‘Sham­bolic’ train bosses car­peted

GRILLING FOR NORTH­ERN AND TRAN­SPEN­NINE CHIEFS AS TOWN HALL BOSSES BLAST SER­VICES

Manchester Evening News - - NEWS - By JEN­NIFER WIL­LIAMS NEWS­[email protected] @MENnews­desk

TRAIN chiefs have been blasted for ‘woe­ful,’ ‘sham­bolic’ ser­vices over Christ­mas by se­nior north­ern fig­ures - but North­ern Rail has in­sisted it could not have ‘made bet­ter de­ci­sions’ over the past four years.

Bosses from both North­ern and Tran­spen­nine Ex­press faced a fe­ro­cious grilling at a meet­ing of may­ors and coun­cil lead­ers, with both com­pa­nies told pa­tience had now run out.

In TPE’s case, Greater Manch­ester’s mayor Andy Burn­ham said af­ter the meet­ing in Leeds that the firm - which can­celled nearly one in five of its ser­vices daily in the month be­fore the new timetable came in last month - was in the ‘last chance sa­loon,’ while North­ern was slammed for hav­ing op­er­at­ing a ‘six­day rail ser­vice’ ever since get­ting their fran­chise in 2016. Se­nior fig­ures from both firms apol­o­gised, with TPE blam­ing a nose­dive in per­for­mance at the back end of last year largely on new trains ar­riv­ing late and suf­fer­ing tech­ni­cal prob­lems.

North­ern Rail - which can­celled more than 200 ser­vices a day in the month to De­cem­ber 7, or 8 per cent - said it had been hit by a win­ter vom­it­ing bug that had seen staff sick­ness rise by 30pc.

How­ever Chris Burchell, man­ag­ing direc­tor of the firm’s par­ent com­pany Ar­riva, also blamed de­lays to planned in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments in the cen­tre of Manch­ester for con­tin­ued poor per­for­mance, ar­gu­ing that with­out them the ex­ist­ing set-up is ‘un­de­liv­er­able.’

“I don’t think any train com­pany could have made bet­ter de­ci­sions than we have,” he added. Mr Burn­ham said that did not ac­count for the firm fail­ing to run Sun­day ser­vice obli­ga­tions, how­ever.

Steve Mont­gomery, man­ag­ing direc­tor of TPE’s par­ent com­pany First Rail, apol­o­gised ‘un­re­servedly’ for the firm’s per­for­mance, ar­gu­ing that while it had been im­prov­ing up un­til the sum­mer, af­ter­wards the po­si­tion had de­clined - with a spe­cific drop-off at the end of the year due to the de­layed ar­rival of new trains, some of which had suf­fered tech­ni­cal prob­lems. Mr Burn­ham re­fused to ac­cept the ex­pla­na­tion, how­ever, telling him: “We’ve had two years’ of poor per­for­mance and I think the first thing to point out is it’s not just the sham­bles we’ve had over Christ­mas. It was a ter­ri­ble year, the whole of 2019.”

Coun­cil lead­ers lined up to slam TPE’s per­for­mance across the north, var­i­ously de­scrib­ing it as ‘woe­ful,’ crit­i­cis­ing the lack of apolo­gies on trains for de­layed ser­vices.

They agreed to set a dead­line - or a se­ries of dead­lines - for TPE to im­prove, although the de­tail has yet to be fi­nalised.

Mr Burchell, ar­gued that North­ern had faced ‘a range of ex­ter­nal dif­fi­cul­ties.’ A new pro­posal for Sun­day work­ing - re­jected by the rail union Aslef last year - was cur­rently out to mem­bers, they added. How­ever, Mr Burn­ham re­sponded with scep­ti­cism.

“You talk about progress but I’m sorry, the res­i­dents of Greater Manch­ester don’t feel it,” he said.

Af­ter the meet­ing Mr Burn­ham said: “We’ve heard it all be­fore ... we’ve had bro­ken promise af­ter bro­ken promise,” he said of both firms, ad­ding that TPE was now in the ‘last chance sa­loon.’

Of North­ern Rail, whose fran­chise is cur­rently set to be ripped up by govern­ment and po­ten­tially na­tion­alised, he added: “For me, North­ern’s time has run out.”

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