Councillors slam rail operators as services hit new low

An influential panel of West Yorkshire politicians has called on transport secretary Chris Grayling to explain why improvements to the region's rail service are not being made.

Commuters wait for news during last year's rail troubles.
Commuters wait for news during last year's rail troubles.

Members of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) transport committee pulled no punches, branding recent rail performance as “outrageous” and “a mess”. One councillor became so emotive that he claimed he had to stop himself speaking to avoid using swear words.

The comments came as latest figures in a WYCA report showed that reliability among trains run by operators Transpennine Express (TPE) and Northern declined even further in the period from November to December last year.

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Leader of Wakefield Council Peter Box (Lab) said: “I think it’s outrageous. It’s getting no better and that’s the truth. Promises that were made for improvements in 2019 have been reneged on already.

“I believe the North of England has been treated with contempt.

“The situation is not tenable. Let’s not mess around – let’s invite the Secretary of State to this committee and let’s quiz him about the franchises.

“We cannot go on like this. If we are serious about representing people from our communities, we should invite the Secretary of State to see what changes he is going to make.”

A report which went to members claimed nearly a third of Northern’s services were late or cancelled during the period between November 11 and December 8, while there were similar figures for TPE.

Delays were blamed, among other issues, on damaged wheels, ageing infrastructure and even trespassers; while planned new trains look set to disrupt things further, as more training would be needed for staff.

Chairing the meeting, Coun Kim Groves (Lab) said: “We have discussed this so many times.

“We need reassurances for the people of West Yorkshire. I am happy to invite Chris Grayling to speak with us.

“We have investment coming into West Yorkshire and we don’t have the transport system to support our needs.”

Leeds councillor Michael Lyons (Lab) added: “I have never ever seen such a mess in my life.

“People’s lives have been altered by the incompetence of the people in charge of the railways.

“Last time we spoke to Chris Grayling, he said railways had nowt to do with him – this is the Transport Secretary!

“If it’s not him, who do we speak to?

“(Operators) have treated the people of this country with disrespect. Their daily transport has been withdrawn from them and there is nothing we can do about it.

“People have set off to work, not knowing when they are going to get home that night.

“I’d better shut up before I start swearing.”

Calderdale councillor Dan Sutherland (Lab) claimed many commuters in his district had to switch to trains following the damage to road infrastructure caused by flooding over recent years.

He said: “There is a great deal of disappointment.

“It looks like (improvements) will be delivered during the next franchise and this will be a complete failure.

“A lot of people who have moved out of cars onto the trains have really paid the price. Particularly over the Christmas period.

“There is a rapidly depleting hope that things will get better.”

“Saturday trains have not been running due to the strikes. The strikes are firmly within (the operator’s) power to deal with, but these continued over Christmas.”

In addition to the issues around late and cancelled trains, weekend strikes by Northern Rail staff have been taking place since August 2018, and are still ongoing.

Kirklees councillor Martin Bolt said: “The strikes have been affecting people.

“To make a deal takes two partners – I don’t think any deal falls on the side of one partner. We need to have responsibility on that.”

Coun Box added: “I have been in this room and platitudes have been turned out and nothing has happened.

“We need someone who is in charge of the whole lot – and that is the Secretary of State.

“We know because of Brexit, Theresa May can’t get shut of him, but we need to stand up to these people.”

On Autumn rail performance, director of WYCA’s transport services Dave Pearson said: “There wasn’t a good Autumn – some of that was seasonal issues that Autumn brings including leaf-fall.

“The slight positive thing is that the timetable change in December, there have been some improvements on some lines.”

“There are a number of challenges that will delay service enhancements for quite some time, particularly around capacity.

“The priority for timetable changes is to not break the railway like the May changes did, and to actually enhance services. We need to make sure that the enhancements that were ensured by the franchises happen in due course.”

It was announced back in November that the introduction of TPE’s new Nova 3 trains would be delayed until at least the spring due to technical problems, while it was revealed in December that Northern’s much maligned pacer trains were still in use.

Nobody on behalf of Northern was at the meeting.

Graham Meiklejohn, speaking on behalf of TPE, said: “Performance has improved. Further interventions are required.

“Looking ahead into November 2019, we are also going to start with the rail north partnership with further enhancements to services. We have made great strides from where we were but there is still work to do.”

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Meicklejohn reiterated that TPE had delivered on its commitments and was going to improve services later in the year.