Rail operators could be disbanded in a bid to end rail chaos in the North West, mayors propose

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Labor mayors say an immediate ‘cash injection’ is needed to resolve the chaos engulfing rail services in the north.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, and Steve Rotherham, Mayor of Liverpool City Region, have also floated the idea of ​​disbanding both Northern Trains and TransPennine Express (TPE) and replacing them with a single operator for the North West.

The proposal comes after rail services across the north suffered a slump this week with widespread cancellations and delays affecting cities including Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Sheffield, Leeds, Hull and Newcastle.

Northern and TPE blamed high levels of staff illness as a major factor as well as infrastructure issues beyond their control.

But Labor mayors say operators and government need to do much better.

It comes alongside continuing problems with Avanti on the West Coast Main Line, with fewer services and passengers struggling to book tickets in advance.

Figures show rail passenger numbers in the north recovered well from the pandemic until spring this year, after which there was a decline.

Mr Burnham and Mr Rotherham liken this to bus and tram ridership continuing to rise and say the decline is due, in part, to poor performance by operators.

At a joint press conference in Liverpool today, they called for an immediate injection of funds to enable Northern and TransPennine Express to improve their services.

The mayors say the government, particularly the Treasury, is keeping rail operators in a “financial straightjacket” following large bailouts given during the pandemic, estimated at £16billion.

Mr Rotheram also suggested scrapping both Northern and TransPennine Express and replacing them with a new single operator for the North West, run on the same model as Merseyrail.

“For too long, cities in the North have been held back by a broken down and poorly managed transport system that simply does not work for the benefit of ordinary people,” he said.

“Missed urgent appointments, arriving late for work and school, cut off from vital public services, isolated from friends and families – this is the daily reality that people in our region have been facing for months. now.

“This rail chaos is not only inflicting misery on people’s lives, it is also wreaking havoc on our local economies.

“The loss of productivity caused by poor public transport is costing us billions of pounds. Instead of being an engine of growth, the railways of the North are holding us back.

“If it happened in London or the South East, it would be treated as a national scandal.

“And let me be clear – we are not critical of investment in the South, but we are concerned about the lack of investment in the North.

“And our residents deserve more than this second-class service.

“So whenever the Government’s game of musical chairs is over, we want the Transport Secretary to take immediate action with an urgent injection of funds into struggling Northern franchises and failing Avanti.

“If this call falls on deaf ears in the echo chambers of Downing Street, or if performance does not improve, we are left with two options, either to disband TransPennine Express and Northern and deal with them. as a single, unified operator to allow services in the Liverpool City area to be operated under the successful Merseyrail concession, something has to be done. Enough is enough – it’s time to act.

TransPennine Express blamed staff shortages and a ‘short notice’ change to timetables for Tuesday’s disruption (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

The mayors say that if TransPennine Express does not improve its services by the end of the year, it should be stripped of its contract.

Over the past fortnight, 1 in 5 services on TPE’s Anglo-Scottish route – which connects Greater Manchester to Scotland along the West Coast Mainline – have been cancelled.

TPE is the third worst rail franchise in terms of punctuality, with 58.4% of services between April and June 2022 arriving on time. It also had the third highest percentage of canceled services of any carrier.

Northern’s performance is better with 65.5% on-time service over the same period.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham added: “Enough is enough. Today we are calling on the government to act immediately to inject funds into the TransPennine Express and Northern contracts.

“Both have a long way to go to regain the trust of Northern passengers, but they will never do so if they are crippled by the financial constraints imposed on them by Whitehall.

“The Transport Secretary has rightly acknowledged the seriousness of the situation with Avanti West Coast, but news of their contract extension has been a source of concern for many here.

“Millions of passengers in the North need to know that the government has their back when it comes to providing reliable and functional public transportation.

“They need to ensure that operators have the financial and bargaining space to start fixing our broken system, including supporting a return to rest day work.

“This is the action we need to see now. In the longer term, we believe a North West Rail Executive is needed – as part of wider rail reform and the creation of Great British Railways – to ensure the provision of better services in our regions and to provide our urban regions and neighboring areas with more control over the rail services on which they depend to live their lives.

A spokesperson for TransPennine Express said: “Before December 2021, TransPennine Express (TPE) had posted its best performance results and was subsequently recognized as ‘Rail Operator of the Year’ at the Rail Business Awards.

“Since then, a prolonged disruption affecting our services has been caused by a range of issues including continued high levels of train crew illness, a persistent training backlog as a direct result of Covid and infrastructure issues outside the TPE control. Combined, these factors have resulted in a number of same-day or “night before” cancellations.

“Under normal circumstances, we have enough people to fully operate our scheduled schedule – and have more drivers than ever before – but the combination of factors has placed unprecedented pressure on our ability to operate our services efficiently.

“Our customers want and deserve reliable and on-time rail services, and we are sorry that we have not been able to deliver these consistently due to the ongoing issues. The TPE team continues to work hard to provide higher levels of service and to resolve customer issues.”

A spokesperson for Avanti West Coast said earlier this week: ‘We know that making tickets available as soon as possible is a key priority for our customers and we are working hard to achieve this. Our weekday tickets are available until December, but weekends are made more difficult by engineering work, which takes place almost every weekend until Christmas. We are making progress however and by early November we will be selling tickets for the weekend four weeks in advance. We will continue to push this reservation window as quickly as possible. »

Regarding the reduced number of services offered, Avanti added: “We know that we are not providing the service that our customers have rightly expected and we apologize for the enormous frustration and inconvenience caused. Our customers and the communities we serve deserve reliable rail service, which is why we are currently working hard to rebuild our schedule in a resilient and sustainable way.

“Recently we have accelerated our timetable by adding additional services on our Birmingham and Manchester routes and there will be a further timetable increase in December. This will see three trains per hour to/from Manchester and at least two trains per hour between Birmingham and London with three trains per hour during peak hours.

“Resolving this situation requires a solid plan that will allow us to gradually increase services without relying on train staff overtime, which has dropped dramatically in recent weeks. We would like to thank our customers for their patience and understanding. »

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “The Government has earmarked over £16billion of funding for passenger services since the start of the pandemic, or almost £600 per household and around £160,000 for each railway worker.

“We are working closely with rail operators to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum, long-term solutions are put in place and passengers can continue to travel while recruiting and training a significant number of new drivers. high speed.”

Northern Railways has also been contacted for comment.

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