North of England rail chaos stems from ‘toxic combination’ of issues, MPs hear

Late, inadequate and overbooked trains are costing the regional economy half a billion pounds a year

Bosses of northern train operators conceded their companies were letting passengers and businesses down when they appeared before a parliamentary hearing examining this year’s rail “meltdown” in northern England.

Thousands of trains have been cancelled at short notice in recent months and if passengers do get on a service it has often been unbearably crowded, unduly expensive or both.

On Tuesday, MPs on the transport committee heard from witnesses describing in vivid detail the chaos across the north of England – levels of chaos not repeated in other parts of the UK, and which comes on top of the industrial action being taken by rail unions.

Services run by Avanti West Coast, Northern and TransPennine Express have seen cancellations, overcrowding, broken toilets, broken air conditioning, a lack of seat reservations and an inability to book tickets in advance.

Lord Patrick McLoughlin, the chair of Transport for the North, described it as a “meltdown” which was costing the regional economy £8m a week, or half a billion pounds a year, but the consequences were greater than that because it led to lost confidence and lost investment.

Anthony Smith, the chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said the problems were caused by a “toxic combination” of issues different for each company.

He said industrial relations at TransPennine Express were “corrosive” and at Avanti the “staff-management relations don’t seem to be good and need resetting”.

Avanti’s decision to cut schedules in August to limit short-term cancellations meant it was more difficult to buy cheaper advance tickets, Smith said.

Richard Scott, director of corporate affairs at the West Coast Partnership, which includes Avanti West Coast, said the biggest issue had been that the service had for decades relied on rest day working, which drivers no longer do. “This is unprecedented, and as far as I’m aware unique, where drivers decided they were no longer willing to volunteer.”

A new timetable which came into place on Sunday was the “bedrock” for improvements, which he was confident passengers would begin seeing.

“Our services have not been good enough, I want to be very clear on that, and I’m sorry for that,” said Scott. “For months we’ve let businesses down, families, friends, communities, and I apologise.

“They won’t have confidence back overnight. We’ve got to rebuild it and the way we rebuild it is by being reliable.”

Matthew Golton, the chief executive of TransPennine Express said: “We’re sorry where we’ve let customers and communities down with the service delivery we’ve had this year.”

He said they had not had rest day working over the past year and it would “make a material difference to our performance if we can get it back.

“What we have to do over the next few months is get this timetable performing more reliably and make a significant inroad into the number of cancellations. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Nick Donovan, managing director at Northern, said it was cancellations which were causing pain to customers. “If I look at reasons which are within our control, about 70% of those are to do with sickness and absence … our sickness levels are running at about double the normal rates.”

He said the company was putting a focus on the issue, but there would not be an immediate fix.

The hearing came as the transport secretary, Mark Harper, published a written statement in which he said that current rail services in the north had been “unacceptable.”

He urged rail unions to put deals to their members and said it was up “to the unions to decide if they want to improve services, for the good of passengers and the wider economy in the north”.


Mark Brown North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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