Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Maria Caulfield.)
I am grateful to have the opportunity this afternoon, like my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) did in the previous debate, of moving a motion in my name that is of great importance to my constituency. It concerns the services on the Manchester Piccadilly to Rose Hill via Hyde line. This is of considerable interest to my constituents and is urgent given that, from Monday of next week, there are plans for three months of complete service suspension on that route. I can also see a number of my constituency neighbours in the Chamber this afternoon, which indicates wider concern about this proposal—in addition to the concerns of my constituents in Marple, Romiley and Woodley.
First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this Adjournment debate today, which is of huge importance to my constituency, his constituency and all the neighbouring ones? I have always believed that politics is about campaigning very hard for your side in an election, but sometimes you do not always win—in our experience, we did not win several elections in a row—but after that you work with people around your area to try to deliver what is best for your constituents. That is why we are all so united on this issue. As he knows and as the Minister, who has kindly already given us some time, knows, the case for Hyde is very simple. Hyde Central is the main train station for Hyde, with more than 100,000 journeys a year. To go from that to no service at all up to Christmas is just too significant a change. While we all recognise that covid has had a huge impact on a whole range of areas in British public life, to go to no service at all is simply too much.
I am in complete agreement with my constituency neighbour, which will come as no surprise to anyone at all. May I, at this juncture, mention my other constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who contributed to business questions earlier today, but cannot be with us this afternoon? I just wish to place on record my thanks to them and say that it has been a pleasure, as always, to work closely with them.
We are all acutely aware of the variety of impacts the covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions are having on everyday life. We understand why things we have previously taken for granted are no longer possible or must be done with appropriate adaptations and caution. However, while our railways have provided a vital service to key workers—indeed, those who work on them are key workers themselves—and now an increasing number of the general public, they, too, have been impacted by this pandemic. Northern, which operates services on the Manchester to Rose Hill line, has brought forward this proposal: to temporarily suspend services in their entirety for three months. It justified it on the following grounds, informing me that the driver training programme was suspended for nearly six months, a proportion of its workforce are classified as vulnerable and have been shielding, and a number of drivers have left the company or have retired and replacements have yet to be trained. All of those points are understandable. A train driver cannot work from home. However, I cannot help but think that these issues should have become apparent much earlier and could have been better planned for. Northern’s reputation has suffered greatly from the timetable debacle and a series of strikes in recent years. Many of my constituents have said in frustration to me that they wonder whether Northern sees running a railway as an inconvenience. My constituents deserve better.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. I know that he and my good and hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) are long-standing campaigners about the issues on this line. Although the line does not impact my constituency, it is very near to it, and I have been discussing it with the shadow rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, ever since the Government took over the Northern franchise in March 2020, things have actually got much worse than they were before, when the franchise was in private hands? I know that Northern is one of the most complained about train operators in the UK.
There is no doubt whatever that Northern’s reputation has been generally lamentable for some years. However, I gently caution the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour from Stockport, because March 2020 was also when the pandemic began, and that has brought a degree of pressure. Nevertheless, I take entirely the thrust of his argument. Like his constituents, my constituents deserve better; they deserve an efficient, regular and reliable rail service. That is why we are here today.
It is completely unacceptable to make an announcement over the summer without consultation with passenger groups, local transport bodies or elected representatives. That is compounded by the apparent lack of notice given to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), in particular given his Department’s role as operator of last resort. At this juncture, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has made himself completely available to all colleagues in the House, to meet us virtually, to apply pressure to Northern and to ask the questions that need to be asked. I pay tribute to him for his work.
I, too, thank the Minister. The most that any Minister can do is to make themselves available to listen to individual MPs about constituency issues. That is all we can ever ask, and the Minister has certainly done that, so I add my thanks.
It is also relevant to add something that our constituents say to us, as the Minister knows. Even in pre-pandemic times, Northern was a service with a substantial degree of public subsidy—quite rightly, because it could not be run on commercial grounds—and people therefore expect, in a sense, a greater level of respect because of that relationship. They are a partner, a contributor, through the taxes that they pay. I am a supporter of my local rail service, and I want it to have public support, but that makes it more difficult—there is no doubt about that.
Absolutely, that makes it more difficult. That is why Northern needs to know that the operation has changed. It needs to know that it has to improve, that it is perhaps doubly accountable, because of the involvement of the Department for Transport.
To remove all services on the Rose Hill line will cause serious problems for many of my constituents, including schoolchildren, in particular those who attend Marple Hall School, and commuters generally. It flies in the face of the Government’s laudable desire to ensure that people can go about their lives using covid-secure public transport. The jargon of the rail industry—“securing timetables” or “keeping customers on the move”—is surely not achieved by wholesale suspension of services. It is high time that the line from Piccadilly to Rose Hill via Hyde was properly regarded by all as a valuable rail route, with enormous potential for the future. That ambition is already recognised by the public, given the increased passenger numbers over recent years. We cannot allow the line to be disregarded for administrative ease.
The excellent work done by local friends groups to champion and enhance stations must be recognised. I know how much work it was for the friends groups from my own area, including Rose Hill station, Marple and Romiley, to name but a few, and how much work they have done to oppose the proposals. Such groups are more than just responsible for the hanging baskets and the planters, even though—if I may plug this—Rose Hill station won the award for the best-kept station in Cheshire in 2019. Notwithstanding that, they are an integral part of understanding the needs and concerns of passengers. We must do all we can to engage with them properly and to value them.
I do not want to waste any more time this afternoon lamenting Northern’s past record. Now is the time for change and action. I need to hear the following from my hon. Friend the Minister—I hope he will forgive my assertiveness—who has been very helpful throughout the summer in seeking a solution: what will he do to stop a complete removal of service from the Rose Hill line? What will he do to ensure that Northern prioritises the line for driver training and for new trains? What will he do to avoid my constituents of Rose Hill, and some at Romiley and at Woodley, being without services on that line for three months as of Monday next week?
Rose Hill station has faced many challenges over the years. Perhaps its greatest was seeing off the machinations of Dr Beeching. We must not allow covid-19 to become the Beeching of our age for the railways. On the contrary, we must do all we can to support them and to ensure a steady and safe return of passengers to the network.
I am grateful to everyone who has worked to get the best possible outcome today, including the thousands of local petitioners. I know that, like me, they will listen keenly to the reply from my hon. Friend the Minister, from whom it is now time to hear.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) for securing this important and timely debate. Indeed, I think it was through him that I was first informed about the issues addressed in his speech. It is fair to say that ever since, he has been fairly persistent in his contact with me and, indeed, Northern trains and others to build a coalition to try to get services reinstated on the line.
I hope momentarily to draw the Minister away from Cheshire and the north-west. Last October, my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), had an Adjournment debate on the subject of the Portishead line, which I also supported. We are very keen to see that line expedited. I wrote to the Minister further in August and hope he can look into that so that I can share in the good wishes of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg).
I will honourably take up the hon. Lady’s offer, because what is going on in Portishead is a very positive piece of news. I look forward to having conversations with her to move that forward.
We are, though, talking about Rose Hill and Hazel Grove. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove has been building a coalition to reinstate his and his constituents’ much-loved services. He has done a very good job. We know him in this place as a hard-working chairman of a Select Committee and a great parliamentarian, but now we also know that he is a hard-working, caring and great constituency MP. He has demonstrated how he is willing to work with others from other political parties to get a result for his, and their, constituents. I put on the record the work that I know has been done on these issues by the hon. Members for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra). I was pleased that we all had an opportunity to discuss this matter with the managing director of Northern trains last Friday.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove knows, I was concerned to hear that the Rose Hill service had been temporarily removed until December 2020. Let me be clear that Northern took this unwelcome decision itself, to maintain operational performance by increasing services overall while it managed its recovery from covid-19. Alas, prior to the pandemic Northern already had an intensive driver-training-programme backlog, but extra delays caused by the epidemic, combined with staff self-shielding at home, have meant that Northern has had to take steps to prioritise its available-and-competent driver resource to where it is most needed.
Northern made the decision to temporarily suspend services from Rose Hill because it believed that, given the availability of other train routes, stations and public transport options for Rose Hill passengers, that would have less impact for local customers than for those of other stations and routes. Northern says that it did not take the decision lightly. It anticipated and hoped that the provision of a replacement bus service and the availability of train-travel options from other stations close by would enable Rose Hill passengers to return to work and school with minimal disruption. None the less, Northern recognises that the decision, although made with the best interests of its customers network-wide in mind, caused significant concern and frustration among passengers, local-friends groups and Members of Parliament.
As we have been slowly exiting from lockdown and seeing Britons get back to work, the railway has rightly been increasing services to meet passenger demand and expectations. This Monday, on 14 September, there will be an additional service uplift for many passengers across Northern’s network. Train operators overall have been asked to restore a timetable that maximises the opportunities for passenger travel while maintaining the excellent performance levels we see at this point in time. I assure all Members that the rapid return of a good, regular, resilient timetable on the line is our priority.
Having listened to Members’ concerns, I can inform them that Northern has reviewed its timetable and outlined improvements. But I have challenged the operator to do more—immediately—for the passengers in the Rose Hill area. Moving resource around has enabled Northern to provide some glimmer of light for passengers on this line. Northern has prioritised the running of services for its customers that will be both resilient and reliable, rather than ramping up its services quickly. That is something I insist on: we need a reliable railway if we are to have a railway at all. It is focusing its efforts on the morning and evening peak times, using customer feedback to get essential workers to where they need to be. Literally moments before this debate commenced, Northern informed me that it intends to introduce two trains in the morning, Monday to Friday, for Rose Hill Marple from 14 September. They will arrive at 8.11 am and 8.36 am respectively to ensure that Northern can meet key school demand. There will also be an afternoon service to meet school demand, arriving at Rose Hill Marple at 3.14 pm and getting to Manchester Piccadilly half an hour later.
I would like to think that the coalition my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove brought together—the voices of his residents and the voices of Members of Parliament, hopefully amplified by me as the Minister—has been listened to by Northern in the conversations we have all had with the operator.
Let me say on behalf of my constituents in Hyde that that is extremely welcome news. A service that focuses on peak demand will go a huge way to meeting the need that is there, putting concerns at rest and keeping people on the railway, which is what we all want. I thank the Minister on behalf of my constituents.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. He has played a great part in this, as have other hon. Members who have contributed today.
The impact of coronavirus means that the safety of passengers and staff must be paramount. That means the focus right now is on reliability and increased capacity to enable safer travel, with enough space for social distancing where possible. Northern runs a highly complex network and serves an enormous section of the United Kingdom. In fact, about one in five of all United Kingdom stations is a Northern station. It shares the network with nine other train operators, so the decisions it takes, such as moving trains around to run different services, affect the journeys people make all around the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove knows from our last meeting on Friday, Northern apologised for the removal of this service and committed to an internal review to learn the lessons from this issue. Northern is also reviewing options again to see how it can support affected communities until we get to the point where a full reliable service is restored.
More generally, the public sector operator will continue to work with Network Rail to make sure the railway delivers as one, with a single-minded focus on the interests of the passenger. As a part of that, the newly created cross-industry Manchester recovery task- force, co-ordinated by Network Rail, will deliver on recommendations on how best to boost capacity and performance in the short, medium and longer term.
Northern has already begun to deliver many improvements for customers, including the recruitment of more staff, a full train cleaning programme and improvements to many stations. However, there remains much more to do to provide the modern, reliable service that its passengers deserve. Northern really does hope shortly to update everybody further on its plans to transform the service, but until then it will continue to focus on getting the basics right: restoring reliability, increasing capacity and rebuilding trust in the organisation by providing services that all passengers can truly rely on.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that announcement and for the work he has done to secure it. He mentions the short, medium and longer term. Without wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth, I wonder if he could elaborate further. Will Northern prioritise this route for the restoration of services before the deadline in December? Might there perhaps be the potential for better news in the weeks ahead?
As my hon. Friend will recognise from my announcement, which was given to me only moments before I entered the Chamber, Northern is working particularly hard to ensure the restoration of service. I will continue to put pressure on it to continue to do that in the lead-up to 14 December, when the next timetable change comes in. I think we have already proved that, working together, we can get some change on our railways, and if we continue to do so, I am sure that will continue to be the case.
I recognise that the decision by Northern has caused serious concern among passengers and the constituents of my hon. Friend and others. The coronavirus outbreak has affected the way we work and go about our daily lives, and that is no different in the rail industry. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate. I should say that, in doing my research for the debate, I came across some interesting claims by another local political party. Interestingly, considering its supposed level of concern, it is not represented here today. It claims to be running a campaign to get the service reinstated, so, thinking I might have missed something, I asked my officials to check whether any representations had been made to my Department by the local councillor concerned about reinstating the services. Unsurprisingly, the answer was no, not a thing. Not a sausage. As per usual, the Lib Dems are very good at moaning about something and happy to make a gripe fester, but in this case they were not interested enough to make representations to the Department that might have been able to help. Perhaps the collection of data in a campaign was more important to them than getting a result.
Fortunately, the people of Hazel Grove have my hon. Friend representing them, and from the very moment he heard about this issue, he made contact with me. Indeed, he did so before I found out about it formally. He has been forcefully and proactively asking the right questions of the right people to get the right results for the people he represents. He is a Member of a party in a Government who are going to level up the economic opportunities across our great nation. The Government understand the importance that communities across the country place on regular train services and the social and economic benefits that these can unlock for local economies.
I hope that the measures being introduced by Northern that I have announced will go some way to assure passengers relying on the Rose Hill Marple services as we come out of the coronavirus outbreak that we are looking to improve that service greatly. Hopefully they will also be pleased with the massive multi-million pound investment in new rolling stock, which I very much hope will be serving this route in the coming months. I hope that that goes some way towards answering my hon. Friend’s question. There is more work to do, but a lot of work has been done by the hon. Members present in the House today to restore some services on the line, and I thank my hon. Friend for all his help in doing that.
Question put and agreed to.