Regional leaders condemn ‘managed decline’ of northern railways

A new railway timetable scheduled to come into force from next December should not be accepted without a clear plan for improving the North’s railway infrastructure – was the message delivered at a meeting today.

Leaders and transport representatives spoke out during today’s Transport for the North (TfN) – Rail North Committee, chaired by Councillor Liam Robinson.

Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, said: “In 2014 we were promised an expanded timetable for the North, but at the moment we’re looking at a managed decline of railways in the North with no end in sight.

Andy Burnham

“It feels to me that we’re being fobbed off on [rail] infrastructure, which is not acceptable. Everywhere we look we’re seeing reductions on what we were promised and a failure to deliver.

“I’m not prepared to give any endorsement to the new timetable without the delivery of infrastructure we need to run our rail services.

“If we sign this off, we know what the reality will be on rail services across the North for years to come. We won’t have the capacity to meet demand and passengers won’t be able to find a seat – particularly between Manchester and Leeds.”

Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe

Burnham was backed by Bradford Council leader, Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, who warned of the prospect of passengers not being able to get a train – let alone find an unoccupied seat.

“Bradford still has no direct service to Manchester Airport, which is what we’ve been promised for many years,” she said.

“West Yorkshire would like to have better links to Manchester and we want to see any timetable changes fully take that into account.”

She and Cllr Robinson said the fact rail passengers numbers have recovered faster in the North in the wake of lockdown restrictions than in other parts of the country, shows there is latent demand in the region for better train services.

Cllr Robinson stressed the December 2021 railway timetable was heavily influenced by pandemic related conditions, so must not be seen as “the new normal.”

“No one wants to accept this as the baseline timetable,” he said. “We want to be equal partners in deciding what the timetable is in the future, and not just have it imposed on us as a fait accompli.”

South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis also spoke out, calling for the reinstatement of the direct Sheffield to Manchester Airport route and upgrades to ensure a third fast train on the Hope Valley line.

He added: “We find ourselves in a sub optimal position and that is as a consequence of a protracted period of under investment in the railway network.”

The meeting was presented with an operational update on railway services in the North.

Gary Bogan, managing director of Rail North Partnership, said there are still headwinds being caused by disruption to driver and crew training schedules.

He said the arrival of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 meant this disruption is likely to continue.

Darren Higgins, commercial director at TransPennine Express, said services had seen a strong recovery from the leisure travel market, with the exception being a continued slump in passengers travelling to Manchester Airport.

“The commuter and business passenger pace of recovery has been slower,” he added. “Commuter income has recovered to 52% of what it was pre-pandemic, but that has been flat for the last three months.

“Business travel is 40% of where it was two years ago.”

Commenting on the last few days – which have been impacted by the Government’s “Work from Home” guidance – Higgins said the network was significantly quieter on Monday and Tuesday this week.

Mark Powles, commercial & customer director at Northern Rail, said: “We had a really strong summer and felt we were in a good position. Two weeks ago our revenues were 95% of pre-Covid levels.

“It has been a leisure-led recovery, and we did some extensive marketing to stimulate that market. We were looking forward to that strong trajectory continuing until the year end, but then came the storms and Omicron.

“Yesterday we were still seeing demand at 70% of pre-Covid levels, which shows the northern leisure travel market is robust and resilient. But the ‘returning to work’ market has been sluggish.”