New train timetables: Lancashire leads call for operators to lose contracts if services and reliability do not improve after December changes

Councils and combined authorities across the North of England could call for rail operators to be kicked off the network - if promised service improvements hit the buffers next month.

It follows a suggestion by a senior Lancashire councillor who urged fellow politicians to take a tough line over new train timetables that will be introduced shortly before Christmas.

Members of Transport for the North’s (TfN) rail committee backed a push by Charlie Edwards - Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport - to make their continued support for the current contract-holders conditional on the successful implementation of the changes, which are due to be phased in from 11th December.

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The rail industry hopes that the refreshed timetables will mark a return to more reliable and regular services.

Trains have not been turning up on time - or have been cancelled altogether - too often for liking of politicians and passengers
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Papers presented to a meeting of the Rail North Committee last week branded the current performance across the network in the region “unacceptably poor” - prompting an apology from senior figures who were in attendance from the main operators.

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TfN has provisionally estimated that delays and cancellations on services provided Northern and TransPennine Express (TPExpress) could be costing the North’s economy £8m a week - a figure likely to be higher still if it included the Avanti-operated West Coast Mainline route to London.

While welcoming industry optimism surrounding the new timetables, County Cllr Edwards suggested that committee members needed to be explicit about how they would respond if the improvements - like some of the trains - failed to turn up.

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County Cllr Charlie Edwards led calls for a tough stance should new timetables not deliver better services

“I still have concerns over the capability for certain operators to step up in December. I do worry that these promises that we are seeing...are not going to get met,” he said, adding that if ongoing issues were not resolved, the committee should agree “that we cannot continue to support the franchises in their existing state”.

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Committee chair Liam Robinson welcomed the proposal, telling the meeting that while TfN had no power to remove an operator, it could “make [its] feelings known” over their future by issuing statutory guidance and advice to the Department for Transport if the December timetables did not deliver.

TfN chair Lord Patrick McLaughlin - himself a former transport secretary between 2012 and 2016 - said that the committee would be left with little choice but to follow County Cllr Edwards’ track if the changes did not have the promised impact on services.

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He said there was a real risk of passengers “giving up” on train travel if reliability did not improve. At the moment, however, it has bounced back in the North since the easing of Covid restrictions more strongly than in London - with the major stations across the region back up to 87 percent of pre-pandemic levels, compared to just 71 percent in the capital.

The committee also called on the Department for Transport to give operators the flexibility to institute short-term measures that could boost performance - including coming to an agreement with the unions over rest-day working, which could help clear a training backlog that built up during the early part of the pandemic and is contributing to the problems. It would also help alleviate the effects of ongoing high levels of sickness absence.

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The meeting - which was held before the latest announcement about further strikes by Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) members next month - heard that passengers have been dealing not only with temporary timetables and a reduced number of services, but also a high level of cancellations amongst those services that are still supposed to be running.

Those changes are sometimes made on the day and have had “a real impact on people’s lives”, according to TfN’s strategic rail director, David Hoggarth.

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The train operators say that the amendments are necessary in order to keep the majority of the network running to time - and that they try to give travellers as much notice as possible.

Both Northern and TPExpress told the committee meeting that there was no shortage of drivers - but that the length of time it takes to make new drivers “productive” was posing a problem against the current backdrop. It is at least 18 months before new recruits are fully trained.

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Steve Montgomery, managing director of rail for First Group - which owns TPExpress and Avanti - said that there were more drivers employed in the businesses than ever before and that discussions had been taking place over the new rosters needed to staff the December timetable changes.

“You have our assurances that everybody is working exceptionally hard to ensure that we try and restore the services that were promised in December,” Mr. Montgomery said.

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Northern’s managing director, Nick Donovan, said that the new timetables would be “implicitly” more reliable than the arrangements they were replacing, not least because of a reduced need for crew changes.

However, he stressed that broader reform of the rail industry was also necessary, including by securing “the right terms that protect our long-term delivery”, especially regarding Sunday working. He said that 95 percent of train crew in one of Northern’s divisions do not have Sundays in their working week.

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“That gives us a particular challenge in terms of surety of delivery [of] the Sunday service,” Mr. Donavan said.

County Cllr Edwards said that good services at the weekend and at night should be at “at the forefront” of the industry’s mind, because of the growth in rail use for leisure and tourism since the pandemic struck.

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The committee report noted that a degree of rail devolution already handed to the North should allow it to progress with some reforms on its own terms - including simplified ticketing across different modes of transport and more affordable fares - in spite of the fact that a broader national overhaul of the railway now looks likely to be delayed beyond its intended April 2024 implementation.

That was the date when the new Great British Railways - designed to reduce fragmentation in the industry - was due to come into operation.

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Emergency measures introduced in 2020 to deal with the sudden drop in rail demand as a result of Covid brought the traditional franchising model to an end, sparking a transition to new passenger service contracts.

These will see private operators paid a management fee to run services, which must adhere to standards regarding reliability and passenger satisfaction.

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‘DON’T KEEP US IN THE DARK’

TfN Rail North Committee chair Liam Robinson urged operators to be candid about any potential problems with the new timetables should they appear on the horizon. He told last week’s meeting that he did not want to see a re-run of the chaos that engulfed rail services across the North when the now infamous May 2018 schedule was introduced.

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“I remember in the weeks prior, nothing was said by anyone [suggesting] that... the timetable wasn’t going to work. We got an email on the Friday from Northern saying there might be some short-notice cancellations, but not a lot, don’t worry about it.

But then from the Sunday and the days and weeks that followed, everything fell apart – and it was that, frankly, conspiracy of silence that was almost as bad as the...awful service delivery that followed.”

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A report presented to the committee claimed that the disruption to rail services across the North this year “would not be tolerated in other parts of the country”.