NORTH­ERN FAIL

CALLS FOR ‘SHAM­BOLIC’ RAIL FIRM TO LOSE FRAN­CHISE

Manchester Evening News - - FRONT PAGE - By CHAR­LOTTE COX char­lotte.cox@men-news.co.uk @ccox­men­media

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.

JOEL GOOD­MAN

A North­ern Rail train in Manch­ester boss Liam Sumpter and MP Lisa Nandy

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