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Time for the North’s rail operators to step up

Friday 20th December 2019

Transport for the North has called on rail operators Northern and TransPennine Express to ‘step up, and be open and honest’ over the festive period after a damaging week of cancellations, crowding and confusion.

The December timetable change, which came into effect on 15 December, saw already poor performance deteriorate even further, with a high volume of pre-planned and last-minute cancellations, as well as shortened trains, overcrowding and growing palpable frustration at the North’s train stations.

David Hoggarth, Transport for the North’s Strategic Rail Director, said:

“Already weary passengers are being tested to their limit and Christmas cheer is running short. The services from both operators have been way below par, with so many delays and cancellations. The impact of that is northerners being late for work, missing their children’s bedtime, spending hours to travel short distances and simply avoiding trains. Too often they are left standing on the platform with little or no idea of what is happening – a rough welcome home for Christmas.

“As part of our Rail North Committee, the North’s leaders have been scrutinising operators intensively throughout the year ahead of this timetable change. We repeatedly urged the changes to be realistic and deliverable; for detailed contingency packages to be in place; for the rollout of new trains to be intensively monitored; and for staffing issues to be ironed out well in advance.

“We were repeatedly reassured that these matters would be effectively tackled. They weren’t. Passengers are again paying the price.”

At one point (Thursday average) only 47% of TransPennine Express services met the basic industry performance measure (within 5/10 minutes of scheduled arrival time). The performance of both the region’s rail franchise operators – Northern and TransPennine Express – in recent weeks has been unacceptable, with stats showing TransPennine Express has been the worst performing rail operator in the country this week.

Transport for the North has a limited role in how the North’s railways are run, as part of the Rail North Partnership. The Department for Transport has responsibility for what are known as ‘reserved matters’, including matters with financial impact or involving contractual service obligations. Transport for the North can give its views, but the power to take action currently lies with Government.

Both operators have faced challenges in introducing large fleets of new trains into service and training staff to operate them.

David Hoggarth added: “Operators should be experienced enough to plan for smooth and reliable deployment with sufficient contingency planning in place to cope with any unexpected issues. Urgent recovery and subsequent enforcement action now needs to be taken – including remedial plans to restore resilience and reliability.

“Above all, the operators need to be open and honest about what they can deliver to give the North a rail service it can rely on this Christmas.”

The North’s leaders, as part of Transport for the North’s Rail North Committee, are set to gather in Leeds on 8 January 2020 to discuss the issues and way forward, and have called for senior leaders at both operators to attend. They have previously recommended to the Secretary of State that an Operator of Last Resort for the Northern franchise would help restore public confidence.


Background information

Public Performance Measure (PPM) figures Monday 15 Dec to Thursday 19 Dec


TransPennine Express:

The temporary timetable TransPennine Express (TPE) are operating was designed to mitigate the risks around readiness for new trains being introduced (pre-planned cancellations on certain routes). The high number of additional cancellations continue to be due to a combination of new train faults and driver availability.

We are calling on the operator to implement further changes if needed by early January to bring more stability once they know the resources available to them. We have been clear the priority order should be stability/certainty then reliability before adding additional services back (whilst we want to see the full service at the earliest opportunity – it can’t be at the expense of uncertainty and poor performance).

Under the terms of the current partnership agreement between Transport for the North (TfN) and the Department for Transport (DfT), it is the DfT which has responsibility for what are know as ‘reserved matters’ relating to matters with financial impact are concerned with contractual service obligations. TfN can give its views, but the power to take enforcement action currently lies with the DfT.

Transport for the North has been closely scrutinising the plans of both the region’s major rail franchises through much of 2019 and has made a number of recommendations aimed at providing the resilience of services.

In TransPennine Express’s case this included:

The underlying reasons for Northern’s poor performance are cited by the operator as staff sickness/availability and rolling stock issues. We have been clear that the operator is not performing at acceptable levels. Northern maintain that the issues they face are not related to the timetable change.

The Rail North Partnership is continuing to monitor both the region’s main rail franchise operators closely on a daily basis.