Rail timetable crisis review recommends more transparency, accountability and stronger focus on passengers

The chaos which hit rail passengers across northern England in May last year was “a massive failure” which caused “severe hardship for passengers and businesses,” according to a newly published report on the crisis.

The Blake Jones Review of the Rail North Partnership was commissioned following the disruption across the North triggered by the May 2018 railway timetable change.

It concludes work must be done to fully restore public confidence in the North’s railways, adding there are still concerns in the region with the rail network’s “over-crowding, short formed trains, reliability and bottlenecks”.

The review has made nine recommendations, and explains: “Our recommendations focus on two areas: enhancing what passengers can expect from the industry, especially when it comes to timetable changes – a new ‘Passenger Promise’; and improving lines of accountability behind the scenes to clarify and make more transparent who is responsible for key decisions.

“In addition, our review raises questions about more fundamental reform to be considered in the Williams Review that is underway, and which will be a key report for determining the shape and future of rail services in the UK. These questions include how devolution within a much more integrated rail industry can provide a train service which will effectively support the North’s growing economy.”

The Blake Jones Review was led by Councillor Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Lead and then Rail Minister Jo Johnson. Andrew Jones MP took over as Rail Minister in November 2018.

Councillor Blake said: “While some stability has been restored, rail passengers in the North continue to experience punctuality and reliability below acceptable levels. The rail industry lost sight of the need to put the interests of passengers first and our recommendations will significantly strengthen the voice of passengers and local accountability in the way rail services in the North operate.

“I hope proposals from the forthcoming Williams Review will address some of the broader issues raised by last year’s disruption, including the need to greater integrate track and train and to deepen devolution arrangements over rail services to the North.”

The Rail North Partnership (RNP) was set up to enable the Department for Transport and Transport for the North to jointly oversee the Northern and TransPennine rail franchises, working with Network Rail to ensure provision of train services in the North.

The Blake Jones Review states: “The May 2018 timetable change – a change originally supposed to offer better, more frequent services for rail travellers – proved quite simply inoperable.

“Delays to completing infrastructure upgrades led to poorly planned timetables – the failure of which meant emergency measures had to be introduced in a bid to restore some semblance of a rail service. For many months afterwards, train operating companies struggled to offer a level of service that was anywhere near acceptable.

“Those who suffered most were regular commuters travelling to jobs which help to power the North’s economy.”

The review notes elected representatives in northern England were frustrated at what they saw as their lack of power to influence rail service provision.

And it points out that historically there has been a lack of investment in rail in the North, especially on local services.

The report adds: “Although the originally proposed May 2018 timetable had been endorsed by Northern authorities, this timetable had to be changed at very short notice due to infrastructure delays.

“The industry mitigation for the delays was a proposed ‘hybrid timetable’ for Northern, as there were no credible alternatives at that stage. The plan to develop and implement the revised plan in the 16 weeks available rather than the usual 40 weeks proved overly-optimistic.

“This was compounded by further problems; firstly, the fact that Northern and [trade union] ASLEF were unable to renew an agreement for drivers to work rest days from February 2018, which was not resolved until June, and secondly the unexpected extension by three weeks of the blockade to ensure the completion of electrification between Preston and Blackpool.

“This meant 1,350 additional driver training days were needed which severely reduced their availability.

“Even at the last minute the industry failed to identify and properly communicate the scale of the potential problem and take mitigating actions to avoid the severe disruption to people’s lives.”

In May this year the Metro Mayors for the Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester called on the Government to terminate Northern Rail’s franchise as soon as possible.

Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham said the franchise had failed to show they are able to take the action required to restore public confidence or deliver their legally-binding franchise requirements, particularly after last Summer’s timetable fiasco which led to thousands of delays and cancellations.

In the past year there have been 28,000 cancellations, while in April alone almost 1,000 services to Manchester were ‘shortformed’ ie, reducing the number of carriages on the train.

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