Metro mayors have called on the government to act urgently to address the “serious damage” caused by failing train operators in the north of England.
The call came as official figures showed complaints about TransPennine Express (TPE) services trebling this year, and Avanti West Coast continuing to lead the way for dissatisfaction among big operators.
In a joint statement, the five mayors from West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Manchester, Liverpool and North of Tyne said thousands of last-minute cancellations were making “life miserable for people in the north, and cause serious damage to the economy”, but the government was “in a state of paralysis”.
The mayors said: “If this level of disruption was being experienced in other parts of the country, we believe action would already have been taken to improve matters. We do not accept that passengers in the north should be treated in this way and just expected to put up with it. We won’t.”
They added: “Only the government can haul operators to the table to sort out this mess.”
The mayors held an emergency meeting on Thursday afternoon after hundreds of services were cancelled this month by operators including TPE, Avanti and Northern.
The West Yorkshire mayor, Tracy Brabin, said: “We’ve all been suffering – many people are so impacted by this.”
She told the BBC Today programme on Friday: “This is derailing our plans for the north and if levelling up is going to mean anything at all we’ve got to solve this. The government can’t sit on the sidelines as they have with previous transport secretaries and say it’s nothing to do with them.”
She said TPE executives had told her that they could negotiate on important issues only with government approval, adding: “There is a deal for rest-day working, which is one of the biggest blockages to reliability, and that could be signed off by the new transport minister.”
The drivers union Aslef, however, denied any such deal existed. Mick Whelan, general secretary, said: “TPE has not spoken to Aslef about rest-day working– there have been no negotiations and there is no agreement waiting to be signed off. The simple truth is that TPE does not employ enough drivers to run the services the company has promised passengers.”
Avanti, a joint venture of FirstGroup and Trenitalia, was recently awarded a six-month contract extension despite its cuts to schedules, while the contract for TPE – also owned by FirstGroup – could be renewed for another eight years in 2023.
Brabin said: “We don’t believe the contracts for TPE and Avanti should be renewed.”
The Department for Transport said it had invited northern leaders to a meeting as soon as possible.
TPE said: “Prolonged disruption affecting our services has been caused by a range of issues including ongoing high levels of train crew sickness, a persisting training backlog as a direct result of Covid, and infrastructure issues outside of TPE’s control.
“Our customers want, and deserve, reliable and punctual train services, and we are sorry we have not been able to consistently provide that due to the ongoing issues.”
Figures released by the Office of Rail and Road on Thursday showed complaints about TPE rose by 206% to 83 per 100,000 journeys in April-June 2022, compared with the previous year. Avanti’s were up 123% to 161 per 100,000 journeys, a figure only exceeded by the troubled overnight Caledonian Sleeper service, which runs just a handful of trains.