Embattled Chris Grayling today apologised for the chaos the introduction of new train timetables had caused across the North as a metro mayor claimed passengers in the region were “invisible” to the Transport Secretary.
On a day where Mr Grayling faced calls in the Commons for his resignation and his salary to be docked over the East Coast rail franchise collapse, he described the chaos caused by the cancellation of hundreds of Northern rail services this week as “unacceptable”.
The Department for Transport (DfT) this afternoon revealed that Northern had submitted an urgent action plan to tackle its poor performance and that Mr Grayling would hold a teleconference with northern leaders tomorrow to decide how to proceed.
Further disruption is expected tomorrow when Rail, Maritime and Transport union members at Arriva Rail North, which runs the Northern rail franchise, walk out for the first of two strikes.
Hundreds of services have been cancelled by Northern since departure times were rescheduled on Sunday, with the “significant operational challenge” of introducing 1,300 services a week cited as the reason for the problems.
We know the situation isn’t good enough and for that we are truly sorry.David Brown, Managing Director at Northern
Mr Grayling said today it was “not good enough” for people to face this number of delays and cancellations, adding in the Commons: “I’m sorry this was the case.”
He said the DfT and others were working hard to sort the problem, but insisted it was a “major teething problem” in what would be a “step forward for the railways”.
Mr Grayling also reserved criticism for Network Rail, the state-owned company responsible for Britain’s rail infrastructure, as he claimed they left the rest of the industry “struggling to catch up” after it was “far too late” in finalising planned timetable changes.
Mr Grayling has come under pressure to take action over the performance of Northern and Govia Thameslink Railway, which has faced calls to be stripped of its franchise.
Labour mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham earlier claimed passengers in the North were “invisible” to Mr Grayling as he was still waiting for a response to his request on Monday for an “urgent meeting”.
The Department for Transport said today that Rail Minister Jo Johnson was leading discussions about the issue with Barry White, the chief executive of strategic body Transport in the North and had spoken to Mr Burnham.
Northern’s timetable recovery plan includes improving driver rostering to get more trains running and increasing driver training on new routes to get more services on line as quickly as possible.
David Brown, Managing Director at Northern, said in a statement that the firm was “doing everything we can to minimise cancellations and delays and keep our customers informed”.
He said: “It has been difficult for many of our customers, in particular on a number of routes around north Manchester extending up to Blackpool, and we are very sorry for this.
“We are introducing 1,300 new train services a week, and fitting in these and other train companies’ services has meant that we have had to change 90% of our timetabled trains. This is the biggest modernisation that the Northern railway has had for generations.
“The new timetable was planned and delivered in four months compared to the normal 9-12 months because a key improvement – electrification of the Manchester-Bolton line – has been delayed and this meant rewriting our plan and then training drivers at the last minute.
“We know the situation isn’t good enough and for that we are truly sorry. We‘re implementing actions that we have agreed with the Department for Transport. Our customers deserve better and that’s what we’re focused on delivering.”
A senior West Yorkshire councillor said today that rail passengers were paying the price for the “inflexible, centralised and process-heavy way” services are structured.
Keith Wakefield, chairman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee, said more should have been done to ensure that timetable changes were implemented more smoothly.
Coun Wakefield has already expressed frustration that promised improvements in West Yorkshire, some of which should have been introduced in December last year, are not going ahead.
He said: “Not only are these timetable changes letting down local rail users by failing to deliver already-overdue improvements, but they are also causing them frustration and inconvenience due to what appears to be a lack of preparation by the rail industry.
“It was evident that the weekend’s changes were substantial so while I accept that more rolling stock is needed to deliver the services fully, the rail industry could have done more to ensure that this weekend’s changes were implemented more smoothly, despite the tight timescale.
“Local passengers are paying the price for the inflexible, centralised and process heavy way our rail services are structured and the disconnect between infrastructure improvements and service upgrades.
“I have said previously that any compensation the rail companies receive as a result of infrastructure delays should be used to provide real and permanent benefits to local customers and the past two days’ events reinforce that call.”