Robert Walker: The passengers forgotten in the trans-Pennine rail crisis

THE May 2018 rail timetable changes and franchise change have brought massive disruption to the Colne Valley villages of Marsden and Slaithwaite.

Residents in Slaithwaite and Marsden have been badly hit by the deterioration of TransPennine Express services.

We had initial concerns about the prospect of reduced services, particularly at peak periods, but were told this was just a temporary transition measure with modern TransPennine Express rolling stock replacing Northern’s antiquated trains.

Months before the changes were implemented, members of our local rail users group, Slaithwaite and Marsden Action on Rail Transport (SMART), along with colleagues from the Manchester side of the Standedge Tunnel, raised concerns about the viability of the plans.

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As May came closer, alarm bells began to ring with the failure to complete preparatory projects. At the final pre-launch public meeting in Marsden the lack of any coherent response to passengers’ concerns from TransPennine Express managers was ominous.

Even the most pessimistic of passengers have been shocked by both the level of disruption and the apparent disregard for them as customers. Well over 550 trains have been cancelled. By late August, no fewer than 503 trains serving Slaithwaite and Marsden have been cancelled or part-cancelled by terminating trains before their destination. Even by late August, less than one in three trains arrived on time.

At first we hoped this was teething trouble. Now it appears that TransPennine Express is incapable of responding to the crisis and places no value upon its customers. Public bodies appear impotent to tackle this scandal.

Passengers feel that their interests have been sacrificed to try and meet a badly planned timetable designed to hit targets for quicker inter city services.

There have been sympathetic words from West Yorkshire Combined Authority, Rail North and Transport for the North, but they appear incapable of solving the ongoing problems. The community I represent as a councillor has been seriously let down by the rail industry whilst the Government denies responsibility.

One commuter told me: “Train cancellations are a pain if trains are frequent. But now the service has been slashed to just one train an hour, the impact is massive. I’ve cancelled plans with friends, missed meetings and spent numerous hours at the station waiting for trains – sometimes only to have more than one in a row cancelled. It’s miserable. I try to work from home when I can, but not many people have that luxury.”

Another passenger returning to work after a holiday reported “dreading” the prospect of resuming her daily commute to Salford Quays.

A passenger who works in Manchester told our local MP, Thelma Walker, that her employer in Manchester now “fines” £20 from her wages every time she is late. This has happened frequently since May.

I have witnessed commuters facing two cancellations of services from Marsden to Leeds. They were left standing on the station when they should have been in an important meeting or conducting a university lecture. Several commuters who moved to the area because of good transport links, the attractive environment and reasonable house prices have stated that they are considering moving back into Leeds or Manchester to safeguard both their careers and personal lives.

Some of the most affecting stories come from parents with young families.

To add insult to injury, there have been serious delays in adapting the stations. Again things have deteriorated. In Marsden, the platform for Manchester-bound trains has been changed, removing any disabled access. Due to a failure to raise the platform height, many travellers struggle to board or alight from trains.

At the busy Slaithwaite station, passenger shelters were removed from both platforms, along with the ticket machines, in July. As yet, they have not been replaced.

This timetable change was supposed to herald a “modal shift” in travel with people ditching their cars for more frequent, reliable and comfortable trains.

Unfortunately for those who cannot risk being regularly late for work or social commitments, and have the luxury of a viable alternative, there has been a shift – to cars and buses. Who is going to take responsibility for recognising that passengers matter and that our railways should be a public service that is central to a successful Leeds City Region?

Robert Walker is a Kirklees councillor and chair of Slaithwaite and Marsden Action on Rail Transport.