CALLS FOR ‘SHAMBOLIC’ RAIL FIRM TO LOSE FRANCHISE
CROWDED carriages, cancelled trains, delayed services and ‘aggressive tweets’ from the top boss.
No wonder one of our biggest train operators has attracted a new, unwelcome moniker – Northern Fail.
As passenger fury over daily problems on Northern Rail services reaches fever pitch, new M.E.N. analysis reveals that in the past fortnight alone, the operator has cancelled nearly 900 trains.
Last month, more than 600 trains in north Manchester alone did not have enough carriages.
Commuters have been left fuming and late for work – and have increasingly vented their anger on social media about ‘filthy and overcrowded’ carriages, even when the trains do turn up.
Yet Northern boss Liam Sumpter – whose Twitter account is now locked – has come under fire for ‘taking customer service backwards’ with ‘aggressive’ responses to customer complaints. MPs have now branded the service ‘shambolic’ – and Greater Manchester’s mayor has called for an official investigation after being ‘bombarded’ with complaints about the operator.
Sick of his sabotaged commute, software designer Nicholas Mitchell, 31, has even built an app for the sole purpose of collating cancellation data from Northern to share on Twitter.
Nicholas, who commutes daily from Urmston to Oxford Road in Manchester city centre, is one of many angry passengers to tell the M.E.N. how constant service failures are affecting their lives.
“I go to the station and find my train is cancelled all the time,” he said. “I know I won’t fit on the next one so end up getting a bus or a taxi. I’m spending so much money on top of my rail pass. I need to start driving.”
An M.E.N. search of Northern’s own performance figures reveals just shy of 1,700 cancellations across north and south Manchester in less than three months, between February 4 and April 28.
Existing problems – which the operator says is due to the delay in electrification of the line between Manchester and Preston via Bolton – have been exacerbated in recent weeks by ongoing strikes over the role of guards on trains, which saw action over the Easter holidays and two more walk-outs planned for the next bank holiday weekend.
Even the much-heralded new timetable, to be launched in May, has brought more problems. It has emerged that includes a major ‘scaling-down’ of services between Wigan and Manchester Piccadilly. The hourly Chester to Leeds service, via Manchester Victoria, is now scheduled to be introduced in December 2018, while both Heaton Chapel and Levenshulme passengers will see a temporary reduction in the frequency services, from four trains an hour to three. Inundated with complaints from constituents, MPs – including Wigan’s Lisa Nandy – have tabled a cross-party motion calling for an inquiry into the ‘crisis’ and for Arriva to be stripped of the franchise. Ms Nandy told the M.E.N.: “Passengers have had to put up with a shambolic service for far too long and it’s only getting worse. Trains are old, dirty, overcrowded and increasingly unreliable. Enough is enough. It’s time for Northern to be stripped of the franchise.” On Wednesday, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called for an official investigation into Northern after being ‘bombarded’ with complaints. He says he’s written to Transport for the North asking chairman John Cridland to assess whether Northern Rail has breached its licence to operate. Rail insiders have been asking the same question for months.
A source told the M.E.N.: “They should have three months to get their house in order, or by the August 1 they’re out.
“Passengers have put up with cancellations and capacity issues for too long, they deserve better.
“Surely they are breaching their franchise agreement with this poor performance.”
Northern, which is part of the Arriva group and only won the contract two years ago, told the M.E.N. they are ‘truly sorry’ for the disruption, blaming electrification delays and knock-on driver training for the problems, which they have vowed to resolve.
Regional director Mr Sumpter has also denied suggestions by rail industry insiders that the firm is cancelling trains in order to avoid recording delays.
He said: “We do not make cancellations to protect our delay figures or to reduce how much we pay via the Delay Repay scheme.
“Northern will intervene during disruption to cancel or terminate late running services to return the timetable as quickly as possible to normal on-time operation for the benefit of our customers.”
The M.E.N. also asked Northern what it planned to do about the delays, cancellations and carriage shortages.
Apologising, a spokesman said they were working to improve.
Blaming major work to electrify the Blackpool line, which ran over by three weeks, he said it delayed driver training for more than 400 staff who operate routes around Blackpool. He said this had led to driver shortage in depots including Manchester, Wigan, Liverpool, Blackpool and Leeds.
“We’re now making good progress with the training, and encouragingly we’re seeing the delays and cancellations around Manchester easing,” he added.
He said they expected to see some ‘short-term’ disruption when the new timetable is introduced on May 20, but that passengers would see improvements ‘in the coming months.’
The spokesman also promised 2,000 extra services a week, 98 new trains and the removal of the Pacers by 2020.
But that’s two years away. What can be done now?
While Greater Manchester mayor Burnham has no powers over how the rail network is run, Transport for the North – of which he is a member – was given new statutory powers this year so does have the ability to investigate.
Ultimately, though, the decision lies with the Department for Transport (DfT). Transport for the North said it had raised concerns with Northern and will respond to Mr Burnham’s letter calling for an investigation in full.
When the M.E.N. asked the DfT if Northern was meeting the terms of its franchise agreement, it said the government was ‘significantly improving passengers’ journeys across the North of England by investing over £1bn in improvements.’
The DfT said operators had been affected by the May timetable changes and ASLEF union withdrawing their Rest Day Working Agreement in February meant there was no flexibility to deal with additional training requirements leading to the timetable change.
This was a different reason to the one given by Northern.
The M.E.N. asked again if Northern was meeting the requirements of the franchise.
A spokeswoman replied: “Northern is assessed as every franchise is as part of standard franchise management processes relating to performance within the terms of the franchise agreement.”
But with online campaigns now gathering steam – and politicians calling for an inquiry – there are growing signs the Northern Rail backlash has left the station.
A Northern Rail train in Manchester boss Liam Sumpter and MP Lisa Nandy