Passengers in the North told rail services will improve but issues 'won’t be fixed overnight'
He said the Government is working to tackle the “unacceptable disruption” passengers travelling with TransPennine Express (TPE), Northern and Avanti West Coast have endured in recent months, during a speech at the Northern Transport Summit in Liverpool.
But he also said “root and branch reform” of the railways is being delivered to prevent the number of services and passengers from falling into “permanent decline”.
Ministers are examining TPE’s improvement plan, before they decide whether the operator’s contract to run services across the North should be renewed in May or the Government’s Operator of Last Resort should take over.
Mr Merriman said the service “is not good enough” and there “are far too many cancellations” but claimed that “anybody that takes on board that service is going to end up in the exact same situation”, as they will have to deal with the same issues.
But he also said there would be a significant improvement if drivers, working for TPE and the state-run operator Northern, agreed to work on their rest days again, to cover for absent colleagues and help train new recruits.
“We have put a deal on the table for rest-day working which we really want (the train drivers union) ASLEF to accept,” he added.
It comes as the Government is setting up a state-owned body called Great British Railways (GBR), that will take charge of timetables, set ticket prices, collect revenue and manage rail infrastructure.
However, it is also looking to make private operators more self-sufficient, as they have struggled with a significant drop in fee paying passengers during the pandemic.
The Government claims more than 70 per cent of the industry’s income has come from taxpayer funded support-schemes over the past two years.
During his speech, Mr Merriman said the Government remains committed to delivering major infrastructure projects, such as the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) and HS2.
He also revealed a major study that will decide whether HS2 trains will ever reach Leeds, which was promised 14 months ago, will begin “in the weeks to come”.
“It’s been through the department we are just waiting for further sign off to be able to get that out, which will then help us with the question of how we take those trains up to Leeds,” he said.
Following a series of delays, work is well underway on TRU, which aims to increase capacity, improve reliability and allow passengers to travel from Leeds to Manchester in 33 minutes.
Up to £11.5bn will be used to electrify the 76-mile line, which runs between York and Manchester, and install digital signalling equipment along the route.
During a seperate speech, Shadow Transport Secretary said Labour is committed to fixing the “creaking, fractured” rail system.
“Our transport system is not working, it’s holding back growth. Millions of people simply cannot rely on the train to get to work, to visit friends and family and to go out to our cities and towns,” she said.
“We have record levels of cancellations and in the last quarter the performance of TPE was regularly beaten by that of the war-torn Ukrainian railways.”
Ms Haigh reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to building HS2 “in full” and ensuring the line reaches Leeds. She also said the party will revert to the original plan for Northern Powerhouse Rail, for a £43bn network, with high-speed lines running between Liverpool to Leeds and a new station in Bradford.