TRANSPORT Secretary Grant Shapps has branded the performance of the North’s main rail operator as “totally unacceptable” – and promsied action – after yet another weekend of disruption to services in the region.
The newly-appointed Cabinet minister was responding to calls from Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s metro mayor, for Northern to be stripped of its franchise because of its poor reliability record.
Mr Burnham spoke out after being inundated with complaints from passengers whose Bank Holiday weekend travel plans were ruined by delayed and cancelled services – claiming driver shortages were cited by passengers for the hold-ups.
He told The Yorkshire Post that the cumulative effect of reliability issues risked undermining the North’s reputation as the region played host to national – and international – visitors who were attending a raft of major sporting, leisure and cultural events from the dramatic Ashes Test at Headingley, and the Leeds Festival, to Manchester Pride and the Ariana Grande concert.
Last night, a Department for Transport spokesman confirmed to this newspaper that the Transport Secretary had the power to strip failing rail operators of their franchises – but declined to say if Mr Shapps would now act.
He said the Minister “has made clear he wants to see big improvements in performance on the railways and get the trains running on time”.
The spokesman added: “He also knows that whilst improvements have been made with new trains being introduced, commuters on Northern have too often experienced a lack of punctuality and a level of cancellations he thinks is totally unacceptable.
“The Transport Secretary also wants the rail industry to urgently improve the service it offers its commuters and will be working with mayors and leaders in the north to achieve a much better service.
“The Government is investing heavily in transforming services in the North, and we have seen Northern begin to introduce new trains, having now retired the first Pacer train. On top of this, the Williams Review will deliver a new vision for the industry, which is built around the passengers that it serves.”
Northern claim that nine out of 10 its services “are now arriving within five minutes of their scheduled time” – and that “cancellations are dramatically down since May 2018” when the introduction of a new timetable caused chaos across the region.
The firm refused to say if driver shortages were to blame. “The impact of ongoing engineering work means we are still having to adjust our Sunday timetable most weeks – creating short term plans that may include cancellations. This has an effect on matching employees’ availability within their working agreements,”added a spokesman.
“Routes with cancelled Sunday service are chosen carefully to minimise the impact on customers. On each of the affected routes, our customers will have a range of alternative options available to them including other Northern services, trains run by other operators or rail replacement road transport. All routes with pre-planned cancellations are advertised via the Northern website each Friday.”
However Mr Burnham said the inconvenience was the “final straw” and that even he was struggling to get hold of senior executives Northern to obtain an official explanation. “Not having enough drivers to run the railway is not good enough, whatever the contractual or industrial relations issue,” he told the The Yorkshire Post.
“A bank holiday weekend with events taking place across the North and what do we get? Widespread cancellations on our rail network. It wouldn’t be allowed to happen in London. What will it take for the Government to do something? I think we have put up with enough. How long do you go on with this? The North of England needs a weekend rail service – and a more reliable one while we’re at it on weekdays too.”
Earlier Mr Burnham had promised an “almighty fight” if the Government scraps HS2 after the Transport Secretary said that “any outcome is possible” in the review launched by the Government last week.
Northern defends rail record
RAIL chiefs at Northern defended their record in response to calls for the operator to be replaced.
“The North deserves the best possible rail service and we are working hard to improve performance and reliability for customers,” said a spokesman. “This summer, we have launched 15 of our brand new trains, part of a £500m investment.
“The unacceptable disruption following the May 2018 timetable change was caused by delays in infrastructure projects out of our control. We have successfully delivered timetable changes since then, introducing many more new services.”