West Yorkshire leaders claim rail industry ‘no longer fit for purpose’

The North of England’s rail industry is “too fragmented” and “no longer fit for purpose”, a meeting heard today.

Commuters waiting at the boards in Leeds Station.
Commuters waiting at the boards in Leeds Station.

Decision-makers at West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) were also told that the much-maligned “Pacer” trains would have to be removed by the end of the year, as they would be “illegal” from next January.

The remarks were made during a discussion with Network Rail on improvements that have been made since the May 2018 timetable crisis, in which thousands of services across the North were late or cancelled.

The north director of Network Rail Anne Jane Hunter told the meeting that services were almost at the level they were before the May 2018 changes, but added there was still work to be done from operators and Network Rail.

Commuters waiting at the boards in Leeds Station.

She said: “It has been a difficult 12 months for the rail industry in the north. My colleagues and I have found it extremely difficult, but I am pleased to say it is an improving picture.

“We have a way to go, we would like to be doing a lot better than this, and there is a lot of work going on to try and deliver that. Passengers continue to have an inconsistent experience in the north. We have high levels of cancellations and issues with overcrowding.”

She added performance percentages, which measure the punctuality of trains, had improved and were “in the mid-80s”.

The authority’s representative on the Transport for the North board Coun Judith Blake said: “One of the most disappointing aspects of this whole debate is that, when we speak about performance, we are speaking about trains arriving on time.

“People are turning up for trains that are turning up on time, but people can’t get on them because they are not long enough. Until we get a picture of the impact on the public, their confidence is not going to be given to us.

“The whole industry has been fragmented to a point where it is unable to operate and it is no longer fit for purpose.”

She also stressed the importance of communication between the authority and Network Rail, as well as operators Northern and TPE, which are responsible for the majority of services in the region.

Addressing Ms Hunter, board member Coun Stewart Golton added: “If a train turns up is a pacer train and nobody can fit on it, it is not what the franchisee promised they would deliver. When are we going to get what we are supposed to get?

“We represent the passengers and we need to get answers. We can’t get the answers from the operators – I would like to know what the professional body is that professionals like yourself feel accountable to.”

Ms Hunter responded: “I feel accountable to the general public in the same way that you do. I take it very seriously. It is our job to answer questions.”

She added: “My understanding is that pacers have to go because they are illegal from January 1. Everytime I ask, I’m told that it is happening.”

The comments follow operator Northern telling a meeting of WYCA back in February that it “had a robust plan” to replace the 1980s rail buses by the end of 2019. When pressed for assurances that the trains would all be out of service, the spokesperson for the operator admitted “alternative options” would need to be explored if problems occurred getting new vehicles onto the tracks.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling received heavy criticism last year after allowing the timetable changes that led to May’s rail chaos to take place.

Coun Peter Box said: “I do have sympathy here. The people who should be sat there explaining are the government.

“Let’s be frank about this. We have a secretary of state for transport who is truly and utterly hopeless.

“You mentioned the performance figures are in the mid-80s. When do you anticipate when that will increase and what is the target?”

Ms Hunter responded: “I am always aiming for 100 per cent. However, we are funded to a certain level of punctuality, so we need to be realistic.

“We are increasingly aware that without infrastructure improvements, 92 per cent is probably not realistic. We continue to make incremental improvements.”