Northern England hit hardest by decline in UK rail services

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When Ruth Ibegbuna moved to the pretty West Yorkshire town of Todmorden, on the railway line between Manchester and Leeds, she did so for its beautiful backdrop and what she was assured were solid transport links.

But services have proven far from reliable and she is appalled by the chaos that has ensued as cancellations across much of the north of England hit record levels.

“When friends from London visit me, they are uniformly stunned to hear the tannoy announce ‘no trains due to a lack of drivers’, or a silence with no information, or just a long list of cancellations,” she said. “They cannot believe we accept this.”

A combination of factors, ranging from a shortage of drivers, the worst industrial unrest since privatisation and infrastructure problems, has resulted in a marked decline in railway services in many parts of the UK this year.

Some parts of the country have been hit harder than others, however, including the north of England, where central government has long pledged to invest billions to improve its poor rail services.

Operators Avanti West Coast and Transpennine Express (TPE), which serve major cities across the north and beyond, have both significantly cut their timetables in recent months in an attempt to improve reliability yet cancellations are at record levels.

Figures collated by transport body Transport for Greater Manchester show TPE is currently cancelling 37 per cent more services than during the aftermath of a disastrous national timetable rollout in 2018, which crippled the northern network. Another operator, Northern Rail, has also been hit by fresh disruption, with one passenger fainting on Ibegbuna’s overcrowded commuter service last week.

The result had been a “ruinous” impact on “people’s lives, on people’s businesses and the economy as a whole”, said Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, who like all northern leaders have long urged the government to invest more in the network in northern England.

Todmorden station, on the line between Manchester and Leeds © Jon Super/FT

At the start of November, industry regulator the Office of Rail and Road criticised what it termed an “accelerated” decline in performance this financial year, with services “now poor in large parts of the country”.

It found that staffing issues at operators had contributed to “delays, cancellations and reduced service levels”, particularly for passengers using Avanti, TPE and Northern Rail, as well as Govia Thameslink, which operates services across large parts of the south-east and London.

Rail executives attributed the bulk of the problems to driver recruitment, explaining that training programmes were badly affected by the pandemic.

“It was on track or nearly on track and Covid happened. Training stopped pretty much and recruitment of trainees stopped because how can you train somebody when you can’t be face to face with them,” said Neil Robertson, chief executive of NSAR, an industry-backed training consultancy.

“We’ve recommended to the industry that they increase [training] significantly”. Some companies were “better than others” at addressing the issue, he added, and training nationally was “not yet” at the rate required.

Compounding the matter, so-called “rest day working agreements” that allow drivers to work overtime have expired over the past year at some operators, including TPE and Northern. The overtime arrangements have long been relied on industry-wide.

Any renegotiations of these crucial deals require sign-off from government, which effectively renationalised the railways during the pandemic, but has sought to distance itself during the fraught stand-off between unions and management that has led to widespread strike action since the summer.

Steve Montgomery, managing director at First Rail, which owns TPE and a 70 per cent stake in Avanti, admitted it had given managers “a false sense of comfort” where staffing levels were concerned. “And then when you don’t have that, you’re very much exposed,” he said.

Aslef, the rail union, said some operators had relied on rest-day working to hold down recruitment. TPE, whose training shortfalls were already causing cancellations prior to the pandemic, “does not employ enough drivers to run the services the company has promised passengers”, said general secretary Mick Whelan. Montgomery said the operator did now have enough drivers, but needed to train them.

The ORR found operators were responsible for 53 per cent of delays over the past year, but also criticised Network Rail, the national infrastructure company, for “poor” performance, especially in Wales and the West Country.

In a bid to improve the railways, the Conservative government last year promised to set up a new state-owned body, Great British Railways, to oversee the network. But progress has stalled following the political turmoil that meant the country had three prime ministers in two months.

New transport secretary Mark Harper has yet to lay out his plans for the railways but one of his junior ministers, Huw Merriman, suggested before the Autumn Statement no new funding was available. He said that after a £16bn bail out during the pandemic the sector would have to “earn the right” to grow, by demonstrating a “higher return on investment”.

 a train at Todmorden station
Northern Rail has also been hit by fresh disruption, with one passenger fainting on Ruth Ibegbuna’s overcrowded commuter service last week © Jon Super/FT

One of the issues affecting the industry is the uneven bounce back in passengers after the pandemic. London’s mainline stations were averaging traffic at 71 per cent of pre-Covid levels in October, while despite the disruption across the north rail use has bounced back more strongly, running at 87 per cent of 2019 levels. In Leeds, passenger numbers are now above pre-pandemic levels.

Earlier this year, Rail North, the partnership between northern leaders and central government that oversees TPE and Northern Rail’s franchises, suggested there was a potential “sustained [post-pandemic] shift in working practices in the service-based economy of the London and south east”, arguing that this was in “contrast” to the north.

It said last week that the continued rebound proved it was “essential” ministers “allow[ed] the north to grow the market,” estimating delays and cancellations were costing the northern economy more than £400mn a year in a crisis it said was “not fully understood by decision makers in London”.

It urged Harper to help ease the driver shortage by allowing operators to negotiate new overtime arrangements. The government said Harper planned to meet regional mayors “soon”. 

Former Tory transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, who now chairs Transport for the North, the strategic transport body, warned last week that with many operators facing problems “all eyes” would be on whether plans to expand the national timetable from December 12 would be successful.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh called on the government to act. “Ministers signed off on this shambles, and they have rewarded the abject failure of operators time and again.”

A government spokesperson said it was “unacceptable that poor levels of service [were] preventing hard-working people from going about their daily lives,” adding it was “working closely with train operators to ensure long term solutions are put in place so passengers can travel confidently without disruption.”

Ibegbuna said the latest addition to the capital’s rail network — the £19bn Elizabeth line that opened earlier this year — reminded her what can be achieved when government invests in the railways, adding that the prospect of a functioning network near her felt like a “futuristic dream”.

“As someone who often works in London I find myself waiting three minutes for a beautiful air-conditioned, clean train on the new Elizabeth Line, feeling fairly bitter.”

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