the re-routing of the Barrow-Windermere airport service via the Bolton corridor. The Manchester taskforce is currently looking at the next stage of service development to maximise the benefits of the Wigan-Bolton and Victoria-Stalybridge electrification schemes and the recently announced improvements around Manchester. That is more of those tentacles spreading out, as my hon. Friend mentioned.

My hon. Friend spoke extensively about buses in his speech. Given that I am the local transport and roads Minister, it is one of my favourite forms of transport. Not only do I look after it directly, but it also uses roads, which are the other part of my brief, so buses are particularly important to me. I echo his comments. The Government know how important local bus services are to ensuring communities can stay connected and people can access vital local services, particularly many of the elderly, who for a variety of reasons may no longer be able to use their own transport. That is why we have invested more than £3.5 billion in buses since March 2020 to keep services running in the face of plummeting levels of patronage during the pandemic and to drive long-term improvements to bus services up and down the country. That includes our recently announced package of long-term support of £300 million over the next two years to provide the long-term certainty that the sector requires to deliver sustainable bus networks that better reflect the needs of those who rely on these vital services every day.

Part of that funding was for the measures to ensure we have cheaper bus fares with the £2 cap on single fares from 1 January, which is currently available on more than 5,000 routes across England outside London, including ones from my hon. Friend’s constituency out to other parts of the country. Sometimes our Metro Mayors take full credit for the bus service support locally, but it is only right that my hon. Friend takes some of the credit, because it is only his votes in this place that have allowed us to deliver that money for the Mayor of Greater Manchester. It is important that we recognise that.

The measure to cap fares is helping to encourage more people to use buses and is saving passengers money during what everyone in the House acknowledges are difficult economic times. That is why we recently announced that the scheme will be extended until 31 October this year, with a further £2.50 fare cap all the way through to 30 November 2024. The funding we have provided over the past three years is the largest Government investment in buses for a generation.

In the past three years alone, Greater Manchester has received around £135 million from this Government purely in pandemic-related support to keep the buses running. That is in addition to the £95 million to deliver Greater Manchester’s local bus service improvement plan and almost £36 million to support the roll-out of zero-emission buses in Greater Manchester. We have stepped up to support Greater Manchester’s local transport network as it implements the franchising of bus services and delivers the Bee Network. Giving local transport authorities greater control over the provision of bus services in their area, either through an enhanced partnership or through franchising, is a key part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. For areas that decide to take on franchising, that means they are taking on the farebox risk, so they need to ensure that their plans are right, and they will rightly be held accountable by the public for the decisions they take.

We are clear that franchised services must deliver a more comprehensive service for passengers, so I am pleased that my hon. Friend’s constituents will be some of the first to benefit from the newly franchised services in Bolton and Wigan when they commence this September.

My hon. Friend raised the workplace parking levy. On local charging, I am aware of the attempts in 2008 by the Greater Manchester authority to introduce a congestion charge as part of a bid to the then Government’s transport innovation fund. That was rejected by a local referendum, as my hon. Friend mentioned, and has not been resurrected since. Any consideration of a workplace parking levy would be for local authorities to promote and is a matter for local judgment and debate.

However, workplace parking levy schemes cannot be implemented without formal approval from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who will consider in full the merits of any proposals and listen to hard-working local MPs from across the Greater Manchester area. I recognise that a workplace parking levy scheme may have wider impacts on local residents and businesses. We would expect the local authority to explain those impacts in full to the Secretary of State as part of any proposal, along with any mitigations proposed to the negative impacts where a local authority has concluded that there is no feasible alternative to such a levy.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the Mayor’s plan for a clean air zone. Greater Manchester local authorities provided revised air quality proposals on 1 July last year. We have written requesting further evidence from the Greater Manchester authorities to enable us to consider their plans further. The Government have already allocated nearly £170 million to Greater Manchester to help reduce nitrogen dioxide levels. That is on top of the money we put into the zero-emission bus plan and into the city region sustainable transport settlement. Some of the comments that he made were particularly important. We should be providing that positive choice of a public transport alterative to people and not trying to coerce them into doing things. That is what is most important and that is what the Government have stood behind with more than £1 billion put in through a five-year package. I urge local government across the country, including in Greater Manchester, to think about the message that it is sending to people when it proposes some of these plans.

I turn to the important issue of accessibility to transport. There are more than 14 million disabled people in the UK—a fifth of the country—and that number is set to rise further as the population grows and people develop more issues in their old age. Today, disabled people make fewer journeys than non-disabled people and are significantly less likely to be employed. Transport can act as a powerful enabler, connecting people with places and unlocking access to education and employment, but it can do that only if it is designed and provided with disabled people in mind.

It is vital that the transport services we rely on can be used easily and confidently by everybody. That is at the core of the Government’s inclusive transport strategy, published in 2018, and it is just as relevant today as when it was first released. The strategy outlines a number of commitments, and the progress that we are making to address them will support disabled people across Bolton West to make the journeys that are important to them, as it will for millions of disabled people across the country. That will also provide broader benefits for the rest of the travelling public.

For example, in May—just last month—Parliament approved the Public Service Vehicles (Accessible Information) Regulations 2023, which I took through Committee. They will require the provision of audible and visible information on board local bus and coach services in Britain, so bus users in Bolton should be able to travel with as much confidence as those in other parts of the country. That is a small but important part of levelling up for many people in the country.

We also continue to invest in the accessibility of our railway stations. I am pleased to say that, as my hon. Friend said in his speech, a new lift will be installed later this year at Daisy Hill to provide a step-free route between the station entrance, ticketing facilities and platforms. In March, we launched the inclusive transport leaders scheme, inviting transport operators from across the country to share their knowledge of improving service accessibility and to celebrate their progress in supporting the creation of an inclusive transport system. Those are just three examples of how the Government are levelling up accessibility across our country, including in Bolton West.

In 2020, we launched the “It’s everyone’s journey” campaign, encouraging all passengers to travel with a little more awareness of each other’s needs, and in so doing seeking to increase disabled people’s confidence to travel. Last year, we supported the Bill introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) that aimed to eliminate discrimination against all disabled taxi and private hire vehicle users. Later this year, we will publish updated best practice guidance for local licensing authorities, including strengthened recommendations on providing an inclusive service.

On buses, local authorities entering into partnership arrangements with their local bus operators are required to actively reflect the needs of their disabled passengers in their plans, and new bus charters should ensure a shared understanding of the rights of all bus users to access services. So, across the piece, whether on private hire vehicles and taxis, on our buses or on our rail network, the Government are at the forefront of ensuring that accessible public transport options are available to everybody.

Greater Manchester now faces a significant opportunity as it prepares to franchise bus services later this year, to redefine what an accessible transport system means and to ensure that services, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, genuinely reflect the needs of local people and passengers. We rightly seek improvements in accessibility at a national level, but I am keenly aware that inaccessibility is deeply individual and a localised experience. It is about the buses, taxis and trains that disabled people take every day, and the extent to which they are respected as individuals and their needs anticipated.

I am clear that together as a Government, working with transport authorities and operators and the mayoral combined authorities, we must strive to listen to passengers, whatever their needs are. We must seek to improve transport provision so that it truly works for everyone, every day.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.