Tom Richmond: Change needs to come...more quickly than the trains

Graeme Bandeira's latest cartoon on the region's railways.
Graeme Bandeira's latest cartoon on the region's railways.
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IF you have already had enough of the delays and disruption on the region’s railways before the insult of next year’s 3.2 per cent fare hike, here’s a depressing prospect.

Unless the Government intervenes, passengers face up to seven more years of mismanagement – and the resulting chaos. It’s because First Group’s TransPennine Express franchise, where a pitiful 22 per cent of trains in Yorkshire now reach their destination within 10 minutes of their scheduled time, is not due to run out until March 2023.

Just one in five TransPennine Express trains are now on time.

Just one in five TransPennine Express trains are now on time.

Of 37 trains to Manchester Airport last Saturday by way of example, two were cancelled, 23 either terminated early or started from the wrong station and another 11 were between 12 and 33 minutes late. I pity the holidaymakers whose travel plans were ruined. A shortage of drivers was blamed nine times – and no conductor in another two instances.

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As for Arriva’s Northern service which now regards its Sunday timetable as an optional extra, it’s due to remain in place until March 2025. For, even if the Government reviews, or refines, the franchises, the same old management will stay in place – and be exempt from any cackhanded pay cap that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling tries to impose on front line rail staff.

It’s why the time has come for commissioners to be appointed to oversee these two franchises and their daily operation. This is what happens when council departments hit rock bottom. Yet, while train services are run by private operators, they are still heavily subsidised by the taxpayer and there must be a number of experienced professionals here – or abroad – who could provide the leadership required.

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It won’t be easy – I suspect both Northern and TransPennine Express do not have enough drivers to fulfil their timetable obligations – but it’s clear David Brown and Leo Goodwin, the respective managing directors, have lost the confidence of their employees, passengers and all politicians with the notable exception of Chris Grayling (enough said). Change can’t come soon enough – in fact it needs to be quicker than most trains here.

IF you think the excuses of Yorkshire’s under-fire rail operators sound familiar, it is because they are.

The promise that TransPennine Express managing director Leo Goodwin made to “restore the level of service customers expect and deserve” – part of a grudging apology for The Yorkshire Post – was picked up by one eagle-eyed reader.

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They pointed out that the phrase “expect and deserve” was first used by customer services director Kathryn O’Brien in November 2014. “Everyone in this business is working tirelessly on improvement plans to deliver the service levels you expect and deserve,” she said.

The same again in March 2015. “We have some very focused performance recovery plans that really steer us back into some of the service levels that customers expect and deserve from our business,” she said.

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And, in her new role as customer experience director, quite an apt title given the ordeals that have been suffered by many, Ms O’Brien promised this January: “We are continuing to work with industry partners...to deliver the service that customers expect and deserve.”

It’s not the PR script writer that needs changing; it’s the whole franchise. And, to use words familiar to TransPennine Express, it’s what commuters expect and deserve.

WHEN the National Rail Passenger Survey came out earlier this year, 86 per cent of respondents rated TransPennine Express stations as “satisfied or good”.

Yet, when it came to TPE disseminating this, it now emerges that the firm chose to use the word “excellent” in its public documents. In an email, media relations manager Sarah Humphries informed a passenger: “In this instance, we’ve chosen to use the word ‘excellent’ as the word ‘satisfaction’ had already been used within the press release.”

An email sent by an official at watchdog Transport Focus to a passenger, seen by The Yorkshire Post, conceded: “I agree that use of the word ‘excellent’ is not appropriate in this case.”

TPE head of communications Sarah Ford declined to comment – she said this issue was not relevant to the company’s performance. I disagree. The issue is one of trust at a time when most passengers no longer believe TPE’s utterances. She also says there’s no need for MD Leo Goodwin to meet residents of Marsden and Slaithwaite who have endured hundreds of trains being delayed or cancelled since May, because its staff have good relations with the community. Try telling that to those concerned.

RADIO 4’s Today programme totally let Chris Grayling off the hook on Wednesday when the Transport Secretary was interviewed about fare increase.

I’m sure his sigh of relief was audible when the exchanges swiftly switched to ‘Westminster Bubble’ questions about Boris Johnson rather than a probing exchange about the scandalous state of services here – or the case, made by this newspaper and others, for linking rail fare increases to punctuality and reliability. The inquisition would have been more forensic if only one in five trains were running on time in London.

TALKING of Boris Johnson, even he acknowledged the North’s untapped potential in his Daily Telegraph column and noted how there are “trans-Pennine links, for instance, that are crying out to be done”. Either a leadership bid is imminent – or the reputation of the region’s train operators is so bad that even the ex-Mayor of London recognises the need for change.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk